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Designing for the phase change: Local communities and shared infrastructure

8 November 2011 508 views 3 Comments
Pink crystal.

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Michael Nielsen‘s talk at Science Online was a real eye opener for many of us who have been advocating for change in research practice. He framed the whole challenge of change as an example of a well known problem, that of collective action. How do societies manage big changes when those changes often represent a disadvantage to many individuals, at least in the short term. We can all see the global advantages of change but individually acting on them doesn’t make sense.

Michael placed this in the context of other changes, that of countries changing which side of the road they drive on, or the development of trade unions, that have been studied in some depth by political economists and similar academic disciplines. The message of these studies is that change usually occurs in two phases. First local communities adopt practice (or at least adopt a view that they want things changed in the case of which side of the road they drive on) and then these communities discover each other and “agglomerate”, or in the language of physical chemistry there are points of nucleation which grow to some critical level and then the whole system undergoes a phase change, crystallising into a new form.

These two phases are driven by different sets of motivations and incentives. At a small scale processes are community driven, people know each other, and those interactions can drive and support local actions, expectations, and peer pressure. At a large scale the incentives need to be different and global. Often top down policy changes (as in the side of the road) play a significant role here, but equally market effects and competition can also fall into place in a way that drives adoption of new tools or changes in behaviour. Think about the way new research techniques get adopted: first they are used by small communities, single labs, with perhaps a slow rate of spread to other groups. For a long time it’s hard for the new approach to get traction, but suddenly at some point either enough people are using it that its just the way things are done, or conversely those who are using it are moving head so fast that everyone else has to pile in just to keep up. It took nearly a decade for PCR for instance to gain widespread acceptance as a technique in molecular biology but when it did it went from being something people were a little unsure of to being the only way to get things done very rapidly.

So what does this tell us about advocating for, or designing for, change. Michael’s main point was that narrow scope is a feature, not a bug, when you are in that first phase. Working with small scale use cases, within communities is the way to get started. Build for those communities and they will become your best advocates, but don’t try to push the rate of growth, let it happen at the right rate (whatever that might be – and I don’t really know how to tell to be honest). But we also need to build in the grounding for the second phase.

The way these changes generally occur is through an accidental process of accretion and agglomeration. The phase change crystallises out around those pockets of new practice. But, to stretch the physical chemistry analogy, doesn’t necessarily crystallise in the form one would design for. But we have an advantage, if we design in advance to enable that crystallisation then we can prepare communities and prepare tooling for when it happens and we can design in the features that will get use closer to the optimum we are looking for.

What does this mean in practice? It means that when we develop tools and approaches it is more important for our community to have standards than it is for there to be an effort on any particular tool or approach. The language we use, that will be adopted by communities we are working with, should be consistent, so that when those communities meet they can communicate. The technical infrastructure we use should be shared, and we need interoperable standards to ensure that those connections can be made. Again, interchange and interoperability are more important than any single effort, any single project.

If we really believe in the value of change then we need to get these things together before we push them too hard into the diverse set of research communities where we want them to take root. We really need to get interoperability, standards, and language sorted out before the hammer of policy comes down and forces us into some sort of local minimum. In fact, it sounds rather like we have a collective action problem of our own. So what are we going to do about that?

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  • Jack Pincus

    Taking an all-or-none approach to change is rearely effective and increases steadfast opposition.  Finding an element of the change that people can agree on and building from there is more effective.  Most change movements choose the former and find that success is elusive.

  • David Baker

    Thanks for this post. You say that adopting interchange and interoperability standards early will help seed/accelerate the agglomeration of these distributed local change-nodes. I agree. But often to get a community to ‘think standards’ when working locally requires change in itself. I am biased towards standards but I’m glad to see this focus highlighted.