We’re In This Together: Why Mass Collaboration is Changing Our Approach to Problem Solving in Government

| Although government has always been a platform for collective action, the problem is that it’s never really been an efficient one at connecting people together and scaling their participation in a focused and useful way. For the first time in history, this is changing.

This blog post/essay is a summary of the TEDxHouston talk given on 3 November 2012.  A special thank you to Redbull for use of the image of Felix Baumgarter jumping from the edge of space, to Sam Wilkinson for the picture of himself, to Sally Shintaffer for the use of the image of the elevator in the wheatfield, and to Eric Alder for the use of his image of water on a glass window.

One of the things Astronauts who have had the privilege of traveling to space talk about when they return is what it’s like to see Earth from space. They describe what its like to see the whole world at once, every 90 minutes, and the orbital perspective that this brings. They talk about what it means to live in a world where we are more interconnected and dependent on one another than ever before – how it shifts their thinking. They talk about what Astronaut Rusty Schweikart first observed in 1969 on Apollo 9, a world where our boundaries disappear, our problems overlap and we realize that the solutions are not one nation’s alone.

Although only about 500 people have ever had the chance to physically experience this orbital perspective, thanks to technology, the rest of us are just now starting to share these same experiences. We now live in an age where technology makes it possible that a record-setting eight million of us can watch Felix Baumgartner jump from the edge of space live on the Internet! Today, we can take a photo on Mars and stream it to your mobile device minutes later!

As people around the world become more and more technologically literate, and start to experience this orbital perspective themselves, YOU are not only demanding more participation in government affairs, but YOU are expecting to participate on your terms, using common technology, and with a purpose much bigger then just space exploration. You are not only interested in seeing the problems with government; you actually want the opportunity to help fix them. You are not just calling for greater transparency in government; you are seeking greater participation. Thankfully, technology is opening the doors so that YOU can now collaborate with government to help shape solutions to the grand challenges of our times, the ones that require not only government participation, but participation by all of us.

What this means for governments worldwide is that participation is no longer limited to showing up to vote on election day, sending a letter to your Congressman and hoping for a response, expressing your concern by protesting about your favorite cause, or accepting a government job to be able to make a difference. There are now other ways to participate directly in government.

And what this means for governments at every level – local, state and federal – is simple. Our job is to engage YOU.

Admittedly, doing this has previously been very hard for government. Although government has always been a platform for collective action (at least in the United States), the problem is that it’s never really been an efficient one at connecting people together and scaling their participation in a focused and useful way. But thanks to technology, connecting people to what we do inside government does not have to be complex. It is not rocket science. The formula is simple.

The more we enable people like YOU who fundamentally care about government and want to contribute to the future of our world – the better chance we will ever have in helping our governments live up to their true potential and actually developing solutions to the grand challenges of our time.

Here’s the key. It’s not just about individual participation; it’s about mass collaboration. It’s about creating platforms that allow us to take advantage of the exponential power of what happens when a thousand eyes look at our toughest problems and we collectively develop a solution.

Mass Collaboration is something that is particularly possible today because of the Internet and our place in history. It is technology that really enables the creation and application of ideas at scales previously unimaginable, in a focused way. There are so many good examples of mass collaboration at work today. If masses can peer-produce an operating system, write an encyclopedia or the Icelandic constitution, one should carefully consider what might come next.

I have the privilege of leading a team of entrepreneurs and technologists who are focused on considering what comes next for government, specifically at NASA. We are experimenting with new ways to harness the potential of mass collaboration to help accomplish the impossible mission we have been given. Our goal is to do everything we can to connect YOU to what we are doing, not only to develop new technology, or even solve tough problems, but to fundamentally improve government – to make it more open and participatory.

Recognizing that NASA didn’t really have a way to engage citizens on such a scaled and relevant way, we set off to create one. In 2012, we hosted the first International Space Apps Challenge. It was the largest government-led mass collaboration event to date, and a real testament to what people can do together if given the permission, opportunity and resources. The event demonstrated that thanks largely to the Internet, the kind of creativity and innovation that used to take place primarily behind closed doors within large institutions, is increasingly taking place by people simply connected together online. The solutions developed at the event were so impressive, and the demand to do another event like it so strong, that we have decided to host a second International Space Apps Challenge in April 2013! I encourage you to check it out and get involved.

If space exploration isn’t your thing, or if you are interested in experimenting with the concepts of mass collaboration to help solve the grand challenges most relevant to you, I encourage you to check out another event called the National Day of Civic Hacking. This national collaboration will be held the first weekend in June 2013 and another great opportunity to connect with others just like you from all over the nation, with the simple purpose of working together to improve the cities we live in and the governments that serve them. Our vision is to connect people in at least one city in all 50 states, from Honolulu to New York, from Seattle to Houston. There are already a number of events planned around the nation, with participation by a host of government agencies and private sector organizations, and I encourage you to get involved! To participate is simple, visit hackforchange.org and help plan an event in your city or join one that is already in the works. This is an opportunity for YOU to see the world without borders, to connect with others, to contribute something that matters and to make a difference.

Just imagine what we could do together if we all shared an orbital perspective! We could improve our cities, we could reshape our economy, we could develop new game changing technology, we could improve outdated, outmoded, inefficient government – at all levels. After all, once you see Earth from space, you realize we are all in this together.

I believe governments need to continue to be bold, to take risks, to do what intimidates most others, like when we went to the moon or when we landed a rover on Mars. We need to do the things that not only inspire our nation, but our world. But I also believe that we can’t do this alone. Solving the grand challenges of our time – the one’s that you will tell your grandkids about – will require all of us. NASA’s true potential – any organization’s true potential – will never be unlocked if you only tap the intelligence of those on your payroll. Limiting participation to those inside your organization just doesn’t make sense in the information age. We must enlist anyone willing to contribute the time, talents and resources, to serve alongside us in order to tackling the impossible challenges, both locally and globally.

We truly live in a world today where the possibilities are limited only by our imagination and our will to act and there is no better time than now to get started.

Please join us!


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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=603090601 Anonymous

    Outstanding.

  • http://twitter.com/EricAlder BuddhaRocks

    I really enjoyed your talk, Nick. It’s pleasing to see that the new generation is as enthused about NASA today as my own generation was back when we first landed on the moon. It was a thrill for me to see my photo pop up on that big screen behind you (around the 7:11 mark) and know that all those people were seeing it. (And on my birthday, no less!)

    Glad to be of service to you, and to NASA of course!
    - Eric Alder (BuddhaRocks)

  • http://www.facebook.com/sir.edmond Brent Smith

    Great motivations! Would love to join in the effort(s)!

  • http://twitter.com/jonverve Jon Verville

    Fabulous talk Nick. Love the personal stories and connections. To your challenge: I will join you!