Local lessons on Wikinomics

First published: March 16, 2007

In the book Wikinomics, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams outline a major shift taking place within the global economy. Through the use of mass collaboration, new ways of doing business will surpass the traditional approaches. It is heady stuff. And, it has many implications, not only for major industrial centres in the world, but the context of small rural economies, like Northumberland County.
Some academics like to categorize discussions around the future of the Internet and its influence in two ways: optimists and naysayers. For the optimists, like Tapscott and Williams, the Internet is characterized as a promised land, flowing with milk and honey, solving many of society’s woes. For the naysayer, like the anti-technology Luddites who can’t be bother to learn how to program the clock on the DVD player, the Internet is pure anarchy filled with pornography, racist hate literature, ranting blogs and web sites that teach young people how to build bombs. As is the case so many time, the truth is somewhere inbetween.

However, Tapscott and Williams make a compelling case, saying companies are already making huge sums of money by reaching out over the Internet, allowing countless people an opportunity to share their knowledge, expertise and creativity. The book points to examples like Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia; Linux, an open source software for the web built by thousands of programmers worldwide; MySpace, a social networking website that allows anybody to post just about anything on the Internet for free; and YouTube, a website where people post video. It also cites many cases of companies and people who use Internet technology to reached out, allowing anyone interested to help solve business problems. And, it gives many examples of how traditional business, like the music industry, are being buried by these new paradigms.

There are aspects of this book that are useful to our communities. Within the new business framework, transparency and collaboration are crucial. For local governments and institutions, a lesson can be learned. One example occurred last week when Cobourg Councillor Miriam Mutton sought to open up the budget process a bit wider than normal, seeking more details around the “big picture” of the town’s fiscal status. Naturally, this was met with the traditional answer from one of the old boys club, Deputy Mayor Gil Brocanier: let’s sit down and talk about this rather than debate it in public. No transparency.

And so it goes for so many examples. Take the proposed school closures from the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board. Rather than coming to the community with the problem, the board holds tightly controlled, heavily manipulated “public consultations”. In the world of Wikinomics, the board would lay out all its statistics, all its reports, all its budgets and every single piece of paper. Then, the community could go over every aspect and come up with its own solutions. Maybe they would come to the same conclusion. But Tapscott and Williams argue creative solutions will emerge that nobody ever considered. It is about collaborating with stakeholders.

But, this is a hard shift. It means getting rid of the traditional hierarchy that has held power for so long. It means trusting citizens in a way no modern politicians or institutions like to do. It means treating people like peers rather than as pawns.

There is an endless list: Radioactive waste, The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Local Integrated Health Network, Northumberland County recycling program and on and on. Public meeting after public meeting are held. The results are the same. Each time, citizens are left angry and isolated, feeling left out and unheard. Politicians and bureaucrats are left scratching their heads.

But Tapscott and Williams are not writing about politics (even though many politicians and citizens will tell you government needs to be run like a business). Instead, the book focuses on business. And, here is where we also need to be concerned.

Under the new model of mass collaboration, it means every business and every worker is competing globally. Suddenly, workers are pitted against each other to provide our best ideas and boldest solutions for companies. Everyone is a private contractor. If we are lucky enough to get a contracted job, then we are paid handsomely, according to the authors. But, what happens if we are not the brightest or the most creative? Making a living wage is far more difficult. Wages are kept low because competition is fierce. Corporations can justify this by saying they hire the “best and the brightest” from around the world. We already see its affect as North American software companies hire programmers offshore to write programs at cheaper rates than local experts. The same thing that happened to manufacturing under free trade is happening to knowledge workers in our information society.

Northumberland was hammered under free trade as many companies closed. The local economy struggled back; but it is nowhere near the state it was in before these changes took place. If Tapscott and Williams are right, this next wave may hurt even more. It means little hope for students graduating from local educational institutions or those who live here wanting to work in Northumberland County. And, it means our economic becomes even more reliant on the service industry. It is not a healthy scenario.

So, just like any debate about the Internet, there are good and bad things to take away. We can benefit from transparency and collaboration in our political lives. And, we should be alert for the economic impact on our community. Both sides need to be address.

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