Peer Power, from Potholes to Patents
Beyond big business and big government, decentralized groups are coming together to solve problems.
By STEVEN JOHNSON
If you listened only to the chatter of this campaign season, you might assume that all our core political values revolve around the two institutions of the market and the state, big capital and big government. If you're on the right, you want the market to do its magic and have the state get out of the way. If you're on the left, you want the market to be held in check by the regulators and safety nets of the state.
But seeing the world through these easy oppositions blinds us to the growing prominence of a group of new organizations: fluid, collaborative networks working outside both the marketplace and the state to improve the world in inventive ways. Inspired in many cases by the decentralization of the Internet, the movement uses the peer network as its organizing principle, with no single individual or group "in charge."
Fix this pothole! Ordinary citizens can report neighborhood problems on SeeClickFix.
In all these efforts you can see the emergence of a new political philosophy. It takes seriously Hayek's insight about the power of decentralized systems to outperform top-heavy bureaucracies, but it also believes that innovation and progress can come from forms of collaboration beyond the market. I like to call the members of this movement "the peer progressives."
Not surprisingly, some of the most prominent examples of peer-network success have emerged online, in the global encyclopedia of Wikipedia or the arts-funding site Kickstarter. But they are also flourishing in localities around the world.
Consider the maps released earlier this month by the New Haven, Conn., organization SeeClickFix. Zooming in on a city neighborhood, you will see clusters of color hovering over certain blocks. Those bands indicate urban problems that ordinary citizens have reported using the SeeClickFix app: gaping potholes, abandoned cars, graffiti. So far, city governments have used the data to address more than 125,000 cases in neighborhoods across the U.S.
Other organizations, such as neighbor.ly, are taking the problem-solving one step further, creating a Kickstarter-style platform where neighbors can propose and crowdfund new projects in their communities: bike racks, community gardens, playground swings.
Peer networks don't have to involve digital technology. Twenty years ago, the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre pioneered a radical new technique called "participatory budgeting." Each year, the city's 16 regions conduct general assemblies in which neighbors debate priorities for the budget: school construction, sewer repair, bridge building. The assemblies create a ranked list of projects, and the government disperses funds accordingly. The money comes from the state, but the decision of what to fund comes from the street.
Participatory budgets transformed Porto Alegre almost immediately. Within seven years, the number of citizens with access to the sewer system doubled. The number of new paved roads jumped to 12 miles a year from 2½ miles. The idea has spread world-wide: Roughly 10% of municipal budgets in Spain are now allocated based on civic participation, and districts of Chicago and Brooklyn have recently adopted the approach.
Another seminal project is the Peer-to-Patent system, designed by the New York University professor Beth Noveck to solve the bottleneck of patent review. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office receives roughly a half-million applications a year, many involving arcane pharmaceutical or technological advances. Someone inside the government must review and make an informed judgment on each one. Because the search for "prior art"—earlier instances of the invention that would negate the patent claim—is complex, the backlog of applications had grown to 1.2 million in 2009.
Prof. Noveck's system allows unpaid outside experts and informed amateurs to contribute to the prior-art discovery phase, through both tracking down and explaining earlier inventions. Based on its success so far in reducing the backlog (now down to 600,000 applications, thanks to a number of factors) and expanding the range of discovery, the U.S. patent office last week launched a full-scale version, "Patent Exchange," that allows citizens to participate in every patent under review. Pilots of Peer-to-Patent have also been launched in the U.K., Japan and Australia.
For two centuries, we have lived in a mass society defined by passive consumption, vast corporate hierarchies and the centralized control of state power. Those organizations didn't seem artificial to us because we couldn't imagine alternatives. But now we can. Peer networks are a practical, functioning reality that already underlies the dominant communications platform of our age. They can do things as ambitious as writing a global encyclopedia or as simple as fixing a pothole.
—Mr. Johnson is the author of "Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age," published this month by Riverhead Books, a member of the Penguin Group.