Rethinking World Governance: A Problem Solving Society

Some friends suggested I write an entry to the Global Challenges Foundation’s “Global Challenges Prize 2017 – A New Shape”.  as it asked for a rethinking of our system of global governance.  It didn’t win the $5 million prize as it abolished the UN instead of reforming it.  Here it is.

A Problem Solving Society

by Paul Bristow



The model presented here is based on redesigning society totally around Problem Solving.  Such a society is distributed, open source, good at solving problems, resilient, locally self sufficient, and globally connected.  We make extensive use of the internet to disseminate information, create and collate solutions at local, regional and global levels.

This model is designed to facilitate the exponential innovation needed to solve the huge problems that we have facing us.  It essentially reorganises society around problem solving using co-creation methodologies, and applies evidence based feedback to rapidly discover what solutions work in the real world, and spread them as appropriate.  It uses open source methodologies to ensure that practical solutions to problems are shared widely, and come with the explicit permission to improve them and share those improvements.

We have a set of common resources shared between everyone in the world on an open source basis.  i.e. You are free to use the knowledge, on the condition that you share your modifications or improvements with the world.

Global Problem database

The problem database is a collection of problems or challenges, proposed by citizens or organisations.  A problem can be global in scope or hyper-local.  It in general, is something that solving would make human society better.  The Sustainable Development Goals are a good example set of global problems requiring local solutions. but a simpler local one might be e.g. not having enough car parking spaces on market day.

Global Solution database

The Solution database includes all solutions that have worked for a given problem anywhere in the world.  It includes the evidence for the solution working.  For a new idea, there will not be much evidence and marketing skills will be in huge demand for selling new ideas.  The formats needed for the solution database will vary depending on the problem being solved.  Engineering problems are likely to have very different solutions to social ones, for example.  Consider the solution database as analogous to GitHub – which is itself an ever-evolving set of engineering solutions to problems. 

Solutions will vary around the world – the best solution for a cold windy country is very likely to be different from a warm, sunny one.


The funding model for this takes the power of monetary creation away from banks and hands it to society in general.  When the problems are defined by society and the rewards are attributed by society in a transparent, open manner, the perverse incentives for destructive behaviour go away.  

We could even use different currencies for different reasons.  As the transaction costs of switching currencies tend towards zero, and we remove the economic profit side of the equation, there is no reason not to try different systems.     

Evidence based open solutions.  

A society based on solution sharing will only work if there is trust in the solutions.  Problems from the global problem database shall be linked to shared, open source, solutions to those problems, along with the evidence that shows how they worked in their specific environment.  There is no assumption that there is one, and only one solution to a given problem.  Indeed, competing solutions to global problems should be encouraged.

A responsive, resilient society

Monocultures are just as dangerous in society as in agriculture.  There is no attempt to define the optimum way to solve problems, or discuss them at a local level.  This is a problem, just like any other.  We’re aiming at multiple societal models – ever evolving and shared for imitation or improvement.  

The aim of this model is to encourage a virtuous spiral of friendly co-opetition, between different groups.  The “that’s a great idea, and I could improve it by adding…” thought process writ large. 

As people exercise their problem solving “muscles”, they will become better at it.   The “somebody should” statement will disappear, to be replaced by “what if we tried…?”.  


Regulations build on what exists, but in general the regulations should be for circular design and continuous improvement.  

Decision making paths

Decision making makes checks and balances explicit, and prevents actions from being taken for which there is no evidence.  The decision making process itself becomes part of the problem/solution space.    

A unique aspect of this problem solving model is that it does not claim to have the “one true way” nor that it is the final word in decision making.  Indeed, the model specifically encourages experimentation between different decision making methodologies along with evaluation of the results and global sharing.  Instead of the market-based competition between ideas that exists today, a friendly co-opetition forms between different sets of best practises that are shared.

Control mechanisms

There are two key control mechanisms: 

The first is a form of liquid democracy used to delegate authority from individuals to people they trust.  I propose a multilevel approach, which delegates decision authority dynamically on a topic basis, with individuals having the absolute right to change their mind, withdrawing or reassigning their decision authority at will.  This provides a real-time control over who is authorised to decide on solutions.  For collaboration between regions, governance is managed at the lowest geographical level that makes sense for the topic.  Decision authority for collaborations can also be allocated dynamically.

