6 min read

Catalyzing Open Communities

Catalyzing Open Communities
Photo by Artem Kniaz / Unsplash

I’ve spent the last couple of years part-time with a group of community and civic infrastructure technologists that are working to demonstrate new ways to support transformation of New Zealand society. Coming at this from many different angles, and many different experiences, the community has explored ways of working and being that we hope will help to catalyze projects that can help those disadvantaged in NZ society.

I’m excited by the opportunities for open communities, in general, to work together and change the world. When a community of like-minded people shares, values, shares goals and are aligned on theories of change and impact, they can achieve amazing things. Building a community that can provide this kind of support, and can catalyze and enable its membership to undertake this kind of deep-work is quite challenging.

Working as a volunteer, and then executive, within the global Carpentries Community, I was continually energized by how a shared mission and enabling structures are able to ignite passionate contribution across institutional and cultural boundaries. The Carpentries and its work brings short impactful workshops on computational skills, to learners in academia all over the world. The simple shared purpose, helping to bridge an explicit skills gap seen in academia, has inspired a global community numbering in the thousands to commit time, energy and resources toward the organization. Why do people even bother? What do they gain from volunteering their time to this effort? It turns out that they learn as much as their learners do by working collaboratively and demonstrating new ways of teaching and learning together. They keep coming back, because this is a virtuous cycle, through their teaching they learn, and they can uplift another generation of community memebrs while they grow too.

What is it about open communities that allows so many different people, from different backgrounds, with widely varying personal and near-term goals, to come together under a unifying purpose? Working with the Digital Aotearoa Collective (DAC), I’ve been asking myself what it is about organizational structures, working models, and participant’s past experiences and working lives that enables or discourages them from working openly together?

In the context of open source communities there is an implicit offer, and, sometimes, though not always, an ask. The resource, a piece of educational material, or a software download is the offer. The ask is often more nuanced, and sometimes omitted entirely. To be a user of a piece of open source material, software, or content is easy, you just take it, and use it for your own benefit. The ask to contribute, support, or sustain however, when implicit rather than explicit, suffers from the perennial challenges of human collective action. What some call the tragedy of the commons. Asking for contribution, without structures for that contribution can result in demotivation and decreased engagement from participants.

Think of a simple work day at a school or club, instructions are given to “come along, when you can, and find something to do”. On the appointed day, the club leadership might become frustrated that nobody has showed up by 11am and “nothing is getting done, and nobody cares about the club”. Another club gives clear instructions to “arrive before 9am, get assigned to a task group, and get work done for a shared potluck lunch at 12:30”. What’s different, there is structure to the ask for contributions. There are clear expectations, come along by 9am, get assigned to a task group, and have lunch at 12:30 (implying work may be complete by then). We all know at some intuitive level that these kinds of organizing structure can be useful, but we often don’t spend the time to put them in place.

How do successful communities engage large numbers of participants? They create structure, and often multiple structures to engage and support community members, under the banner of a shared mission. If you’re going to have task groups, to revisit the above club work day example, you’ll need task-group leaders. How do you prepare them? When we are largely working with volunteer-based communities, we no longer have the traditional levers of institutional power to motivate and control. In many ways it is this lack of overt power that leads people to lean-into volunteer work to begin with. They’re able to self-select what they spend their free-time doing, and the structures that enable or hinder them are what can encourage / discourage their contributions.

At the same time, too much structure can be off-putting. A club or society that “has always done things” this way or that way, can have a hard time listening to the ideas of new members. So how do we strike a balance to find just enough structure, and to have our structures open for review and revision? This starts from a strong mission and vision, and then clear community guidelines and expectations for ways of working, decision making, and collective ownership of the organization.

Post-industrial work is learning. It is figuring out how to solve a particular problem and then scaling up what has been learned both with technology and with other people. – Esko Kilpi

Esko Kilpi, in his writing on Medium, masterfully weaves a tapestry of a future where work is a series of interactions between free agents who choose to work on problems and challenges that matter. Not unlike our volunteers in a club or society above. These agents choose to come together in community to leverage creativity and demonstrate responsibility at multiple scales of interaction. Without being asked to be creative or responsible to contribute to our work or communities, we’re just peons, serfs, tools of the incumbent power structures, manipulated for their benefit. In a world where we’re not asked to bring creativity and responsibility, we’re simply consumers, told to just shut up, do our jobs and stay out of the way.

With creativity and responsibility, in community, we’re able to imagine new possibilities, to challenge the status quo and demonstrate what better might look like. Art, in all its forms, is resonant because it is both responsible and creative at the deepest levels. Art that stands the test of time is deeply responsible and creative at levels that transcend the ever-changing power dynamics of the world. So when we think about our work, our communities, what work and life should be like in a post-industrial age, what can we unlock if we enable both creativity and responsibility among all people?

Open communities are able to bring transformational change into the world. Open communities are able to champion creativity and responsibility, but they also run the same risks of going back to traditional power structures which stifle creativity and pass responsibility up the organizational hierarchy. So how do we transcend these challenges?

To my mind, it starts with autonomy, and fractal autonomy. What do I mean by “fractal autonomy”, we push autonomy of action to the edge of the organization, but we also build structures of support which pose the question “How can this structure be supportive of those working at the edge?”. Using the Digital Aotearoa Collective (DAC) as an example, we can look at their mission:

Our mission is to develop civic projects that will reduce injustice and improve wellbeing. – Digital Aotearoa Collective Mission Statement

and ask ourselves what stands in the way of small autonomous groups doing work in New Zealand to fight injustice and improve wellbeing?

What can we do to support and activate those who aren’t currently able to energize a critical mass of action around their passion projects in these areas. It might be related to developing rules as code systems that streamline the abilities of people to find benefits they’re eligible for. It may be as simple as an organizational model and funding support system like Open Collective and the New Zealand Gift Collective as a means for running financial contributions toward impactful action. So the role of the DAC, in some ways, could be to choose to take actions that enable other groups to have direct and sustaining impact. This is indirect, and a slower form of impact delivery than traditional models which build a non-profit, staff it with professionals, and lean in to particular efforts and actions.

In my experience being a part of and working to catalyze communities, an open community, supporting autonomous actors to create agency, within support from community can deliver more surprising and delightful impacts than you can possibly imagine. From groups like the UK’s Software Sustainability Institute to the Mercatus Center’s post-COVID experiments with rapid-action grant making under their “Emergent Ventures” program. Giving people community, a bit of support (not necessarily financial), and a community to bounce ideas off of can generate significant sustained impacts.

To get started, ask yourself what the work-day looks like for the work your community wants to support at it’s core, and then what the work might look like at the edges too. Then your community’s work can cultivate a rich ecosystem of support, action and impact at multiple scales.