He really does look like Tom Hanks


As a follow on to my post about Steven Johnson’s book, Clay Shirky’s TED talk is well worth a watch. He talks about the clash that’s going on between hierarchy and networks in the world of government and policy and points to the growth of methods of collaboration like Github in open source as ways that politics and law making might develop in the future. It’s a talk full of insight but also full of realism that this isn’t going to happen overnight.

[Strange aside: Git was apparently named by Linus Torvalds after himself (he’d already used his real first name to name Linux so used the other name people called him)].

I also like Clay’s description of what he studies — how technology affects the way people have arguments. New forms of politics probably aren’t going to be high brow, philosophical ones. Just check out the debate in the comment thread on the TED site which isn’t about the content of the talk but about whether Clay looks like Tom Hanks or not (he does). Quite often what happens is that an online debate descends into mudslinging and personal attack and the useful people just go elsewhere. My feeling is that new political models will be innovations in process that help people get over the mudslinging phase and have better (more productive) arguments.
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Future Perfect — the case for peer progressivism

I’ve never been quite sure which political box I fit into. When I was younger I tried being a member of various political parties but nothing was quite right even though I was interested in political issues. As time went on I came to realise that it was partly the way that political parties were structured that was the problem. They were too slow and top-down and debates about policy didn’t resonate with me — they seemed abstracted from any evidence or real idea about what the future should be like.

As I got a bit older I realised there were plenty of other people who thought in a similar way to me and who had become disillusioned with the main parties. We took our inspiration from self-organisation rather than old political labels. We were relentlessly practical and entrepreneurial rather than sitting around talking about policy.

Now Steven Johnson has written a book that gives our politics a name. I can say that I’m a peer progressive. ‘Peer’ because my first instinct is to look for the peer-to-peer solution rather than the top-down government or corporate solution. ‘Progressive’ because I believe in making the world a better place rather than resting on tradition.

On Monday I went to along to see Steven talk about the book in San Francisco having read it on the plane over. It’s a book that Steven says he began thinking about when writing Emergence in 2000 when he noticed that all the network patterns he wrote about in terms of ants, brains, cities and software were also present in the way that the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 were organised.

Steven was interviewed by Bill Wasik of Wired magazine who put it pretty well when he said it’s a pre-manifesto for a future politics — one that doesn’t quite exist yet. I’d agree with that, but I think when the shift from the big parties happens, it will happen quickly. I have a sneaking suspicion that the UK might be the most likely place for it to happen because our political parties are financial and organisational shadows of their former selves, unlike the US where they have huge financial muscle behind them.

I have a bet with a few Demos friends that the next UK election (in 2015) will be won by a party that didn’t exist before the 2010 election. I still stand by that. I think the innovation will be in process not policy and it may look nothing like our current parties. Although it wasn’t part of the bet, I’d add that technology will play a major part. The weak signals are in the Pirate Party’s LiquidFeedback system which, while a bit geeky at the moment, is along the right lines. I also think that Clay Shirky is onto something when he talks about Github as an innovation that could spread to democracy.

There are issues we’ll need to face though. Steven doesn’t really go into some of the theory of social networks that shows they develop an underlying structure that can lead to inequality of resources and influence — it’s even known as the rich-get-richer effect by network theorists. As peer progressive politics develops we’ll need to understand the dark side of networks much better.

But if you find yourself frustrated with our current politics then read Future Perfect. It’s intensely optimistic about the future but by showing just how much progress we’ve made over the last 20–30 years you come away thinking that it might be realistic too. We don’t live in a peer progressive world yet, but it might come sooner than you think.

Image by Riverhead Books.
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Getting past the gloom

This is roughly what I said in a talk I gave at the Designers Accord London Town Hall meeting at the Design Council on 19th January 2012.

I don’t know about you but when I read, watch or listen to the news at the moment I get pretty depressed. The Today Programme seems to be a relentless torrent of unsettling events and terrible things that might happen. The newspapers are full of institutions failing and people to blame. Even Twitter and Facebook have become just links to more doom and gloom.

