Pro Am Benefits

Pro Ams are more than a new exotic social species of do-it-yourself enthusiasts. They bring wider benefits to society: they help build communities, drive innovation, sustain democracy, empower poorer communities and contribute to culture. Henry Ford’s model of organisation was built on the new character of the factory worker. Wikipedia, Linux and their like are substantially built by and for the Pro-Am.

Pro-Ams thrive in communities, where they learn to play with, compete against and perform to others. The volunteer organisations that sustain Pro Ams also help to generate social capital, lasting relationships and friendships that help to provide the social glue and basis for cooperation. As local community has dwindled as a source of shared identity, so Pro Am tribes have become more important. We engage with people who share our view of the world without having to live next door to them. Sharing Pro-Am interests is the new basis for community. This inbuilt impulse to collaboration lies at the heart of the economic power of Pro Ams.

The user innovation we explored in the previous chapter will often start with groups of Pro-Ams. What has already happened in some sporting fields, such as windsurfing, will spread to other sectors. In 1970’s Hawaii, top amateur windsurfers were trying to outdo one another by jumping from the top of large waves. Invariably, they fell off in mid-air because they could not keep their feet on the board. Then two of the leading protagonists, Larry Stanley and Mike Horgan, decided to try a different approach. Several years before, Stanley had built an experimental surfboard with footstraps. When he adapted it for jumping it worked immediately. “I could go so much faster than I ever thought,” Stanley recalled. “When you hit a wave it was like a motor cycle rider hitting a ramp; you just flew into the air and you could land the thing and change direction. Within a couple of days ten other people had boards with improvised straps.” The idea was promiscuous. High performance windsurfing started from that Pro-Am innovation. By 1998 more than a million people were taking part in the sport that Stanley and Horgan created. Disruptive innovation often starts in marginal, experimental markets that are often too small to sustain traditional approaches to R & D. That is where Pro-Ams come in. Dedicated amateurs pursue new ideas even when it appears there is no money to be made. They do it because they love to.

The more Pro-Ams there are in a society the healthier its democracy is likely to be. While participation in formal politics and membership of political parties has declined, there has been a parallel massive growth in single issue and pressure groups campaigns. The fact that people can pursue amateur hobbies without state censorship or interference is a vital measure of freedom. People with passions get drawn into civic life and so are more likely to have a stake in a democratic process that defends this freedom of association. Pro-Ams are also spawning the most powerful new forms of political engagement. These bottom-up, forms of organisation are cheaper, more agile and more fun than formally structured parties. They transforming the way we do politics.

Pro Am creativity will flow through culture in future as well. File sharing sites such as Napster and Kazaa gave people the chance to share music made by established artists. New generations of these services will allow people to share their own creativity. With Sibelius, the software that allows composers to orchestrate their work, someone can play a keyboard connected to a computer and see the notes he is playing transcribed automatically onto a score. With a few more clicks the melody can be orchestrated for a full symphony. Sibelius started in the early 1990s as a heavy-duty software programme for professional composers. The software has been used for the music in countless feature films. It did not take long to infiltrate education: now 60% of UK schools use a simpler and cheaper version for students and teachers. Think of what that means for the average music teacher: the task of staging a school musical just got a lot easier. Writing scores for the school orchestra, often with an odd assembly of instruments, has became simple. Children doing their GCSE music courses can now use the simple version of Sibelius to compose for themselves. They do not have to learn composition by listening and writing out notes in long hand. They can learn by doing. Thanks to the Sibelius community web site they can publish and share their work online. There some amateur composers are selling their compositions, from online stalls. Many in the community just want to share their work. In 2005, just months after it was created, the site had 45,000 scores contributed by members, with 20 new scores arriving every day. You can listen to Mathew Scowcroft, 16, from Melton Mowbray, playing his first published oboe work : “The train was beautiful on fire, fireflies attracted by the embers, amid the chaos.” Jeremy Silver, Sibelius’ chief executive, who looks more like an enthusiastically earnest English teacher than a business man explained: “Sibelius is really a tool for the extension of the imagination and we want to take that to as many people as possible. The fact that the professionals use the top of the range version still matters a lot to the product’s standing and credibility, but the real impact comes from when it spreads to hundreds and thousands of people, especially children. Then it could transform how they can be creative, together.”

Pro-Am power is not confined to the high-tech, developed world. It is at work in some of the poorest communities as well. Many of the social and medical advances achieved in the rich, developed world in the 20th century – especially in health and education – relied on providing people with access to professional expertise: teachers deliver education, doctors cure disease. In the developing world professionals are scarce and these top down, welfare state style approaches are too expensive, which is why the most imaginative social innovations in the developing world employ Pro-Am forms of organisation, such as the Barefoot College.

The outstanding example is Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank founded in 1976 by Muhammad Yunnus, a Bangladeshi economics professor, to provide very poor people with access to micro-credit to allow them to improve their houses and invest in businesses. Traditional banks, reliant on professional expertise, regarded poor people seeking small loans as unprofitable. It did not make sense to employ a professional banker to make a small loan to a poor peasant. Grameen has succeed by orchestrating Pro-Am expertise. Grameen employs a small body of professionals who in turn train an army of barefoot bankers. Village committees administer most of Grameen’s tiny loans. By 2003, Grameen had lent more than $4bn to about 2.8m Bangladeshi’s including 570,000 mortgages to build tin-roofs for huts to keep people dry during the monsoons. Had Grameen relied on traditional, professional models of organisation it would only have reached a tiny proportion of the population. The Pro Am, self-help model is being replicated by social entrepreneurs across the developing world. In India, Jeroo Billimoria, has built up a national emergency telephone service for street children, built almost entirely on training children to advise one another. In Peru, social entrepreneur Martin Burt is creating a self-sustaining school, in which the children operate a farm and so earn enough money to employ teachers. In the Mbuya Parish of Kamapala, the capital of Uganda, Margrethe Junker, is leading an aids support network, for more than 1350 clients, with just 230 volunteers, 77% of whom are also clients of the service themselves. “We had not option,” she explained. “ We had such huge need and no doctors, we just had to do it by organising people to do it themselves. The more people become involved as contributors, the better they feel.” Low-cost, self-organising networks might be the height of organisational fashion on the US west cost but they are a matter of life-and-death in places like Mbuya Parish, Kampala.

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Knowledge once held tightly in the hands of professionals and their institutions is flowing into networks of dedicated amateurs. The crude, all or nothing, categories we use to carve up society – leisure vs work, professional vs amateur – will have to be rethought. The Pro-Ams will bring new forms of organisation into life, which are collaborative, networked, light on structure and largely self-organising. Professionals - in science and medicine, war and politics, education and welfare – shaped the 20th century through their knowledge, authority and institutions. They will still be vital in the 21st century. But the new driving force, creating new streams of knowledge, new kinds of organisations, new sources of authority, new ways of reproducing the interests of a section of the dominant class, will be Pro Ams.

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