Upgrade! Decision Making in a Distributed Network

Winter Camp

In the previous two days, after having discussed their identity, mission, core values, and crises, the sixteen members of Upgrade! gathered this morning with several issues on their agenda, which have not yet been touched upon this week at Winter Camp: collaborative tools and managing collaborative tools, lists and managing lists, and the decision making process. The discussion about potential models of network organization was combined with discussing the upcoming event organized with the assistance of Upgrade! International in Sao Paolo.

Upgrade! defines itself as a decentralized, non-hierarchical network of currently thirty local nodes, which started in 1999 in New York City. It seems to me rather that the network has a distributed structure, considering that all the locally defined nodes are equal and autonomous. The network structure fundamentally defines the decision making process. While the network maintained a quite democratic mode of organization and decision making so far, this model has its weaknesses as well. Not all the members felt motivated to contribute in the decision making process by voting at the right time. A potential solution that has been discussed during the group meeting today was voting versus mandate, or a combination of the two, according to the various circumstances. In situations which require higher effectiveness over a short period of time, the democratic procedure would be ‘sacrificed’ in order to meet deadlines and objectives, and the decision power would be delegated to a smaller representative group. As a matter a fact, working in smaller groups has proven to be an effective method to reach results also during work at Winter Camp.

Winter Camp

A vulnerable point with which the network seems to be confronting at this moment is the decision making process, reason for which changing the currently used collaborative tools: mailing list, wiki, website, has been considered. There seemed to be an oscillation between working in a democratic manner, and giving people clear responsibilities and mandates to work on.

An important value for a distributed network like Upgrade! is transparency. Introducing a wiki as communication platform is a way to achieve transparency and avoid isolation of the local nodes.

The growing number of group members might also turn into a vulnerability of the network unless the mode of organization is adapted. An important point of discussion of Upgrade! at Winter Camp was precisely how the growth of the network should be approached and how membership should be defined. Since the network does not impose constraints of activity on its nodes, each of the nodes has the freedom to be active or passive. The nodes may be inactive until an activity of local interest determines the engagement of the node and consequently the network’s support. The weakness of this approach is that it is difficult to distinguish between temporarily idle nodes and ‘retired’ nodes, therefore it is difficult for the network to have an account of who it can count on.

The local nodes are connected in an online global network that meets twice a year. The question arose of how to activate the nodes and make them more efficient without imposing constraints on them. The network does not seem to have a set of predefined norms to regulate the interaction between nodes. The conditions of participation in local events are established ad hoc and depend on the circumstances of each event and the needs of the local host, as it had been evident from the discussion regarding the organization of their upcoming event in Sao Paolo.

The group also noticed a difference of involvement between generations of nodes. The old nodes seemed to be more involved and dedicated than the new ones. This situation may be connected with the fact that an important value on which the foundation of the network was based, and which guided their relations was friendship. Now that the network is growing and more nodes are being attached, the strategy of accepting new members might change from friendship to more formal criteria.

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