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Originally Published by Todd, March 3, 2008

In a recent post to his Technium blog, Kevin Kelly, with his usual eloquence, reminds us that, “now that crowd-sourcing and social webs are all the rage, it’s worth repeating: the bottom is not enough. You need a bit of top-down as well” (emphasis his). The key reason for this, Kelly goes on to say, is time. Pure ‘bottom up’ does not operate on a time scale requisite with our ‘instant culture’. In his words:

We are too much in a hurry to wait around for a pure hive mind. Our best technological systems are marked by the fact that we have introduced intelligent design into them. This is the top-down control we insert to speed and direct a system toward our goals. Every successful technological system, including Wikipedia, has design wired into it.

What’s new is only this: never before have we been able to make systems with as much “hive” in it as we have recently made with the web. Until this era, technology was primarily all control, all design. Now it can contain both design and no-design, or hive-ness.

It strikes me that this combination of design and hive-ness is precisely what enables a process such as a DesignShop to facilitate the conception and emergence of ideas from within a community of participants (i.e., the ‘bottom’) and then develop them into definable, actionable solutions over the course of just a few days.

In the case of DesignShop, ‘top down’ refers to constraints that are imposed upon the participants through the design decisions made by the facilitation team, which typically includes a small subset of participants called ’sponsors’. As the event begins, participants are given precise instructions and commands. They are told, in essence, where to go, what to do, who to do it with and for how long. This highly constrained structure–which should place minimal constraints on content–acts as a scaffolding for the participants to attach their ideas.

Over the course of a few modules facilitated in this ‘top down’ manner, a wide range of ideas is generated. Some ideas fall away, others continue to rise, and begin to combine and cohere to each other. Roughly speaking, this coincides with the Scan phase of an event. These newly formed ideas are then put through any number of modeling and simulation processes so as to scrutinize and evaluate them more rigorously. Through this cycle of design, participants ‘create the problem‘ they want to solve. This is the Focus phase.

By the time the problem has been created, ‘control’ of the design process resides almost completely with the participants. They will self select which components of the problem they will work on solving, the sequence in which the components will be addressed, and, most importantly, what constitutes a satisfactory solution. During this cycle, facilitation team members are often absorbed into the participant teams, providing them with the capacity to document and productize their work in real-time. This is the Act.

From my experience, it is the top down component that is missing — whether by intention or by oversight — from many self-described collaborative, creative problem solving processes, while most strategic design processes lack any real bottom-up, hive-mind decision making. By bringing the top down and bottom up together in a way that leverages the strengths of each, we create a field ripe for emergence, within a time frame even our instant culture can appreciate.
~Todd Johnston

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