Part 2: Why build an Institutional Architecture Field?

Featured image: Miquel Parera

This is Part 2 of a discussion between TIAL Co-founders Sir Geoff Mulgan, Jessica Seddon, and Juha Leppänen, who sat down together recently to discuss Institutional Architecture — what it is, how it works, and why it’s essential to build a thriving, learning, field of practice around upgrading and designing new institutions. To read Part 1, click here.  

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

What are your experiences with institutional architecture? What would you have liked to have around you as you worked on questions of institutional design out in the world?

Geoff: I’ve been involved in quite a lot at different points. What strikes me in retrospect is how little documented expertise or collective knowledge there was to draw on. We kind of made them up as we went along. Echoing what you said, Jessica, often new institutions arise in response to a problem or even a crisis. The Second World War led to the United Nations and the creation of the European Union. All sorts of different things were responses to a crisis. The AI flurry is a response to Chat GPT and the sudden realization this technology is out there in the world, ungoverned. We’re looking at issues around mental health, which has really risen up the political agenda, yet there usually aren’t institutions well-placed to manage population-level mental health. 

Part of our task is to help ensure there’s a menu of options ready for those moments when suddenly governments — politicians — think, “Bloody Hell, we need a new institutional answer.” In the past, in cases like the UN, a lot of work had been done in preparation for new demands. In many of these other fields, however, that work hadn’t been done. On AI governance, there simply hadn’t been the proper work done on what the options might be for that moment when both at a level of nations or the EU or globally, there was a demand for new institutions. And I think we’ll never quite predict when the need or hunger will arise. 

Jessica: I think I’d raise you one on that because it’s one thing to make sure that the options are available, but another to make sure that people are looking for them. The value of consolidating more of a field and terminology and an accumulation of options is to make it a required set of questions to be asked — to make institutional architecture a “thing” as much as the legal context or the anticipation of a multi-year operational plan or anything else. To ensure that those questions are not seen as secondary in the design of new treaties, financial mechanisms — all of the things that are underway every day.

I know that the three of us have talked about institutional design happening all the time. People are doing what they need to do to respond to visible emergencies or visible tensions. It’s just not always necessarily happening thoughtfully and proactively. 

The hypothesis is that if we make the practice more visible, slightly more structured, then there will be more attention to it, not in a reactive way, but as a necessity for any form of influencing the future. And we’ll see. 

But how do you see this field point, Juha? What do you wish you had around you when you’re in the room and you see the need for it, but it’s not center stage in the conversation? 

Juha: Well, all the things that you’ve already said, but perhaps another point to add on that is that Geoff, for instance, has written a lot about the importance of imagination. I think we could probably say that for lots of people working on macro-institutions right now, there is not that sense of imagination or possibility that we could actually rethink how societies function or how parts of the global system function. 

There are lots of people working on new institutions on the ground every day and on a variety of different issues. And those are often quite thoughtful as well. Creating a field to try to talk about the discipline hopefully also helps those individual initiatives and actors and people working with those groups to connect with each other and build a sense that we can actually rethink and revise how our societies function. Building a field would hopefully help us be more imaginative and have a sense of self-efficacy in applying that imagination, acting on that imagination, as well. 

How that happens, of course, will be a big question and difficult for a single organization to influence. But I think that’s part of it — building the field has to be relevant to actual experiences in institutional design. 

What often happens is that you find those other people who’ve had similar types of questions. So, if that’s the case, then there must be a way to codify some of those questions  — to your point, Jessica — in a manner that would be useful for others in different contexts. So, I think that will hopefully be the attempt for us in terms of codification and accumulation of knowledge. 

Wood rings close-up

“Part of our task is to help ensure there’s a menu of options ready for those moments when suddenly governments think,
‘B***** H***, we need a new institutional answer’.

Geoff: I think it’s useful, at a minimum, to just look at what’s been done. We are building a library of case studies, some looking at huge examples like China’s Government Guidance Funds, others looking at different ways to embed long-term thinking or some of the many attempts to build new capabilities around data and digital infrastructure

There’s no shortage of institutional design happening. But if you ask the people involved in those, where have they turned for guidance? Often, they set up a committee. That’s one way of doing it. Or they ask a consultancy, and the consultancy turns out to sort of just cut and paste the previous analogy. None of those are terrible, but they’re inadequate compared to what could be done with a much more reflective, thoughtful, evidence-based and imaginative approach to designing new institutions. 

