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# The Collective Thinking Platform - White Paper
Modern societies lack of tools and cultures to collaborate, both in the real world and on the Internet.
Yet, the potential of online participative systems is huge, and still very much unexploited. Civic techs and other collaborative tools remain marginal, although this domain is currently being actively developed.
Most of existing solutions could be greatly improved, and many are not open sourced. In addition, there is plenty of redundancy among participative innovations ; many civic tech projects have overlapping objectives, and mutualization of resources among projects remains exceptional.
Finally, there is no real bridge between academic research and the design of practical digital engagement solutions.
More generally, we live in an individualistic world where competition is the rule, and cooperation the exception.
## Ultimate goal
The utlimate objective is to define an ecosystem of digital engagement to create a research framework for online cooperation and collective intelligence.
This ecosystem should be composed of all the actors of civic techs and participative systems, academic researchers in social science, political science and philosophy, and regular end-users. There are currently active communities doing a great job designing innovative solutions (Meta-Stackexchange, Meta-Wiki, Participedia); the need is to strengthen the links between those actors, and create new communities dedicated to participative research.
The objective of the research would be to ask the following general questions:
- What are the existing digital engagement tools?
- How can we improve them?
- Which systems and cultures do we need?
- How should we design and develop them?
Once we have good participative systems, we can design the local and global open governance tools which seem essential to tackle the multiple world crisis and to reach the sustainable development goals defined by the United Nations.
### List of objectives
#### Design digital engagement tools and cultures
Participative systems are already ubiquitous on the web, yet the universe of possibilities is still very much unexploited.
The list of potential applications is huge, the last section gives a brief overview of the main ones.
#### Review and improve existing solutions
The research framework should enable to give constructive feedback to existing solutions. Strategic design choices should be discussed, listing potential alternatives and collecting opinions of experts and end-users.
For example, the Q&A site Quora made the choice to remove question details; the main objective being to reduce duplicates. This is an elegant solutions, but there are probably interesting alternatives, like giving multiple titles to questions (provide all possible wordings of a question to avoid duplicates) or engage the community to spend some time on duplicates removal as on Stack Overflow.
#### Apply latest academic research to digital engagement tools
Science continuously evolves and produces new results in collective intelligence, political science, sociology, etc. The research framework should enable to experiment and apply this knowledge to design new solutions.
Social behaviors and social mechanisms like reputation systems have been studied for a long time, and the research in this domain is still very active.
Other researchers focus on the principles for organizing collective intelligence ; their expertise are of precious help to design digital engagement systems.
#### Develop technologies for academic research
The research framework should also initiate experimental studies on digital engagement systems.
The debate platform Kialo is an interesting example of a technology which attracts researchers attention; in particular scientists who study how structured debates can affect education and politics. Academic research could also benefit from digital engagement sites to rigorously study social behaviors and political sciences.
#### Favor cohesion between actors of participative systems
A strong network of communities developing research about digital engagement is in position of convincing a large number of users of adopting a set of behaviors and technologies. In this way, the communities can obtain the necessary legitimacy to earn the trust of users and investors to develop efficient solutions.
Another important goal is to reduce redundancy among innovations, and favor global coherence in the development of collaborative processes. Too many initiatives have overlaping objectives, and too few mutualize resources or design reflections. Ideally, the participative ecosystem would be designed to welcome any innovation by providing serious research material and resources, and by harmonizing objectives among existing and future solutions with the help of open governance processes. Such collaboration do not necessarily exclude competition, which might be desirable in certain contexts.
#### Raise political questions
Many political questions emerge at the core of digital engagement.
One critical mechanism at the essence of the Stack Overflow is reputation. It already has an importance when recruiting software engineer, to estimate their skills. Because reputation is still somehow marginal in our systems, there are no huge side effects yet; but this could change if such mechanism becomes ubiquitous. And if reputation is used as a way of estimating expertise, the next question is how do we distribute power between experts and non-experts in collective delibration processes.
Collaborative deliberation systems can impact all domains of society, from local and global participative democracy initiatives, to open education, open research and open innovation. It seems nevertheless essential to remain aware of all the risks and drawbacks of participative democracy before considering using digital engagement solution for politics.
