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Don't just follow the crowd - trust it

by Matt Willcox

I have a confession to make. I used to be a public servant.


That’s right. Long before I crossed over from ‘client-side’ to agency land (an us vs. them delineation I still find slightly odd), I spent a number of years working for a large municipal council. My role covered everything from urban planning to establishing an innovation lab tasked with exploring, prototyping and researching the future of cities.

While there’s an element of truth to the stereotypical idea of government moving slowly and being bogged down by bureaucracy (I still can’t watch ABC’s Utopia for fear of PTSD style flashbacks), in many areas it’s at the leading edge of change and has a thing or two to teach the rest of us.

In particular how to embrace (and trust) the crowd.

In their recent best seller ‘Machine, Platform, Crowd’, authors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson dive into three of the key drivers of change they see shaping the future, and what this might mean for business and society.

Of the three, the first two are probably the most well understood and documented in the media.

  1. ‘Machine’ - deals with the rise of AI and the unrelenting march of computers into the physical world and every aspect of our lives. “How likely is it a robot could do my job?” is a question we’ve probably all asked ourselves and either laughed nervously (sorry telemarketers, truck drivers and tax book-keepers) or grinned smugly (yes, we see you restaurant owners, care workers and aerospace engineers).
  2. ‘Platform’ - tells the story of how the relentless growth of double-sided marketplaces has come to dominate the landscape of 21st century economics. We’ve all heard by now how the biggest provider of accommodation doesn’t own any hotels (AirBnB), the largest taxi service owns no cars (Uber/Lyft) and how there’s over 2 million apps in Apple’s app store – of which only a handful were developed by Apple themselves.
  3. ‘Crowd’ - Beyond the transformative potential of blockchain and the growth of open source software, it’s probably the least talked about of the three drivers. It’s also the one in which government has a thing or two to teach us.

By its very nature (and design) the practice of governing encourages input from a vast array of stakeholders in order to forge a path that (for better or worse) balances the needs of the individual with that of the wider society and environment.

That need to bring together multiple perspectives has given rise to a range of activities designed to deliver collaboration at scale. These include:


  1. Crowd-source strategy

    From cities to nation states, governments around the world have been exploring how to open up processes to encourage diverse perspectives and community input. While traditionally the exclusive preserve of the C-Suite, setting business strategic direction with input from staff, stakeholders and customers can expose decision makers to a wide spectrum of views and needs and ensure buy-in when it comes time to execute.

  2. Opening up data

    The push to open up government data sets started in the US in the mid noughties and quickly spread. Open data initiatives can now be found at all levels of government in Australia with the aim of empowering citizens, start-ups and researchers to make use of data once tightly held by government departments. While privacy and commercial advantage concerns must be very carefully managed, business can also gain by opening up data sets.

  3. Trusting the crowd to solve problems

    Today’s complex and rapidly shifting business climate means it’s increasingly less about the staff you have in your building as it is the expertise you can reach in your network. Exposing business challenges to a wide and diverse network of expertise and thinking can unlock value and speed innovation.

    Our experience designing collaboration at scales ranging from workshop environments to cities to nationwide initiatives has taught us that while one should never aspire to just follow the crowd, there’s plenty to be gained by trusting one.
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