Citizen-Centered Grand Challenge

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Following the paths represented by "business as usual" lead to often lead to bad ends. The society that is unwilling to break self-destructive habits, or to be mindful of, or countenance the necessity of self-criticism degrades its ability to adapt appropriately. Changing the meaning of business as usual will not be easy. It's not, however, naïve or unnecessary. The main point that I would make twenty years after the first proposal is that this project along these lines should not become just a project but the project.


People all over the world are working on projects that they believe will improve the environment or the relationships between people.


This is a DRAFT pattern. Please stay tuned. I plan to talk about why there is a need for these types of projects, perhaps some history (maybe the Lucas Aerospace Workers Campaign), possible candidates, challenges, and suggestions.

The prototypical "grand challenge" is probably the Apollo program announced by U.S. President Kennedy in 1961 that had the goal of landing humans on the moon. This was accomplished eight years later when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out onto the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. In the summer of 2008, former vice president Al Gore, announced another grand challenge, We, to halt global warming. The United Nations also is a reliable generator of Grand Challenges.

Generally, however, civil society is not the instigator of grand challenges.

In 1987 I proposed a "Civilian Computing Initiative" as an explicit alternative to the Strategic Computing Initiative of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

In 2005 I proposed another grand challenge, a "World Citizen Parliament" based on the work of Richard Falk and Andrew Strauss. (Which takes the form of a Liberating Voices pattern.)

I developed a "Draft Statement from this Assembly" to illustrate the possible statement that could come from a conference. The following paragraph drawn from that "Draft Statement" provides more information on the character of a grand challenge and additional motivation for the civil society orientation.

Moreover, we realize that precisely defining an ideal system in advance is impossible. For that reason, we propose to begin a principled, long-term, incremental, participatory design process that integrates experimental, educational, community mobilization, research and policy work all within a common intellectual orientation: specifically to provide an inclusive intellectual umbrella for a diverse, distributed civil society effort. We realize — of course — that this is an audacious proposal. However, we agree with Richard Falk, that a parliament or forum like this is critical for the future of humankind and our planet.

Elements of an Effective Grand Challenge
In addition to a deep commitment to the necessary human values such as diversity, humanism, economic justice, environmentalism, and strong participation in governance, a grand challenge for a research and development program for civil society must have several important attributes to be effective:

  • Goals and objectives — both short and long term — which resonate with potential practitioners. The goals must be seen as both desirable and attainable.
  • Ideas, web sites, organizations, theoretical models, technologies, patterns (Schuler, 2008), etc. that act as "seeds" that can grow in interesting ways and make it easier for people to get involved
  • Articulation across boundaries, projects. Individual actions must "add up" in meaningful ways.
  • Information and communication resources to support the project
  • Appropriate incentivization. The traditional "carrot and stick" approaches don't tell the whole story.


Civil society historically is the birthplace of socially ameliorative visions. This effort is intended to help build a more effective platform for these efforts, to help address humankind's shared problems — such as environmental degradation, human rights abuses, economic injustice and war — that other sectors — notably government and business — are seemingly powerless to stem.

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