Let's make it personal

April 23, 2004

The Sims computer game offers a blueprint for higher education, argues Charles Leadbeater.

Personalisation could reshape public services as fundamentally as privatisation did in the 1980s.

Privatisation was a simple idea: putting public assets into private ownership would create powerful incentives for managers to deliver greater efficiency.

On the surface, personalisation is just as simple: by enabling users to become participants in service design and delivery, services will be more effective. But, in fact, personalisation is very ambiguous and could mean several different things.

For most people personalisation means providing a more customer-friendly interface with existing services: 24-hour call centres, appointments, guaranteed fast response times.

Personalisation could also mean giving users more say in navigating their way through services. Thus in secondary education, children will be given more choice over pace and style of learning.

Personalisation could also mean giving users more say over how money is spent. Some local authorities now allow people with disabilities to commission their own care packages. The logic of the government's reforms to higher education finance is to create just such a managed market.

If that was all that personalisation amounted to, then it would just turn public-service users into consumers, itself a disruptive change to the way public services are governed.

Yet two other ingredients should mark out personalisation from customisation.

Personalisation should mean users are co-designers and co-producers of a service. Good examples of this include community safety initiatives and recuperative care programmes for the elderly in which the "users" do a lot of the work because they want to find solutions that do not leave them dependent on the state. Fostering this spirit of independence should be central to higher education.

Personalisation should mean more self-organisation. Many of our biggest social challenges - reducing obesity and smoking, promoting a culture of learning - will be met only if we promote a mass social innovation among the public rather than relying on the state to come up with solutions.

What would that mean for the future of higher education?

The 1990s model of customer-driven higher education is the high-throughput university offering standardised, just-in-time degrees. Shopping for a degree is rather like shopping for white goods in the basement of John Lewis.

Yet the generation going into university now has grown up with quite different organisational models: Napster and Kazaar, eBay and text messaging, larger peer-to-peer self-organising communities in which the "consumers" of services are simultaneously their producers.

The attraction of a computer game such as the hugely successful The Sims is that users have tools to create and share their own content, which they can add to the basic game. Content and tools can be downloaded from hundreds of semi-official sites. About 90 per cent of Sims content is now generated by the game's more than 1 million players.

The makers of The Sims provide the basic game software and code, but they also provide users with tools for content creation, a shared space in which to work and some basic rules to organise their collaboration. The Sims community has enough top-down organisation to allow a mass bottom-up self-organising system of shared knowledge to emerge, in which users are co-designers and developers.

That spirit of personalisation and self-organisation is of course close to the ethic of university life, albeit as an elite pastime. The Open University is the closest to creating that on a mass scale.

The big organisational challenge for higher education is not how to turn universities into educational factories churning out standardised products by applying late 20th-century industrial logic to learning.

The exciting opportunities will come from applying these new organisational models of mass-distributed self-organising innovation. The spirit of The Sims is the true spirit of personalisation.

Charles Leadbeater is a writer, consultant and government adviser. His Personalisation through Participation is published by Demos, £5.00, or can be downloaded free at www.demos.co.uk

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