An illustration of an iceberg, most of which is beneath the surface of the sea. Above: Events and behaviour. Below: Systems.

We need new operating systems. Whose job is that?

Why Open Systems Lab exists, and what we’re trying to do.

To live at the beginning of 2021 is to live with a constant feeling of powerlessness in the face of huge challenges and weird contradictions.

As a society, we have the technology — and the will — to avert climate catastrophe and transition to a zero carbon, zero-waste economy. And yet in many areas we’re still not doing it.

We live in a wealthy country, where no one thinks it is acceptable for a child to go hungry. And yet today one third of children in the UK live in poverty, and 17% live in hungry households.

Our homes have never been worth more money. And yet many are small, dark, unhealthy, unsafe, socially isolating and unfit to spend any significant amount of time in.

We publicly applaud essential workers, and yet at the same time they are underpaid, overworked and demoralised.

Millions of small businesses, jobs and high streets are failing, and yet house prices are rising and the US stock market is at record highs.

We all believe that hard work and enterprise should be the thing we reward, and yet increasingly the greatest returns in the economy come from speculation and economic rents, not from labour or productive, competitive enterprise.

We have access to more information than ever, and yet it feels harder than ever to use that information to make good decisions.

We have never been more connected to each other, and yet many have never felt lonelier or more disenfranchised.

We donate billions every year to support organisations working within local communities, and yet more and more it feels like fighting an inferno with a water pistol; mitigating the symptoms while the root causes spiral out of control.

Our democratic institutions are staffed by good, capable people; and yet, when forced to respond to the complex, fast-moving challenges of the 21st century — for example trying to procure PPE at scale in a pandemic — they find their hands tied by outdated tools, centralised structures, lack of data, duplication of effort, and slow, opaque, byzantine processes.

As a society, we have never felt closer to shifting historic injustices against people and communities along lines of race, ethnicity, sex or sexuality, and yet at the same time liberal democracy appears weaker and more fragile than it has in over half a century.

When we are looking for explanations or solutions to these kinds of complex, systemic crises, our natural human tendency is to focus on the behaviour of particular individuals or groups, or look to our governments and political leaders to act. And, to be sure, activism and politics will always have a crucial role to play, and these challenges will require principled political leadership. But we tend to overlook the extent to which politicians too are players within a complex game: hemmed-in by constraints and incentives of their own. We like the idea that there is someone, somewhere to blame, but no one thinks that they are the bad guy. Everyone looks for an ethic to fit their paycheque.

In other words, we tend to overestimate the extent to which our problems are a particular function of particular individuals or groups, and underestimate the extent to which they are a function of the systems themselves; the behaviours they engender, the incentives they create and the markets they shape. It’s not the players, it’s the game. The common functions, infrastructures, standards, protocols, rules and tools that we use to collaborate and compete with each other. They are the pond we all swim in; the field on which the game is played; the white lines on the road.

We can think of these systems as being like the layers of an iceberg, invisible and unseen beneath the foaming surface of events. In the thick of the argument, we usually just take them for granted. And yet they shape almost every aspect of our lives.

Start with almost any question or problem (one of the questions we started with was, ‘Why do wealthy countries have housing crises?’), and start scratching at it. Clear away the noisy oversimplifications, false-framings and first order solutions that shroud it, and start to drill-down, and you begin to build a clearer picture of the systemic drivers underpinning that problem (this often also results in redefining the original problem).

At first, this can seem daunting, because what usually gets revealed is a complex tangle of drivers and dependencies, often arranged into a vicious cycle; a Gordian knot of vested interests. It’s tempting at this point to throw up our hands and say ‘ah, it’s just too complicated’. We realise that no amount of money could solve the problem just by throwing it at it, and in many cases could actually make it much worse.

But there are two things that should stop us from giving up.

First, leverage. Even a tiny shift in the lower layers of a system can cause a seismic change on the surface, or indeed, branch-off a whole new, parallel version of that system, that can exist alongside the old one and, eventually, perhaps even replace it. All we have to do is find and identify the key leverage points.

Second, because as you begin to drill-down into the systems underpinning a particular problem, you quickly realise that the ‘iceberg’ analogy is wrong. These systems are not natural. They are not just there. They are man-made. The platform upon which our society and economy is built is not a naturally-occurring substructure, but a kind of societal operating system; a stack of systems that has been built up over hundreds or thousands of years. They were designed; sometimes gradually, sometimes at specific moments in history, sometimes collectively, sometimes by particular individuals.

And if they were designed, that means they can be redesigned. To quote the late anthropologist David Graeber, “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

The same illustration, only this time it is no longer an iceberg , but a man-made platform floating at sea.

