We are as gods and might as well get good at it

Photo some rights reserved by Michael Coté

That was the opening line of the first issue of the Whole Earth Catalogue back in 1968. Last night I went along to one of the Long Now Seminars in San Francisco — organised by Stewart Brand, the person who penned that first line — to hear astrobiologist David Grinspoon give a talk.

Grinspoon’s talk applied the principles of how we look for life and potential civilisations in the rest of the universe to the Earth. If we were alien astrobiologists looking at our planet, what would we be able to tell? Grinspoon thinks it would be obvious that we’re an intelligent civilisation rather than just simple life and that’s mainly because of the effect that humans have had on land and the atmosphere. We’d quite obviously be in an anthropocene to outside observers or a period when life is having an intentional macrosopic effect on the planet. We are, to some extent, in control.

Grinspoon is an optimist that we will eventually control climate change — we have the tools, we just need to get good at using them. He points to the way that the hole in the ozone layer has now almost been reversed as a point of hope that it is possible to reverse unintentional man-made change in the atmosphere.

Meetups and Ministers: Self-organizing public services

[This is a slightly adapted version of a short talk I gave at MASS LBP on 10 March 2009 in Toronto, Canada]

It feels a bit unfashionable in tumultuous times like these but there’s something you should know about me before we start. I’m an optimist — a practical optimist in that I like making things happen and changing things for the better. I’m a great believer that the direction of human progress is towards greater and greater ability to solve problems. People are getting more intelligent individually and groups of people are getting even smarter because of new tools for collaboration and new ways of co-ordinating activity.

This talk stems from some things I’ve learned over the last five years about what’s possible when you try to take ideas that could change the world and put them into action using web technologies. It’s also about a quote that I made in a film called Us Now that got me in a little bit of trouble with my political friends:

“Representative democracy is based on the assumption that people are thick. And that’s just not true.”

It was one of those things that just came out of my mouth without much thought beforehand. The advantage of saying it on film is that I’ve had to think about it afterwards. What I meant was that by putting decisions and the provision of public services in the hands of a small group of elected representatives we miss a massive opportunity to tap the power of people to solve their own problems.

I think we’re starting to see a massive upsurge in creativity as people learn new ways of using cheap, easy tools to take control of their communities. Representative democracy needs to adapt to this new reality. And I want to convince you tonight that you as individuals have new ways to make a difference as well.


A Meetup is a marvellous thing. Just so you know, there are 290 meetups organised through Meetup in Toronto this week. Here’s how it works.

I’m into clocks that keep time for 10,000 years. By that I mean that I find the work of the Long Now Foundation really interesting and I thought it would be nice to meet other people who share my fascination. But I have two day jobs and not a lot of time so I created a Long Now London Meetup on Meetup.com, picked a pub and a time and waited.

Now I have to admit that the first one wasn’t huge. There were actually only three of us (which is technically a crowd I’m told but didn’t really feel like one). But there are now 150 members of the group in London and we regularly get 50 people together to talk about really long term thinking. At our last event we had a pretty amazing discussion about synthetic biology and what it might mean in the long term. There are also now 6 other Long Now meetups around the world inspired by the one we started in London.

A meetup creates social capital. It creates community. It helps people get work and find people to start new projects with. And a subscription as an organiser for Meetup costs $12 a month.

Meetup is just one example of a tool that anybody can use to bring people together and make things happen. Facebook is another – when you look at all the events and campaigns that are organized through it alongside everybody saying what they had for breakfast you start to realize how powerful a platform it is. Twitter is another that people have gotten turned onto in the past few months.

One of my favourites is The Point based in Chicago. It’s based on the idea of the Tipping Point, that when enough people are interested in something, it can flip from being an idea to being reality. So basically you pledge something on the website that will only be possible with the support of other people. There are lots of examples of people using the site to raise funds to build a local play area or to raise funds for their favourite charities but there are also some bigger examples. My favourite is probably the idea to build a giant glass dome over Chicago for the winter. Estimated cost is in the billions but they already have pledges of over $200,000 to the cause. But imagine if that was something serious – like a new railway or a new school or hospital.

All these tools basically bring the barriers to entry to organization down to nearly zero. And it’s not just using them that is cheap – building them doesn’t take much cash either.

Start small, aim big

Let me tell you the story of how I ended up working at Demos. I knew I wanted to work there from the moment I picked up a Demos book in a bookshop when I was in university. As I flicked through the short essays I was surprised by the ideas – they were things that made me think differently about how the future could be. So when I ended up working there and coming up with some of those ideas myself, it was heaven. And I completely loved it.

But think tanks need to change and actually, in turn, government needs to change. It’s not because they’re redundant but because they have a model of turning ideas into practice that’s been overtaken. Technology means that to put idea into practice has become as cheap as writing about them in the first place.

