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CivicTechTO Talk – October 27, 2020

Recently, Geoff was invited to speak about project Maplesync to CivicTechToronto about maplesync. The prepared talk turned out to be a great introduction to the project, the best so far. I encourage you to watch the video below, or read below for the content turned into a blog post!

Introduction

Good evening everyone, and thank you for coming to this talk hosted by Civic Tech TO. My name is Geoff Evamy Hill, I am a masters of Design candidate at OCAD University in the Strategic Foresight and Innovation Program. I will be speaking to you today about project maplesync and the futures of economic cooperation. I do not claim to be the preeminent expert, I hope you’ll find this angle interesting.

Maplesync is a proposal for strategic economic planning, done collaboratively, at a large scale. For example, by thinking of the nation as the firm – or better yet, as a cooperative. I contend that this line of thinking gives us a new vantage point on problems of allocation, coordination, and planning that I believe need to be reckoned with to build a better world.

Tonight I will discuss some future trends that demonstrate the necessity of something like maplesync, then I will distill them into gaps and what if’s for design, I will then discuss some aspects of how I have designed the first iteration of maplesync, and how anyone can get involved. This is a work in progress and I am looking for feedback.

First we ask ourselves: could the economy be conceived as a knowledge problem, and if this were the case, how would we improve how the economy integrates, processes, and dispatches knowledge in service of us, humanity, and not itself? It could be a subset of the question, “has the internet fulfilled its promise”? 

An economics professor at University of Waterloo, Larry Smith, who is also a notable entrepreneurship advisor put it to me this way: “Is there a way to start mutually exchanging information to create a productive result that informs all participants?” I would add, so that they have a meaningful stake in the high level economic decision making that affects their lives?

This is a question I have been pondering since 2013, I wrote my undergrad thesis on this which is basically the economic calculation problem in political economy. It is about how we use information, and traditionally prices, to bring together dispersed knowledge and coordinate separate actions. This was a big debate in the 20th century, and seems to be making a come back now. 

What is maplesync?

So, a definition of maplesync as it stands: Maplesync is an open-source, creative commons project to generate a set of tools and approaches influenced by collective intelligence (which brings the best of human and machine intelligence together) that help large groups of people anticipate and plan for their preferred economic futures automating the mundane functions and democratically elevating critical decision functions. 

We can break down this some more: essentially what I am saying is how do we provide groups of people with the tools to come together and direct their high level economic futures, where at present I believe these functions are either overly centralized in large entities, and ad hoc? 

It begs the question, why care about thoughtfully harnessing the power of economies? I have put together three main trends with the hopes that it helps to lay the case for maplesync-type endeavours.

Future Trends: 1- Short-Termism

(BBC)

Firstly, to what degree does planning (something that is a bit of a blacksheep outside of firm), if any, has in a functional, progressive society, we must discuss who the stakeholders are in the future. Short-termism, alongside geographic immediacy, seem to be principal biases upon which society operates. Is short-termism in the economy, business and policy sustainable?

It is very concerning given the degree of stress our economy is putting on the environment and social conditions, what kind of future we are creating for the billions, no, TRILLIONS, of humans who hopefully will come after us. Ethically, our economic systems must value the future, and therefore must break out of its short term bias. Planning is a way to do this.

Future Trends: 2 – Markets and Doughnuts: 

(World Economic Forum)

I think “are markets allocating correctly, let alone fairly or sustainably?” is a really interesting question. This is Kate Raworth’s Doughnut model of economics. It visualizes an inner and outer ring, an inner ring of social foundations or human needs that we cannot go below, and an outer ring of ecological ceiling or limits that we cannot go above. The safe zone for our economy and society is somewhere between the two rings for all categories, and as you can see, we are not doing a great job. 

(Seeking Alpha)

Some might argue that that isn’t the purpose of capitalism, and that it performs very well in its own measures. However, we know from externalities (like how pollution is not inherently covered in the price of oil for instance), bubbles that inflate value and the crashes that erase huge amounts of value, that this perfect efficiency is not the case.

What I am saying is given the technology and knowledge we have today, how can we run economies in a more fair and sustainable way?  I argue that there must be ways to share information better, plan and coordinate so we can stay within these boundaries.

Future Trends: 3 – Centralization:

Finally, do people really have a say in the economic decisions that affect their lives, and their children’s lives? I observe that the main pathway we have as citizens within a consumer society to have a say in large scale economic decision making is to consume through pathways set up by private entities, owned by ever larger corporations.

(convergencealimentaire)

We have companies like Walmart who’s effective GDP is larger than some countries, even the USSR at its peak. There is an ability to plan, but why do we let planning happen only in small islands of firms instead of across them, and why don’t we leverage the collective intelligence of a whole society for the high level decisions? There is often little productive coordination between them.

We’re not talking about a command and control structure like Gosplan in the Soviet Union, but essentially what I’m raising is whether “the processing power of the economy to allocate and coordinate is too centralized, and whether its using the right tools, and integrating the right Knowledge”

So to move on from this, these are the three key insights: short-termism, markets, centalization. I really recommend the following three readings if you are interested in the topic further: an Economist article from late 2019, a piece by Evegny Morozov, and the 2019 book The People’s Republic of Walmart for a light introduction. You can also find a full list of references and inspiration at the end of the maplesync whitepaper.

Recontextualizing Inspiration

So what actually inspired me to go ahead and write a whitepaper, creating maplesync? Well, my interest in this topic re-surfaced last November when I discovered that numerous researchers had come out with books and writing on the economic calculation problem. It was in reading Edin Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries about Project Cybersyn which really inspired me to make a move.

