This month’s Frame: boundary objects and decentralised innovation
A framework that explains how innovation develops in groups collaborating without consensus.
Over the past couple of decades the world has been enamoured by a Silicon Valley startup approach to innovation. An entrepreneur comes up with an idea, gets funding to develop it, finds an audience and scales it. It’s a world view which lionises founders as heroes—the ultimate source of technology innovation in culture—and represents a picture of how innovation happens that is both linear and hierarchical.
Recently confidence in this view has started to deteriorate. Stock prices have gone down, with many believing that the last decade or so of unprecedented tech growth may be over. Tech companies and founders who were once lauded are now the subject of increasingly regular critique. Meanwhile, Web3 technologies are emerging as a compelling cultural movement that appears to unite the disparate interests of financial speculators, independent artists and democratic activists. Beyond the hype, the current activity around Web3 suggests the beginning of a shift into a new paradigm.
One particularly interesting aspect of this new paradigm is to look at its impact on innovation. Put simply, where Web2 was based on the idea that you build it and then find an audience, with Web3 first you find an audience and then build it together. It’s a reality which is incompatible with a top down view of innovation. We need new ways to think about how innovation will develop.
One theory that can provide a new lens is the concept of “boundary objects”. Introduced by Star and Griesemer (1989), a “boundary object” is something which belongs to different social worlds while at the same time having a shared value. Crucially, its meaning in the shared space is vague. The object is plastic enough to adapt to local needs but robust enough to maintain a common identity across groups.
A “boundary object” must meet 3 criteria:
Interpretative flexibility—people can understand it to mean different things
Practical value—different groups derive value and use from it
Translocal meanings—it shifts back and forth between specific meanings in local contexts to a fuzzy meaning in a shared context
The theory arose from studying a 19thC natural history museum ecology. In that example, the “boundary objects” included animal specimens, field notes and maps of the territories where they were collected. A diverse group of actors—such as trappers selling specimens for money, amateur naturalists collecting them as a hobby and museum scientists aiming to gather rich sources of data—cooperated to develop the museum collection despite having divergent interests.
Treating the artefacts as “boundary objects” enabled these disparate groups to collaborate without reaching consensus about why they were important. In fact effective collaboration was only possible because the individual interests and agency of each group were not compromised.
Using the framework
The concept of “boundary objects” is useful when considering how innovation might happen in today’s cultural context—the current activity around Web3 provides an illustrative example. Many of the people investing their time and money into Web3 share common but fuzzy values around the importance of owning your data, retaining autonomy and being rewarded for the value you create.
In practice what this means looks very different within the different Web3 communities, such as Ethereum building decentralised finance, Songcamp experimenting with headless bands and Aragon creating tools for DAOs. However the sum of these divergent efforts is producing technology, infrastructure and governance innovations that have the potential to shape the future of the Internet.
Rather than thinking of a startup founder as the prime mover in developing and profiting from a new idea, we can instead conceive of new concepts as developed in collaboration between many different groups who operate without consensus while still sharing in the value created. Tech companies are one player in this overall ecosystem. This approach can help make sense of disparate stakeholders—users, influencers, developers, investors, marketers—and allow them to work better together.
“Boundary objects” therefore provide a compelling alternative to the narrative of a superstar founder with a clearly articulated vision. They allow disparate groups to collaborate around emergent ideas without hierarchy or alignment. It’s an approach to innovation that is better adapted to a world that places increasing value on autonomy and agency.
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Agile teams, submissive organisations.
Thank you to everyone who participated in our recent webinar on Agile. If you couldn't attend, you can watch the recording here, or read the 2 part write up of our research: What we talk about when we talk about agile and Why agile organisations are so submissive.