Top down or bottom up?

Some of you know that I am a GIS analyst by trade. Most of you know that I am personally concerned about the overuse of our natural resources.  A lot of you also know that I am currently without the benefit of full-time permanent employment.  A few also know that, although I am still searching for the right job, I am also working very hard to increase my knowledge of my trade and enjoying the freedom to explore new opportunities where I might use my skills to address my concerns about the future of our society and our planet.  Probably none of you know that there exists an organization specifically developed to facilitate communication amongst people with similar interest and naturally I am a member of that society.

For several years I have had an idea brewing in the back of my head that one thing that might help me achieve that goal would be to build a web portal, sort of a one-stop shop for all resources related to conservation GIS.  Data, Organizations, Software, discussion forums, etc.  I threw together a skeleton website and posted it on a list-serve for that organization asking people to take 5 minutes and post on the discussion board a bit about what they are doing what software and analytical methods they are using, and what data they use.  This generated a flurry of response, which was divided almost equally into two camps.  One said “This is a great idea and much needed. Let me know how I can help”, the other said “Maybe we should slow down and organize a committee to look at how we should go about doing something like this”.  It turned out that the organization had had a committee for two years looking to do exactly what I had envisioned (but hadn’t announced it yet).  They had made progress but were stalled due to lack of time, money, etc).

In general there exists two basic approaches for solving a problem.  My approach was to provide a skeleton, adaptable, structure and ask people to contribute a little bit.  The end result could have been a functional, useful, resource in a week.  This only took me 2 days to throw together and everyone else would only have spent half an hour each.  This is the bottom up approach, each individual contributes a little bit, in their own interest, about the things that they know best.  There is no need for any one individual or group to make a huge investment in time or money,  it starts from the ground up organically and has the potential to spread in directions that could never possibly be envisioned at the beginning.  It just needs a seed.

The alternative, top down approach usually begins with a committee organizing meetings, budgets, assigning tasks to sub-committee’s ad infinitum.  Eventually something positive might get done but it is always going to be much costlier in time, energy, and money and most likely the rigid structure imposed will result in a less flexible and adaptable product and the final result is far less efficient than a bottom up approach.

There has been a lot of research supporting the efficiencies of the bottom-up or crowd-sourcing approach.  We also have many empirical examples.  Consider the two approaches to on-line encyclopedias.  Wikipedia uses the bottom-up approach.  It takes input from anyone and everybody an share what they know best.  Encyclopedia Brittanica On-line took the top-down approach.  With paid researchers and a ridgid organizational structure.  Which is most useful?  Which one do you  use?  Wikipedia has over 4 million articles.  50 times as many as Encyclopedia Britannica On-Line.  When something new happens you can usually find an article about it in less than an hour and if you came back in another hour the article will have been expanded and updated and corrected.  It may take weeks or months before an article appears.  Maybe never.  For instance EBO does not even have an article about Kim Kardashian.  Ok, maybe that’s a good thing.  Wikipedia may not always be correct but neither is any source of information.  You still need to use our head, but no ridiculous, unsupported position will last long on Wikipedia.

In the early 80’s Microsoft took an open approach to software on the PC platform while Apple took a more rigorous top-down approach for the MacIntosh.  While technically far superior, the lack of software availability almost resulted in bankruptcy.  Apple appears to have learned their lesson.  When they introduced the iPhone it was a flexible hardware structure with an open software API.  Developers responded and the utility of the device went way farther then the original designers could possibly have envisioned.  Could any committee have created Angry Birds?  (I gotta think of better examples)

Capitalism is fundamentally a bottom up approach.  Producers act independently to meet the needs of consumers to generate profit and consumers act independently to make the best choices to improve their lives.  There is no need for rigid control.

Socialism is fundamentally a top-down approach with government placing rigid control over all aspects of the economic system.  They decide what consumers need, how it gets designed, who produces it, and how it gets distributed.  In the end everything costs more, has lower quality,  is probably not any more equitably distributed, and the entire system is much sower to adapt to changing conditions.

There is often a need for some top down control in even the most bottom up system for planning and guidance but this should be lightweight, kept to a minimum, and never interfere with basic principles of the bottom up approach.  That is the role of government in a capitalist economy.

Democracy is also fundamentally a bottom up approach as opposed to the top down approach of totalitarianism. Yet somehow in America, our business and political leaders so often take a top-down approach to problem solving and fear the bottom approach. Why is that?

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