#### Toward local and global open governance
Again, the final objective of the research is to enhance culutral and technological tools to favor cooperation at small and large scale; using the potential of collective intelligence as a lever to adress issues in every domains.
Of course, small and practical problems (how to improve comments systems) are much easier to solve than global open political issues (how to debate constructively at large scale). Yet, it appears that solutions to simple problems will help solving more general challenges.
## Referencing and reviewing
The ecosystem would help referencing existing solutions, scientific articles and actors of digital engagement. Note that the site [ParticipateDB](http://participatedb.com/) already references many civic techs around the world.
Another objective of the research framework is to review and evaluate existing systems, by providing design reflections, possibly contributing to their evolution.
## Participative ecosystem
Participative research is developed by a diverse ecosystem. Although there exists great examples of communities dedicated to the development of design reflections about digital engagement (like Meta-Stackexchanges, Meta-Wiki and Participedia); many issues related to participative systems remain unstudied.
The collective thinking platform aims at creating complementary communities to develop participative research. Among other things, the platform provides experimental tools to test different reputation mechanisms. Thus, different groups - for instance those who want to promote reputation, and those who do not - could co-develop reflections and studies to explore new solutions. Sub-platforms can easily be deployed to satisfy the requirements of specific communities.
Of course, other communities elsewhere on the web should be encouraged to participate to this open research.
## Reseach framework
The research framework could be articulated around three main axis: technology, sociology and politics. Those three domains are intimely intricated, it would be hard to develop research on one domain while ignoring the others; yet this organization illustrates all different aspects to take into consideration.
This research theme would evaluate and experiment digital participative systems:
- Voting systems
- Should users vote for the quality of contributions? The relevance of the contributions? Should they give their opinions (agree/disagree)?
- Rating systems
- When are rating systems more appropriate than votes?
- Should results be visible before users vote?
- Reputation systems
- Should reputation be split by domain of expertise?
- Comment systems
- Is it possible to merge related comments?
- Should users classify comments by type (humour, serious commentary, suggestions, etc.)?
- Q&A systems
- Should Q&A sites be split by domain of expertise or is it possible to create one general Q&A site?
- Survey systems
- Can users make their opinions before participating surveys?
- Debate systems
- What are the different ways to publish debates?
- Should debates be structured as a hierarchy of claims (as on Kialo) or published as an article (as on Wikipedia)?
For each systems, the research would aim at establishing the state of the art, inform about the different opinions of experts and end-users, and develop experiments to design efficient systems adapted to given contexts.
The collective thinking platform could provide an API along with embedable modules dedicated to digital engagement. Just like Disqus provides embedable comment threads, we can imagine embedable Q&A threads, debates, surveys, with reputation mechanisms, vote systems, etc. Such modular approach could help harmonizing participative tools and cultures on the web.
Designing efficient technology necessarily implies serious studies about how participants will use the tools, how they will behave, how they will aprehend it, how they are willing to engage, etc. The *culture* of a community using a tool (uses, behaviors, shared goals, etc.) is probably more important than the tool itself.
The level of implication of end-users will largely affect the outcomes of the participative processes; so users must be gently supported and ideally implied in the design of the systems.
The research should help developing cultures of cooperation, with the help of behavioral studies, reputation mechanisms studies, and with reflections on cultural tools like codes of conducts, policies and guidelines.
Another important aspect of the research is the study of communities. One must wonder how to create a community, how to guarantee cohesiveness, how to share common goals, with which interactions, and which structure or topology for the community. Socialization - the process of learning to adopt the behavior pattern of the community - is another essential notion for cooperation. The next step would be to study interactions between communities to favor collaboration between groups (and competition when appropriate).
Again, for all those topics, the research would be based on the state of the art, experts and users opinions, and experiments.
Collaboration is closely related to politics. Digital engagement tools and cultures could drastically change our relationship with politics, and the other way around: our political culture affects our behaviors toward collaborative systems.
Governance would be one main research theme. Developing an efficient online collaboration workflow requires to study the following items:
- How to collect and agregate opinions?
- How to imagine scenarios collectively?
- How to debate?
- How to take decisions?
- How to provide feedback?
- How to document and inform?
