A Touch of Classics on Collaboration

A while ago I read Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens by Josiah Ober, and since then I have been thinking about what it contributes to the ongoing debates about collaboration in the public sector, participatory democracy and even WEB 2.0.

At the risk of being unfair to the monumentality of Ober’s work, I would try to summarize it as a work that, building on analytical tools from institutional design and organized collective action theories, demonstrates how the success of classical Athens was linked to the capacity of its democratic system to leverage the dispersed knowledge of its citizens. Putting it in a more elegant manner “Ober explores the institutional contexts of democratic knowledge management, including the use of social networks for collecting information, publicity for building common knowledge, and open access for lowering transaction costs” (synopsis).

For those who are not interested in reading the entire book, one can get a taste of Ober’s work by reading his article Learning from Athens: Success by design published online by the Boston Review. Here are some extracts:

(…) if democracy is now generally regarded as morally superior to other forms of political organization, its effectiveness in delivering the goods remains a matter of sharp contest. How does democracy fare when it comes to assuring physical security, protecting health, and fostering economic growth? We know, for example, from the economist Amartya Sen that famines are all too common under authoritarian regimes but do not occur in democratic states with a free press. Yet Sen also acknowledges that we do not know the effects of democracy on economic growth: “If all the comparative studies are viewed together, the hypothesis that there is no clear relation between economic growth and democracy in either direction remains extremely plausible” (…) Democracy may be right, then, but is it good? What we know is that some democracies achieve sustained success. As democracy is universalized as an aspiration, it becomes increasingly urgent to understand what sets the successes apart.

(…) Ancient Greek city-states (poleis; singular polis) existed in a highly competitive environment in which failure was severely punished, by loss of independence or even annihilation. Destruction, total or partial, of physical infrastructure (sacking) or population (mass expulsion, extermination, or enslavement) was quite common: between a quarter and a third of the better-documented Greek states are known to have suffered such destruction at some point in their history. Poleis responded to such internal and external threats by experimenting with a variety of constitutional forms, with more and less extensive participation by citizens. (…) Athens, it seems, was successful at least in part because it was democratic. Was there something about the kind of democracy in Athens that distinguished it from the less successful democratic Greek city-states?

(…) In fact, Athenian democracy had a distinctive design principle: it was designed for organizing the dispersed knowledge of citizens. Its central governmental bodies, including the Assembly, enabled an active exchange of useful social and technical knowledge among diverse teams of citizens, promoted learning, and thus improved the chances for innovative and effective policies. And as a balance to innovation, Athenian institutions worked to codify rules, archive information, and standardize proven work routines, thus promoting organizational learning over time. Although the relationship between democracy, knowledge, and practical success is not as widely recognized by modern scholarship as it should be, it did not go unnoticed in Athens. Historians and philosophers—Herodotus and Thucydides as well as Plato and Aristotle—all discussed the distinctive Athenian processes for the collection, coordination, and codification of useful knowledge and associated them with the polis’s success.

Ober’s perspective, even though based on classic Athens, enriches and sheds light on the current debate on collaboration, web 2.0 and related issues – a debate that many times (but not always) is polluted by general assumptions and pseudo-theories that lack any analytical rigor and, contradictorily enough, refrains from building upon existing knowledge, be it classical or contemporary. Ober seems a good antidote to reinventing the wheel.


Ps.: If interested in related subjects join the Participatory Budgeting Facebook group

Pps.: If interested, also read “Beyond Empowerment: Building a Company of Citizens” by Ober himself and Brooke Manville published by the Harvard Business Review.

Pps.: You can read the first chapter of “Democracy and Knowledge” by clicking here.

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