Enhance Collective Intelligence – an interview with Tiberius Brastaviceanu
“Cultivating collective intelligence means establishing an inclusive culture, allowing and even encouraging participation, implementing methods for collaboration that maximize the exchange of ideas and the selection of good ideas,” says Tiberius Brastaviceanu.
Tiberius Brastaviceanu is co-founder and active affiliate at Sensorica, a stigmergic environment for synergistic open innovation.
We speak about the Open Climate Collabathon, a new form of event based on a principle of radical collaboration and crowd-development that connects worldwide universities, startups, civic tech groups and youth to contribute to the advancement of Open Source technology for a collectively owned global climate accounting system.
This interview is part of an ongoing "Collabathon Interview Series" and was first published at "proofing future, bridging people + ideas" in August 2020.
Sebastian Klemm: How do our children survive the 21st century?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: Surviving is not the problem, I think, I have faith in human ingenuity, but freedom is. Our lives rely increasingly on technology and we don’t know if our children will live in a controlled society that will be mainly supported by proprietary and/or government-controlled digital platforms or a free society, structured and supported by peer-to-peer digital infrastructures. Technology makes possible both extremes. It is a moral imperative to push for the second option.
Sebastian Klemm: Why do you engage for the Open Climate Collabathon? What is the role of Sensorica in the related ecosystem?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: I found the Collabathon through the Climate Chain Coalition. I was sold to it as soon as I read the introduction of this project. Everything sounded just perfect.
The goal is to create a shared platform, open source, using a participatory process. This is like writing Wikipedia, or developing Linux, or participating in Bitcoin. All these things are built and maintained by a diverse ecosystem of stakeholders, none of which in particular controls the thing. Only this type of thing is global from birth and inclusive by design. Only this type of thing is totally detached from the current economic system, since they have been created through commons-based peer production. I thought that the approach and the nature of the climate accounting platform were suited for the goal, which is in essence to tackle a global wicked problem.
Sebastian Klemm: Amidst these challenging times and in anticipation of impending recessions in response to the COVID-19 lockdowns:
What opportunities do you see for people to engage in co-creative crowd-developments like the Open Climate Collabathon with regards to the work of the future & the future of work?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: I believe that the type of organisation that we are building for the Collabathon will become dominant in the future, replacing centralized, command and control type organisations. This is extremely important for the future of work, if we want to understand the context in which future workers will evolve and the new skills that they will need to acquire.
Today, it is still too early. Commons-based peer production cannot reproduce itself well outside capitalism or socialism. But a lot of hybrid models give us a hint about the future.
One thing has become clear, though, during the COVID crisis, open source innovation and commons-based peer production plays a non-negligible role in generating rapid solutions in times of crisis. Communities and individuals have spontaneously organised to deal with this crisis. Thousands of skillful individuals have engaged in the development of mechanical ventilators and masks, SARS-CoV-2 test kits, mobile applications for contact tracking and for coordinating mutual help and care, to name just a few. Since March, we recorded 63 groups focused on open source solutions for the coronavirus crisis, on Facebook alone.
Open source enables faster innovation, as everyone can build on the existing. In parallel, over 80 online hackathons were organised. April 24-26, 380 volunteers organised EUvsVirus, a hackathon initiated by the European Innovation Council to federate projects realized across Europe. 20,900 people registered to this event, which resulted in 2,150 projects submitted. At the same time, traditional organisations worldwide bridged with the crowd, proposing over 26 challenges and prices to crowdsource innovation.
This burst of crowd-based organised action propagated on top of existing networks of hackers and makers of all sorts, sharing a common culture of open collaboration. Governments around the world have started to pay attention to this phenomena, acknowledging its potential. Open source development and open science are well documented, but they have not yet been integrated into the mainstream. Some have coined the term “fourth sector” in referring to this wide-scale mobilization of individuals around a common purpose or issue.
Stigmergy is one of the key concepts in the field of swarm intelligence. Stigmergy captures the notion that an agent’s actions leave signs in the environment, signs that it and other agents sense and that determine and incite their subsequent actions. (Images: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 proofingfuture.eu )
Sebastian Klemm: We share but one single atmospheric CO2 budget worldwide. Why is the development of a global open climate accounting system indispensable?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: This is not just about CO2, but it is a good start. A few centuries ago, people perceived the planet as being an almost infinite reservoir of resources, compared to our consumption, or to our measurable impact, at that time. Today, the finite nature of the planet is more present in our minds, not just because we have seen pictures of Earth taken from space and visualized the finitude of our physical environment, but because we actually see global resources being depleted and ecosystems being disrupted, as a consequence of our activities.