And it’s easy to find yourself feeling pretty small in relation to the complexity of the problems we face. If you don’t have any money, don’t have any position of political power or a large organisation you can boss around, it can seem like an impossible task to get us from here to where we want to be — a society where we’re all safe and able to live fulfilled lives.

It’s only when I think about what’s changed in the last ten to fifteen years that I feel more optimistic.Technology, mainly created by small startups, has changed the way that we consume information and products. Correspondingly it’s revolutionised the sectors where that’s been easiest to do — advertising, music, film and retail. The dinosaurs fight back occasionally — as has been the case with the companies almost getting SOPA to the point of being agreed. But overall, they’ve had their day. I think the day the internet ‘went dark’ yesterday was probably a turning point.

What I think is interesting is that the same types of technology are actually only just beginning to change the sectors that are the most important ones for social progress — sectors like healthcare, education, care for our elders, energy, food. The reason is that they’re tougher problems to solve but everything we’ve learned from the last decade of the internet can be put to good use.

What I think we’ve learned is that technology is a great tool to reorganise systems. It’s a tool for us to imagine, then prototype, then grow new ways of organising that change the way people behave and reach millions of people. Sometimes the technology itself is pretty obvious and simple — it’s just never been used like that before. As Clay Shirky says, “tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”

Over the last few years I’ve tried to work with teams to help them turn ideas into startups and I’ve done my best to learn from some of the best in the business in the US and Europe. I think what’s emerging is a pretty simple pattern that you can use to develop sustainable social innovations.

  • Find a need (and a customer)
  • Build something simple and measure its impact
  • Learn what works and what doesn’t
  • Do it again

There are then tricks to every one of those stages but it’s only when you’ve got it working that you should try to get bigger. If you get it right, scaling becomes easy because lots of people will want to help you, whether they are investors or customers or people who want to work for you, but there’s no point in forcing those things until you know you have something good.

I guess that’s really what we’ve been trying to do with Social Innovation Camp and now with Bethnal Green Ventures. We’re learning that you need real discipline to do it well — and at its best design thinking is just that. Creativity matched with honesty and perseverance. I think that over time if we’re all meticulous about the way that we try to create social innovation, the gloom that pervades our society might start to disappear.

The City as School

This is roughly what I said at Be Bettr on Friday 14th January 2011 at the Conway Hall in London. Thanks to Matt Jukes for organising!

1) When we hear the word education most of us think of a classroom, of a teacher standing at the front, of kids sitting at rows of desks. Perhaps the slight smell of a distant canteen. Of course not all schools are like that but when it comes to learning throughout life we hold on to the metaphors and images we grew up with. It’s very hard for us to think of an education system for adults that doesn’t mirror those that are basically drawn from our own experiences, but I think we need to, and perhaps in doing so we could end up rethinking education for everyone, including that of children. For me it’s about how you reorganise the system — I’m not so interested in content, I think the demand for that comes from people anyway. So today I want to talk about a few hacks to the system we’ve tried with School of Everything and why I think we can reclaim some old ideas in modern times.

2) First a couple of pieces of context to what we’re doing. The human race tipped over to be majority urbanised in 2008. Nearly 90% of the UK population lives in an urban area. Since this is where the people are, this is where the ideas, knowledge and skills are concentrated too. While cities have been the great drivers of society and economy, they of course have their faults. They massively lack the social infrastructure of old. When Michael Young and Peter Wilmott wrote in detail about Family and Kinship in East London in 1955, what they found was a world rich in social relationships, networks of dependence and mutual support that helped them face the adversity of insecure and low-paid employment. They charted what would now be described by government types as “social capital” and how it made urban neighbourhoods function effectively.

