Open Collectives: transforming our cities from the bottom-up

For anyone who has ever wanted to start a project and struggled to find support or didn’t know where to start please keep reading. For anyone who wonders the role citizens have in the transformation of cities, this article is for you. In the run-up to the OuiShare Fest Paris, Antonin Léonard interviewed Xavier Damman, the founder of Open Collective, a platform helping people with common goals to collectively finance projects in full transparency.

Xavier Damman

Started publicly only in 2016, today it has almost 200 open source collectives around the world which have raised more than $200k. This platform broadens for more citizen-led initiatives to quickly address collective problems and contribute to the development of cities.

How can citizen-led initiatives have more influence shaping cities?

Xavier Daman: For me, a city is like the internet: a public infrastructure to which citizens are invited to contribute with content. Today, contributing to your city feels like creating a website in 1990: it requires a lot of work and specialised knowledge not related to the content. These are ultimately distractions and barriers blocking innovation.  

What we need to do to reinvent our cities is to do the same we did with the internet. Year after year, we made it easier and easier for people to contribute and be a part of it.  Because the simpler we make it, the more people will be able to contribute, and the more amazing things we’ll have.

What will be the role of institutions if everyone has access to the tools needed to contribute in their cities the way they want?

X.D: I see policymakers and existing institutions like Microsoft Windows. They are operating in a different paradigm, so they just don’t understand us. I think the best they can do, is actually do less and get out of the way. Microsoft got eventually pushed out of the way to let the internet develop and web browsers to evolve. At the beginning, they were not happy, but in the end, we managed to move beyond the paradigm of closed systems and we created this new connected world, where anyone can contribute, anybody can view the source code to learn and improve it. Basically, we need to create the browser on top Windows –on top of our institutions– that will allow more citizens to contribute, and then invite them to do so. Because when you contribute to something, you feel it belongs to you, and because you’re part of it, you respect it so much more.

However, I don’t think institutions are going to disappear. Just like Microsoft is still around, they are going to find a place in the background. What I think they need to do is welcome those new platforms because it’s in their interest to make it easier for their citizens to contribute. And just like Microsoft did, sooner or later, they are going to have to embrace this new open source movement, and if they do it with transparency, even better.

 I see policymakers and existing institutions like Microsoft Windows. They are operating in a different paradigm, so they just don’t understand us. I think the best they can do, is actually do less and get out of the way.

So what should we do? Focus on ourselves and wait until they join the party?

X.D: Yes. pretty much. And as long as we are focusing on creating value, in doing positive things for society, we will not remain unnoticed for too long. And what people need to understand, is that we have everything we need to be successful. Institutions want us to believe that we need them, but that’s not true. The paradigm that we need to break, especially in European cities, is that a lot of local initiatives still rely on subsidies, which implicitly gives power to old institutions because they have the power to decide which projects get funded or not. So we need to rely much more on crowd-funding; a cultural shift has to happen where people feel more comfortable participating and paying for events created by the new economy to help finance even more projects.

What can the open source movement teach the social and non-profit community?

X.D: The software world has had a tremendous growth in the past years thanks to start-ups and the open source movement. This change of paradigm finally enabled engineers to stop reinventing the wheel every single time. Thanks to platforms like Github, people can access the information they need faster and use their energy and time to improve it and create new things, fostering innovation. I think that paradigm shift of exchanging practices and knowledge will soon get to the social and non-profit world, and it’s much needed.

Sharing knowledge is a must in the 21st century.

We want Open Collective to serve as a structure for any local community to be self-sustainable, find ways to create value and get paid for it in a transparent way. By sharing the practices and experiences of collectives, whenever someone new wants to embark on new projects, they don’t have to start from scratch every time. They rely on the past experiences created by all.

The goal is to turn the race to do good for society into a relay race. We can help each other if we operate in full transparency.

One of the problems I’ve identified, is that once local groups start emerging, they don’t collaborate with each other, what do you think can be done to solve this?

