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Harnessing the unexpected: a public administration

interacts with creatives on the web

Tito Bianchi - Department of development policies, Italian Ministry of economic

Alberto Cottica - Kublai, Italian Ministry of economic development


Regional development policy is supposed to foster new business. However, the

matching between business projects and economic development policies turns out to be
very far from perfect because of the State’s lack of understanding of the merit of
creative projects; of the interference of rent-seeking intermediaries; and of differences in
communication styles between the creatives and policy-makers. Trying to bridge the
gap, the Italian Ministry of Economic Development launched an initiative called Kublai. It
helps creative young people living in the lagging areas of Italy generate entrepreneurial
ideas and develop them into feasible projects. To do so, it adopted an uncompromising
web 2.0 strategy, and found itself exploring the potential of the collaborative web in
public policy.00

Kublai has put in place and animates a small, mainly online community of people
interested in developing projects with economic development potential in the creative
industries. It is meant to be a welcoming environment for those who want to discuss the
grit of creative ideas, where competence is rewarded, and transparency makes any
shared knowledge easily accessible.

This experience
0 shows that 2.0 methods can effectively yield results of public interest
that would be out of reach if the government had to rely only on its forces. Creative
individuals find in the project staff and in their peers the incentives to develop ideas into
feasible projects, while the most innovative projects find partners and supportive
institutions online. Furthermore, as they validate each other’s ideas, evaluation and
ranking of creative projects (a notoriously tricky activity) spontaneously emerges 0as a
by-product of their interaction.

Paradoxically, in order to exploit this potential, the government has to learn not to do
everything on its own, but enabling the initiative of outsiders and acknowledging its own
limits. And a policy-maker needs to be very clear about the goals he is pursuing, to
afford being so permissive.

What follows recaps the experience of a project called Kublai. Now entering its third
year, it is the first - and, to the best of our knowledge, still the only - e-government 2.0
project undertaken by a branch of the national government in Italy. This is ironic,
because it did not aim at exploring the supposed virtues of the web 2.0 in government.
Rather, web 2.0 tools were deployed to solve what the Ministry of Economic
Development - the branch on the Italian public administration in question - perceived to
be a weak side of its policies: the evaluation and selection of immaterial, creative
activities as drivers of economic development. Like President Mao Zedong, we did not
care what color 0 the cat was: a 2.0 cat was perfectly acceptable, as long as it seemed
capable of killing this particular rat. For the purposes of this article, this may be an
advantage: if e-government 2.0 is to be more than just hype, it must prove its
usefulness in solving problems facing public authorities, even - and especially - those
not particularly interested in e-government 2.0 per se. While Kublai concerns itself with
the creative economy, we believe that the aforementioned evaluation problem reaches
way beyond that, onto areas of government such as education or research, and so do
the lessons we draw from this policy experiment.

Section 1 states the problem we were facing in terms of processing information. Section
2 describes Kublai as seen from its front end. Section 3 takes a look at its back end,
and highlights the role played by its continuously reasserted value system. Section 4
describes Kublai's early results. Section 5, finally, draws preliminary conclusions.

Development policies: an information processing failure

At the end of 2007 a group of civil servants in the Italian Ministry of Economic
Development were growing dissatisfied with the inability of development and cohesion
policies to find their way to young people with backgrounds in the creative industries.
The latter0 seemed very promising as beneficiaries: highly educated and exposed to
global trends, they are less self-referential than many traditional beneficiaries in lagging
areas, and sometimes their thinking is quite radical, embodying significant potential for
change. As we looked on groups of youngsters trying, against all odds, to set up film
festivals and web start-ups in remote mountain villages in the Italian South - and
sometimes succeeding - it was clear to us that a potential resource for growth was

We discovered that, even in regions that are flooded with public aid for entrepreneurship
and job creation, there are people doing fascinating experimental work, sometimes the
most innovative on0 the local scene, without any help from the state. They do not
receive, nor apply for, public funding, among other reasons, because many of them
perceive public authorities as distant and opaque, when not downright hostile or corrupt.
Our diagnosis was that development policies send out the wrong signals: they confront
would-be doers with vague jargon, lengthy forms and less-than-transparent allocation
decisions. Worse, public policies are seen to be the hunting ground of intermediaries
and consultants that appear to have no hardcore knowledge or skill, yet are able to
mount a project on just about anything, from renewable energy to social inclusion of
immigrants - and to get funded by paying lip service to the right buzzwords. Though this
is not always true, the message that reaches the creative people is that public aid only
reaches people who have no in-depth competence or delivery ability about any of the
issues they aim their proposals at, and in fact have no real passion either.

