27 April 2011

Big Ideas on Cooperation

This month's Big Ideas discussion on Cooperation got off to a bad start when the billed speaker, Richard Sennett, failed to show. This left Big Ideas. Nathan Charlton and Rich Cochrane to run the show and it also meant a slightly delayed start while they worked out what to do.

I do not know what direction Richard would have take us but Rich opened up a broad canvass from social technologies to human evolution with lots of points in between.

As a result the discussions wandered in many directions, sometimes simultaneously, and, as a group, we failed to focus on any particular aspect of cooperation, much less get to any sort of agreement on it.

That said, it was a good discussion with many people contributing, including a few newcomers, and nobody hogging the debate.

The experimental twitter stream (#BIGI) was a little thin in Danny's absence but other people besides myself made some contributions. This is what we said:

reesmf Technologies like Twitter and Facebook help us to collaborate but the baddies use it too. #bigi

reesmf Collaboration needs a purpose. #bigi

reesmf Connection is not the same as collaboration. #bigi

reesmf Evolution getting lots of name checks but no votes for Marx so far. #bigi

dannyrye @reesmf tolpuddle martyrs. That's *quite* marxist #bigi

reesmf Big Society is looking to change the social framework within which we collaborate. Better than state diktat. #bigi

reesmf Current NHS framework encourages collaboration on research etc. Proposed changes will prevent this. #bigi

reesmf Are there situations where cooperation is better than competition and can we identify rules for this? #bigi

leighblue #bigi interesting debate on cooperation. Though without a clear question, hard to distinguish between coordination, collaboration and co-op.

A few broad themes emerged during the debate, including frameworks, game theory, evolution and economics.

A framework defines the context within which the cooperation happens. In some cases this is very visible, e.g. Facebook defines what we can do with our connections there, but in society as a whole they can be less obvious and generally fall under the headings of expected or acceptable behaviour.

Game Theory shows us that cooperation can be a winning strategy. Professor Martin Nowak's work got a few mentions here. Somebody (must be an academic) had read his books but you can learn all you need to know about his theories from his recent RSA talk.

The discussions on Evolution and Game Theory were linked (by me!). Evolution is driven by variation which means that various strategies are always in play from the outright selfish to the martyr and Game Theory shows us how different strategies will have prominence at different times.

Not quite sure how, or why, we got on to economics but we spent some time talking about the demutalisation of building societies and the privatisation of BT. I think that Rich made the most interesting point here when he asked if we could be considered to be all cooperating within a competitive market.

Words like "good" and "sinister" got quite a few mentions but we failed to identify any inherent goodness or evil in cooperation or competition. The question that left me with (briefly tweeted above) was whether there are identifiable characteristics of situations where cooperation or competition are clearly the better strategies.

For example, can we prove that the health service needs to be cooperative (so that practitioners can share "best practice") and that car manufacturers need to be competitive to drive innovation.

Having written that, it now occurs to be that a difference (or THE difference?) is in the nature of the customer choice; in health we just want the best care and don't mind who fixes us but with our car we all have different desires.

That sounds like a topic for another debate on another day. Perhaps Richard Sennett will make that one.

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