On a rare sunny day in early November, I paid a visit to the stables of e-democracy roundtable’s bet: “Crowdsourced Think Tank.” One of the youngest entries in digitalswitzerland’s challenge race, its collaborators and its bet are emblematic of how the present generation interprets and is preparing to solve the needs of democratic societies they have inherited.
Earlier, Table Captain Professor Abraham Bernstein, head of University of Zurich Dept. of Informatics (Institut für Informatik), deferred me to their bet’s primary collaborator, foraus (Swiss Forum on Foreign Policy). foraus, founded in 2009, is the brainchild of Nicola Forster, a serial social/political entrepreneur as well as a public-sector innovator. While Forster and Bernstein can be equated to race horse owners, the trainer and jockey entrusted to get their bet across the finish line by April 2018 is an intense 30-something millennial, Jonas Nakonz.
On the first floor of foraus’s “garage-chic” offices in Zurich, I sat down with Jonas to find out if their roundtable had made good its bet to “develop a crowd-innovation app by September 2017 …” and what lessons they have learned which could prove valuable to the other challenge contestants.
Working alongside a staff of 6 employees and equal number of interns plus a large volunteer network, Jonas seemed relaxed and easy-going – despite the sense I had their bet was “under wraps” until additional project funding is secured. In racing parlance, “under wraps” means a rider is holding a horse back, intentionally keeping it from running at top speed.
There was an intensity about the young man that begged me to ask why he was participating in digitalswitzerland’s challenge. Jonas answered, “In the context of this challenge (bet), our generation faces incredible challenges on a global scale, but the world is still organized in nation states, and I deem that quite insufficient for addressing those challenges. So we need new ways to organize the political process globally, and we see a way forward in the collaborative process that empowers civil society to contribute to global problem solving.”
Whoa. Say what? I looked up from my moleskin to see if he was testing me and replied, “You speak like a political scientist. What’s your background?” Jonas took my retort in stride and said, “I’ve had quite a mixed career branching from social work to urban gardening in China and lots of different stuff, but academically speaking, I did my masters at the CIS ETH Zurich, which is basically political science.”
What’s driving e-democracy’s bet collaborators?
Bettors who consistently take home winnings are known to place equal weight on a trainer’s proficiency as a horse’s won-loss record. Applying the same rational, I asked Jonas to share what’s driving his personal passion for collaborating on e-democracy’s bet?
Jonas said, “it’s a mixture of curiosity and ethics. I always wanted my actions to be a force for good in the world and not profit oriented in that sense. And as you can see from my background, I have curiosity in many domains, which also makes it difficult sometimes to choose the one path to follow. But so far, I’m quite happy with the stations I’ve come across.”
It’s time to shift discussion away from this bet’s jockey and talk horseflesh, so I’m happy to accept his offer to refill my coffee and follow him into a little-used hallway where a Nespresso machine doles out a caffeinated espresso. He lets me punch the button again and level up my cup. Back at the conference table, I asked him what differentiated “crowd-innovation,” from crowdsourcing?
The wisdom of the many
By now I’m getting familiar with Jonas answering my questions in sweeping statements. He stays true to form and says, “It (crowd-innovation) comes from the assumption that there is power in the ideas of the many – or the phrase I guess is, ‘The wisdom of the many.’ So already as an organization, even though that’s not reflected digitally, we are a crowdsourcing organization in the sense that it’s an open platform. Anybody can join foraus and contribute ideas that they want to see in the foreign policy discourse in Switzerland.”
The Crowdsourced Think Tank challenge bet, I’m beginning to suspect, is intrinsic to the mission of foraus. I’m wondering, does that mean, as go the fortunes of the bet – so goes the future of foraus? Since the bet’s chief advocate is sitting across the table, I stop my mental musings and ask him about the app that was to have been operational by now. How’s that going?
Jonas tells me, “it’s been quite an intense process to really boil all those different requests from workshops down to specific user stories and requirements lists. And then we set out boiling down a huge option space to a few options that would actually work. The evaluation of these options has also taken a bit more time, so I think I have to extend my timeline for the final decision for the way forwards to mid or late November.”
No less complex and just as messy
The “final decision” he’s referring to are price quotes from developers vying for the work to code the app – or platform. People often bemoan the fact “democracy is messy.” They’re not referring to casting a “yes or no” vote – what’s messy (and often contentious) is the democratic process (read fair and equitable) of sourcing an issue of mutual concern from among general populaces and bringing it to the attention of democratic representatives, whose job is to create policy. A Crowdsourced Think Tank’s digital equivalent of this process is no less complex and at this early stage, just as messy.
The problem of what to include in their MVP (minimal viable product) is shared by many challenge roundtables right now with only 4 months left in the competition. In simplest terms, their platform should enable multiple organizations from multiple countries with multiple users speaking multiple languages and not least, with multiple ideas add to the democratic discourse their bet is aiming to empower. But must it do all that by April 2018 challenge deadline? That’s the dilemma facing e-democracy and other roundtables as they enter the holiday season.