We are not sustainable. To become sustainable, we need first to see and understand what we are currently doing, to be able to eventually adjust our course. A global open and transparent climate accounting system is one way to look at it, from the climate change perspective. It doesn’t cover the entire story about sustainability, but it is a big part of it.
Tracking our energy consumption, for example, helps us become more efficient. Knowing the amount of energy that we consume and also the type of energy that we consume helps us realize our impact on the environment. But sustainability and climate change are wicked problems, they are systemic and complex. We cannot address climate change by tweaking our way of life here and there, by regulating one industry, building more solar panels or by voting politicians out of office.
We need tools like the open climate accounting system to gather information about the entire system at once, to be able to obtain a global, holistic picture of what’s going on, in order to open the possibility of, one day, inducing systemic change.
Sebastian Klemm: How can companies become a part, support the project and benefit from sponsorship for the Open Climate Collabathon?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: This is a very important question. My short answer is that capitalism cannot solve the sustainability problem unless markets become punitive for externalities, which they cannot do on their own. Therefore, companies that operate under market forces have no incentives to “become part of the solution” on their own. They would become less competitive in doing so, because reducing the environmental footprint of their operations is costly, under current economic conditions. In the end, almost everything tends to get green washed, meaning that companies pretend to be “part of the solution” and sometimes even benefit indirectly from this public deception.
We can create conditions for some companies to benefit by catering to people’s needs to see more responsible and sustainable corporate behaviour. This is the first thing organisations like ours do to attract funding, offer companies the possibility to associate themselves with initiatives for sustainability. They get their names put on the website as a sponsor and are seen as good corporations. A marketing stunt.
Beyond that, you have the Tesla’s of the world, investing in green initiatives, or climate initiatives, essentially because they want to grow the market of electric and solar, in which they operate. But are they really in it for sustainability? Are Tesla cars really carbon neutral? There are serious studies that show otherwise. Are Tesla batteries sustainable? Lots of good arguments stand against that too.
There are examples of so called zero waste and carbon neutral commercial initiatives, most of them small scale, driven by individuals with strong convictions.
My point here is that we cannot use our traditional industry and the capitalist system to get ourselves to sustainability. Companies cannot really be part of the solution. They can participate in the process for various reasons, but we cannot rely on them to reverse the climate situation. There are a lot of good people out there who contribute to initiatives like ours. Some of these people are corporate leaders and contribute to initiatives like ours in the name of their companies. Some of these moves are irrational, since it can go against the interests of the business. People want to become part of the solution and participate. Companies are programmed differently, they are not people.
In conclusion, the open climate platform requires an economic paradigm shift. We need to design a system that goes beyond capitalism and socialism, one in which the organisation of production is not only optimized to maximize profits, but sustainable wellbeing. Perhaps that is a system in which the notion of profit doesn’t even make sense anymore. There are such projects under way, some of which seam to gain a lot of momentum. The p2p economic model is my favorite.
Sebastian Klemm: Sponsorship for the Collabathon is organised through “company tiers” that shall back the operational costs of the Collabathon – like project management and marketing – and an “earth tier” to create an experimental “community fund” that uses decentralized governance to support community developments.
Governing these “Community funds” while bearing in mind the tragedy of the commons: Which token economics or other principles do you envision to drive open-source bounties as a monetary reward for completing a task in the Collabathon’s crowd-development?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: It is not clear yet what scheme we will use to distribute community funds to network support services and roles, as well as to platform development activities. We are having general discussions about governance, which will lead to the implementation of rules and the creation of tools for this purpose. We believe that work should be done transparently, openly and collaboratively. Whatever distribution scheme will be chosen it will need to favor these characteristics and disfavor competition, closeness and secrecy.
Click to jump to the Sponsoring Website for the Collabathon.
