Interversity accelerating our ability to cope with complex challenges

Big events cast their shadow before hand and the future is here, it is just not equally distributed. The Interversity is such a big shadow, it is a zeitgeist of digital transformation that tries to get embodied into an institute and I’ve been a witness to this process for almost 25 years now.

The Interversity is basically the combination of two words: University + Internet. Still don’t take this too literal, like electron mail can’t be taken literal, it is intent to be a metaphor. The Interversity is a lot more than just the next digital generation of a university. Universities have their function to create experts by conservative schools of thought. The Interversity is nothing like that, its main function is to create large scale solutions to complex problems.

It is a ‘wicked’ challenge to imagine what you have never been able to imagine before. Consider a time before the Internet and how information existed in libraries. Today the information is complex and dynamic, wrapped in code and in apps. Vast quantities of information are now ‘in the cloud’, accessible everywhere in many different formats. So try now to imagine how Research & Development (R&D) could be radically different from what currently exists in university. The need for it should be crystal by now, with huge complex problems like the current health crisis, the oncoming climate crisis and the past century economic crises (still unsolved).

Libraries still exist today and still contain books, they have been conserved, but today we also have the Internet. Universities are not going to disappear, but society has currently unreasonable demands to it. Compare it like “asking” a library to act like a laboratory, it simply doesn’t fit. Just as digital information led to the Internet, digital R&D is making the Interversity emerge. Now, take note, I’m not describing a vision, but I’m here as a witness. My experiences are local events around Brussels. I believe the Interversity is an emerging phenomena so probably similar patterns emerge all around the world. Like the Internet was an emerging phenomenon of information going digital. So let me examine how R&D has gone digital in and around Brussels.

The first experience was with STARLAB, the deep future lab, it operated between 1996–2001 and had 130 researchers at its peak. With the dot.com crash the institute stopped existing. I was just a jobstudent in STARLAB, but became the only research assistant helping the CTO to start a new institute. It was called DISC and was a collaboration between the two big universities of Brussels and the Brussels region. The zeitgeist was not right. It only led to funding for me personally and only for one year, even the CTO had to get another job.

I rediscovered the zeitgeist a year later with the development around Content Management Systems (CMS) and media. In fact you can use google trend to clearly visualize the zeitgeist and see the pivot moment. For CMS the pivot moment was between 2004–2014, my participation was with the apparent underdog in this story called Drupal, but as always superficial looks can be misleading.

It is relevant to connect deeply, so I’ve been participating. First broadly around CMS, to eventually focus on Drupal for several reasons. I eventually co-host the Drupal conference in Brussel 2006. It is also the start of my PhD, finding the proper coalition with IT management professors in the university of Brussels. During 2006–2012 my research was in a dual-state. On the one hand it was a purely emerging external phenomena around media and on the other hand I could do internal education experiments around the new way of working & learning. The two fused shortly with global events.

In 2012, as aftershocks of the Arabic Spring, we got funding for the Global Brain InstituteYuri Milner provided funding and the institute ran as a project in the research group. The funding was enough for four PhD students for about four years. I would be one and it allowed me to write my PhD (defended on the 12th of February 2015). As a last reflecting chapter I would do my first attempt to express the Interversity as institutional design. The zeitgeist trying to manifest, seems to pop-up about every five years for me, like waves in the sea reaching a beach. The way it manifested to me in 2017 is really a fascinating story, but it will take time before I can tell it.

The Interversity has three pillars with a synergistic relation, but a clear hierarchy: education, research and public service. The education pillar, I’ve done experiments on (i.e. control) and it was ready to become a product / service. I’ve done participation research (i.e. coordination, not yet control) on the research pillar and it was ready in 2012. It was ready to become an experiment, creating the required proof-of-concept to design a proper product / service. The project would have kickstarted the first participation research on the third pillar too: public service. Let me give more details on the different pillars.

During 2006–2012 I’ve been able to develop the education pillar, showing how a peer-learn platform can radically transform higher-education. I’ve always had a passion to teach STEM and got the opportunity to do it for the Solvay Business School in Brussels: teaching managers about software development. So it was deep into my expertise and I could do controlled experiments on it, for details, see the practical part of my PhD. Development around the research pillar happened in a less direct way. I’ve been able to assist professors in setting up projects / institutes. In 2012 I actually had the opportunity to set up my own project, and almost kickstarted the Interversity with a university in Beijing. I couldn’t get local powers to play along. It did let to my first seminar on Interversity in 2013.

Ironically the bigger project for the trading mission in 2012 was to prevent a new viral-outbreak. Indeed a quite inconvenient truth. Local research journalists identified the origin of the pandemic in a way that resonates a lot with our trading mission so I wrote a Dutch article to give some details. With the buildup of the current lockdown I can increasingly see the zeitgeist to draw more attention to the second pillar of the Interversity: mobilising the world into a living-lab to create synergistic satisfiers, solving complex challenges at scale. With lack of any network, I’ve simply focused on writing a book about the Interversity. I’m not a good writer, so it’s a tiresome process. I prefer oral communication.

The book begins with the first three pillars of the interversity, but contains five chapters. The seed on how the third pillar of the Interversity works can be found in historical institutes, but also in actual digital practice. In 2009–2010 I researched the drivers of the entrepreneurs in the Drupal ecosystem via interviews. It shows how the cultivation of the commons emerges as a system dynamic. Quite timely too, as the tragedy of the commons for Drupal happened after 2010, when corporations ate up the spirit of innovation. Interestingly it did not lead to a collapse, but simply turned the innovative ecosystem in a barn market place. Today I’m participating in sociocrasy30 community and in the commons community to actually do participation research on the third pillar for the Interversity.

For a long time I hoped the Interversity would arise internally from universities, but the past decade showed how strong an opposing force the university has become to change. Nevertheless, the Interversity is an unstoppable evolutionary force and it manifested again to me in 2017. It was a huge shock to get the zeitgeist at my kitchen table, by a process known as individuation. The shock was so big I had to take a spiritual sabbatical to understand the new journey that shock set in motion. I intend to dedicate the fourth chapter of the book on Interversity to elaborate the unstoppable evolutionary force and will elaborate the spiritual journey in the fived chapter: the animate worldview.

The animate worldview is about extension of the scientific worldview, but one that incorporates a spiritual existence. Before the industrial revolution technology evolved by an animate culture. You can read about it in the history of technology, going back to the Rule of Benedictus and orders like Cistercian monks. Little did I know how my passion for technology would turn into a path of spiritual development. It is quite radical and unprecedented about how the spirit gains embodiment.

I’m not ready to write more just yet, but soon, it will be the last chapter of my book. A bit similar to how the last part of my Phd was about the Interversity. The idea is to have a reflection of all development of the past decade with the pursuit of the Interversity and elaborate how it changes the way I look at the world: deep digital is about the origin of life. So let me conclude by elaborating how the Interversity relates to the origin of life.

The classic university has three pillars: education, research and public service. The Interversity will augment the static existence of the pillars into living structures. The education pillar makes knowledge come alive (i.e. virtual life). The research pillar makes tools etc. come alive (i.e. artificial life). The public service makes our organisations come alive, creating the soft version of meta-life. The soft version only controls people in a reversible way (people can leave organisations). To understand the hard version of meta-life, I can refer back to Global Brain research and post-modern insights. Maybe I elaborate it in later articles.