Unmanagement and The Economics of Hacking

Peer Production

The methods of operation of open source communities are a particular case of peer-production economic practices. Peer-production is a post-industrial approach to the creation of goods and services, that is better suited to the conditions and needs of the knowledge economy, a term coined by Peter Druker.

In peer-production, the capital-intensive industrial institution is replaced by large scale, and open participatory activities in which individuals and organizations contribute their time and skills to the production of goods and the delivery of services. This does not mean unpaid, or free work. It means that the flow of value takes different paths.

Take for example Kickstarter, which is the peer-production replacement for venture capital. No longer creative individuals depend on the opinions and trends of a limited number of VC firms. Instead, now they can read out to millions of potential micro-funders, many of whom will quickly become their own customers and provide social-network marketing. Up to date Kickstarter has raised $649 million, from 4.2 million people, to address more than 42,000 projects. That is the massive scale of participation that the peer-production economy pursues.


The Hackathon

One of the key instruments of the peer-production methodology in open source is the Hackathon. This is a largely unstructured gathering in which participants select, prepare and drive their own activities. The Hackathon is the signature of a well-run and healthy open source community:

If you are not running hackathons,
you are not doing true open source yet

To illustrate the features and practices of a hackathon, here is a quick overview of five Hackathons in which we have participated in the past six weeks.


National Day of Civic Hacking

The National Day of Civic Hacking was a nationwide event in which local, state and federal government organizations teamed with local communities and volunteer hackers to work during the weekend of June 1st and 2nd on projects of social benefit. Supported by 21 Federal Agencies, including the White House, NASA, Dept. Labor, Dept. Energy among others.


The National Day of Civic Hacking brought over 11,000 civic hackers to work on projects of social interest in 95 events, 38 states, 83 cities and 2 territories. The size of the gatherings ranged from location to location, for example, the gathering at Palo Alto brought in more than 5,000 people.

In our case, we participated in the local event at SUNY Albany, where the civic hackers took on visualizing the information of the White House Petitions web site, popularly known as “We the People”. The White House has made publicly available the source code that runs the site, and also made available the dataset of submitted petitions that have received more than 150 signatures. This is a dataset of 1,806 petitions, and 13 million signatures.


ITK Hackathon Triple-Play

The Insight Toolkit (ITK) is an open source project funded by the US National Library of Medicine, and it is widely used in medical image research and medical devices. In these past week we participated in the following ITK events:

University of Iowa

On May 30-31, we meet with a group of 36 people combining students, faculty and staff meet at the University of Iowa to do a double session of training and hacking.

UNC-Chapel Hill

One May 28-29, we meet with a group of 40 students, faculty and staff from the Radiology and Computer Science Departments at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

McGill University in Montreal

On May 21-22, we meet with a group of 60 students, faculty and staff at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University in Montreal.


These three Hackathons followed a common theme and a common methodology:

  • Combined first day Tutorial with a second day Hackathon
  • Utilized game design practices for crafting the activities of the tutorial
  • Used Virtual Machines (VirtualBox VMs) and Cloud machines (Rackspace) to support the activites
  • Used iPython notebooks to drive some of the training activities
  • Followed methodologies to empower the attendees in the room to actively drive the activity
  • Abundant supply of coffee

VistA Hackathon at SUNY Albany

On April 26, OSEHRA sponsored a hackathon at the State University of New York at Albany. This hackathon was part of the 3rd SUNY Albany Open Source Festival, and brought together multiple interested parties of the VistA ecosystem. In particular it combined:


  • Students who have learned about M and VistA in Database and Web Development classes
  • Organizations involved in the deployment of VistA in the NYS Office of Mental Health
  • Retirees from the VA, whose fingers can fly esotherically through FileMan menus
  • SUNY Faculty, some who have been teaching M, and others who will be teaching it in the Fall.


Hackathon Anatomy

In all these types of events, the structure of the activity is based on the three key aspects of


  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

More specifically:


  • The people in the room have a common purpose and shared goals
  • They are interested in improving their mastery of tools and skills
  • They are self-driven, and through impromptu exchanges they self-select the activities they are interested on.

The result of this combination is that participants are optimally matched to activities, because either they are either strongly interested on them, or they have the required skills to execute them, or they are motivated to learn and develop the required skill. This feature is also a signature of the peer-production approach, and it is a departure from the practices of the Economics of scarcity in which management is required to drive production.

A couple of basic rules when running a hackathon:

  • Invitation is open to anyone
  • Attendees are welcome to arrive at any time and leave at any time
  • Those who show up at the event are, by self-definition, the right people for the event
  • The time at which they arrive is, by definition, the right time for the event to start
  • The activities that they decide to work on are, by definition, the right activities for the event.

There is a lot here about learning to go with the flow, and letting go of the illusion of control.

A Hackathon is not managed, because it is not manageable.

In the Knowledge Economy, management is obsolete and undesirable, and it is replaced with “unmanagement”, the art and science of letting people work unconstrained. A critical feature for knowledge workers who need a creative space to do their work. Such creative space is no longer driven by budgets and schedules.

Examples of unmanagement are the 20% of unconstrained time the Google give to engineers, the creative Friday events that Atlassian allocates for employees to work on projects their own choice, and the open culture of Github.

The practice of “unmanagement” is closely related to what we normally call “facilitation” and “coordination”. The key characteristic of unmanagement is that, as opposed to managers, the unmanager can not possibly forbid an activity. The unmanager is in the room to facilitate the activities, unclog the flow of information, create connections across people in the room, foster the awareness of the common purpose, and create the conditions for the development of mastery across participants.

Unmanagement is focused on negative space:  The emptiness by which action becomes possible.

Unmanagement does not waste time with problem solving. Instead it focuses on realization of possibilities, and hence its match to economies of abundance.

Unmanagement suits the needs of peer-production, as a methodology fit to Economies of Abundance. It applies to open systems in which massive participation and massive collaboration have solved the problem of provisioning resources. Industrial production, on the other hand was designed for Economies of Scarcity, where limited resources are available for the production of goods and services. Traditional management serves the Economies of scarcity by deciding what will not be done, and focusing resources on desired priorities, with the goal of reducing the uncertainty of outcomes. The unmanagement practices in peer-production and in Economics of abundance, are rather focused on facilitating the realization of possibilities, by making sure that no gates are closed, and no flow of value and information is ever restricted. The practice shifts from rationing and allocation of resources to focusing on growth, creation of value and maximization of possibilities.

As open source and other peer-production movements reached the mainstream, we ought to train and educate a new generation of unmanagers who will be able to facilitate the activities of the knowledge workers driving the creation of value at massive scales. We have started some of those efforts with the MBA program at SUNY Albany, and will be continuing them through the Education working group at OSEHRA. Please share your thoughts on how we could do this better.