Part 1: What is institutional architecture anyway?

Featured image: Maarten Deckers

TIAL Co-founders Sir Geoff Mulgan, Jessica Seddon, and Juha Leppänen sat down together recently for a conversation led by Jessica on Institutional Architecture — what it is, how it works, and why it’s important to build a thriving, learning, field of practice around upgrading and designing new institutions.  

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

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Why institutions?

Jessica: If you look around the world, it’s very easy to see things going wrong — or at least things getting very risky in terms of accelerating climate change, concerns about artificial intelligence, widening economic inequality, the state of care for mental and physical well-being. It’s easy to see the challenges. Why focus on institutions as a leverage point? 

Geoff: Our lives are deeply shaped by the public institutions around us, many of which are very old. They could be courts or parliaments or school systems, welfare systems, regulators, and so on. All of us interact with those institutions almost every day of our lives. Our sense — and one of the premises for this whole initiative — is that often, they don’t fit our current needs. They don’t make the most of the tools that are available. There’s often dissatisfaction or distrust with institutions, a sense that they’re failing. 

Jessica: I spend a lot of time looking at environmental change and some of the tensions and pressures it’s creating for our ways of life, our economies, societies, geopolitics, et cetera. There is a mismatch — a lack of fit — between how the world works and the structures (institutions) we have in place to organize a response. 

Take, for example, air pollution. It forms from emissions in one place and source that mix with emissions from another place and source and sometimes affect people up to a hemisphere away. That’s the science of it. The available means for conducting negotiations that have the maximum effect on the end of air pollution  — e.g., for coordinating emission reduction or for planning investments across the sources of pollution — simply don’t exist. I could list other mismatches. But for me, institutions enable coordination — and we need that to better match the world around us. 

Juha: I would add only a slightly different framing or phrasing on the same topics. One way to look at [the challenges] is to look at them as a collective action crisis. So, how do we conduct collective action overall as societies? And if you follow the logic of that framing, then you easily come up with another challenge: collective action tends to happen within the modalities that we have for it. Nation states, local municipalities, and the multilateral system to an extent. The problem is that the challenges we’re facing today — climate crisis being one of them — escape those modalities. So, focusing on institutions essentially gives us a way of focusing on collective action and collective practice

I’ve always thought that a good way of defining institutions is as codifications of collective practice. From that perspective, it’s apparent that if the society around that institution changes, the practices also change. Or they should. It really matters that we’re able to have a discussion, interaction and deliberation [about this], and also have institutions that then make sense for the time in which we live and are considered legitimate.

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“Our lives are deeply shaped by the public institutions around us, many of which are very old. Our sense — and one of the premises of TIAL — is that, often, they don’t fit our current needs.”

Jessica: I think that also brings up an important point about the definition of institutions that we’re working with. “Codification of practices,” extends from organizations to norms and from formal to informal. It’s a broader set of things that shape interactions — beyond institutions as simply organizations.

So, what is institutional architecture? 

Geoff:  We use the word architecture because, in some sense, institutions have to be designed like a building. And ideally, a building not only stands up and doesn’t fall down but is useful and maybe beautiful and maybe becomes loved over time. We want the same for our institutions. 

That requires, as with architecture, a mix of science, of really understanding the evidence, the materials — but also craft and art. In the last generation, there’s been a loss of confidence in creating a new generation of public institutions. We badly need them now, but we need them to be designed and built in ways which help to ensure they work, they last, and maybe even that some of them will be loved. 

Jessica: I would also say that the term architecture should convey a degree of recognition of evolution — that whatever is built will be used, will be repurposed, will be added on, and has to sustain those kinds of dynamics. 

But I want to throw out a one-sentence version and get reactions to and expansions of it. Institutional architecture uses social science, humanities and accumulated practitioner insight to identify and invent social structures that are likely to contribute to desired societal outcomes.

What do you think about this definition?

Geoff: Sounds good to me. It goes back to the earlier point. We use organizations and institutions to order the world to provide regularity, predictability, and focus resources or brainpower to solve collective action problems. We live in societies with literally millions of organizations, which may be a small shop or a university or a parliament or a party. There are so many. That’s just how the world works. 

It’s one of the reasons why anarchism never quite took off as a political movement — because it denied that we can only work together and coordinate with the use of organizations and institutions. I think this whole question, though, comes alive when we look at specific tasks or specific needs where we’re missing the organizations we need. 