It’s in the details that all the complexity starts to explode
“If you build this from scratch, it quickly becomes a very expensive project. And we don’t have that money,” Jonas lamented. I asked him about the app developers, “do they understand what you’re trying to do? Do they buy into the concept of a new way to stimulate democratic discourse?”
Jonas assured me they did. “Everybody I’m talking to is pretty excited about it, because the promise is just so incredibly cool. Then in terms of understanding where we want to go, I think one thing we’ve done well is our homework clearly defining the user stories and the requirements. And according to feedback from IT partners, well done. So far. But then it’s in the details that all the complexity starts to explode.”
What’s at stake for you and me?
As readers of this column know, I ask challenge players to tell us what’s at stake for you and me? How might their bet’s success or failure affect our collective future? A future where innovation has always played the key role in Switzerland’s prosperity. I put it to Jonas straight up, “If you get no further than you are today – what’s at stake for this bet? For the E-Democracy roundtable?
From his change of body language, eager and leaning into my every question, I can tell Jonas doesn’t for a second believe their bet will fail. Though right now, in the first days of November, they have no IT partner – or the money to pay for an ideal solution, even if everyone agreed on a functional checklist and detailed user requirements. Understandably, as the roundtable’s feet on the ground, failure is a question he seldom dwells on.
Worst case is we continue in our small boxes
Jonas leaned back from the table and measured his thoughts before answering, “For the organizations involved, it would mean that we lose a whole lot of opportunities for international collaboration. We could have so much more impact, and much better quality content and policy ideas than if we stick to a national (outlook), our little bubble. The worst case is that everything remains as is, and we continue in our small boxes, and we lose a whole lot of potential.”
Having gotten the negativity of a failed bet off his chest, I asked Jonas about credible positive outcomes if their bet achieves its aims?
His voice assumes an urgency I hadn’t heard before, “in a nutshell, ultimate success is political impact with high-quality innovative ideas!”
Not exactly ranting, but Jonas gets a little pumped imagining a near future scenario with a full functioning Crowdsourced Think Tank helping influence national and international foreign policy makers. Barely pausing, he ticks off more upside: “It breaks down into, first of all, activation. Do we get people to work on the platform and collaborate? That can be tracked with quantitative indicators like crowd size, number of ideas, comments, votes, etc. For me, the level of collaboration is also an important dimension of success. If you just make a normal crowd innovation platform it doesn’t necessarily have to have this collaborative dimension, but I’m a strong believer in the quality gained from making people talk to each other.”
An idea is only valuable if it spreads
Without letting me interject, his enthusiasm keeps flowing, connecting the dots for me, when their bet finishes in the money on the challenge stage next April. “And the last (success) factor is impact. This is a whole other story. The project focuses really on ideation. It’s to get from zero to a piece of text. But what’s actually the value of an idea? It’s only valuable if it spreads, if it reaches the right people with some power to make decisions, be it in a democratic process or as Parliamentarian or politician. The impact part is what I think our organizations are pretty good at.”
His pride in his tribe and absolute faith in completing their bet may be enough to overcome the hurdles which lie on the home stretch ahead. But I had to ask, “between now and then, what’s the greatest obstacle that you and your bet need to overcome to launch a crowdsourced think tank?
Many choices – limited resources
Jonas settled back into his tech developer voice and said, “Well, for me the toughest part is navigating an incredibly large option space with long lists of requirements, multiple stakeholders and a very limited amount of resources. But specifically, this will come down in the next few weeks daring to make a decision for one way or another in technical terms of implementing this, because nothing on my (tech solution) table seems perfect so far.”
Betting odds influenced by funding
A common hurdle all challenge roundtables must get past is Rule #6: “The Roundtables organize the financing of their project themselves.” With the exception of the “Smart Station,” bet (with a 2019 timeframe), every roundtable I’ve spoken to has struggled to fund its project. Which is not surprising, considering there are almost no business cases (spelled profitable) that any single enterprise can cite to justify investing in the challenge’s “crazy innovation.”
With the insider data acquired during my time with Jonas, I give e-democracy roundtable bet “even money,” (a wager with even odds – the bettor stands to lose or win the same amount of money). Those odds are likely to change, for better or worse, in the coming weeks – depending if they source new financing and sign a long-term IT partner.
Meanwhile, bets like ICT Workshop in Schools recently surged ahead of the pack after securing SBFI funding. Two early race favourites, Blockchain and C-Shares, have seen their chances to win or place diminish – unless they too can secure funding for implementation very soon. As innovators who make major impacts know, “ideas are cheap – execution is everything.”
Editor’s Breaking News:
At 14:47, Monday, 11 December 2017, Jonas Nakonz from foraus informed me a 3-year financing deal for the project was in final stages of negotiation. How might this effect their bet’s completion? In Jonas’s words, “99% probability given the signals I received.” Punters take notice!
Below are links to the challenge roundtables and current bets competing for time, money and the future success of Switzerland.
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