Stigmergy was first observed in social insects. For example, ants exchange information by laying down pheromones (the trace) on their way back to the nest when they have found food. In that way, they collectively develop a complex network of trails, connecting the nest in an efficient way to various food sources. When ants come out of the nest searching for food, they are stimulated by the pheromone to follow the trail towards the food source. The network of trails functions as a shared external memory for the ant colony. (Images: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 proofingfuture.eu )
Sebastian Klemm: Radical Collaboration inherent in the Open Climate Collabathon is run on information. In her book Biomimicry. Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine M. Benyus writes: “Mature communities, like innovative and productive companies, have rich communication channels that carry feedback to all members, influencing their march toward sustainability. Excess and waste are held in check by mechanisms that reward efficient behavior and punish foolish genes. Any organism that is surrounded by and dependent on so many other links must develop unambiguous ways to signal its intentions and interact with its neighbors.”
At the Collabathon you are involved in the Open Innovation prompt, where you observe, measure, analyse and map participant behavior within the Collobathon’s communication channels on Discord. Within this communication you characterised so-called communicators and pollinators. What are you aiming for with your observation? How do you measure communication? What did you find so far?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: Our goal is to use measurements to assess how well the collaborative network performs, and intervene to improve its performance. For example, during the Collabathon we looked at the main communication channel to analyse prompts and the relations between prompts. We looked at how information was flowing between prompts and at how people engaged with prompts. Patterns can be extracted from the exchanges that happened on Discord, the messaging platform used during the event.
Sebastian Klemm: In a report on your “Open Innovation prompt” stands written: “Collaboration and Collective Intelligence in the context of an open innovation event (limited in time, intense) are not the same thing. We experience collective intelligence when we feel that we are thinking WITH others. That happens when participants have built a strong base of shared understanding. (…) Before collective intelligence can kick in, a process of shared understanding building is required, which should be explicitly included in the methodology of work.”
Which methodologies can the Open Climate Collabathon apply to evolve a collective intelligence, indeed?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: Collective intelligence is an emergent property of a group. First, we must put in place the conditions for it to emerge. Second, we must cultivate it. Third, we can aid it with AI for example.
Sometimes we have similar thoughts with close friends or family members. This happens with people that interact with us often and with whom we develop shared thought patterns. When brainstorming with close people something magic happens, we think in unison.
That is collective intelligence, when individuals in the group coordinate their thoughts to a high degree and build ideas on top of each others’ ideas. They don’t need to explain themselves too much, they don’t need to negotiate extensively, they don’t need to worry about other things because they trust each other already.
Putting in place the conditions for social intelligence to emerge is creating an environment where individuals can interact, access information, exchange ideas, negotiate, establish trust. For example, create an online forum, set up a repository of data and information, provide tools for search, retrieve, filter, analysis of information, and provide open access to all these tools. Cultivating collective intelligence means establishing an inclusive culture, allowing and even encouraging participation, implementing methods for collaboration that maximize the exchange of ideas and the selection of good ideas.
Sebastian Klemm: Stigmergy is one of the key concepts in the field of swarm intelligence. Stigmergy captures the notion that an agent’s actions leave signs in the environment, signs that it and other agents sense and that determine and incite their subsequent actions.
How do you mimic such mechanism of “indirect coordination through the environment” to drive the self-organisation, efficient collaboration and open innovation among the many Open Climate Collabathon participants?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: This is precisely my passion, and the role that I gave myself in the Collabathon is to make the process more stigmergic.
First, we need to understand that stigmergic processes are highly scalable. You can design a new mouse trap using a small team of engineers and traditional development methodologies. We can add more engineers to the team and probably make a better mousetrap. But if we keep adding engineers, any project manager will tell you that at some point the process will become less efficient. There is an optimal number of individuals in traditional development groups. Fewer individuals might not bring enough perspectives or might not cover the entire skills basis that is needed. More individuals can cause relational problems and can make the process more chaotic, less manageable. But how can thousands of individuals write Wikipedia at the same time? In fact, Wikipedia cannot exist below a critical number of participants. Some processes exhibit an optimal number of participants, other processes can only function above a critical number of participants and seem not to have an upper limit, other than the capacity of the platform that supports the process. Stigmergy is at the core of the second type of processes.
As for how we do that, we need to understand that humans, unlike ants, have the free will to respond to cues in various ways. We are not programmed to obey our instincts. As much as we want our colleagues to follow our instructions, they can always do otherwise. So we use incentives to bias people’s choices and behavior, or we design embedded roles that reduce the choice of action. A real life example is the speed limit in a school zone. We can make a law for speed limit in a school zone, with a punitive measure, a negative incentive to drive above the speed limit, and have police enforce this law. We can also install speed bumps that will create discomfort when run over at high speed, which is in essence an embedded version of the speed limit law, within the physical environment.
