Several years ago, my friend and now collaborator Beth Noveck began developing a program that she called Peer-to-Patent, a software platform that allowed outside experts and informed amateurs to contribute to the prior art discovery phase of patent review, both through tracking down earlier inventions that might be relevant, and through explaining those inventions to the overwhelmed examiner in the patent office. (As late as 2009, the blacklog of unreviewed applications in the US Patent Office had reached 1.2 million.) Based on its success in reducing the backlog (now down to 600,000 applications) and expanding the range of discovery, the U.S. patent office last year launched a full-scale version, "Patent Exchange," that allows citizens to participate in every patent under review. Pilots of Peer-to-Patent have also been launched in the U.K., Japan and Australia. Noveck herself went on to oversee the Open Government Initiative in the first years of the Obama Administration.
Peer-to-Patent stands as one of my favorite examples of peer progressive thinking at work. It brings in outside minds not directly affiliated with the government to help the government solve the problems it faces, effectively making a more porous boundary between citizen and state. Just as Kickstarter widens the network of potential funders for creative work, Peer-to-Patent widens the network of discovery and interpretation, bringing in people who do not necessarily have the time or the talent to become full-time examiners, but who have a specific form of expertise that makes them helpful to some patent cases. Yet it is clearly not some kind of stealth libertarianism: the state function of reviewing and approving patents remains vital; Peer-to-Patent simply creates a channel through which outside experts can help the state do its job better. And its implementation was not just a case of social media me-tooism -- “let’s put the patent office on Facebook!” -- but a carefully crafted program focused on genuine results.
I say all this to explain why I’m excited to be flying to NY tonight to help Noveck with her latest project, the Governance Lab at NYU, an extended, multidisciplinary investigation in new forms of participatory governance, backed by the Knight Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. (They’re holding a two-day conference Thursday and Friday that should be fascinating.) I wrote Future Perfect in large part to capture all the thrilling new experiments and research into peer collaboration that I saw flourishing all around me, and to give those diverse projects the umbrella name of peer progressivism so that they could be more easily conceived as a unified movement. But I also wrote the book with the explicit assumption that we had a lot to learn about these systems. For starters, peer networks take a number of different forms: crowdfunding projects like Kickstarter are quite different from crowd-authored projects like open source software or Wikipedia; prize-backed challenges are a completely different beast altogether. For movement-building, it’s important to stress the commonalities between these different networks, but for practical application, we need to study the distinctions. And we need to avoid the easy assumption that decentralized, peer-based approaches will always outperform centralized ones.
One of the key values of peer progressivism is intellectual and professional diversity; groups that draw on different conceptual frameworks consistently outperform more single-minded groups. I’ve tried to live by those values in my own work -- diving into long-form historical studies, covering contemporary science or popular culture, building web platforms -- and the GovLab has been conceived in very much the same spirit. We need academic research from political science and other disciplines to make sense of these new opportunities, but we also need the invaluable experience of tech-sector innovators who have built these kinds of platforms. And we need a close engagement with political leaders and activists who understand the problems -- and opportunities -- of today’s governance more clearly than anyone. GovLab is going to be the point of intersection between those three essential fields. Beth talks about GovLab triggering a shift from “faith-based” explorations of participatory governance to an “evidence-based” model. That’s a transformation that I think we’re all ready to make. Part of my involvement will be trying to synthesize and share what the group ends up discovering -- and what we end up trying to build. So stay tuned. We may need your help!