We conjecture that this happens because of two reasons. The first one is that
informational requirements for public authorities to effectively judge proposals from
creative people are simply too high. In order to assess the value of, say, a digital arts
festival in the Salerno area you need a thorough knowledge of the area and its people,
as well as of the digital arts scene. Given the staggering diversity of the creatives’
obsessions, there is no way that any one authority can possess all of that skill internally.
The problem is worsened by the fact that most of these projects start out at a small
scale, needing seed funding of a few tens of thousands of euros; whereas backlog-
ridden public authorities prefer to fund larger projects, given the high unitary cost of
each selection process. Also, a lot of creative projects have large immaterial
components, which makes civil servants nervous on accountability grounds. Focusing
on single strands of creativity would appear to solve the problem, but in fact it hides
circular reasoning: in order to select, say, cinema as a priority over dance, you would
need to know enough about creative trends in both cinema and dance to establish that
one is more conducive than the other to regional development. No public authority can
really know that: and if it could, it would then know enough about creativity and the
creative industries to assess proposals comparatively over a broad spectrum.

The second reason is that most creatives (as, indeed, most humans) are simply not
very good at communicating their ideas in a rigorous, written form - a notoriously
difficult, time-consuming activity. They are right at rejecting the obscure jargon of
bureaucracy - but wrong in rejecting written communication and business planning
techniques altogether.  

Civil servants explore the web 2.0: designing Kublai’s front end

How could creative people be induced to learn how to communicate clearly their ideas?
Who could convince them that putting energy into writing a project is worth the effort?
The answer seemed straightforward enough: they needed an arena ruled by an ethics
of doing, where the merit of each project could be scrutinized; in practical terms, a
community predominantly made by the creatives themselves. If we could get a sufficient
number of creative people to explain to each other - in writing - about their projects, they
could learn from each other, copying successful communication strategies without
having to mimic a contrived bureaucratic language. The participation of a small minority
number of civil servants into the community would testify the State's interest in this new
approach and provide a few business development tips, without skewing its values or
the informal down-to-earth language.

A nice side effect of such an environment would be the emergent evaluation of projects;
people would naturally participate in discussing the most interesting ideas, leaving the
weaker ones aside. Since creatives tend to gravitate towards people who share their
own interest, we would have people with music background discussing (and implicitly
assessing) music projects; people with arts background discussing visual arts projects
and so on. Also - and importantly - by taking part in this community, the Ministry would
be able to engage the creatives directly, cutting off intermediaries and middlemen.

We conceptualized such an environment as a0 social network oriented towards the

development of creative business. The nodes of the network would be, of course,
creative individuals; its links would be creative projects (for example music businesses,
cultural tourism products etc.).

The social network of creatives - christened Kublai1 - kicked off in the spring of 2008.
Early on we made three design decisions that turned out to be critical in what was to
follow. The first one was to entrust the management of Kublai to an external team
headed by a project leader (Cottica) from a creative industries background. The second
one was to 0open and maintain multiple 0channels of communication and
interaction 0within the community. The reasoning for this was that we needed to be
where creative people hang out rather than asking them to come to us. The third one
was to write no code, but rather use and customize services and software which were
available and free. All of our resources and energies would be invested in interacting
with creatives, rather than in technology.

1 Kublai Khan is the Emperor in Calvino's The Invisible Cities. This00novel tells of an empire so vast and
diverse that the emperor has at best a vague knowledge of its wonders. The only way through which the
Khan gets to know it, is0by listening to the accounts of a young Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, who has
extensively travelled through its many cities. We chose the name as a remainder of how little we, too,
really know about Italy’s lagging areas and its people, and how important it is that we listen to their
After some experimenting, we settled into using mainly five channels:

1. a blog (, to be part of the global conversation

2. a social network on Ning (, as a platform for asynchronous


3. a Second Life Island ( as a platform for

synchronous interaction

4. a Kublai Facebook group, used mainly to spread the words about events

5. offline meetups. We participate to creative industries conferences and gatherings,

and organize our own yearly event, Kublai Camp.

Kublai’s social network has a “Projects” section, where Kublaians can upload their ideas
and invite other creatives to help hone them through public discussion. All tools are
used to help creative people develop their ideas in an organized written form. 0Kublai0
insists0 on the written form (project document in Kublai parlance) 0for several reasons:0
first of all, creative people can be more effective in bypassing intermediaries and money
grabbers if they learn to communicate their ideas clearly and effectively. Furthermore,
by writing them down, ideas normally get debugged: people learn what it is that they
really want to do.0000Finally, the written form unleashes the potential of web communities
to accumulate knowledge: the discussion on project documents being fully transparent,
the progress of one towards his goals, becomes (at least in part) the progress of
all 0participants to Kublai.

