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Collaborative Defense

Two people we link to regularly here -- David Stephenson and John Robb -- have both had pieces come out in mainstream publications over the last few days. These articles cover ostensibly different topics, responses to bird flu and the rise of networked guerilla movements. At their core, however, they are each about the very same issue: how do we adopt collaborative, bottom-up tools for our own protection?

This question is familiar to long-time readers; we've talked about the role open collaboration can play in our responses to crisis for quite a while. What is new is the degree to which these ideas are starting to trickle into the mainstream. The idea of using participatory tools as a fundamental means of protecting ourselves and our societies from natural and unnatural disasters has the potential to become a rallying point across numerous issues. It's important that we start to shape the discourse now, so that as this notion moves into the common debate, we've already established our leadership in the discussion.

The early 21st century has seen the rise to prominence of three broad types of threat: pandemic flu; terrorism; and environmental disruption. As we've discussed here numerous times, these three cannot be entirely separated, as each has the potential to make the others more deadly. Stephenson talks about flu in his article, while Robb talks about security. The environment is the missing section in each (although Robb touches on it briefly), but we've talked quite a bit ourselves about the use of collaborative tools for environmental defense.

The key question is, can we unify our responses? If so, how? Is it possible that some of the same tools, and some of the same ways of thinking, can help in our broad civil response to all three of these potential disasters?

David Stephenson's article, in the computer industry journal Network World, is a brief look at the ways that corporations can take advantage of bottom-up tools as a means of coordinating and organizing their responses to the threat of pandemic flu, and how those same tools can have other business applications:

A pandemic's unpredictability and lack of planning time leave no room for duplication of effort. Technologies such as wikis are particularly well suited to this problem. Wikiware recently has emerged as an effective way to allow many users to simultaneously contribute to shared documents. Most relevant to pandemic preparation is www.fluwikie.com, perhaps the world's most comprehensive repository for pandemic-related news and views. Although the business-continuity section is less detailed than its other areas, this can change in hours if companies begin to post their own continuity plans, for example, and create Q&A threads.
Public-domain wikis get the most attention, but companies such as Motorola and SAP use wikiware behind the firewall. In pandemic planning, corporate employees can contribute simultaneously to a wiki-based company plan. During better times, wikis will simplify editing of corporate documents, track software bugs and let spreadsheets be shared easily.

John Robb's article in Fast Company is much longer, and he spends more time laying out the severity of the "global guerillas" problem. Unlike pandemic flu and climate change, "open source" terrorism is solely an issue of human behavior. The main concern is that those who wish to do global harm have already adopted the tools of distributed, open collaboration, and have gotten very good at using them:

The conflict in Iraq has foreshadowed the future of global security in much the same way that the Spanish Civil War prefigured World War II. Unlike previous insurgencies, the one in Iraq is comprised of [sic] 75 to 100 small, diverse, and autonomous groups of zealots, patriots, and criminals alike. These groups, of course, have access to the same tools we do--from satellite phones to engineering degrees--and use them every bit as well. But their single most important asset is their organizational structure, an open-source community network very similar to what we now see in the software industry. It is an extremely innovative structure, sadly, and results in decision-making cycles much shorter than those of the U.S. military. Indeed, because the insurgents in Iraq lack a recognizable center of gravity--a leadership structure or an ideology--they are nearly immune to the application of conventional military force. Like Microsoft, the software superpower, the United States hasn't found its match in a competitor similar to itself, but rather in a loose, self-tuning network

Both Stephenson and Robb recognize that the key to an effective response isn't just the technology, but the philosophical model behind it. These kinds of crises are better handled under conditions of transparency and cooperation than in secrecy and specialization. Whether we're talking about disease, or terrorism, or climate disruption, we cannot assume the traditional sources of authority have the knowledge, means or willingness to respond effectively. We will have to work together, and the sooner we recognize this, the better.

It remains to be seen whether the tools and concepts for each of these three generational crises can be aligned sufficiently to allow each response to learn from the others. It's certainly possible, but is not guaranteed. The best chance of that happening is for those of us who take part in these discussions to speak clearly and frequently about the connections and the need for a defense philosophy that doesn't just embrace collaboration among the responders to a particular problem, but collaboration across disciplines.

Comments (1)

I think the Stephenson article link should be


I think the Robb article makes the analogy between systempunkt and ecopunkt clearer (even though he uses neither term). The key is to envision yourself as the defender against both types of attack. I suspect many WC readers identify more with the Iraqi insurgents than with the US/Iraqi Army, and this might fuel the confusion ...

Both forms of defense seem to require a distributed militia of sorts, that know their local space (perhaps a few suburbs, perhaps a stretch of train line, or a creek catchment, ie a punkt) intimately, and have a high degree of autonomy in that area, which allows rapid, effective response. For tools and intelligence, they are in collaborative contact with other likeminded groups.

Robb then extrapolates that to imagine a new era of autonomous interconnected city-states, with the role of large central governments diminished (though with the city-states, or perhaps megalopoli, very active). The consensus with not only Swiss / US Founding Father models of government, but design proponents such as Christopher Alexander, are striking. The first pattern in A Pattern Language, is after all "Autonomous Regions".


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