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Last Updated: Friday, 15 July, 2005, 07:19 GMT 08:19 UK
Co-opting the creative revolution
By Jo Twist
BBC News science and technology reporter

Digital technology is providing people with the tools to produce and share content like never before, and it is set to throw the relationship between them and institutions into turmoil, say experts.

Leading digital thinker Clay Shirky
Shirky talks of an explosion of creative collaboration
"I am predicting 50 years of chaos," says leading digital thinker Clay Shirky. "Loosely organised groups will be increasingly given leverage.

"Institutions will come under increasing degrees of pressures and the more rigid they are, the more pressures they will come under.

"It is going to be a mass re-adjustment," he says, addressing delegates at the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Oxford, UK.

TED brings together experts in design, technology, and entertainment to share their ideas about the future.

In our hands

At a time when companies are grappling with how to make cool new stuff, it is the rising tide of creative collaborators working through the channel and tools of the net that is showing the way ahead.

This is not a new trend, explains Tony Blair's favourite political analyst and author Charles Leadbeater.

Online encyclopaedia Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales
Wales' Wikipedia shows distributed group of people can work effectively
The mountain bike was created out of the frustrations of a few northern Californians who were dissatisfied with ordinary bikes and racers.

They took what they wanted from those to create something entirely different.

This was 10 to 15 years before the big companies saw the commercial value, explains Mr Leadbeater. About 65% of bike sales in the US are mountain bikes now.

"It is when the net combines with these passionate consumers that you get the explosion of creative collaboration," says Mr Leadbeater.

"Out of that you get the need for better organisations; how do you organise yourself without organisation?"

It is indeed a challenge getting a very large, distributed group of people to work in an effective, valuable, collaborative way, says Mr Shirky.

But efforts such as the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia show that people power can and does work.

It is not just a community that runs wild. There are volunteers and voting systems in place to ensure accuracy and decency.

Its founder, Jimmy Wales, is the "monarch" who will take tough decisions if need be, though this has not happened very often.

Power of the masses

Just because something is created by anyone with a net connection and some sort of know-how, existing outside of formal, does not make it any less accurate or useful, say the digital thinkers of our times.

"For the first time since the industrial revolution, the most important means and components of core economies are in the hands of the population at large," explains Yale Law professor Yochai Benkler.

Computation, in other words, is in the hands of the entire population. And those computing tools are getting easier to use, more approachable, as well as more powerful.

Political analyst and author Charles Leadbeater
If you are a games community with a million players, you only need one percent to be co-developers. Imagine that working in education, or the NHS
Charles Leadbeater
Blogging, services, tag-based applications to help people find content, peer-to-peer ways of distributing content, grid computing, open source software, are all examples of how this is happening online now.

Ordinary people can become photographers whose images are used all over the world, for instance.

Tagging them with keywords helps others find and classify them usefully.

This act of tagging does not require swathes of trained librarians.

What these power tools enable is the ability for people with small ideas to make them real, share them, and let them grow.

But this philosophy has many big companies jittery. There are obstacles to overcome.

This is what creativity is about, but Mr Leadbeater argues there is a further challenge in thinking about how creativity comes about.

It is not about creative people hired by big companies wearing colourful baseball caps, thinking up whacky ideas in an office with grass for a carpet, he says.

Professor Benkler describes this as a new "transactional framework" if you speak economics.

In other words, it is essentially the first system of social production, sharing and exchange for a long time that is actually making companies sit up and listen, because they have to.

Money and communities

Big companies are now seeing the economic opportunity of this kind of open, collaborative production, by the people, making social production a fact and not just a fad.

Mr Leadbeater's job is to work out how these new ways of working can be embraced as part of public policy, where people get something back - not necessarily in monetary form - for what they contribute.

"It is about companies built on communities; the company provides the community with the tools it needs," he says.

"If you are a games community with a million players, you only need one percent to be co-developers. Imagine that working in education, or the NHS.

"Some sort of middle ground is going to be the most productive."

As for the next 50 years, it is up to the generation which has no idea what a real library looks like inside to decide how it will work out, says Mr Shirky.

Our entire approach to patents and intellectual property and innovation so far has been based on the idea that the inventor tells us what something is for, says Mr Leadbeater.

That has to change; patents and copyright have to move with that and be about orchestrating that creativity rather than smothering it.

To Mr Shirky, there is one thing we can do now: "Since we can see it is coming, we might as well get good at it."

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