3) A whole raft of factors set about gnawing away at those bonds throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. While there were improving levels of health and education, other factors like urban planning changed the way people related to each other. And as Clay Shirky points out — television sucked up our cognitive powers. While TV did open up new learning opportunities — Michael Young himself went on to create the Open University based on the sophisticated new technology of the time (BBC 2) — it also eroded social time and diminished the amount of time that people spent in civic spaces and activities. The car also enabled people to speed through their own local area, avoiding their neighbours. So to my mind, the car and television made urban areas lose some of the efficiency they had developed in relation to learning and building relationships with other people.

4 ) I think it’s only now that we’re just beginning to invent ways of making the city as efficient as it could be. Silently the city is becoming connected to the internet. We are teaching the internet about the real world, geotagging cafes, adding data about hospitals through Patient Opinion. Telling it where people are with mobile phone signals. Technology is just starting to become a layer of the real world, as roads and sewers did before. It’s not the cables and transmitters that matter but the representation of useful information that can be connected. As Clay Shirky says, technology only becomes interesting when it becomes boring.

5 ) Over the past 3 years we’ve been working on School of Everything. We started out with a simple proposition — that we could use technology to connect people who had something to teach with people who wanted to learn. What we built was a listings service where people could say what they could teach and students could provide feedback and ratings of that teaching. Most of the learning going on was one-to-one and it’s worked pretty well. We’ve helped tens of thousands of people find learning opportunities in their local area and as time has gone on we’ve added features. January is always our busiest month as people learn something new as a resolution.

6 ) But in the middle of last year we started to feel there was something missing from our plan. We started to see that there was real power in learning in small groups rather than just with a teacher. It coincided with the economic crunch and us seeing people often having a bit more time on their hands but willing to spend less on learning stuff. As we started to explore, we came across the idea of Study Circles in Sweden or studicirkeln as I’m told they’re called. They developed over the course of the last century and have gradually become the predominant form of adult education. Today there are roughly 300,000 of them. It turns out there is some heritage in the idea in the Young Foundation as well. In the 1970s Michael had the perfectly sensible idea of running them on trains and so throughout the 1970s and 80s it was fairly common for people to meet up on the 17.18 to Stevenage or any one of 100 other trains across the country to learn something new for the 30 mins of their journey home.

7 ) We started five Groups in Bethnal Green. Each group had 6–12 members and covered a different subject in a different kind of space — we covered everything from cookery to code, art to accounting. We met up regularly, sometimes bringing in people who knew more than we did, sometimes just getting together with people who were interested in the subject. Of course we realised this was going on all around us already whether through church house groups, book groups or other subjects in peoples homes. What we found was that it works — it helps people learn new things and build new relationships.

8 ) This week we’re opening up the system to other people and we need people who are willing to make things happen. Self organisation needs a little bit of organisation. Call them community organisers, learning champions, whatever you like but they are people who give self organisation the nudge it needs — they set the patterns. We hope what we’ve built fits the needs of organisers, making their lives simpler and enabling them to have greater impact. We’re looking for people who want to back the organisers — who want to support networks of groups. Whether they’re local authorities who want to see more self organised learning in their areas, companies who want to see their staff learning from one another or campaigns that want to create networks of groups meeting up regularly to learn about an issue.

9 ) Sugata Mitra says “Education is a self-organising system where learning is an emergent outcome.” When you think about it a university campus is just a collection of facilities with a bunch of people who are motivated to learn new things come together. The organisational infrastructure of a university is possible to recreate using technology. I suppose what we’re trying to create is the invisible, yet practical university. No quad, no clock tower, no vice chancellor’s suite, but full of people who want to learn and people who can help them. We just provide a way of seeing and organising that layer of learning opportunities. We want to see neighbourhoods becoming schools. Putting to use underused buildings and encouraging people who have something to teach, to share with other people.

10) Hacking is about simple interventions that change everything. Using the weight and momentum of what exists to help change its direction. It’s Jujutsu with ideas and code. We’d like your help to use this simple hack — the idea of the learning group, to try and revolutionise adult learning. Thanks for listening.

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