Finally, online collaboration systems raise important political issues. For example, generalizing quatified reputation on the Internet could lead to hyper controlled and elitist societies. Similarily, publically displaying opinions online could have disastrous consequences for some minorities under certain political regime.
How we define experts, the way we evaluate expertise, is another political reflection which central to democracy. The next question is how do we distribute power between experts and non-experts, knowing that most political problems are related to different domains of expertise.
## Potential applications
### Education platforms
One application of participatory research is a Wikpiedia like platform for education for professors to mutualize their courses, in all disciplines and for all levels.
Human knowledge would not only be accessible (as on Wikipedia) but also aquirable via the platform.
Because professors would have access to more resources, they would have more time to personalized their courses to their students.
Such platform could also be a opportunity to initiate an international harmonization of education, and to allow students to precisely personalize their curiculum. In this way the platform could not only be a repository of high quality courses, but also deliver diplomas recognized in numerous countries.
Of course, there are already numerous related initiatives, such as WikiBooks, Open Textbook Library, Open Education Resources, etc. Yet, none of these platform is a de facto standard recognized internationally.
Developing the proper tools and culture for collective decisions could help us define transparently the specifications and uses of such platform. If this process invovles enough educational institutions (universities and schools), actors of education (professors, teachers, students) and digital engagement actors (researchers and developers), it could provide the required legitimacy for the platform to become a de facto standard.
### Participatory budget platforms
The collective thinking platform could also be used to develop tools for citizens to vote for the budget allocation of their city. Participatory budget platforms raise a number of questions.
Consider a platform where citizens can propose urban projects, and vote for existing proposals. Even though a small percentage of citizens make proposals, the number of project to consider in the vote process can rapidly be substantial. Thus, citizens would not have time to read all project descriptions to vote objectively for the proposals. This leads to different biases, favoring the most advertised projects, and encouraging citizens to vote for the projects of their friends instead of taking the time to vote objectively.
One solution for this problem could be to limit the number of projects opened to votes for each citizen. For example, each person could only be able to vote for 20 randomly chosen projects. The large number of citizens would enable to estimate the general tendencies for each project. Yet, this approach requires all participants to understand the logic behind the process; this is another reason to develop a digital engagement ecosystem.
Another issue with participatory budget platforms is that all projects do not require the same budget; major projects with high impact are usualy expensive, and smaller projects can be very cheap. One should wonder what vote mechanisms should be adopted to select the projects to optimize the positive impacts on the city considering the available budget. Another challenge for the reflections about participatory systems.
### Q&A tools
It is very interesting to note that Quora and the Stack Exchange network share similar objectives.
What would be an elegant general Q&A site? Should there be a reputation scale per domain of expertise?
Designing an efficient Q&A site requires to answer numerous questions which are at the core of this platform's research.
### Comment systems
A simple use case of the research on this platform is comment systems. It could be for an online news paper, a video provider or anything which can be commented.
Comments typically appear chronologically or ordered by votes. Amusing but futile comments are often mixed with valuable and interesting ones. Up votes generally come to the rescue to try prioritizing comments.
When commenting, we need to know if our point was already mentioned or not. Yet, reading an entire thread of comments can be tedious given the potential amount of reactions.
One can wonder if it would be useful to categorize comments. For example, users could add tags to their comments like « fun », « question », « correction » or « precisions ». Comments could then be automatically grouped under dedicated tabs.
In some cases, readers might want to know the domain of expertise of commenters to get a sense of the relevance of their reactions.
Since there are often numerous comments, it would be interesting to establish a peer-review system. For example, each user must review (rate, edit, merge, delete, etc.) 5 random comments.
For that purpose, it is interesting to question the technology and culture behind comment system.
The additional complexity necessary to improve comment systems could be more costly that the benefits it provides. Humorous comments are often enjoyable, putting them aside could be unfortunate in some situations. Yet, it is still critical to explore potential solutions, explaining which ones are promising if any, and listing the pain-points of non-viable solutions. This should prevent innovators to implements unpractical solutions.
### Idea and opinion platforms
One major challenge of collaboration is the definition of the collective system of thought. It is both essential and difficult for communities to define the ideas which are shared among a large majority of members. One can wonder how to represent the distribution of ideas among a group; how to illustrate, for each idea, how many people believe in it, how much, and why.