In the Collabathon project we begin by creating a stigmergic environment, i.e. an environment that can hold information about activities, an environment where it is easy for me to learn what others have done, what they are doing now and what they are planning to do. All online collaborative environments have, to a certain extent, this stigmergic capacity. For example, they use persistent communication tools, allowing anyone to read current and past communications. They also use various tools to document their activities or work, such as Google Docs, Wikies and Github. They use different methods and tools to plan and signal priorities, such as Comakery and Trello for example.
On top of local communication channels, they use different dissemination or broadcasting channels such as Facebook and Twitter. This environment is transparent and open, meaning that anyone, even people that are not part of the organisation, can have access to information and very low barriers to participation.
Once the digital environment is in place and possesses stigmergic properties, we put in place incentives for people to respond to the cues mediated by this environment. To better model the behavior of participants we create rules. All that is still an artform. It requires what I call collaborative entrepreneurial skills.
“Collective intelligence is an emergent property of a group. First, we must put in place the conditions for it to emerge. Second, we must cultivate it. Third, we can aid it with AI for example. (…) Putting in place the conditions for social intelligence to emerge is creating an environment where individuals can interact, access information, exchange ideas, negotiate, establish trust.” Tiberius Brastaviceanu (Images: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 proofingfuture.eu )
Sebastian Klemm: Since the Open Climate Collabathon is less a competitive hackathon but a vision to engage everyone on a common planetary cause, namely the development of a global open and transparent climate accounting system: How can collaboration be rewarded?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: Collaboration, in general, can be rewarded in many ways. We all know that, but once in a while we fall into the trap of thinking that only money can motivate people to work. Wikipedia is written by thousands of individuals who don’t ask to be paid. Many great things today are made by people with no money involved in the process. Does it mean that all these people are volunteers? What do we mean by a volunteer?
Many of these processes exhibit a complex system of incentives: they offer an opportunity to learn something new, to make some new friends, to show our skills and be recognized or validated, to make money on the side by monetizing services, once we’ve built a reputation. We can lump that into one phrase: enlightened self-interest. To that, we add the cause, the purpose, or the spiritual dimension. But we can go further and include tangible benefits directly related to efforts.
In other words, some people involved can get paid for their work from grants or even from the economic activity that can be generated around the project. At this moment we are considering the possibility to distribute development grants to participants.
Sebastian Klemm: In our preceding interview Dr. Martin Wainstein, founder and lead researcher at the Yale University’s Open Innovation Lab, says: “Currently, intellectual and financial capital is still the primary means for corporate valuation, but more and more we will start realizing this falls short since new companies will showcase value growth and impact through collaboration, open source and a growing network effect from shared purpose.”
How does Sensorica showcase impact through collaboration?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: Sensorica belongs to a new category of organisations, it operates with the Open Value Network model. The notion of value networks was first introduced to the business world by Verna Allee. She pointed that much of a firm’s success was in fact due to relations that were not part of the role structure of the organisation, relations that extended beyond the organisational boundaries. She also showed that the success of a company depended on assets that were not accounted for by firms, some of these assets being non-measurable. We call these non-measurable assets intangible assets.
In short, Verna Allee said that firms look more like networks than fortresses. Much of the value is generated through social relations that employees maintain informally outside of the firm. A lot goes through these relations, generating new opportunities for the firm.
“We need to understand that humans, unlike ants, have the free will to respond to cues in various ways. We are not programmed to obey our instincts. As much as we want our colleagues to follow our instructions, they can always do otherwise. So we use incentives to bias people’s choices and behavior, or we design embedded roles that reduce the choice of action.” Tiberius Brastaviceanu (Images: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 proofingfuture.eu )
Sebastian Klemm: Could you elaborate on Sensorica as an Open Value Network? What potential does that bring to the Open Climate Collabathon?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: Sensorica was created in 2010, not too long ago after the publication of the Bitcoin white paper, during this period of emergence of the new p2p paradigm. If Bitcoin represents financial services without a bank, Sensorica represents production of material goods without a company. Sensorica pushes the p2p paradigm to innovation and material production and distribution.
