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OpenIDEO: a world open participative model for identification of social innovation concepts

In the wake of #GouvCamp

This Wednesday, February 22, I will attend the first GouvCamp in Quebec City. My interest is twofold.

Firstly, I think it is high time that we finally put in place conditions ensuring, minimally, that investments in digital systems and applications for government services to citizens are the most relevant, appropriate, economic, flexible and durable as possible.

Secondly, I also believe that when design and code are law that bind citizens, decisions on these public devices must be made in a democratic approach involving people and concerned citizens rather than technocratic, commercial or partisan logic.

In practice, these two issues are linked. And for both, the solution lies in participatory approaches to system and application design of which I discuss a model here. Their solution also requires access to an independent public expertise, whether governmental (e.g., the Institut national d’excellence en santé et en services sociaux (National institute for excellence in health and social services – INESSS) which assesses technologies and models of intervention), academic or citizen-based (such as the proposed Digital World and Democracy observatory): a subject which I will discuss shortly.

The OpenIDEO model

Recently, Catherine Roy, a colleague of mine, signaled an on-going consultation on How can we design an electoral experience accessible to all? sponsored by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. This consultation is being held on the platform OpenIDEO, a non-profit project of the international design consulting firm IDEO. OpenIDEO’s mission is to find solutions to major social challenges through a collaboration platform for contributors from around the world.

While OpenIDEO is still a recent project launched in August 2010, the short list of completed or on-going consultations is already impressive. Besides the ongoing access to voting one, we find:

An individual or an organization may submit a challenge. According to its nature, OpenIDEO may request a contribution form the sponsor for conducting the consultation. The process has seven phases:

  • inspiration (brainstorming);
  • concepting (development of a number of concepts);
  • applause (vote on concepts);
  • refinement (of the remaining concepts based on criteria identified in previous phases);
  • evaluation;
  • choice of winning concepts;
  • realisation of the concepts.

None of the issues to be resolved is simple as seen in the sample above. However, it seems to succeed in generating promising concepts in quite a short time (as little as two months). For example, let us look to a completed consultation, that of Amnesty International. Nine (9) projects won the challenge out of the 16 concepts selected for evaluation and refinement from 165 proposals developed and voted on from the 321 ideas that emerge during the initial brainstorming. The nine winning concepts are quite different. They are in fact complementary to one another: tools for dissidents in preparation of a possible arrest, a system for protecting their sensitive digital information using existing tools such as Diaspora social network; other tools to facilitate the rapid detection of a disappearance or arrest; networking tools for families and other supporters of those arrested or disappeared, a mobile application for information and mobilizing the general public. Most concepts are relatively light and easy to develop.

One must see how this approach is radically different from what we still practice generally in public services.

The relationship between means and ends

The consultation on the voting does not start from a solution or a type of pre-established solutions. It does not ask question such as Must we adopt electronic voting? as has been done, for example, in Quebec at the first Gautrin e-government consultation in 2004. The approach is the antithesis of the solution seeking a problem to solve. Instead, it starts from a very general question corresponding to an often complex problem. It is the purpose (increasing voter turnout) that structures the process, not a type of predefined means.

Set of various solutions rather than THE total solution

There is no question of seeking the complete and final solution that alone will solve the whole problem. The big thing. The killer application. Instead, this approach deliberately calls for the exploration of hundreds of inspiration tracks to identify a set of solutions that, together, will fairly well answer the multiple dimensions of the problem.

Not necessarily the use of technical tools

The solutions will not necessarily require the use of technology. They could be organizational, administrative or social innovations. However, it is clear that in an increasingly computerized a society where coordination requires sharing and processing information, the probabilities that digital technologies might be used of are great anyway.

Global rather than “world class” technology

We have here a key factor. Our elected officials and our heads of government agencies and companies like to look good in world forums such as the G8 or the G20. So they have a soft spot for hi-tech. For “world class” technology. Clearly, the State has a role in developing advanced technology, but through fundamental research as well as pre-competitive research and development.

Public administration must, however, be cautious about technology. Public administration is there to provide the best services possible, not to satisfy the whims of leaders, technocrats, technical staff and suppliers. Its role is to help industrial development. Rather, it should clearly inform the industry about its actual needs and those of the populations it works for. It should focus on simple, proven and cost efficient solutions. In some cases, these solutions could use advanced technologies. Often not.

OpenIDEO consultations seek solutions that are workable worldwide. Often, a solution that can work in the heart of Africa or in some isolated areas in Quebec can be reliably used in a larger center with good access to technology. The reverse is not that much certain.

An open, participatory, democratic process

This OpenIDEO open platform for international collaboration to solve major social problems is just another example of how the democratization of the search for solutions can lead to answers relevant, adequate, economical, flexible and durable.

Bottom-up approaches involving specialists from all backgrounds and disciplines, staffs directly involved in providing services and members of the populations receiving the same services will be more likely to generate solutions that can adequately respond to a wide variety of situations encountered in the field, easily acceptable solutions likely to be used by actors involved.

Necessary conditions, but not sufficient ones

However, one must not believe that the approach illustrated here is sufficient recipe for success.

Actual development of the identified concepts requires other approaches for testing, consultation and assessment that ensure the adequacy of solutions to the wide variety of individual situations.

In addition, where use of the solution should be imposed or where you end up with some monopoly, we must secure that the decision-making about to the solution is aligned with existing democratic institutions of deliberation with their own actors (elected officials, citizens, civil society organizations, media).

We will discuss this another time.

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