Creating Technology for Social Change

The Art and Science of Working Together: Palfrey and Gasser on Interoperability

Can high levels of interoperability lead to greater innovation? What would a theory of interoperability look like?

That’s the question posed by the latest book by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser: Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems(amazon).

Palfrey and Gasser are a team I have come to deeply respect during this past year at the Media Lab. Palfrey is a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center and one of the founders of the Digital Public Library of America. He’s shortly leaving Berkman to lead Phillips Academy. Gasser is the Berkman Center’s Executive Director and has an impressive record of international partnerships. Nor is this their first collaboration. Aside from their work together at the Berkman Center, Palfrey and Gasser also co-authored Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives in 2008.

What is Interoperability? Palfrey calls it the art and science of working together. He shares several examples of how interoperability explains far more issues than innovation: Why is Facebook worth so much? How can we understand the value of LinkedIn? Wiring your company into the nature of relationships offers great benefits for business but also challenges of privacy. Computer viruses are one example of the possible perils of highly connected computing systems. Transportation and currency systems are great examples of interoperating systems that have offered great opportunities for growth. At the same time, the Greek banking crisis illustrates the perils of increasing interdependence. More case studies can be found on the website for their 2005 study: Breaking Down Digital Barriers.

Urs gets on stage to share a series of case studies. His first example is “Smart Cities.” He shows us a video about smart city initiatives around the world. It features a conversation between two characters discussing which city to live in, based on innovations in energy supply, water, mobile infrastructure, transportation, and public safety.

Getting interconnectedness right is the main challenge for smart cities. Firstly, we need to recognise that many of the big societal problems (transportation, energy grids, air traffic control, healthcare, climate change) increasingly depend on interop. Secondly, we should acknowledge the variety of systems for interoperability. Those systems can be complex and messy. If you book a Swiss flight and end up on a United flight, you might miss your window seat. Thirdly, we need to see Interop as a design challenge. If Interop is a spectrum, we can make design decisions about the kind of interoperability we want. If we mess it up the initial design, it becomes incredibly difficult to recreate interoperability. Air traffic, for example, doesn’t use GPS and has struggled to integrate it.

Finally, we should be encouraged by the many benefits of highly connected systems. Across numerous case studies, Interop results in systems efficiency and greater user choice while also supporting innovation and economic growth.

The anatomy of interoperability takes place at several layers: institutions, human interaction, data, and technology. Consider, for example, police and fire departments. They need to work out institutional ways to interoperate around laws and policies. They need to develop a shared language for human interaction, as well as technology that can share data. That’s a lot of layers; during the 9/11 response, Fire and Police were able to share data but weren’t able to agree on a shared chain of command for collaboration.

Open Platforms are Gasser’s second example. He points us to the Facebook Open Graph, in which Facebook made a decision to become more interoperable, enabling innovation with Facebook Apps. Twitter’s story is also fundamentally about interoperability. Crowd mapping in Haiti by Ushahidi during the 2010 earthquake is another example of Interop at all levels. Ushahidi itself relies on the technical interoperability of Twitter and SMS. As data started to flow, agencies started to use Ushahidi to interoperate. Over time, the UN has been interested adopting crowdmapping at a more institutional level.

How might we theorise interoperability? While we have case studies and theories, there isn’t much empirical evidence. We might look at Zittrain’s Generativity theory, Von Hippel’s User-driven Innovation, or Christensen’s Small-step Innovation. But Interoperability isn’t always best for companies. Sometimes a company might aim for a monopoly in a highly competitive situation. And sometimes it works out for them.

Interoperability also enhances the diffusion of innovation. Consider HDTV for example: once companies agreed on HDTV, people started to make the switch. Even then, the transition wasn’t as fast as expected: the US government had to subsidise the transition.

Credit cards are another example of highly interconnected systems. People love to use them. At the same time, we still struggle with identity theft, security problems, and data breaches.

These privacy and security concerns are some of the main costs of high levels of interoperability. Gasser and Palfrey believe that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Where do these vulnerabilities come from? With more people and organisations tapping into the data flow, the risks of misuse become higher.