Can cars be made by open and decentralized networks in the near future? For the past 10 years, Sensorica has been building an answer to this question. Its innovation model inherits a lot from the open source movement. Its production system inherits a lot from online commons-based peer production systems such as Wikipedia.
Sensorica is one of the best organisations I know that harnesses well stigmergy and social intelligence. I think that the Collabathon should start from what Sensorica has already built, its Open Value Network model, as a good solid base, to avoid reinventing the wheel, and adapt this model to its own context.
Keynote by Tiberius Brastaviceanu about Open Value Networks, OUISHARE 2014 “The Age of Communities”
Sebastian Klemm: In how far is Sensorica also a product of its environment: Could you elaborate on the ecosystem that enabled to establish Sensorica?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: Sensorica developed on top of the open source culture and feeds on new development in the p2p domain. Most people who have contributed to the development of Sensorica have affinities with these cultures.
Click to view the Collabathon November 2020 Sprint Deck.
Sebastian Klemm: The next Collabathon Sprint takes place in November 2020 and culminates around the original date of COP26: How does the Collabathon sustain momentum till then and give continuation to the community so that teams stay engaged?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: We are having weekly meetings among the core members of the Collabathon, but we need to become more inclusive, more transparent and more open.
We are constantly publishing updates, but we need to do a better job at pushing information out there on social media and continue to engage people in this project. We also need more people to take initiative, to organize engaging activities for past contributors and newcomers. Let’s say that outreach and animation are not well oiled. The organisational structure and its IT infrastructure are under development. We hope that in the near future we will be able to do a better job sustaining activity between our large events.
Sebastian Klemm: Following its crowd-development as a digital public good: What possibilities do you envision to maintain the Open Climate platform by patterns of commoning and crowd-financing?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: At the moment, we are focusing on research grants and sponsorship to pay for critical services that support our infrastructure, and perhaps to sustain some network support roles, i.e. pay some individuals to allow them to sustain their focus on important tasks. It is still early to talk about crowdfunding or ICO, although these two financing schemes are fully compatible with the Collabathon model.
Many In Body, One In Mind Unity has long been recognized as a vital human value, necessary to any successful endeavor involving more than one person. The philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz observed: “Reality cannot be found except in one single source, because of the interconnection of all things with one another . . . I do not conceive of any reality at all as without genuine unity.” (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Philosophical Writings (London: Dent, Rowman and Littlefield, 1965), p. 37 and p. 80.) Images: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 proofingfuture.eu
Sebastian Klemm: Which self-governing principles can enable and maintain peer-to-peer interactions and infrastructures? Which of these are applied in the Open Climate Collabathon?
Tiberius Brastaviceanu: The principle of individual sovereignty and autonomy while recognizing the role of communities in shaping the identity of the individuals and in augmenting the potential of the individual.
Individual and community are inseparable. Therefore, in the design of our organisations we must maximize individual potential, first and foremost by providing individuals free (unhindered / frictionless) access to socioeconomic processes, as long as no harm is done to others and to the community as a whole.
These are not at all new ideas. In the current system, individual freedom and self determination is at the heart of libertarianism, and community is the focus of communism. These ideologies are formulated in opposition to each other, forming a dichotomy, which gives rise to an apparent compromise between the individual and the community. In other words, within the current system, it appears that we can only maximize individual freedom and wealth at the expense of the community, and vice versa.
In practice, commons-based peer production, an expression coined by Yochai Benkler (see his paper Coase’s Penguin), doesn’t seem to exhibit such a compromise between the peer and the commons.
This new mode of production seems to be a synthesis of communism and capitalism. In open source projects for example, you chose how to contribute, no one can force you to do anything. You have full autonomy and yet, everyone contributes to a commons, something shared for the benefit of all. There is no more contradiction between the individual and the community. Within these systems the more autonomy contributors have, the better the commons. In sum, we can say that although the principle uttered earlier is not new, it could not have been enacted earlier, because our institutions that have been designed along the two antagonist ideologies have not allowed a relation of complementarity between the individual and the community, only a relation of compromise. p2p networks, seen as new institutions, enable a reinforcing relation between the individual and the community. p2p recuperates this principle and develops it’s full potential.
We need to note that maximized individual autonomy doesn’t mean that the individual can do whatever, disregarding other individuals around. This should be understood the same way we understand freedom in a democratic society, not as “free for anything”. We associate civic responsibility to freedom.