X.D: The way to enable collaboration is to force transparency by design. The problem is not that people don’t want to share or collaborate, is that they don’t have the time to do it. For example, before GitHub, developers couldn’t easily access open source code, but now finding a specific code is easier and faster and if they have questions, they know who to ask them to.

This really highlights what we want to do with Open Collective. By being transparent, each collective is helping the next generation of people wanting to create a similar project. For example, if you want to organise a Hackathon or help refugees in your city, you can look up at all the groups already doing it, learn how they are being financed, how much it costs, etc. So thanks to the access to that information, without needing to contact directly the people involved, you can already learn a lot! That’s what we are trying to do in Brussels with What if instead of having each initiative operate in a silo in their own 20th-century association (in France we call them “Associations de loi de 1901”, that’s almost 100 years BI, Before the Internet), they were all operating as open collectives? We could then all learn from each other and easily reach out to potential contributors, backers and sponsors for any new initiative that needs support!

Don’t you think there is another inherent inequality in this new paradigm? Before you needed to have skills to get money from institutions, but now you need the skills to create communities. What should we do with people that want to contribute, but don’t have the skills to raise funds through Open Collective?

A new place for citizens in cities is emerging (Photo by JR, street artist)

X.D: Like any new paradigm, it’s also going to bring new problems that we will have to address. But as long as it enables many more people to contribute and create new and better things for society than the existing paradigm, then we are on the right path. It’s allowing more people to work on the things they care about. Not everybody is a community leader and not everybody can raise money through crowdfunding, but not everybody has to. Like in any community, there are people who are going to be leaders, other contributors, but everybody has a role to play.

In the face of current global problems, what do you think is the responsibility of cities?

X.D: I am a big believer in cities. The internet unbundles old bundles. It did it with newspapers, the music industry, etc, so it’s no surprise that is now doing it to nation-states. So for me the question is not if, but when and how it will happen. When you unbundle something you go back to the atomic units of production; when it happened to newspapers it meant that journalists started being able to create blogs and publish independently. So we can imagine a similar phenomenon happening to nation states: cities will be able to be much more independent from their parent state.

I believe cities are extremely important, they thrive when they can attract the best talents from all over the world, that’s why they need to be more inclusive, and that’s why they need to remove the barriers of entry to allow their communities to contribute to the richness of cities. With current institutions (especially the ones made mostly of white privileged men), it’s very hard for cities to exploit their full potential. So, we need more diversity and a decentralised decision-making process to move power from the node to the edge of the network. This way you give more opportunities to people to feel part of their local community, otherwise, they are just passive consumers.

People working on this new paradigm feel proud of building this new world, but why do you think they are more reluctant to take action at the political level?

For me, trying to take action in the old political system, is like wanting to become an engineer for Microsoft to work on Windows when Google was starting.

X.D: For me, trying to take action in the old political system, is like wanting to become an engineer for Microsoft to work on Windows when Google was starting. Taking action at the local political level is better. It’s the equivalent of working at Microsoft but on Internet Explorer, so working on the new within the old. The bottom line is that everyone has a role to play, even within existing institutions, so I’m not entirely dismissing them. I’m only saying that the majority of people now think by default that they should fix old systems, and I’m saying that it is time to change gears and start to move beyond the old system. Our current political system is not a universal truth, and I believe the future should be built from the bottom-up. And we start by showing how it can work at local levels, which is already happening. Focus on your local community, focus on where you can actually have an impact, embrace the values of the internet generation of sharing so we can learn from each other.

The problem is that we are still living within old paradigms, old bundles that are not representative of today’s problems nor solutions. So I’m pessimistic in the short term but very optimistic in the long term.

Big paradigm shifts happen during downturns, Google happened in a downturn, for is only during these periods that talents are available to work on things that matter. When everything is going well, people will just work on the new photo sharing app.

Discover more people working on things that matter at OuiShare Fest 2017.