Public Problem Solving

Geocracy 8 min read
Designed by Erik Gunnar Asplund.
Photographer: Paul Povoroznuk | Source: Unsplash

Crisis needs community, or as the old saying goes: we hang together or we'll surely hang separately. Whether it's a viral epidemic or climate change, the quality of our response to a societal crisis depends on the strength and depth of our communities: their capacity for compassion, for adaptive leadership and the resources they bring to the problem.

There's an alternative: let the state take charge. That might be a good solution in countries such as China where the state's legitimacy as an unchallenged power is closely linked to its effectiveness (real or perceived) at addressing systemic challenges. It's not clear India has that kind of state capacity - instead civil society will have to work closely with the state apparatus to ensure there isn't a massive human catastrophe, either because of the crisis itself or its aftermath. In any case, people want to help and building their capacity to do so is a good idea independent of the services that formal institutions are tasked with delivering.

Which is why the outpouring of volunteer and nongovernmental activity during the COVID19 crisis is heartening. From volunteers distributing necessities to those in need to crowdsourcing data on the course of the disease, citizens are coming together in amazingly creative ways. But the crisis will stretch across months - perhaps years - well after those of us with salaries return to their jobs or find a new one. In contrast, millions of migrant labourers may never be able to go back to the already constrained opportunities they had. We need the stamina and the organization to stay the course. That's where Public Problem Solving (PPS) can help aggregate our talents and wisdom.

Public Problem Solving: The self-organized, coordinated, open and democratic delivery of goods in the public interest.

Each one of the four qualifiers serves a special purpose:

  1. Self-organized: as in emerging bottom-up from individuals and institutions on the ground rather than mandated by the state. A group of doctors and engineers figuring out how to test people on the cheap is self-organization while the health ministry procuring masks is not.
  2. Coordinated: a small citizen's group will do well to focus on one service (say, distributing food to elderly citizens living alone) but a crisis needs and demands change by the day. The same elderly citizens may also have to be transported to a hospital. It's important that small teams work closely with others who provide complementary services and create a common pool of information that helps the care system as a whole.
  3. Open: Normally, organizations have an agenda on which they work in isolation. If I am running a school, I spend my days teaching students and only peripherally concern myself with what's happening in other schools. In a crisis, we have to come together to solve problems as a community in contact with other communities. Schools might have to combine their resources in order to create and launch online learning solutions for their students and share best practices on what learning models work best.
  4. Democratic: It's not enough to deliver public services but to respect the dignity of those who are being so provided. Further, communities banding together to address the needs of fellow citizens act as an assertion of democratic rights and helps check the state's unchecked increase in power that comes along with any crisis.

The COVID19 crisis gives us an opportunity to build a platform for PPS that will be needed on many other occasions in the turbulent 21st century.

Public Problem Solving seeks to change the world, not just study it.

Which means that PPS looks for models that give us a handle on transforming the world, i.e., cognitive toolkits.

Cognitive Toolkits

Unlike simple problems, complex systems challenges can't be totalized, i.e., captured within one comprehensive framework that takes care of the essential features and the prominent exceptions. Instead, we should be looking for cognitive toolkits, i.e., a cluster of loosely coupled models (tightly coupled if we are lucky) that help us adaptively transition from thought to action and back in fast moving cycle.

It's a bit like the seven blind men and the elephant. Theories are good when we know it's either a rope or a tree - perhaps it's a tree with a vine creeping around it? - and we want to figure out which one of the two is more likely to be the underlying truth. In our situation, arguing with one another whether it's a rope or a tree is counterproductive, and it's really counterproductive to argue about what kind of rope it is, a sturdy cotton cable or a smooth silken thread.

Instead, we should shift perspectives fluidly and equally importantly, grasp the underlying reality in a manner that you can make a difference. It doesn't matter whether it's an elephant or a horse or a tiger as long as you know how to ride it. Therefore, we should be looking for models that give us deep insight into the systemic challenges without any claim to being comprehensive.

Let's call these models "Keystone Models."

The Timeline

Photographer: Alex Jones | Source: Unsplash

A keystone model for the COVID19 crisis is the timeline: when did the disease break out in a community and how fast is it spreading? When will it peak? What will the burden on the health system be at that time? Can we make the response easier to manage by flattening the curve? What's the best way to do so: lockdown or social distancing? If a lockdown, for how long? How do we feed and shelter people losing livelihoods during the lockdown?

All of these questions are arranged on a timeline of events with interactions - most of the time we can only assert the order of events with any certainty, the exact size or impact of an event may remain unknown. We are beginning to create a timeline for the COVID19 crisis in India.

This timeline is a work in progress and we will continue to update it as learn more and new events come into the picture. Nevertheless, even at this stage, it's worth calling out that we are tracking several threads simultaneously: the outbreak of the disease itself, but also what's happening to the food system (such as the Kharif crop harvesting) and what's happening to the economy.

A partner who is a farmer mentioned in a call today that it took his son three days to find a buyer for a truckload of potatoes in Delhi. Restaurants aren't buying, companies aren't buying so the market has greatly slowed. That's a problem for the landowning farmers. If those farmers can't find buyers, they won't hire labourers to harvest their produce, which means those migrant labourers won't have an income. The cascade of economic effects is likely to be as important as the disease itself.

How can civil society respond to these nested tragedies?
One response: through nested timelines.
Photographer: Thomas Kinto | Source: Unsplash

We carry many timelines with us. There's a global timeline that we all share: the day when the lockdown ends, the day when a vaccine is trialed and so on. Then there are timelines that matter to one sector more than others: if I'm in the health sector, the timeline for community transmission is crucial; less so if I'm working on funding migrant labourer families. Finally there's a timeline for my organization: if I am checking on elderly individuals or couples in Indira Nagar, I need to keep track of disease reports in the area and in Bangalore in general, but the larger course of the disease may not be relevant to me.

The nested timeline is a mental map of the crisis; however, it's not just a subjective map that's private to me or my organization. It's a shared map, and the advantage of opening up the map to others with overlapping responsibilities is clear: it facilitates joint action when that's needed and it aggregates information from different viewpoints, allowing the elephant to emerge out of the trees.

Timelines in Practice

While timelines as an organizing tool are attractive in principle, we need to figure out if they are good models in practice. Now that we are all stuck to our screens, the only way to test the idea with others is to organize an online session on "thinking with timelines." The goal of such a session is simple:

  1. Invite a group of people interested in doing something about the COVID19 crisis into a common online space.
  2. Introduce timelines as a way of structuring our response to the crisis.
  3. Start with data as an honest broker of complexity
  4. Engage participants in a sensorial exercise to evoke feelings and experiences that are hard to capture with data
  5. Have a structured exercise that asks us to make our future responses explicit.
  6. Ask participants to step into a leadership role where they take ownership of future actions.

We organized a "thinking with a timeline" experiment to test the usefulness of a timeline. We didn't get to all the steps above (points 5-6 above are yet to be implemented) but we still covered quite a bit. A link to a video recording of the session is given below:

This was a first experiment so we have many kinks to iron out such a:

  • Can we create a programmatic way of narrowing the timeline to events that matter to your organization or group?
  • Can we build scenarios for when events across different threads interact with each other - for example, what will happen when monsoon rains and flooding make social distancing hard?

I will be conducting several more iterations of the timeline space over the coming weeks, refining the flow and adding more features (like the above two). If you’re interested in participating in one or helping out in some fashion (which you might be, if you have read so far!), then let me know.

Pandemics India Data design COVID19