ThinkCycle - Governance

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

ThinkCycle Governance Process

From a case study by Jill Coffin in First Monday, at


"ThinkCycle is an open, Web–based collaborative platform for sustainable design projects. Initiated in 2000 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab doctoral students Ravi Pappu, Saul Griffith, Nitin Sawhney, Yael Macguire, Wendy Plesniak and Ben Vigoda. ThinkCycle seeks to support “distributed collaboration toward design challenges facing underserved communities and the environment" and to create “a culture of open source design innovation" ( ThinkCycle, “About ThinkCycle"). Completed projects include a novel, inexpensive cholera treatment device, a passive incubator for premature infants, bio–sand and ceramic household water filters, and a low cost eyewear micro–manufacturing system.

Cofounder Nitin Sawhney cites the Appropriate Technology Movement of the 1970’s as influential to the foundational mores of ThinkCycle. This movement emphasizes design within a social, economic and political context. It promotes the social and moral responsibilities of designers and considers the protection of socially valuable ideas to be unethical (Sawhney, 2003). Sawhney cites three trends which emerged in the 1990’s which were critical to the creation of ThinkCycle: distributed computing and online communities, global dialog on the digital divide and sustainable development, and intellectual and public domain movements such as the open source movement.

The ThinkCycle process begins with members contributing a design challenge within the domain of sustainable design, underserved communities and the environment. ThinkCycle also solicits design problems from non–governmental organizations and other stakeholders. These challenges are peer–reviewed by domain experts and made available to designers through ThinkCycle. The design processes which unfold on ThinkCycle are transparent and anyone is welcome to register and post ideas, critiques, suggestions and drawings of their own proposed solutions. Domain experts are able to give project advice and help with resources.

Each design challenge has a wiki–like area with sections for discussion, shared team spaces, an open digital publication repository and project archives. ThinkCycle, like Wikipedia, reserves a separate space for discussion. Recognizing that these discussion areas often serve as a forum for free–flow, and at times emotional, dialog, this space is call Soapbox and members are invited to post “rants" here.

ThinkCycle has attributes of an open source community: open dialog, peer review, collaborative, iteratively–clarified artifacts, and foundational developers setting project ethos. ThinkCycle supports to the right to fork by developing open source collaborative problem-solving and design software. On the other hand, while ThinkCycle’s Web–based system has a robust organizational structure, there is a lack of political structure to support the bazaar. ThinkCycle is currently facing the lack of a heavily invested, heavily involved benevolent dictator. ThinkCycle was formed by a group of MIT students who are leaving or have left MIT and the project (ThinkCycle, “Topic: Creating a Sustainable Non–Profit"). The result of open participation without political structure is a lack of peer oversight supporting the collaborative process. This lack of oversight in turn results in a lack of focus in posts and some schlock. Also, membership in ThinkCycle is not dependent on project participation. Anyone is welcome to register and post comments and ideas. This practice exacerbates the lack of focus through off–topic and outlandish remarks.

Another challenge which hinders ThinkCycle’s development stems from the co–location of many of its contributors. Because ThinkCycle originated as an MIT project, it was used most by MIT design teams. Because team members were co–located, the projects were developed in real space and then recorded retroactively on ThinkCycle out of obligation. In these cases, participants saw ThinkCycle as a time–waster. They felt they were duplicating their efforts by using the system (Sawhney, 2003).

ThinkCycle would benefit through a political structure that supports peer review, successor benevolent dictators, making participation a condition of membership, and encouraging participation through a more geographically dispersed area." (