Juha: That’s a bit of the gap that I hope we can help fill. With those methods of seeking advice, one tends to end up with a very technocratic way of looking at institutions. But institutions are social and political animals, and this doesn’t always work

One of the things we’ll be sharing soon is the findings from a gathering that TIAL and the Berggruen Institute did on the legitimacy of new institutions. I think that is a really interesting example of an attempt to also talk about those aspects that transcend the technocratic frame — that are really deep social and political questions — and give some structure to the efforts to attain legitimacy while recognizing that the core questions are highly contextual. That combination of general and very contextual was one of the key outcomes and insights from those discussions during the two-day workshop. It was a good illustration that there are some ways of going into those political and social questions preemptively. We are working on making the general parts useful for others to help to think through the questions that are relevant to a particular institution and context. In some ways, this might be the anticipation you mentioned, Jessica.

Jessica: In short, our field building seeks to address three points. One is to reiterate that institutions are an accumulation of choices and that we have some agency over them. We are compiling illustrations of new institutions, both at the level of new routines, new organizations, and ecosystems. For better or worse, these are the results of choices. Second, part of the motivation for TIAL is that we can make these choices more effectively. I think if you speak with anyone who has been designing or involved in creating new institutions, you usually get some version of, “We knew we had to do something, we did something, and then we saw if it worked.” How can we pool what we are learning to structure these choices more effectively? Third, how do we set up the dynamics to steadily improve and see feedback on those methodologies? 

Anything to add to these three buckets?

Geoff: No, that sounds exactly right. As with any field, there’s a bit of learning from practice around the world. That’s what you would do if you were building a new building. You would learn from other buildings and which had worked and which hadn’t. 

There’s also room for us to expand this sense of examples — to introduce new metaphors and (almost) ways of thinking. People often automatically gravitate to a very pyramidal way of thinking about organizations, the kind of organograms you can get online — but if we help people think of other metaphors, like mycelia or rhizomes, for example, there are lots of different forms to explore. 

Any real organization will have lots of units and entities: your finance people, your HR, your legal, your product development, etc. Thinking about different ways of orchestrating those, which increasingly can be done in more horizontal, more mesh ways using platforms, data, AI, and sometimes blockchain. These are options which probably don’t automatically come into the minds of the teams who’ve been charged, perhaps with designing a new institution for a national government or a city. But I think it’s quite important to widen, really amplify the imagination before then narrowing in on a particular choice. 

Wood rings close-up

“It’s one thing to make sure that the options are available, but another to make sure that people are looking for them. The value of building a field, a terminology and an accumulation of options is to make it a required set of questions to be asked — to make institutional architecture a “thing” as much as the legal context or a multi-year operational plan or anything else.”

Juha: Expanding the imagination also links very much to your third point, Jessica, on the learning, feedback, and dynamics around how institutions evolve. Some of those new technologies can be extremely useful there. And I think that links to the big question of accountability mechanisms around institutions in a moment in which there is a much higher level and potential, for instance, for transparency, deliberation, and engagement around institutions. 

So the third one, the third bucket, seems to be, to me, the one that will require quite a bit of focus, and that will also then, in the end, be a really significant one. As said before, many of the institutions, when they’ve been designed, have been fairly thought-through in the historical context — how they have worked over time relative to intentions. But how to provide attempts for learning and development in a highly organic, operational environment in which those institutions sit, is a really interesting question to tackle in building a field. 

Jessica: Well, we have two cases where we can experiment with that ourselves. One is the legitimacy project that you mentioned, Juha. The goal is to translate some of what’s accumulated in the academic literature about determinants of legitimacy and some of what has been learned by people building institutions, experimenting, and failing into a set of questions for an institutional entrepreneur — somebody who is upgrading or setting up a new institution — to identify reasonable bets? If we’re able to set up the guidance on which questions to ask, which aspects of context are likely to matter and to help people hone in on a reasonable strategy faster — that’s our offering for the structuring. But then we need to figure out how we get feedback on that and how we incorporate that feedback to improve the guidance. 

Geoff, I wonder if you could speak a bit about the toolkit that’s already up on the website and how you anticipate the feedback and the testing of that. 

