3 Oct 2008
“WeThink”, and an invitation to participate in the collaborative rewrite of The Transition Handbook
There are a few books that I have read during my life that can be described as ‘seminal’, that have prompted a great change in direction or thinking. Some books that have had that effect include Fukuouka’s “One Straw Revolution”, Mollison’s “Permaculture”, Holmgren’s “Permaculture: principles and pathways”, the collected works of Joanna Macy and, on a slightly more mundane level, Joe Jenkins’ ‘The Humanure Handbook’. I can now add another to that list, Charles Leadbeater’s book ‘WeThink’. The implications of this book are vast, and its importance is something that I am only just starting to grasp. Inspired by it, I am launching here today the rewriting of the second edition of the Transition Handbook, with those out actually doing Transition rewriting the book as a collaborative process.
The internet has made possible a degree of collaboration in the generation of new ideas that was not possible before. It has been used to create extraordinary things like wikipedia, innovative computer software, and online games. One such game, ‘I Love Bees’ set a puzzle that could only be solved by thousands of people coming together to collaborate, in the end the 600,000 people who participated cracked it. Leadbeater sees huge potential in this;
If some ingenious west coast games designers can create the conditions in which thousands of people around the world collaborate to solve a trivial puzzle, could we do something similar to defeat brid flu, tackle global warming, keep communities safe, provide support for disaster victims, lend and borrow money, conduct political and policy debates, teach and learn, design and even make physical products?
He cites many ways in which collaboration is yielding results that would have been undreamt of before. Wikipedia, the vast online encyclopedia, written and maintained almost entirely by volunteers. Linux, and the whole Open Source phenomenon, has produced high quality software through voluntary collaboration. He lists a wealth of examples of innovations and developments that would have been impossible without the degree of collaboration made possible by tools such as wikis and the like.
What we are seeing, he asserts, is the coming together of four outlooks on life, the hippy, the academic, the peasant and the geek. The hippy brings distrust of authoritarian structures and a faith that people can organise themselves without being told what to do. The peasant brings an instinctive sharing of common resources and a folk culture of stories and music which have been passed on in an oral tradition. The academic brings a belief in knowledge being deepened and developed through the sharing and testing of ideas, and the geek brings the technical know-how to enable all of these things to realise their potential.
“Power”, Leadbeater writes, “is shifting from institutions that have always been run top-down, hoarding information at the top, telling us how to run our lives, to a new paradigm of power that is democratically distributed and shared by us all”. In spite of writing a book about the power of collaborative thinking, he is also realistic about its limitations. Just because something is collaborative, doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to be any good, or even work. They can just lead to chaos, or as Leadbeater puts it, “crowds and mobs are stupid as often as they are wise”. It is when they are directed in a process which embodies the three key ingredients of sharing, recognition and paticipation, that wonders can happen.
We are probably already, he argues, at a point where about 15% of global GDP is generated by collaborative processes, through IT, scientific research and so on. Clearly it isn’t something that can take over every aspect of everything, but we seem to be only at the beginning of its harnessing potential. He defines We-Think in its purest form as “the deliberate and organised combination of contributions from a mass of distributed and independent participants”.
The only part of the book where I part company with Leadbeater is in some of his thinking on where collaborative working might go from here. Apart from occasional mentions of climate change, he is not writing a book nor is he visualising the role for We-Think in a world plunging headlong into economic meltdown and an energy famine. His arguments around business appear focused on business-as-usual assumptions of the future. He argues that We-Think can be used to develop scientific breakthroughs on a new scale, arguing that research into GM could be carried out at a decentralised level, believing that the problem people have with GM is that it is controlled by multinational companies, not the technology itself (speaking personally, corporate control is only one of many reasons I object to GM). He writes “in the developing world, where most manufacturing will be done in future, these ideas could have a dramatic impact”. That is a highly questionable assumption, and his proposal that We-Think could move to We-Make, people designing clever technologies for the developing world that we could then email to China to be made, feels to me to be somewhat naive as economic globalisation begins to rapidly unravel.
I think some of his visions of where this might go are a tad naive in the context of where we find ourselves. I think it is far more likely that we will make use of We-Think in collaborating to find the most skillful ways through the next 15 to 20 years, sharing best practice, models and inspiration, in order to develop the most practical pathways through energy descent, saving too much re-inventing of wheels having to take place. Leadbeater quotes Richard Jefferson as stating that We-Think can lead to “democratising innovation”… while I agree and think the potential is huge, it is also vital that ethics, social responsibility and sustainability are not lost in our collaborative fervour.
What excites me about We-Think is the degree to which the collaborative approach is perfectly suited to what the Transition movement is doing. Indeed, what I found exhilarating about this book is how neatly it dovetails with what Transition is doing. When he writes the following section about We-Think, he could just as easily be writing an analysis about why Transition works;
“We-Think only works under certain conditions. Usually, a small group creates a kernel which invites further contributions. Its project must be regarded as exciting, intriguing and challenging by enough people with the time, means and motivation to contribute. Tools should be distributed, experimentation cheap and feedback fast, enabling a constant process of trialling, testing and refinement. The product should benefit from extensive peer review, to correct errors and ratify good ideas. Tasks should be broken down into modules around which small, close-knit teams can form, allowing a range of experiments to run in parallel. There should be clear rules for fitting the modules together and separating good ideas from bad. Ownership of the project must have a public component, otherwise the sharing of ideas will not make sense”.
To me, this is a deeply insightful explanation of how Transition works. Myself and a small group of people had some initial ideas, they went out into the world via. the Kinsale EDAP, this website and other things, and the feedback and people’s experience of trying those ideas out came back and helped to refine, shape and add new elements to what was then termed the Transition approach. That led to the beginning of Transition Town Totnes, trying out new tools and approaches which led to the suggestion of the 12 Steps model which many Transition initiatives now use. That, in turn, via the Transition Primer and the Handbook, is now out in the world, with many hundreds of Transition initiatives, in cities, villages, universities, islands and boroughs, trying out the model, and then feeding back what works and what doesn’t, adding in new tools and insights, and further refining the model. Transition Training is spreading fast, diseminating and refining the practical tools and the thinking approaches, as well as absorbing peoples’ experiences of trying to implement Transition in their communities. This is what is so exciting about it all for me, and is why I often refer to Transition as ‘the biggest and most fascinating social experiment underway in the world today’.
What I am launching today, and what I am proposing, is the next iteration of this thrilling collaborative process we are all involved in. We have joined forces with Appopedia.org who do a lot of work publishing wiki books and have pioneered the application of We-Think ideas to development and sustainability (not to collaboratively developing GM crops!!), and the Transition Handbook is now all loaded up and ready for your input. Click here to take you to the contents page, and from there you can go to section where you want to make an input.
What would be great would be for peak oil and climate change geeks to head for the peak oil section, those of you with psychological backgrounds head for the Head section, and those of you who are out there doing hands on work with Transition initiatives head for the Hands part. If nothing else, head for Chapter 13 and tell the story of your Transition initiative, but ideally you will feed in your ideas, thoughts and any new tools you have found useful. Although I will still retain the editorial overview, I am thrilled by the potential for this book to become a collaboratively written gem. In the inside cover of We-Think, the book is credited to “Charles Leadbeater and 257 other people”. I’m sure we can pull in many more people than that, and everyone who contributes will be mentioned in the book. This is either a completely mad idea, or an utterly wonderful one. Let’s hope its the latter!!