Nurturing a community and its values: Kublai’s back end

The project staff contributes to structuring the interaction between creatives by doing
three things. The first one is what we call “coaching”: it amounts to reading carefully
everything kublaians write about their projects and giving feedback. Coaching makes
use of business development skills; a small team of staffers ensures that every project
gets at least some attention. Of course, the popular ones attract a lot of attention from
the community too. The second thing is in fact a range of activities performed by staffers
recruited from the community itself (we call this group “community staff”). They welcome
new members and new projects; help Kublaians who have questions about how to use
the tools (Second Life especially is not particularly intuitive); organize and promote
events, such as a Second Life conference series on creative businesses; and monitor
and encourage project proponents as they labour through their documents. The third
thing is the most important one, and is taken on by the whole staff: constantly
reasserting and reinforcing Kublai’s values. The explicit insistence on values performs
the role of building trust and channeling the interactions towards 0a dialogue on the merit
of projects, and away from socializing per se - 0or, worse, 0pointless quarrel (Rheingold,

Kublai’s core values are:

1. openness. Anybody can join Kublai; and we encourage anybody uploading a project
to leave it open for anybody interested in joining. An interesting consequence of this
is that the definition of “creative industries” ends up being non-ontological: creativity
is in the value system, not in the Eurostat 3-digit code. 0Kublai is full of projects 0that
are, beyond doubt, very creative, but fall well outside the borders of arts in a
traditional sense: tech startups, social enterprises, urban games, e-democracy and
so on. Giving up on the ontology of creativity enables self-selection, perhaps the
single most important force driving 2.0 social dynamics (Anderson, 2006; Shirky,
2008), while not really losing much in terms of information organization (Shirky,

2. transparency. All discussions are public, and all project documents are
downloadable, so that participants can (constructively) criticize each other and learn
from each other. This creates a certain tension with some of the 0creatives, who care
for their intellectual property and 0fear that somebody will steal their ideas.0

3. peering. We encourage proponents who benefit from being coached in Kublai to give
some of their time and expertise back to the community by helping coaching
someone else. Many of them do so: a study carried out in April 2009 showed that
two thirds of project-related posts on the social network were contributed by the
community (with the Kublai team contributing the remaining third) (Rossi, 2009).

4. meritocracy. This setup of free entry and total transparency produces a strongly
meritocratic outcome. Just by looking at the numbers of participants to each project
(ranging from a few to over 120) and the numbers of replies to threads in the fora it
is obvious which projects are most appreciated by the community, and which
Kublaians give the most valuable contributions.

Kublai prides itself 0on sharing in the creative ethos it tries to promote, and has adopted
an organizational model rooted in hacker culture: a very small core team, which recruits
the most active member of the community to help out. The latter are rewarded with a lot
of kudos and very small sums of money. This supposedly shows appreciation and
respect for the efforts made by kublaians to keep the community going, while not
destroying its gift ethics, and 0ensures that most people in the staff are not just policy
professionals 0but also people active in the creative industries.0 The border between staff
and community 0is intentionally blurred and permeable; this is made possible by the fact
that the back end of Kublai is itself located “in the cloud”, as it has no physical
headquarters and no business hours. Coordination between team members happens
through project management software-as-service; meetings are held in Second Life;
and contracts are delivery-based rather than time-based. This organizational model has
proven to be very effective in lowering the barriers between Kublai’s institutional core
and individual contributors to the project, therefore promoting its sense of community
and hacker-like ethics. We feel the latter are necessary for participants to altruistically
engage in reviewing and commenting 0someone else’s project.0

The down side of this way of organizing the workflow is that it is very much at odds with
that of public authorities. Middle managers are unwilling to let an employee show up late
in the morning if they took part in a help desk in Second Life the night before; even very
small contracts of one or two thousand euros generally require a lot of red tape; junior
employees are very wary of talking to each other on internal blogs or discussion fora
when they know their boss is watching, and they end up sending emails or making
phone calls (which undermines the effectiveness of the many-to-many tools); IT
managers place employees’ PCs behind firewalls which ban social networks, and are
deaf to requests to open breaches; and most people have trouble accepting the non-
seniority based, fun, sometimes confrontational communication style prevailing in the
community. At least in the Italian context, locating projects like Kublai outside the
institutional and corporate walls increases greatly their chances of succeeding. Web 2.0
is by definition permissive, and it just does not sit well with nonpermissive corporate
cultures. There is an inherent conflict between emergence as we witness it in large
online communities and control, and public authorities need to learn to navigate it
(Tapscott & Williams, 2006; Noveck, 2009).