As soon as we recognise that these common operating systems were designed, it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that many of them were designed decades, or even centuries ago. For example, most of the knowledge systems we still rely on today were designed during the Enlightenment in response to the printing press. The limited liability company was designed in the mid 19th century. Our system of land ownership was designed in the 11th century. You get the idea. The vast majority of our systems were literally designed in and for a world totally different to the one in which we now live, according to very different values than the ones we hold today. As the historian James Burke put it:

“We live with institutions that were created in the past, using the technology of the past, to solve the problems of the past according to the values of the past.”

Or to put it another way: our institutional operating system is running obsolete code. These outdated legacy systems are hitting up against the challenges, technology and values of the 21st century; and they are failing.

This is not to say that no systems-level innovation is happening. In fact, uneven systems change is arguably part of the issue. As the economist Mariana Mazzucato describes in her book The Entrepreneurial State, In the middle part of the 20th century, governments invested heavily into innovation programmes that led to rapid advances in computing, and led ultimately to the creation of satellite navigation, the internet and (indirectly) the world wide web. This transformed our information and communications systems in ways we are still trying to fully make sense of today. The problem is that this transformation has been extremely uneven. Also, it has not been followed-up with equivalent open systems innovation at other layers of the stack. As a result, we find ourselves using 21st century information systems that are underpinned by 19th century models of ownership, governance and accountability. The results are roughly similar to what one might expect if you were to bolt a jet engine onto the Wright Brothers’ glider. We have used the web to create Twitter, but its inherent purpose is to increase clicks, not to help the world argue better. We have used the web to make it effortlessly easy to order ice cream macchiato, but not to improve how government works.

It’s time to upgrade our common systems; to apply our ingenuity and effort not just to making money while the ship sinks, but to researching, designing, testing and deploying new ways of organising ourselves. Ways that better align with our common values; that shape new, prosperous markets; and give us the economic platform we need to succeed, instead of sleepwalking into decline and fail.

This inevitably raises the question: who is responsible for imagining and building these common operating systems? We tend to think of the state as being responsible for setting open standards, chartering institutions and creating new public infrastructures. And certainly, the state has been hugely important in providing funding and space for open innovation — sometimes by accident whilst in pursuit of other strategic social goals. But the organs of the state are not really designed to foster left field thinking and experimental R&D into new ways of doing things. So historically, many open system innovations have tended to come from civic entrepreneurs and inventors, and only later been adopted or used by the state, once already proven to work.

But this does not mean that ‘the market’ knows how to support this kind of innovation either. Sometimes, whether through collaboration or imitation, companies do work together to create common systems and solutions, but it is sadly rare, and private companies are notoriously bad at contributing to the costs of maintaining the free, open infrastructure upon which their fortune relies. It’s something to do with not having to. It’s quite hard to stand up in front of your shareholders and explain that you’re paying-in for something that you could be getting for free.

When private companies do invest to build new common systems, it is often on a precondition of proprietary ownership, for the purpose of yielding profit, and backed by venture capital. This comes with all the distortions you would imagine it to when it comes to purpose, trust and accountability. In the winner-takes-all commercial environment of the web, it usually results in one of three outcomes: either the investors become impatient, and the venture burns out, or they get hungry and pivot the venture towards something more lucrative, or the venture succeeds, resulting in a private company holding a monopoly over a public commons. Soon enough, the original founders are squeezed-out, and with them the original civic purpose of the venture.

In practice, open systems seem to come from another space, one that is neither of the state nor of the market. So it is no great surprise that most successful open systems are backed by non-profit organisations and/or open communities of volunteers. Think Wikimedia Foundation, Linux Foundation, Mozilla Foundation, World Wide Web Consortium, USB-IF, Creative Commons, Lifebox...

The obvious problem then is that the level of investment-into (and knowledge sharing around) open system innovation is absurdly small, relative to its importance. When confronted with these everyday crises and contradictions, everyone is increasingly willing to say ‘it’s a systemic issue’, but it is no one’s job to try to actually try to change those systems or build better ones. The private sector think it is the public sector’s job, the public sector think it is the private sector’s job. So it seems to fall down the gap between the sectors — the crack in the sofa.

And yet it is down that crack in the sofa where — we believe — the solutions to our most intractable social, environmental and economic challenges are to be found. To borrow a turn of phrase from Churchill: first we shape our systems, thereafter they shape us.

1/2

This is the first of two pieces about Open Systems Lab and what we’re trying to do. In the second, I will try to unpack our approach to ‘how’ we’re trying to design, test and deploy better systems in the messy, everyday world of trying to build stuff (a kind of OSL playbook).

Systems designer. Co-founder Open Systems Lab.