The Context

Today’s society is characterized by a set of complex problems – such as inequality, climate change and affordable access to healthcare – that are seemingly intractable. People have looked to traditional societal institutions – like government agencies and advocacy groups – to tackle these problems, and they have become frustrated by the inability of these institutions to act effectively and legitimately. Unsurprisingly, trust in existing institutions is at an all-time low.

Advances in technology together with new scientific insights on collaboration and decision-making provide for a unique opportunity to redesign our democratic institutions and make them more legitimate and effective. Seizing on this opportunity, leaders and citizens are increasingly collaborating to solve society’s biggest problems. This emerging paradigm is often called “opening governance.”  From prize-backed challenges to spur open innovation, to open data portals that provide programmable government-held information to the business community, to participatory budgeting projects – adopted by 1500 cities around the world – that give citizens direct control over the allocation of a portion of discretionary public funds. This shift from top-down, closed government to decentralized, open and smarter governance may be the major social innovation of the 21st century.

Yet we still know very little about what kinds of innovation work, when, why, and under what conditions. Work on diverse participation, collaboration and complex problem solving has been hampered by a lack of interaction and coordination across traditional disciplinary boundaries. The need for innovation is widely recognized, but meaningful change requires experts in fields as diverse as law, social psychology and computer science to work together instead of within disciplinary siloes.