Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Wikinomics

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D Williams is published by Atlantic Books, priced £16.99.

making things requires collaboration, and finding and linking up all the people who need to collaborate costs money. Companies emerge when it becomes cheaper to gather people, tools and material under one roof, rather than to go out looking for the best deal every time you need a few hours' labour, or a part for a car. But the internet, Tapscott argues, is radically lowering the cost of collaborating. Companies - certainly big companies - are losing their raison d'etre. Individuals, and tiny companies, can collaborate without corporate behemoths to organise them. Considering how many of us spend our weekdays working for big companies, and then spend our weekends giving our money to them, this is a far-reaching thought.

In "The Economy of Cities" Jane Jacobs discussed how cities emerged as economic engines. They made cooperation possible. Right wing economic theorists got misled by their misunderstanding of Darwin. They thought (and many still think) that competition and the "survival of the fittest" was the natural model for the economy. But what Darwin noticed, and they didn't, was that it was not always the biggest and strongest that survived. It was the ones that were most adaptable. And often, co-dependency turned out to be a good survival strategy. The little birds that clean the hippo's teeth do well, but so do the hippos. Darwin noticed a very oddly shaped orchid and deduced that there must be an equally oddly shaped insect to fertilise it. A hundred years later, that insect was identified.

Right now some of the largest, most vertically integrated companies on the planet are having a hard time surviving. GM, Ford and Chrysler. That is because they are having as hard a time adapting to changing circumstances as the dinosaurs did. The first mammals were small and apparently insiginificant. As were the disease microbes. And the coral.

Awareness of what is going on around you is the first requirement. And even if you can't change that, you can change your own response to it. And co-operation is a much more robust strategy since it spreads risk widely. Just like that financial innovation that emerged in a London coffee shop: the re-insurance market.

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