(Wikipedia)

Cybersyn was a Chilean project from 1971–1973 aimed at constructing a distributed decision support system to aid in the management of the national economy. The project consisted of four modules: an economic simulator, custom software to check factory performance, an operations room, and a national network of telex machines that were linked to one mainframe computer. The point of Cybersyn was to build an actually fairly decentralised system in which local data is gathered, decisions are made, fed into a system that also enables high level planning, and create a short of real-time feedback loop.

I read the book about it, and decided to make a project about recontextualizing to my 21st century Canadian context. So here we have maplesync.

Solutioning (Gaps and What ifs) 

So, if we are recontextualizing how we might aid the management of a large scale economy, what are the gaps and what-ifs for a design brief?

  • In Terms of Gaps:
    1. Planning happens in islands: where is the liberty in the process?
    2. Economic direction is largely top down, quality information can be bottom up
    3. Externalities: prices, the manifestation of economic information, are often not accurate 
    4. Via Negativa (Nassim Taleb) – we could imagine we are missing what advanced societies like those depicted in Star Trek would need to have to sort out allocation and optimization problems

(Star Trek)

  • So, What if:
    1. … people could indicate the high level direction of the economy they participate in?
    2. … we could use collective intelligence to optimize efficiency, particularly of how our economy fits into the social and environmental doughnut?
    3. … solving the latter two could be a gateway to enriched democracy?

This brings us to the metaphor embodied by the digital fire icon. The idea is how our ancient ancestors might have organized the hunt, or the village allocation around a campfire. How do we bring us all around the campfire once more for egalitarian economic decision making, a digital fire?

Envisioning New Platforms – Maplesync

Now, we finally get to some of the tangible ideas I have proposed as modules of maplesync.

Firstly, I am interested in collective intelligence platforms for participatory and democratic economic planning processes. In terms of maplesync as a collection of different initiatives, this could take the form of an open national strategic plan (or provincial, or for regions or cities), open shadow budgets or alternative budgets that could be used to judge the mainstream, and using big data and complexity tools to help find pathways to prosperity.

Secondly, I have ideas for smaller things that use the same principles as I laid out, these are more background tools. For instance, a tool that would help people value externalities, or help start-ups with the critical prediction of when to launch using crowdsourcing, or help smaller companies grow in sustainable ways by providing strategy and marketing support like in economic gardening, and tools to leverage the best practices from across an economy to support small business.

Finally, I believe there is a dire need for more simulations to be designed and used to assess both and project the cone of possibilities of the implications of our decisions forward. These could model the value flows of an entire economy to find opportunities for optimization with regard to the environment or social foundations, or find entrepreneurial opportunities for prosperity. And citizen grade simulations to help citizens participating in planning identify the impacts of their decisions. These should be entirely transparent, and open source (as with the whole of maplesync).

You can read much more about these specific projects and calls to action that fall under maplesync in the whitepaper.

Future Directions

So, how could you help? I am looking to formalize this into a functioning initiative in 2021, by building out some prototypes and drawing attention to the problem. I’m interested in creating a group that is fascinated in coming up with solutions for this set of problems.

Opportunities:

  • Open source, open collaboration
  • Form maplesync alpha 
  • Link up people with this problem

Key Challenges:

  • Minimum viable products
  • Interdisciplinary theory
  • Decolonization & Inclusivity 
  • Human-centred UX
  • Integrating diversity, devolving centralization
  • New ideas for tools


For me, I am finishing my degree, and working on more of the background theory that will help to shape future contributions to solving this problem with collective intelligence. My research question is: “What are the futures of the economic calculation problem?”

Conclusion: So what is Maplesync?

  • An idea for a tech: In terms of a concrete thing or goal to immediately create it is: creating strategic economic plans (either shadow, or official) that are made through mass participation with a transparent, remixable process. Using collective intelligence to improve economic outcomes for present and future.
  • An education project grow a garden: The more I think about it, I believe maplesync is an education project to inspire thinking and responses to the economic calculation problem that eventually form an open-source suite of social software for things similar to 1, but which we can’t really imagine yet
  • Catalyst and anchor for experimentation wrt economic calculation in the face of environmental and social stresses, and a scaffolding so that the pieces that come out of this experimentation could conceivably be sewn together into various platforms for contexts around the world

Bonus – Theoretical Basis:

When talking about different configurations for how to design an economic system from an information science perspective, I’ve come up with a simple diagram. There are three main anchor points of network types that I believe three extremes of economic configuration lie in. We of course have centralized networks, where prices are formed by a central committee. Then we have decentralized, where many different nodes in the network integrate economic information and coordinate – like markets. And then there is P2P, where everything is completely distributed. Again, these are ideal forms, and not even American or USSR examples fit in the exact extreme.

But what I believe is we can use this visual metaphor to examine how we design maplesync type projects, and economies as whole, in order to optimally allocate, coordinate and plan. Different contexts and different scales have different needs, and they all roll-up or down differently. More details on this idea in the whitepaper and much more to come in spring 2021. 

But to sum up here, I think these are four values of how we do economic systems design with respect ot maplesync type project:

  1. Interdependence, 
  2. Iteration and open source to be replicated and remixed in different contexts, 
  3. participatory and democratic, 
  4. and merging the best of human and machine with collective intelligence. 

Management is far too important to be left to the managers”

 -Paul Adler

By Geoff Evamy Hill, @gceh , gcevamyhill [at] gmail.com

By gceh

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