Designing future institutions
Updated: Sep 14
I've written an overview paper on the design of new institutions. It looks at the diversity of existing organisations, from the local to the global, and from the most commercial to public institutions.
It proposes a framework for analysing twelve key dimensions of organisational design; and suggests some directions of travel, making the case for thinking in terms of what I call ‘meshes’, ‘multiple centres’ and ‘outside-in’ methods. ‘Meshes’ combine vertical and horizontal structures and flows both inside organisations and outside them. ‘Multiple centres’ of attraction and action act as complements to more traditional pyramidal organograms. And ‘outside-in’ designs bring in externalities, systems and wider accountability.
All of these can help with the design of institutions for the transitions ahead – to a zero-carbon world, to handle inequality, ageing, democratic distrust and a world of powerful AI.
Having worked on organisational design for decades I’ve been disappointed at the lack of available theories and methods to help guide people as to which organisational models might best suit different tasks and the related lack of rigorous thinking about how new technological tools open up new options.
There are fragments in public administration, business theory, international relations and organisation theory, and particular approaches like mechanism design, behavioural insights, mission-oriented innovation, agile, commons theories, integral theories, evolutionary economics, platform and blockchain models and many more. There’s also much to be learned from the histories which document the messy emergence of institutions like the European Central Bank, UN or IPCC.
But these are not easy to use if you are given the task of creating a new institution and they don’t draw on much of a shared body of knowledge and experience about what works for what tasks.
Many theories start with an answer and then look for topics to apply that answer rather than being more evidence based. These can be energising and useful – but they need to fit into a broader discipline, just as new physical architectural ideas fit into a wider discipline that connects aesthetics, design, economics, awareness of everyday life, psychology, planning, construction and much else.
I hope that this summary paper - which can be downloaded below - will prompt inputs, criticisms and comments, including pointers to relevant existing methods and useful research, to help us grow a more impactful programme for the design and operation of the new institutions we badly need for the transitions ahead. I've started receiving some fantastically useful feedback and hope to share an updated and expanded version later this year.