Good Profiles feature members of our Good Generation who are either out there in the field doing interesting work or still in the trenches of schools and institutions waiting to make their mark on the world. Have your own story to tell? Know someone who would be great to be profiled? Please sign-up or leave a note here!
What are you up to nowadays?
For a living I work as a software developer in the private sector. On my spare time I use my expertise as a programmer to develop koios.org, a free online problem solving platform for complex social issues.
Koios is a long term nonprofit R&D project that aims to create a web based service for systemic innovation.
At the moment the project is in a proof of concept feasibility study phase and we are testing the conceptual underpinnings of the system. At this early stage it is mainly me working on the project although there are a few contributors from around the world.
Our website koios.org is gradually making more sense as we continuously do prototyping, comprehensive literature studies and state of the art reviews. We are also gradually establishing contact with relevant people around the world who contribute with valuable ideas and feedback.
Is “doing good” a key reason why you chose this project?
The reason why I started on the Koios project was that I realized that I had the opportunity to combine my personal interests, education and professional experience with my passion for building web applications. Most importantly, I am at the same time able to do something that can take the concept of social good to a whole new level.
The purpose of Koios is to make complex social problem solving accessible to the general public. It can be seen as the development of a coherent and unified platform to empower ordinary people. We give people the tools, network, best practices, methodologies and processes that previously have only been available to experts.
Our aim is not only to help more people do social good but to help people do social good even better. Most social issues are highly complex, consisting of intricate systems with delayed feedback loops. In some cases people who are doing their best to do good can in fact be causing more harm than good. What seems like helpful activities in the short term may have the opposite effect in the long run. Koios is about helping people see the big picture so they can come up with more precise and more sustainable solutions. Koios helps to uncover root causes and find key leverage points to apply pressure on the problem to be solved.
What do you love most about this project?
I love that I get to be highly creative when working on something this experimental. It is also very exciting working on something that could potentially have a big impact. I also learn lots of new things all the time, and I get to do stuff I feel passionate about. I also feel very free when working on this thing I have envisioned and designed myself. It definitely feels very meaningful.
What challenges have you encountered?
Koios is being developed to support the abstract, dynamic and complex cognitive process of problem solving. The challenges are humongous. To get a sense of the complexity of Koios let’s compare it to Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and the underlying technical platform MediaWiki supports people in doing mainly one thing, and that is to produce articles. That’s it. Koios on the other hand has to support people in complex problem solving which consists of a whole range of activities such as recognizing problems, gathering data, modeling, generating possible solutions, evaluating solutions, selecting the best solutions, implementing and measuring solutions. All of these activities, of course, have many sub tasks that will vary depending on the problem at hand.
What makes it even more complicated is that the problem situation one tries to solve is inherently messy and uncertain. This is why the problem is a problem in the first place. A Wikipedia article in comparison is about one single topic that is usually fairly well understood.
One of our key challenges is around the project itself. How should we do the research and design process? With such an ambitious project and few resources we have to make many compromises. It is imperative to be pragmatic.
Most of the challenges relate to the platform, such as how to minimize cognitive load and noise for end users, how to support both experts and non-experts, how to motivate user participation, how to ensure quality of users’ contributions, how to balance flexibility vs. usability, how to support different problem domains, how to streamline problem-solving as an online collaborative activity, how to scale for massive amounts of data, how to scale for hundreds of users, how to tackle spam, trolls etc. Then there are all sorts of ethical, political, legal and technical considerations we have to anticipate.
We feel we are well underway to solve many of these challenges, but it is a long process. We believe taking one step at a time is the key to gradually do research and development in iterations so each new improvement can be tested. It is a very evolutionary process guided by analytic and systematic problem solving.
You could say we are using problem solving techniques to solve the problems of creating a platform for problem solving.
What were some of the most important past experiences that you’ve had that led you to where you are today?
At one of my previous employers, a large organization, there was a big conflict between my department and one other department. I was not directly involved and had not been with the organization for that long so I was able to look at the problem from the outside. I approached the problem using techniques such as Soft Systems Methodology, Root Cause Analysis and Complexity Theory, which I had been introduced to while at university and as an engineer later. I soon discovered that the problem of the two conflicting departments was only the tip of the iceberg. There were far more deep rooted issues at hand. This sparked my fascination for systems thinking.
My professor Dino Karabeg at University of Oslo was also a big influence. Dr. Karabeg was himself deeply influenced by the Club of Rome and had strong convictions towards sustainability, holism, collective wisdom and the like. The thinking of Dr. Karabeg and many years of martial arts training eventually led me down the path of social good. As a martial artist I was prepared to fight for a greater cause, as cliché as that sounds!
How did you come up with this project?
I have always loved watching documentaries. After having seen too many documentaries I kind of realized, in around 2005 that just watching problems presented in these documentaries and not being able to do anything about them was making me feel kind of useless. I soon got the idea to create an online system that would help people like myself to do something about these problems. So the idea for Koios was born.
I spent some time writing down ideas for Koios, listing possible requirements and looking for similar projects. To my surprise, I could not find any similar projects, although there were some projects that had some slight relevance to what I was doing. I knew that the project was too big to start working on alone without funding but I always had it in the back of my mind.
In 2010 I happened to hear about a challenge announced by the Norwegian government. The competition could be seen as the Norwegian version of the US Apps for Democracy contest. I submitted my idea for Koios and to my surprise I was one of the few selected to get funding, and so the project was formally started.
Having worked on the project for about 3 years has now begun to takes its tolls. Because I do not have funding to work on the project full time I need to keep a day job. Working as a programmer both day and night has resulted in neck pains and headaches. The other big trade-off is that I have less time for friends and family.
If you had to make trade-offs, do you think they were justified or should it be different for others in the same situation going forward?
Doing a big experimental project like Koios is a big challenge. Koios is not a simple idea that can be tested easily. You need to be prepared to work for years before you get any recognition, if you get any at all. Spending hundreds upon hundreds of hours on something that may fail completely and might never give a penny in return requires you to have patience and self-discipline. Sometimes it also feels like I am chasing fairytale unicorns, trying to develop the impossible. The more I work on the project the more I realize that this is not going to be easy.
I cannot really recommend this path for everyone. People are different and it just happens that doing this fits my personality. You really have to decide for yourself if your project is worth all the work. You’ll have to ask yourself; what is the potential common good, what are the potential personal rewards, what will it cost me and how long will it take? Keep in mind that developing new solutions usually takes much longer time than first anticipated.
If you had to do it all over again, knowing what you know today, what would you have done differently?
I don’t know.
If you did not work on this project, and time/money were not a constraint, what would you ideally like to do?
I can’t really imagine doing anything else. I have several projects ideas related to social good, collective wisdom and knowledge sharing. If I were not doing Koios I would have spent my time developing some other system. I am a systems developer and this is what I love to do.
If time and money was not a constraint I might volunteer for projects such as FuturICT. The European Commission FuturICT flagship proposal intends to unify hundreds of the best scientists in Europe in a 10 year 1 billion EUR program to explore social life on earth and everything it relates to.
Finally, what advice would you have for others in the Good Generation who are interested in your project?
If you find the project interesting and would like to contribute please do not hesitate to contact me. We are still in an early development phase but we appreciate any interest from potential collaborators. We need to fill many roles and need everything from writers, visionaries, thinkers, programmers, community builders, testers, multimedia professionals, designers and people in the fields of social science, strategic design, public policy, systems dynamics etc. If you just want to send us some critique or thoughts from the top of your head you are also more than welcome to do just that.