Early results

Nearly two years after launch, the social network on Ning has emerged as the main tool.
At the time of writing it has over 1,600
0 registered users who are discussing 0250
0 creative
projects. About 60 of them have produced a written document; a few are truly excellent
and have received various awards. A small number of them are being deployed.

While it is too early to assess Kublai’s impact on firm creation, it seems safe to say that
it has built up valuable goodwill and mutual trust among creatives, and between them
and the Ministry. The social network records tens of interactions a day, and not a single
heated exchange has been recorded to date. People participate eagerly, contributing
advice, expertise or simply their two cents to creative projects uploaded by others: the
most popular projects on Kublai have over a hundred contributors, and a core of “project
healers”, senior members who participate actively in five or more projects, has formed.
The project team tries to reward their effort by non-financial means, giving them credit
and consulting them on decisions concerning the community 2.

The opportunity to interact with hundreds of creative people in a space where a

meaningful conversation involving hundreds of creative businesses and projects has
attracted the attention of some established players in the creative economy. These
started to take part in the community, sometimes by simply signing up and engaging the
most interesting Kublaians, sometimes by proposing partnership agreements to the
Kublai team. Many of them represent, so to speak, the demand side of the creative
economy: players who have financial muscle and are on the lookout for ideas to fund.
We receive new proposals almost every week: the following is a non exhaustive list of
those we have accepted.

5. An Italian
0 venture capitalist participates actively in the community and “shops” within
Kublai for projects to invest on.

6. Working Capital, Telecom Italia’s venture capital platform, helped organize Kublai
Camp 2010 and is planning to invest in some new businesses recruited from within

7. Kickstarter, BancaIntesa’s startup programme, is also getting involved, with the

programme leader participating in the community and offline events.

8. Fa’ la cosa giusta, the main Italian trade fair for social enterprise, has donated trade
fair space for showcasing the Kublai community and its projects.

9. Livorno’s Polo tecnologico scientifico has donated an MBA to the team which won
Kublai Award 2010.

10. Two Italian Regions - Toscana and Basilicata - and the Province of Rome participate
formally in Kublai, contributing some resources and expertise. Each is exploring a
particular strand of creativity, acting as the community’s point of reference for that
strand. Basilicata is primarily interested in physical spaces to host creative business
(building on a pre-existing regional project called Visioni Urbane); Toscana looks at
creativity as a force to regenerate firms in traditional industries; the Province of

2 This may look like an impressionistic remark, but is actually picked up by the mathematical properties of
the graph describing Kublai. It shows up as a cohesive structure; its cohesion degree is high enough that
it does no break up even by removing all staff members from it. This structure is obviously self-organized,
and seems to be one of the main vehicles for transporting information across the network (Rossi, 2009).
Rome looks at creativity as a source of opportunity for self-employment for

Kublai seems to be asserting itself as a credible platform for fairly diverse players - not
just the State - to reach out to creative practitioners, and thereby gain traction on the
creative economy. While they do not intend to collaborate in a strict sense, everything
they do must be consistent with the values of creativity endorsed by Kublaians; so a
collaboration of sort is an emergent property of the system. The role of the State in this
process is simply to filter out those that are not consistent with Kublai's values: rather
than setting an agenda, we focus on recreating, day after day, the incentives for bright
people with creative ideas to upload them onto Kublai and start discussing them. The
better we succeed, the more likely it is that more players, each pursuing its own goals,
approach the community with new opportunities. This tends to give rise to a positive
feedback: the more it happens, the more attractive Kublai becomes to creatives. The
more creatives join Kublai the more the protagonists of the creative economy will want
to participate, and so on, in a virtuous circle.

Interestingly, these activities of the corporate and other institutional players in the
creative economy were not originally designed for, and are themselves an emergent
property of the system. In late 2008 Kublai was amended to contemplate explicit
collaboration between the Ministry and third parties.

Concluding Remarks and Policy implications

At this point of this essay, and of the life of this experimental public project, the
conclusions that we would have liked to be able to draw are the following: many public
sector goals can be effectively pursued by appropriately shaping web 2.0 dynamics. 
That is, by creating platforms that catalyze the action of numerous private individuals
and enable them to act freely in ways that, as a system, amount to the net creation of
public value. Such value would not exist without the primary public intervention that
organizes the people's voluntary acts around public goals.  We have hints that all of the
above can be argued, but, in all honesty, we don't feel we know all the conditions under
which it can safely be declared true.