The second is the funding mechanism.  Funding is also directly allocated by individuals, based on how they believe in the solutions proposed.  The funding mechanism provides direct transparent and democratic control over exactly which solutions are invested in on behalf of the society.  

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Opening Speech at G3iD

This was the opening speech at the Geneva Global Goals Innovation Day, co-written and delivered by the two co-presidents of the G3iD association, Vivian Marcelino and Paul Bristow.  The Geneva Global Goals Innovation Day was held on March 24th, 2017

When the Sustainable Development Goals, also known as Global Goals, were launched by the United Nations back at the end of 2015, the UN called upon people everywhere to take action.  A loosely coupled bunch of innovators here in Geneva heard that call and decided to do something about it.   

This group  – us – from some of the faster moving UN institutions, social impact hubs and new fablabs – thought that through innovation we could help International Geneva to become more effective:  To do more, and achieve more, with less but together.

During our co-creation sessions we found our dream: To transform Geneva into the “Silicon Valley of Sustainable & Humanitarian Development”,solving real problems, generating real social impact, and helping achieve the SDGs.

Because when you look at Geneva, it is unique in the world. Here, we have the international organisations and NGOs, we have the private sector, from start-ups to sector leaders,  we have investors and we have the innovation ecosystem. Moreover,  we have a multinational & multidisciplinary richness of cultures like almost nowhere else in the world.  

The SDGs are different from the millennium development goals – they apply to every country – to every person.  So why not treat the SDGs as a set of targets for Geneva.  We could become an example for the world.  And if not here, where?

The Geneva Global Goals Innovation Day (G3iD) is intended as a catalyst to get started. We understand that innovation is not just about technology. It is about new ways of doing things. Today, we bring together the multiple actors of the local and international Geneva to explore innovative solutions and new ways of working together towards the global goals.

To foster collaboration between us all, our first theme for the day is co-creation; the art of making better solutions by getting multidisciplinary teams to work together.

We know that this is a great way to achieve our second theme for today, acceleration.  We started by asking ourselves what would happen if we tried to speed up – for example trying to achieve the SDGs by 2020.  We lived this for ourselves In the G3iD project.  With a team of volunteers, starting with only 150 francs, we made all this happen in 8 months, so we know that this can be done.  

Our third theme is scaling.  We’ve started in Geneva but we are talking about the global goals. So as you go around and look at the more than one hundred solutions here today, think about how you can help them scale up  to generate the global impact needed to achieve the SDGs.

We think that if we pull together, we can treat these 17 goals as a set of tick boxes.  Let’s get these out the way, and then by 2030 we will need to co-create new goals – perhaps around Space Exploration, Artificial Intelligence, & Cyborg Rights, because these 17 goals about making our world a better place for all will be done.

But, even we’re not crazy enough to think we can achieve the SDGs in one day, so we would also like to start co-creating with you the the future of our SDG innovation ecosystem here in Geneva. All of us are actors of change and together we can achieve so much more. Each and every one of us should be an SDG innovator.

We thank you for joining us here today! Moreover, we thank those without whom G3iD would be nothing but a crazy idea. In every new movement, we need leaders. But we also need supporters. So we would like to thank the organizations who have helped to make G3iD a reality.

Our trailblazer supporters: The International Trade Centre, Impact Hub Geneva, THE Port Association, Pangloss Labs, Aprés-Genève and the Global Humanitarian Lab.

And our sponsors: the Barrett Values Centre, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ville de Geneve and the Canton de Geneve, and the Confederation Suisse.   We also thank the more than 100 organizations here today co-creating the first ever Geneva Global Goals Innovation Day, and all of you have have accepted our invitation to be an innovator for a day.  

Thank you!

Open Source Modular Design for the Circular Economy: The Business Benefits

When we talk about the circular economy, we often talk about encouraging materials cycles, similar to those in nature. This analogy works great for materials recycling but, breaks down if we think about modular design. We can’t remove the branches of a tree, and rearrange them to make two smaller trees. But with modular design of technology, facilitated by an open source approach, we could do the equivalent – and it could lead to a new way of doing business.

