Sunday, September 21, 2008

Architecture, operating systems, codes

1) The September issue of Alliance has a a must-read article calling for a new architecture for philanthropy ("A New Architecture is Needed, Olivier Kayser). Among other ideas, the author looks at the changing market of intermediaries and the role that competitive incentives might play in how foundations operate. As he notes, in a business where the barriers to entry are low and the costs of failure are nil, the pressures to excel are few. I agree with this, noting that since it is almost impossible to put a foundation out of business also means there are no systemic incentives for them to accomplish anything.

2) There is a meeting in NY in October, which I regret being unable to attend, to discuss a new operating system for philanthropy. I like this metaphor, as it alludes to a lot of the open/open source elements of philanthropy I've written about.

3) I first became a fan of Larry Lessig's work because I saw a parallel between his discussion of the changes created by digital technology and the need for a new code to protect creativity, and kinds of thinking that could identify a similarly catalytic change in philanthropy. This led me to think about a new code for philanthropy and heavily influenced my writing and work about the role of data and knowledge in driving philanthropic capital markets. I think new systems of knowledge sharing are key to a new code for philanthropy.

Whether the metaphor in use is architectural, infrastructure, or software system-based it is interesting to note the (admittedly small, but growing) chorus of voices looking for fundamental shifts in philanthropy. Whether or not these voices are all seeking to solve the same problem set is one question, regardless of what method or metaphor gets used.

Another key possibility of these inquiries is that they will serve not to answer the question - but to attract other, better, newer thinkers to the table and potential answers. This would be similar to the role that the Dow Jones Index plays in the financial market - as a tool in and of itself it is widely understood to be terribly flawed. Ironically, then, its value comes not so much from its own role as market measure but from the fact that its ubiquity forces us to seek stories that can explain its shifts (a good example of why we need both qualitative and quantitative measures). Second, its flaws makes room for other, better indices to come into being - thus improving our overall tool set of measures. I wrote about these unintended effects of the Dow over on JustMeans/All Things Reconsidered.

So it is worth (re)considering that perhaps none of these architectural/operating system/code discussions will provide the answer - but they might make room for lots of other inquiries - the sum of which might be actual improvement.

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