As you said, Jessica, sometimes it’s the mismatch of the scale of the phenomena and the boundaries of existing institutions or nation states or cities — sometimes because it’s just something new. Artificial intelligence is a very live example where, particularly in the last year, the world has almost been in a panic, realizing it needs to have some new ordering rules, some regulations, some laws, et cetera — but really had no institutions capable of playing that role. So they’re now being created in China, the Cyberspace Administration, while Europe is implementing its new laws and others, including the US and UK, are creating AI Safety Institutes. There’s a furious process of institutional architecture and design happening, I think belatedly, because a new set of societal challenges has come along. 

Exactly the same relates to clean air or decarbonization or biodiversity. With almost any challenge, there is a question: do we need new institutions? Maybe we can tweak existing ones or just pass a law. But, in the past, the world has often coped with new tasks and new challenges by creating dedicated institutions that bring together knowledge, have an ethos, have a spirit, have a way of working, and hopefully, then, help solve the problem. 

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Institutional architecture combines the use of social science, humanities and accumulated practitioner insight to identify and invent social structures that are likely to contribute to desired societal outcomes.

Jessica: There’s also the flip side of what you mentioned, Geoff. You’re describing a new set of pressures that demand a thoughtful response and structuring. On the other side, we have new possibilities for being able to, say, contact each other, meet, or exchange information. These open up new options for institutions if we choose to use them. To follow the architecture metaphor, it’s a little bit like having new materials and new structural possibilities for, say, moving from small buildings to skyscrapers. We have new opportunities to use digital public infrastructure for new forms, for example — even as it creates new tensions to manage

Juha: I also like the definition quite a lot. Perhaps another perspective is that institutional architecture, in a way, is an attempt to provide some pathways forward in highly ambiguous and complex situations of actually designing and putting those institutions in place. It captures the tension between recognition of the nuance and complexity, yet provision of some capacities, methodologies and ways forward that can be helpful for everyone working in this space. So, in that sense, it’s a symbol in itself, and hopefully, one that helps — to Geoff’s point earlier — reinforce our sense that we do actually have the ability to design institutions. From that perspective, a definition is useful — but at the same time, that definition is only there to be experimented with and to be tweaked by everyone in this space

Geoff: In the business world, the organizations of the last 20 or 30 years look very different from those of a previous generation. Google, Meta, Alibaba, Tencent, and so on are mainly based on platforms. What’s extraordinary in the public sector, on the other hand, is that the materials, the tools, those ways of thinking still essentially replicate options from half a century ago. Part of our purpose is to be clear on the needs, the tasks — but also the new options and new resources and materials that can be mobilized to meet those goals. 

Juha: Identifying, highlighting, and sharing more about those resources gives pathways forward. Creating repositories of knowledge in terms of what’s there, how different new materials, capacities, technologies have been used is hard work. Many are finding new ways — for instance, when it comes to public-private investments, decarbonization that fits the local context, or other challenges. But to put these options together in repositories of knowledge that can be useful for other ones in the space — that’s a path forward

That raises another question: how much can the practice of institutional architecture be codified? 

Jessica: That definition of institutional architecture embeds the challenges of mixing accumulation of knowledge across not only disciplines but also across academic and practical knowledge. One of the challenges that we have is how to come up with acceptable methodologies for being able to combine these distinct forms of accumulation of imperfect knowledge. How to figure out the gray area — do more than say we know nothing, but not say that we have perfect foresight. 

This comes back to the question: how much can some of these institutions and organizations be designed versus set-in-motion and shaped? What are some of the limits on an intentional institutional architecture?

Geoff: Two comments on that. First, what kinds of knowledge or disciplinary knowledge do you use as part of the design process? This overlaps with the challenges of physical architecture. You can have great “star architects” who produce amazing designs, but maybe they haven’t really drawn on the construction engineers who talk about how it will leak, or the psychologists thinking about the reality of working in the building, or perhaps knowledge from the arts about what will be beautiful, or the environmental context. Often, buildings are built that definitely don’t draw on all those kinds of knowledge because it’s complex and difficult. The same applies to designing institutions. 

Second, even in an ideal world, when you are tapping into all of these different dimensions of how a real institution works, it’s more complex than our brains can cope with. One of my favorite books about building architecture is Stewart Brand’s book, How Buildings Learn. It says that, in reality, buildings constantly adapt and change their shapes internally and their uses. Similarly, you want to design institutions that have a capacity to learn and adapt. You’ll never be able to have a blueprint which incorporates every possible change in their environment, their tasks, their people, and so on. So it is, as with buildings, a mixture of getting the initial design right but also designing in a capability for adaptation thereafter and on.