Cell phone chargers, says Gasser, are his favourite example of the benefits of interoperability. He talks about his collection of different mobile phone chargers. It would be convenient to have one single charger for all of the devices, and that’s where the industry is headed. Gasser points us to the EU’s recent deal with mobile phone manufacturers on a common mobile phone charger as a positive sign.

Achieving Interop can take a long time. It requires many actors to negotiate with each other while handling legacy systems and navigating the complexity of highly coordinated systems. Happily, there are many paths to interoperability. The challenge often lies in choosing the right set of tools in the design challenge of interoperability.┬áIn the book, Gasser and Palfrey map out a broad range of instruments on a quadrant: unilateral approaches, collaborative approaches, non-regularity (private action) approaches, and regulatory approaches by state actors. As an example of the ideas expressed in this detailed map, he points out that Governments aren’t usually that good at defining standards, but they can be very effective at convening industry.

Palfrey shares a final, troubling example from libraries. He argues that the preservation of knowledge over the long term is a problem of interoperability. “eLending” is the current crisis, which feeds into a longer term “reformatting problem.”

If a library wants to share digital copies of books, it’s more expensive than sharing paper. That’s a very strange problem when you think about it. 5 out of 6 major publishers won’t let you share e-books. There’s no agreed, open standard for sharing e-books. We want publishers and authors to get paid, and we can find ways to do that. But in our time, it’s hard to get the digital version from publishers, and it’s also hard to find a copy that a library patron could use on his or his device. Even worse, libraries are expected to pay more for digital copies than print copies.

Continuously updating materials for the long term is an incredible challenge in this environment. Imagine the floppy disks, CDs, and USB keys you have at home. Unless you have kept old computers around, you can’t access older copies. Libraries have this same problem, and it’s compounded by publisher policies which obstruct sharing or c.

Palfrey ends by asking us some hard, unanswered questions for further research:

  • How much interoperability should we have, for what purposes?
  • How do we get there?
  • What should the role of government be?
  • How do we manage interop over time? This question is one of the hardest issues. Air Traffic Control worked well at one time, but the high complexity of interoperation has limited innovation.
  • What methods can we use to study and understand interoperability? Case studies help, but can we also develop empirical methods?


Doc Searls asks: are there any areas where you say: give up? Palfrey thinks that Electronic Health records in the US are an incredibly hard problem. The Swiss and the Danes have made considerable progress. Yet despite strong political agreement in the US and the UK, it’s not clear how soon that will be achieved.

An audience member asks about the idea of interoperability and governance. Gasser refers to ideas about The Internet of Things as well as online expert networks. He thinks that the main power of technology is to enable human interop. Is there a dominant model? We’re still in an experimentation stage.

An anthropologist asks if Palfrey and Gasser would like to see limits on interop. he talks about the problem of hypercoherence– things which are too tightly bound together. Often a single species of wheat or corn might be a victory of interoperability, but it can also lead to a risky monoculture. Gasser points to the chapter on diversity in the Interop book, which has been inspired by biology. Gasser and Palfrey think that fostering interoperability doesn’t mean creating a monoculture. Instead, it’s a means to preserve diversity while preventing fragmentation.

The anthropologist notes that humans in ecosystems maximise for gross return, whereas ecosystems maximise for something else. We need to find the intersection between the two.

An audience member highlights the tension among efficiency, autonomy, and economic growth. She wonders about the role of decentralised systems in interoperability. Gasser responds that we need to think about interoperability as a variety of approaches with a range of design options. Palfrey thinks that the Web, email, and the social web offer high degrees of diversity, great efficiency, and large amounts of autonomy.

A final audience member brings up mobile phone charging to highlight the downsides of standards. Requirements to use a standard can limit the performance of technologies and hold back innovation. Gasser agrees. When we use standards to encourage interoperability, we run the risk of limiting innovation. We need to look for additional models of cooperation. This is a great design challenge for governments and companies.


Palfrey ended the session by thanking the Berkman Center and Gasser for years of very good collaboration and interoperability. After hearing them speak together, I am deeply encouraged by the warmth of their friendship and the strength of their intellectual collaboration.