Geoff: The toolkit was done partly because there wasn’t such a thing already out there. It provides a way, in a highly structured form, to help a team or a group or a committee who’ve been charged with designing a new institution to think through all the design choices, to widen their menu of options, and to be more systematic. I hope it’s useful. It’s quite challenging because it may show up gaps in thinking. But that’s a useful process and we will refine it over time. 

The legitimacy issue is all-important for public institutions. They don’t survive unless they are legitimate. And it’s quite a complex set of questions. What are the keys to being legitimate? I was just recently looking at NASA as an example, which has been through successive phases. In the ‘60s, its legitimacy depended on getting someone on the moon, which it did brilliantly. And then it had a real struggle for ten or twenty years as the money went out, people thought that it was a waste of time. And then it’s reinvented itself, for example, creating a whole industry around satellites and rockets into space, which it has done fairly well. 

We have two very different examples in Australia. One is the National Disability Insurance Service, set up about ten years ago, which now so many people depend on. It’s so much a part of their life. It is quite legitimate and it’s huge in terms of spending. That is one model. Another being worked on at the moment around mental health in Victoria is involving people with mental health problems and challenges in the governance and the operation of the service. This is quite a different sort of ethos about how to handle accountability compared to perhaps a generation ago, when it would have been doing things to people and for them, but not really with them. We’ll learn in practice, I hope, what makes those sorts of methods of accountability and engagement work. 

Wood rings close-up

“Creating a field to try to talk about the discipline hopefully also helps the people working on these problems to connect with each other and build a sense that we can actually rethink and revise how our societies function.”

Juha: Perhaps one point to add, a more cultural one, on how institutions can learn and revise. We have those cases in which that evolution has happened that Geoff has mentioned. SITRA, for instance, in Finland. But often, if you look deeper into those cases, it comes down to people working in those institutions, leaders in those institutions, feeling that they have a sense of security and comfort in actually starting to do that work. I think that one contribution that our examples, illustrations, methodologies, and toolkits might make is to help those people feel comfortable enough to actually go into that journey of revision and learning instead of doubling down on their purpose and function. There are many examples of institutions that double down on their purpose and function, regardless of how outdated that is, and lose legitimacy. They then seek to protect the institution — but the institution itself doesn’t matter. It’s the function of the institution in a context that matters. 

The big question is how can we help provide that sense of efficacy and the culture in which revising, learning are completely fine? Where it’s better to take risks in revision and learning than to double down and protect a structure for the sake of the structure itself. 

Jessica: Just highlighting the related point that the absence of a thoughtful design is a design in and of itself. 

Switching gears to the last question, because I know we’re running into the end of time. 

If people want to become institutional architects — noting that people may already be architects in practice but just not think of themselves that way — what are some of the skills? What are some of the core attributes? What are some of the key elements of being an institutional architect? 

Geoff: There probably is an analogy with architecture. To learn to be an architect, you have to immerse yourself a bit in history, have a sense of the huge diversity of forms, and know something about what made sense in different contexts. You have to understand the materials, the engineering, the physical options and tools. You have to understand something about different contexts — a city center, a democracy, an autocracy, and so on. And you need some room to learn, some ability to be creative, some space to imagine what hasn’t already existed, not just to copy the past. That is mainly done through practice. 

Architects learn a certain amount in the classrooms and through study, but they have to, at a certain point, get out into the world to learn through working on real projects with real clients, real stakeholders and real places. 

I think we need that mix of learning by studying, learning analytical methods, and learning by doing. Architecture as well is greatly supported by its own organizational forms: by the professions, by the big architecture practices where people come together to reflect, to discuss. I think we also need to create a little bit of that for this field. So there are maybe regular gatherings and conferences and organizations and so on, which can bring in that mutual criticism and mutual aid that actually turns a field into something really impactful in the world

Jessica: I think also just the vocabulary underneath it is important — enabling all of this is a vocabulary that doesn’t quite exist to describe a possibly shared interest and focus. Perhaps that’s one of our foundational offerings. We can’t do it by ourselves —  the three of us are not going to come up with the vocabulary — but if we start the ball rolling, then that’s potentially something that’s enabling. 

Juha: Absolutely. On vocabulary and an attempt to simplify what you two said: the three things for an institutional entrepreneur could be i) curiosity, which then implies looking at what has worked, looking at other examples, illustrations, and so forth —exploration of the imagination; ii) humility in terms of recognition of the contextual dynamics, but also the recognition that it is not an individual sport — so you need to work together; and iii) empathy in terms of understanding that institutions and people working within those are working, trying to put them together, have their own discourse, have their own vocabularies, have their own way of looking at things. 