Juha: One of the challenges in that analogy is that institutions are or should never be designed by any individual. So, the “star architect” type of idea is quite harmful. Institutions are really about collective practice. So it is the collective, one way or the other, that has to learn and apply this knowledge. It’s hard to pin it down on individuals. It’s much more about how to engage a group of people who are able to come together in a situation where there’s sufficient trust, where there’s understanding of the context.

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“A definition is useful — but at the same time, that definition is only there to be experimented with by everyone in this space. Institutions are about collective practice. So it is the collective that has to learn and apply this knowledge, not individuals. Institutional architecture is about how to engage a group of people who are able to come together in a situation where there’s sufficient trust.”

What can we provide in that situation? In the end, to your question on how can we design and can we design institutions, it’s more of a matter of how to ensure that there are ways to be reflective, ways to recognize the key questions, ways of learning. To Geoff’s point, we can bring in more of what has worked in other contexts in order for the actual field to start to work together more. So it’s that balance to strike that most likely will be the key for us as well: How can we provide useful information, whether it’s toolkits, vocabularies or something else, while constantly remembering that these materials should be seen not as solutions or our answers for others but as attempts to codify the highly contextual in a manner that allows collective learning by exposing critical questions and choices to scrutiny.

Jessica: One thing that struck me just listening to the two of you is that institutional design essentially consists of a) anticipating how institutions might shape opportunities and motivations for social interaction, b) thinking through how these interactions might add up to larger societal outcomes, and c) placing bets in designs that might enable some interactions more than others. To make this a little more concrete, those investments in shaping the use of the institution could be a way to share information, a joint scientific model, regular space for meetings, means of coordination across two existing jurisdictions that may ultimately create new pathways for the individuals within the institutional framework to do new things. Lots of uncertainties – but not no information. 

Is that a reasonable way of looking at the design process: anticipating a dynamic, working backward to how choices today might tip the scales or create the space for certain dynamics in the future? Or is there another way to think about it? 

Geoff: Most public institutions of the world today were created by nation states, and they usually had to pass a law, they had to give it a budget. Various things had to be fixed or designed in advance, including some rough legal shape. What’s interesting then, is how they are allowed to evolve and create different patterns. So, in Juha’s country (Finland), SITRA is an interesting example. It was set up in the ‘60s but reinvented pretty much every ten years thereafter in quite fundamental ways. That was, in some ways, the intention when the UN was created. The Article, I think it’s 109, said every ten years it should rethink whether its structures were still fit for purpose. Unfortunately, that Article has not been invoked since the 1960s, so it hasn’t really reinvented itself. 

I think there’s always going to be a gap between the initial concepts and design, which probably often have to be embodied in law, and how the community, the real people who become that institution, its stakeholders, and beneficiaries, try and then evolve it, redefine it in practice. And the same applies to physical buildings. To some extent, the actual life of the building will not be that intended by the team of architects who first did the blueprints, the maquettes and so on. I guess our hope is that the discipline of institutional architecture allows those feedback loops to be quicker, more efficient, and richer in their mobilization of knowledge and information

Juha: That’s a really important point. If you take a deeper look at many of those public institutions, they have been thought through really well, apart from the temporal dynamics and everything that happens as you move forward. I completely agree with what Geoff said. 

Jessica, one example to your point on providing ways of anticipating the pathways could be from the time I used to work with digital platforms over a decade ago. The socitetal implications that platforms can have were really clear to those working in the space. But it was very difficult to communicate, make interventions, and try to initiate that discussion around public institutions. I think one of the reasons was that there was a gap, at least personally, in terms of methods and ways to actually describe some of those pathways and how they can evolve. There’s now much broader public recognition of the importance of public institutions or how the governance of platforms is more broadly conducted. So it’s a historical example in which the gap, in terms of a broader non-belief in institutional design, potentially cost quite a lot in terms of some of the social outcomes that then started to happen. 

Wood rings close-up

“Institutions have to be designed like a building. And ideally, a building not only stands up and doesn’t fall down but is useful and maybe beautiful and maybe becomes loved over time. We want the same for our institutions.”

Jessica: That point you made about communicating the value, the need, and creating the space to talk about design reminds me of the early days of Okapi, a company I set up in India to work on institutional design. We always had to take a fair amount of time to explain ourselves and how we might be able to help in various situations. Even after we conveyed the value of institutions and institutional design, there weren’t a lot of people to compare notes with on whether we were doing it well. That, for me, is one of the reasons that I’m excited about TIAL. In some ways, the value of creating a field is to alleviate that. ⭔

Continue to Part 2

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Part 2: Why build an Institutional Architecture field?

“It’s one thing to make sure that the options are available, but another to make sure that people are looking for them.”

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