Collective action and the risk of too much uniformity

Collective action also brings along a risk: the risk of generating too much uniformity. Based on the principle of justice and equity and on the need to let everyone contribute to the whole, collective action can give rise to a collective good that provides the same benefit for all. As a result, the collective good is a standardised average of potentially different possibilities. For example: social provision that is the same for everyone, a uniform syllabus for all students, a residential area where every home has the same yard and garden. Apart from the fact that such uniformity can be boring, it also fails to do justice to individual differences in need. For example: people's differing needs for social assistance, children with different interests and residents' differing desires regarding their surroundings.

To express these individual differences in collective goods, and prevent them from becoming monotonous, welfare theorists came up with the idea that in the process of collective action a distinction must be drawn between the part that divides up the contributions necessary to achieve the good and the part that determines individual use of the goods. The first part is controlled centrally and uniformly by the group leaders (the state) on the basis of the agreed power relations. The second part is controlled decentrally by self-managed sub-groups (corporations), on the basis of voluntary membership (De Swaan, 1989). This approach makes for fair distribution, while at the same time allowing for variation and personal preferences.

However, this approach is only possible in a dynamic process, because only then do the participants have the opportunity to address dilemmas. A dilemma such as 'what concessions should I make regarding my personal preferences in order to remain individual and unique, while still honestly and openly contributing to the whole?' is caused by ignorance of the choices others are about to make. To obtain information on this matter participants must first study the effects of several people's choices at the same time and derive from them reasons for weighting their own preferences.

The conclusion is that a design team operating as a collective is likely to produce uniform design results if the team works very statically, failing to distinguish between central decision making and individual choice. This can easily be avoided using the Open Design method, which is highly dynamic, focusing on the weighting of preferences and distinguishing sharply between central decision making and individual choice.

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