In order to be a successful institutional entrepreneur, one cannot impose one’s language or methodologies. One really needs to have empathy in terms of understanding how the world looks from the other perspective. But also to work on that shared vocabulary and metaphors, and ensure that there is a way of looking at that collaboration beyond a very technical sense. That happens in practice. 

Geoff: Just one little follow-up on that. If you ask people in the business world, what are the most impressive new businesses of the last 20 or 30 years, they have no difficulty telling you the answers. The most highly capitalized companies in the world are ones like Alphabet and Meta and Alibaba and so on. I find if you ask people, “What are the most impressive public institutions of the last 20 or 30 years?,” they really struggle. There isn’t a shared vocabulary of examples. And that means in the business world, if you’re going for startup finance, you can say, I want to create an Uber for X, let’s say, and people roughly know what you’re talking about. There is a kind of language, a shared taxonomy, and again, we don’t yet have that for public institutions. 

This is where a common mental landscape, language, examples are really badly needed. For all of the flaws of Silicon Valley startup world of venture capital, it does make the whole system in some ways much more efficient that everyone roughly knows what you’re talking about. And it does generate massive creativity, which is missing, I think, in the public world, at the moment. 

Wood rings close-up

“The big question is: how can we help provide a sense of efficacy and the culture in which revising, learning is completely fine? A culture where it’s better to take risks in revision and learning than to double down and protect a structure for the sake of the structure itself.” 

Jessica: That’s an excellent point. If you ask me, “What are your favorite new public institutions?” I can give you a list of three or four easily. But I’ve also noticed that it makes people’s eyes glaze over. The names are not simple two-sentence coded blocks of information. So, for example, if I say “Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution Convention,” which is actually pretty amazing in terms of how it’s set up, and the relationship between a shared reality, and the possibilities for negotiation and collaboration, it takes three paragraphs to explain what it is, what it does, and why it’s cool. “The Uber of X” is a single sentence, which is efficient in communicating if you want to then build on it. 

Perhaps that’s a good challenge for us to end: the building blocks of being able to speak and effectively communicate and share information about institutional design and its effectiveness are missing. That’s the first task in creating a field — building up that vocabulary to effectively consider, communicate, share information, and make these choices. 

Parting thoughts? 

Geoff:  Even in the last year, being able to look at a model — the IPCC — which people roughly know because it’s very visible in the world, and saying, maybe we need an IPCC for Artificial Intelligence or for any other field, is at least a starting point to a conversation, even if the analogies break down. At least people get what you’re talking about. Maybe we just need ten equivalents where people can at least mentally picture roughly what you’re talking about before you then get into the detailed design. 

Juha: Absolutely. I’m with you in terms of the importance of vocabulary — but also how to transcend the tension between that while not going with that universalist claim that the tech community has had1. We need recognition of also the contextuality — but still having efficacy and efficiency in communication. To tie it back to where we started — perhaps that collective action and working together in terms of how we talk about institutions could be helpful. In the end, the definitions and examples of institutions that are successful are ways through which, together, a group of people or a community has been able to move forward. In terms of vocabulary and discourse, that hopefully gives some hints forward. 

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“If more people start to self identify as institutional architects—that’s a metric of our success.”

Jessica: Vocabulary, mental models. It’s funny, because a while ago, Geoff, you and I had a conversation about intangibles and making some of these invisible structures more tangible, visible, so that we could actually, as groups, talk about them, think about them, see the implications of choices. Not to go too esoteric here — I think it’s a good stopping point in terms of the challenge. 

We have to build the field of institutional architecture and expand and have more in ten years. If we have more people who self-identify on their resumes, whatever future version of LinkedIn, as institutional architects, I think that’s maybe a metric of our success. 

Geoff: Exactly. And hopefully lots of great examples which people think, “Wow, that really did solve a problem, is inspiring, and reflects our values as well as being effective in the world.” That’s the ultimate test. 

Jessica: Exactly. I mean — to highlight what’s now invisible as a visible, structuring, interstitial determinant of outcomes. That’s our task. Let’s give ourselves five years instead of ten. ⭔


  1. There is a tension between creating useful shorthand for efficiency and having that shorthand take over and erode different meaning and reflection. ↩︎

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