In product design, practitioners aim for design for manufacturability. In high value products, we may design for serviceability. When it comes to the circular economy, we need to design for reusability. That is, the ability at the end of the service life of a product, to disassemble it into useful parts that can be directly reused in another product.

A simple example from today’s products would be

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Scenario: Life in the Year 2100

Energy and Living Well

Life in the year 2100 is all about energy. No, that’s no longer true. It’s about living well.

We had to completely reinvent civilization in the face of fossil-fuel shortages and increasing climate change. Permaculture become the basis of our new sustainable civilization.

Housing looks familiar, if a little fatter with all the insulation that was added. The retrofit passivhaus concept went global as energy prices rose. These days, excess energy is very expensive, but for most people it just doesn’t matter. Most communities are locally self-sufficient. Everyone grows food using permaculture principles. Agricultural monoculture became deeply unfashionable during the great GM disease outbreaks of the 2030s.

During the chaos, we were

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Is Lake Geneva ready to make stuff again?

Globalisation only flows one way. At least that’s the experience of the last 30 years. Manufacturing fled Europe, looking for more and more economies of scale, making millions of identical objects for the cheapest possible price.

Mass manufacturing has changed the world, but every process comes to an end. When something becomes “the only way to do things”, innovation kicks in and find a alternative.

Open Source distributed manufacturing is that alternative. New, open source technologies have reduced the costs of machinery by a factor of tens to hundreds. Things that were complicated and expensive, like accurate positioning in 3D space, have become trivially simple and ridiculously cheap. The result is that it has become much less expensive to make individual customised objects – something that mass manufacturing cannot do at all.

FabLabs are described as a place when you can make “almost anything”. We know what the things we cannot yet make are, and many of the projects in these spaces are open source machines to overcome these limitations. Just in the last two years we have seen machines for knitting clothes, printing fabrics, printing concrete, and laminating wood/carbon fibre composites, as well as DNA sequencers, projects to grow bricks, produce all sorts of energy efficient vehicles, and build your own energy efficient houses.

These projects are not developed by individual geniuses in their garages. The internet was designed as a collaborative tool, and has delivered magnificently. Local communities of people interested in making things have found each other online, and joined together to create physical spaces where they can collaborate together. These projects, in turn collaborate online in globe-spanning open source projects, creating amazing collaborative answers to problems that might not be solved in any other way.

Right now it’s not for replacing the things you can buy in the shops, more for replacing the things you cannot buy in the shops. How often have you searched and not found the thing you were looking for? Simply not been able to buy a spare part, or not found a table the right size in the right wood. Those are the sorts of things maker-spaces can produce using parametric design and shared resources.

In twenty years the very idea that you would buy something that is the same thing that any of your neighbours have will seem quaint, like Henry Ford’s “any color you like as long as it’s black”. You will be able to easily customise the object you want to suit your exact needs and have it quickly manufactured in your local fabrication centre. Or have a brand new thing designed just for you from scratch using open source tools, technologies and techniques.

Around Lake Geneva, this is a work-in-progress. On the 27th of June 2015, the makers of the Lac Leman region unified for the first time to put on the “Leman Make” Festival. At the start, we knew of two hackerspaces in the region. One year later we had dozens of local fabrication spaces involved in the festival, all of whom were making stuff right here.

Technology should be a slave, not a master. It’s time it stopped being exclusive – something for other people far away to master – came back home, and was made accessible to everyone. As children we were all taught to share, and it turns out that sharing really can change the world for the better.

So the answer to the question “is Lake Geneva ready to make stuff again?” is definitely a resounding yes. We hope you’ll join in.

The Leman Make Festival 27/28th of June

Gadget Guru is a short weekly radio show on World Radio Switzerland that I do with Tony Johnston.

Here’s the show from June 23rd, 2015:

Links for this show:

Most of the links are in French, but the vast majority of the makers at the festival speak English too (and many other languages – we’re a mixed bunch!)

The Leman Make website and Facebook group.

Making It: Manufacturing Techniques for Product Design

“Making It” is my go-to guide for finding out how you manufacture different objects. It is an illustrated guide to manufacturing methods, complete with images of the process in action, the finished goods, a description of the variety of goods you can make with this method, as well as related techniques. If you have any interest at all in making things, this book should have a slot on your bookshelf.