Guilty admission. I am a fault finder.  Show me a perfect rose and I will find the petal that is slightly wilted. Or at least that’s how I grew up. I’ve spent much of my adult life learning to behave differently but it still comes out from time to time. What’s wrong with being critical? Science (with a capital S) and the entire canon of western philosophy is based on the notion of critical thought and the importance of understanding the weaknesses of an argument in order to craft a better one. But is criticism the best way to find truth? Let’s imagine knowledge as an physical structure. If I look at the edifice of your knowledge and I detect a weakness in the foundation, is pointing out your flaw the most important thing I can do? What if I chose not to focus on that but to rather emphasise how innovative your second-floor window design is and how that will help me improve the design of my structure. This is building on success as opposed to emphasising flaws. This positive approach can help break down the defensive positions that we find ourselves in when engaging with others, especially others who are at work in similar fields to us.

Of course criticism has a role to play. If I thought a flawed foundation was going to put anyone at risk, I would speak up but it might be easier to make someone aware of the virtues of a stronger foundation than to point out bad a flawed one is. Because like it or not, we own the foundations of our knowledge and we don’t like it when someone tells us we bought a lemon.

Faciliator extraordinaire Sam Kaner has an excellent table in his book the Faciliator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making which explores these two different value systems:

Either / Or Both / And
Value System Competitive Collaborative
Type of Outcome Expected Win / Lose Win / Win
Attitude toward “Winning” To the victor goes the spoils Your success is my success
Attitude toward “Losing” Someone has to lose If somebody loses everybody loses
Attitude toward minority opinions Get with the program Everyone has a piece of the truth
Why explore differences between competing opinions? To search for bargaining chips, in preparation for horsetrading and compromise. To build a shared framework of understanding, in preparation for mutual creative thinking.
Essential Mental Activity Analyse: break wholes into parts Synthesise: integrate parts into wholes
How long it takes It’s usually faster in the short run It’s usually faster in the long run
Underlying philosophy Survival of the fittest Interdependence of all things

So what does this have to do with the Skoll World Forum? I mention it because for the most part, the Forum embodied this notion of interdependence, of openness, of our collective need to work together to solve the most pressing problems of our time. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that almost everyone at the event, young or old, rich or poor, were friendly and ready to engage whether milling around or in more facilitated environments.

I talked to people standing in queues, I barged into conversations, people spontaneously joined tables. It reminded me of a great XKCD t-shirt I have always wanted to buy and wear to events.  Not that amazing perhaps but also not that common especially if you’re like me, better in small groups than in big events. My last experience of something like this was last year at AfrikaBurn where the spirit of the gift economy is very strong.   So real kudos to the organisers of the Skoll World Forum who have done an amazing job at cultivating a spirit of openness and engagement. I got a lot out of it because the participants were so willing to give.

And was it perfect? Not at all. And here I still bite my tongue not to expose its flaws in order to show you how clever I am. Maybe I’ll get over that completely one day.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data