For people like us who are actively engaged in discovering what these conditions are,
while at the same time trying to put them in place, it may be more reasonable to spend
the rest
0 of this article describing the current state of our knowledge regarding what we
are learning as we go. The following points 0summarize some practical knowledge we
draw from the experience of Kublai, about what makes creative individuals more willing
to share their projects online, to interact with those of others, and more inclined to use
the feedback they receive from their peers to advance towards their deployment. They
are expressed in general, policy relevant terms, as we believe that they could 0of use
outside the realm of policies for economic development and creativity.

The first right move for a public project that aims to activate the potential of the
collaborative web is to keep for the State and its institutions a low profile. The web has
seen enough state propaganda with little substantive follow-up, that it expects to see
more of just that.  In order to build citizens' trust, actions count while formal lengthy
declarations, political messages of goodwill, large obtrusive logos can harm the
reputation of even well-meaning initiatives, keeping away the brightest and most
advanced individuals.

Similarly, in a publicly oriented web community it is wrong to invest too much time in
trying to convince people to do things, even what we genuinely consider to be in their
own interest. In our case, a creative individual who posts a great innovative
entrepreneurial idea may stop pursuing it, for the disappointment of those who would
like to help it become a reality. Like in war, we can accept such casualties without losing
faith in the final victory. The results that a web project like Kublai achieves need to be
verified on a significantly large user base, not in individual cases. After all, the web is
the realm of freedom, and the voluntary contribution of individuals, if one works well,
can be expected only in probability.

The biggest challenge for a web 2.0 project like Kublai is trusting the intuition of
outsiders to the State: enabling them to act in ways that may be different from what it is
expected from them, as long as we consider these actions to contribute, in aggregate,
to the same collective ends. In web 2.0 endeavours, the State's clearest role is precisely
this: guarding the public interest while allowing and encouraging people to try things
their own way. After all, the reason to enlist the intelligence of the web towards a public
goal is not just to multiply the forces of the public sector, but above all to recruit ideas
and solutions that it could not have generated on its own. In the case of Kublai, this
happens when the discussion about where the proponent should take her project is
"won over" by an idea proposed by a member of the community rather than by that
proposed by the staffer coaching the project. For a State institution, accepting that it
does not know best becomes - in our experience - easier and more acceptable the
clearer policy-maker is about the social goals that it would like to see realized. Clear
goals, in fact, have the property of allowing measurement0 of progress in their direction.
In such a context,0 trusting the intuition of numerous competent independent individuals
more than one's own is a sign of strength, not weakness, for a public authority. In
Whitt’s (2009) elegant formulation, the government should be shaping the fitness
landscape and feeding the evolutionary algorithm, then let the networked community
sort itself out.
In the end, the hard part for traditional public authorities is accepting the first premise of
working in a collaborative environment: the State need not do everything on its own. In
fact it is the notion of public services itself that becomes questionable in the 2.0 setting.
The current fascination for the digital world on the part of the government does not
amount to a radical innovation in the method or the role of the state, as long as0 the new
media 0keep being conceptualized just as powerful new "tool" for providing public
services.  In the long prehistory of e-government in which we are living, conceiving the
web as a “tool” has been useful for public administrations to familiarize themselves with
emerging digital technologies, to explore new services and new ways to provide
traditional ones. However, as the state embraces more consciously the web 2.0 mode of
operation, this metaphor starts showing its inadequacy.  Kublai, perhaps the most
advanced 0experience 0by an Italian public administration in harnessing the potential of
the web 2.0, shows this very clearly. The experiment to build a community oriented
towards a clear, albeit very specific public goal - generating and evaluating creative
projects conducive to economic development - can hardly be assimilated to a service.

What is the web, for public administrations who believe that technology can facilitate
voluntary collaboration with individuals around public goals? An arena? A place where to
look for of help or information? Or should it be seen more simply as the collectivity itself
that governments are designed to serve? Certainly it is something more complex than a
vehicle to reach some impersonal audience out there, from which public initiatives are
separate. For us, Kublai has been more like a journey through the problem we were
trying to solve. The ongoing conversation, gave us hints - mostly in the form of stories
about creatives and their projects - that we followed, as explorers charting out a
previously unknown territory. We learned a great many things about the people we were
trying to help, the conditions they live and work in, how they think about the world. And
we learned which external conditions are critical for them to be successful, and why.

At this point of the journey, we harbor

0 no hope of solving every problem just by
engaging in online conversation and sharing links. But we do 0find 0Web 2.0, 0 under the
right conditions, to be a formidable space for 0the State to learn about the things it is
interested in, and for people to learn to help themselves. 0Creating environments with
such properties may in the future become a core responsibility of the state, in the same
way in which today it is to build physical infrastructure, or to provide basic services like
justice and education.


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