In this series
Governance Models in Systematic Design
Governance Models in Systematic Design 12.2018
The first part of this dissertation explored how the relationship between visual languages and their significance plays a crucial role in establishing the foundation of a design system.
This second essay will explore the organizational structure and the governance models of communications systems and what are the implications that each one of them has in relationship to the semantic value the system generates (hereinafter also referenced as “data” or “information”).
Governance models establish specific frameworks within which a communication system can operate.
These framework define the arbitration model, the presence of regulatory agencies, the directions information flows in, what are the acceptance standards, which parties own the data, how accessible information is and what are the points of failure inside of the system.
Before we dive into the various governance models, let's determine the semiotic stakeholders of a system. We can divide the actors of a communication system in two main categories: the authors and contributors (which constitute the regulatory agency, if present) are the ones in charge of creating and documenting semantic relationships between signs and significance.
The non-authors (or audience) is instead the group towards which the system and its conventions are propagated and is in charge of utilizing the semantic bonds within the guidelines imposed by the system itself.
Depending on the type of communication system we are describing, these two category sets can overlap by different degrees.
For ease of analysis, governance models will be first catalogued based on their arbitration model. Will will then look at how the other properties vary under different different governance models.
Closed Systems (centralized)
Closed communication systems (all systems which do not allow to be manipulated by actors outside of the author-contributors category), by definition have in place strong policies for unilateral information flows: data is shared in
only one direction, when the authors of the system publish updates which are consumed by their audience.
Data ownership is limited to the authors and its often guarded by a sanctioning agency in order to preserve its integrity and grant for its correctness.
Closed communication systems tend to be very prescriptive and do not encourage the usage of their artefacts outside of the system’s guidelines. They are typically updated with large monolithic updates, over a very long period of time
This makes this type of systems very coherent, albeit slow and not particularly susceptible to change.
A typical example of a closed communication system are road and traffic signals. Most notably, the authors of this system are actors belonging to the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, which agree on a set of standards to be used in different countries.
The audience of this system (the citizens of the countries that adhere to that convention) have no say in the system - nor they are allowed to interpret the signs outside of the prescribed norms.
Open Systems (decentralized)
An open communication system is by definition a system in which its authors and audience coincide.
Since this system is created by the same actors who will be consuming it, it has a strong bilateral feedback loop, which encourages continuous modifications to its semantic value and a maintains the system in a constant state of “never finished”.
The largest open communication system in existence is the linguistic one: a construct in which all actors are actively (even though sometimes unknowingly) participating in creating and propagating new semantic relationships between words and their meaning, as well as consuming the constructs that are created and propagated by other actors.
The acceptance model in this case is purely based on velocity and critical mass. Constructs are distributed at very high speed and once an expression becomes part of the oral linguistic system, it becomes a candidate for inclusion in the
Merriam-Webster dictionary (a example of a selectively open system).
This shows how semantic value does not live and die within a certain governing body, but is able to move between different models, over time.
Despite the volume, intricacy and number of actors involved, language evolves at greater speed than most systems due to its non-existent barrier of entry.
Selectively Open System (federated)
Selectively open systems maintain the separation between authors and audience as discreet entities, but they allows for co-authoring upon fulfillment of certain criteria.
In this model, only a number of selected contributors (usually chosen based on their reputation or expertise in the field) are part of the governing agency allowed to contribute the system, while all the other actors only consume the system.
In addition to the aforementioned Merriam-Webster, another example of federated communication system is the W3C consortium.
The W3C is a members-only organization that discusses and consolidates standards that affect billions of users, but that is comprised of only 476 members, plus a regulating organ which formalizes the decisions made by the members, based on consensus.
Federated models can have different acceptance standards, but they usually require peer review and a variable degree of agreement.
We started this essay by listing some of the properties which differ across governance models.
Its now time to look at each one of them comparatively, so that we can better understand the ramifications of working within each of the models.
Often governance is thought only from a gatekeeping standpoint, but there's much more that is involved when establishing the arbitration structure of a system.
Information ownership, for example, can be an important issue when dealing with closed system, where only the arbitrating body has write access to the data.
Conversely, redundancy decreases in a closed model, making the systems which adopt this type of architecture more susceptible to failure than an open system, which instead can rely on a completely distributed framework.
Understanding the implications behind a certain governance model is crucial for the success of the system and its adoption.
Information naturally aspires to be distributed freely so its important to be cognisant of the practices we put in place to control its circulation and make sure they don't have any unintended consequences.
A heavily bureaucratic system will move slower than completely distributed one and risks to get out of sync with the ever-changing needs of its audience. On the verge of becoming obsolete non-authors quickly abandon the failing system and leapfrog quickly to adopt a new one.