Innovation Architecture

In the future of ideas, Lawrence Lessig warns us of the grave threat to innovation posed by mostly unseen changes to the legal and technical frameworks of cyberspace.

As the original end-to-end architecture of the Internet is increasingly compromised, and as copyright and patent law expand their reach, the commons of code, content and creativity that launched the World Wide Web is being quietly smothered.

While Lessig focuses on technology and the law, his dark prophecies are relevant to the practice of information architecture.

The Portal and the Pendulum

The design of corporate web sites and intranets is riddled with tensions between central control and distributed freedom.

As a vocal proponent of hierarchical classification schemes and controlled vocabularies, I’ve been accused of favoring structure over flexibility. And indeed, I do believe most sites have much to gain from the ordered approaches of library and information science.

However, I’m afraid that as companies rush to adopt enterprise portals, content management systems and corporate taxonomies, the pendulum is swinging too far towards centralization.

We should learn from the software community by embracing both the Cathedral and the Bazaar. We need to remember that control is not the goal.

We can’t tap the distributed creativity of our customers, employees and partners without building some trust and freedom into our online communities and marketplaces.

Perhaps what we need is a new model for thinking about the practice of information architecture and the systems that we design.

Complex Adaptive Systems

In Out of Control, Kevin Kelly defines persistent disequilibrium as “a continuous state of surfing forever on the edge between never stopping and never falling.”

It is this characteristic that enables complex adaptive systems to evolve and survive within a rapidly changing environment.

He argues convincingly that this balancing act between chaos and control is inherent, not only in all living organisms and ecosystems, but increasingly in the social, economic and technological systems of the modern world.

And he proposes some design principles, including:

Distribute being. “All the mysteries we find most interesting — life, intelligence, evolution — are found in the soil of large, distributed systems.”

Control from the bottom up. “A mob can steer itself, and in the territory of rapid, massive, and heterogeneous change, only a mob can steer.”

Cultivate increasing returns. “Each time you use an idea, a language, or a skill you strengthen it, reinforce it, and make it more likely to be used again. That’s known as positive feedback or snowballing.”

As information architects, it’s worth exploring how we can apply these principles to the design of those complex adaptive systems currently known as web sites and intranets.

Post-Modern IA

For the past decade, most of us have practiced classical information architecture. Our centralized teams and top-down methods have been aimed at the creation of stable structures.

As we embrace the lessons of complex adaptive systems, we must explore the territory of post-modern innovation architecture, using bottom-up methods to incubate online ecologies and economies that exhibit the capacity to learn and evolve over time.

Sound like science fiction? Well, as William Gibson himself once said, “The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”

Classical Information Architecture Post-Modern Innovation Architecture
Top-Down Bottom-Up
Centralized Distributed
Closed Open
Stable Adaptive
Planned Emergent

Artifacts from the Future

As I’ve said before, information architecture is nearly invisible. You have to look very closely (and sometimes behind the scenes) to understand what’s really going on. But seek and ye shall find. Here are just a few examples of innovation architecture today.

Collaborative Filtering. Drawing upon the collective navigation and purchasing behavior of users creates a highly distributed, adaptive solution. Amazon is the reigning champion, featuring People who bought this item also bought and Purchase Circles. Other examples include Microsoft’s Top Downloads and’s Weekly Bottom 40.

Reputation Management. If you want useful contributions from a distributed community, you must establish the right incentives and promote trust. Epinions, Ebay, Slashdot and Amazon all foster trust through double reputation managers (review the products AND review the reviewers). And they motivate contributors with Top Reviewer Lists and Personal Profiles. Rule #1 of the Attention Economy? We all want some!

Citation Analysis. For decades, researchers in library science have mined the wealth of information residing in the citations (or links) between one academic paper and another. With their PageRank technology, Google has demonstrated this approach can be hugely valuable in the Web environment.

Cooperative Cataloging. For over 30 years, organizations like OCLC have tapped the distributed intelligence of thousands of librarians through cooperative cataloging. Yahoo has made this work on the public Web. Many companies are now implementing this model on their corporate web sites and intranets by using Content Management Systems to enable distributed metadata tagging.

CMS. Companies are increasingly using Content Management Systems to strike a balance between centralized standards and distributed content authorship. Some online communities are experimenting with the extreme decentralization of Wiki (e.g., IAwiki).

As far as examples of innovation architecture go, this is indubitably just the tip of the iceberg. Let me know what I’ve missed.

Emergent IA

Kevin Kelly explains, “the only way to make a complex system that works is to begin with a simple system that works.”

A flock of birds, a school of fish and the Game of Life all show how systems composed of many elements following simple rules can exhibit emergence or spontaneous self-organization.

Can we combine simple elements of innovation architecture to create self-organizing web sites and intranets? Perhaps. But only if we relax control and encourage experimentation.

Bob Metcalfe says “Invention is a flower, innovation is a weed.” As we cultivate our field of information architecture, let’s leave room for a few weeds. You never know. Something wonderful may emerge.

by Peter Morville