A platform to spread ideas could help answer this challenge. By encouraging members of a community to publish their ideas, share them, and express there opinion about others ideas; we could discern the outline of commonly shared ideas, and estimate the homogeneity or heterogeneity of the thought system of the group.
In addition, such mechanism could help propagate ideas that are meaningful for the community.
Surveys suffer from the fact that participants create or modify their opinions while answering to questions. In fact, people do not always thought about the concerned issue before participating a survey. Encouraging a form of methodological and personal questioning for members of a community might help solving the problem of collecting opinions without modifying them (anticipating by encouraging personal reflection).
Note that it is sometimes impossible to give an opinion publicly given the fact it might be used with malicious intents. It is essential to consider the privacy concerns related to such project.
### Review platforms
One type of application of the digital engagement research is review systems.
We could imagine a wikipedia-like site enabling to publish and aggregate reviews on any service or product, revealing most common and relevant opinions, as well as particular user experiences. It seems important to reduce the overlaps between different reviews ; rather to merge similar ideas to create - as much as possible - one global structured appreciation.
The product recommendation community Slant precisely targets this objective and excels in this domain. One of its competitor AlternativeTo also performs well in comparing services. The service that the two sites provide is immense, and one can only expect that they will cover more and more products and services ; not only in the software industry but also for daily consumer products or even food or restaurants.
However, one can wonder if it would be possible to involve the community even more to provide constructive consumer feedback. Neither Slant nor AlternativeTo provide meta-discussions to talk about the most appropriate way to present information about a product. In addition, their objective is to give insights to help consumers making choices ; but one could also want to involve developers, creators and designers so that they explain their strategic choices and participate in the description of their creations.
In fact, the process of giving feedback is critical for creators to improve their product or services. Users largely benefit from the iterative improvement process which occurs when problems and advices can be properly addressed. In this way, they have great interest in giving some time to provide high quality feedback, and producers in considering this information with attention. Thus, one might make the assumption that in some context, users will be ready to take drastic cultural measures to provide structured feedback.
Another essential motivation for review platforms is to prevent planned obsolescence. Enabling users and designers to publicly discuss about a product could highlight the best long term interests for everybody, with a broad picture in mind; considering economic, environmental, social impacts and other side effects of the productions. By participating to the design of products and services, end-users become well aware of their related challenges, enabling them to understand and welcome future evolutions, but also to develop the appropriate behaviors.
Finally, such review platform should be in conjunction with (or in place of) customers services. Obtaining the proper help for a product or service is sometimes extremely difficult. Having a platform of reference to ask for help, warn about problems, or give an opinion could encourage creators to respond to users demands.
Note that it is often possible to give feedback on the website of a product or service. However, the owners of the product or service can filter information and control what will be accessible and what will remain unknown to the public. For example, all Github repositories have an « issues » section dedicated to feedback (among other things), but owners might restrict the use of Github issues to bug report only. Thus, I think it is essential for a general review platform to be independent of any group of interest.
### Citizen feedback platforms
Research on the collective thinking platform could be used to create tools for citizens to give their opinions about their city. For example, one can imagine a bicycle network feedback platform. This would require a sort of forum or Q&A site, but also a participative map. The data represented on the map would be connected to the discussions.
Such platform could help cities to prioritize public work, and get a better understanding of the feelings of citizens. And it would help citizens understand how the city manages the cycle network; enabling them to provide more constructive feedback.
### Open governance platforms
Having participative cultures and tools is essential to develop open governance systems.
Taking inspiration from design thinking, we can imagine the following collaborative workflow:
- Collect and agregate opinions
- Imagine scenarios collectively
- Take decisions
- Provide feedback
- Document and inform
Again, applied research should provide efficient methods to perform those tasks.
A small scale open governance site could for instance enable citizens to discuss, debate and take decisions concerning a public place in their city. Given a building dedicated to projects development (artistic, social, innovational or recreational projects), citizen would have digital tools and methodologies to organize their priorities and collectively manage the building. Citizens would need to find agreements in compliance with the policies of the city.
The same kind of technology could be designed at larger scale, this could help tackling the numerous challenges that our world currently faces.