I’m not betraying any confidences by saying that think tank projects which would lead to a report containing ideas used to cost a few tens of thousands of pounds to produce. Let’s say around about the £40,000 mark on average.

Now School of Everything didn’t actually come out of a Demos project but the idea for something like School of Everything wouldn’t have looked out of place in the recommendations section of a Demos pamphlet. It took £20,000 to get School of Everything to the point of proof of concept. We had a website, a team, a business plan and about 1000 users for less than it would cost for a think tank research project.

It was the fact that I realized that you could build actual websites for that little money that helped shape Social Innovation Camp.

What does all this mean for Ministers?

For me Obama represents a sea change. But I worry that people haven’t grasped it fully.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” He said on Super Tuesday last year.

It’s not whether he saves the world, it’s whether we can save the world. We shouldn’t load expectation on one man no matter how charismatic he might be. If he gets it right he will unleash millions of people to sort out this mess we call civilization. He will accept that he doesn’t know the answer because there isn’t one. There are millions.

For me all politicians and senior public servants should take a similar approach. It’s not a question of getting out of the way – it’s about leading change not managing change. Sadly at the moment I don’t really see it happening.

Part of my evidence for this is the number of civil servants in London I know who have side projects to do with technology. They’re using an email list to organise people on their street. Or running a wiki about climate change. Frustrated by the constraints of their day job they try to make a difference outside of Whitehall. I call them the secret society.

And here’s the analogy I would use for how public servants should work with people who are using technology for social innovation.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see a preview of the forthcoming documentary movie Oceans. It’s taken $75 million and 8 years to make and shows footage of ocean creatures we’ve never seen on film before. As producer Jake Eberts puts it “our aim was to connect people with the other 70% of the natural world.”

There was one shot that blew me away. I’m used to seeing a shoal of fish on film – seeing that chaotic but organized movement that can look magical but can also be scary – we also call it swarming. But what they’d done in Oceans was mounted a camera on a tiny torpedo so it could swim alongside the fish. When you see a shoal from the inside it’s completely different.

The next generation of political innovators may not come from the usual suspects but from bored graduate public sector graduate trainees unwilling to gradually climb the greasy pole before they’re allowed to make a difference. And they might be the next generation of technological innovators too. The dot-com stars of this generation may come from the public sector rather than the business and engineering schools of the world because I think there’s massive financial value in changing the world for the better as well.

What you can do
Enough ideas and theory. Here’s what I want you to do. Pick an issue that you care about. Actually no, something that you’re passionate about. Then think of something in that world that annoys you, that you think could be done better. Think of it as an itch that you really want to scratch.

Then think what the smallest and simplest thing you could do to make it better or solve it might be. Now go and try it. If it works, tell some other people and get them to help. If it doesn’t, no worries, try something else.

If you all went home and had a go at that this week we might have some nascent social innovations by this time next week.

As I said, I’m an optimist. It used to be that all we could do was shout or put a cross in a box every few years. But now technology lets us do far more. So we should.

Long-term misunderstandings

“If you’re going to take a long-term orientation, you have to be willing to stay heads down and ignore a wide array of critics, even well-meaning critics. If you don’t have a willingness to be misunderstood for a long period of time, then you can’t have a long-term orientation.”

That’s Jeff Bezos in US News. Jeff also gets a mention in this TED talk by Stewart Brand about a field trip they took to the site of the Clock of the Long Now.

Meetup, ‘Why Don’t You…’ and 10,000 year thinking in a pub

I love Meetup and there’s a great piece in the FT Weekend Magazine that explains quite what it is that makes it work. It really started to come together for me a few weeks ago when we had a fantastic Long Now London Meetup. Up until then it had just been people I knew, but last month we grew beyond that. It was great to be able to organise something so easily that brought together people around a shared interest.

So what’s it got to do with Why Don’t You? Well, the full title of Why Don’t You was “Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go Out And Do Something Less Boring Instead?” which was pretty revolutionary for a TV program when you think about it. Somebody once described the email magazine Pick Me Up that I used to help out with as Why Don’t You for grown-ups. With our manhunts in Covent Garden, taking cows to Toxteth and journeys to find the source of the Thames, it was all about getting people away from their email.

I like that idea — that we should build technology projects that help people get away from technology and I’d say Meetup are one of the most inspirational companies that already do so. I hope we’re doing it with School of Everything and Social Innovation Camp too.

Oh, and our next Long Now London Meetup is on September 17th. Come along!

Photography from the deep past

The most recent Long Now Seminar in San Francisco sounds like it was brilliant. Frans Lanting set out to take photographs of places where the conditions resemble those from key moments in the distant past of the evolution of planet Earth.

From Stewart’s email summary:

On a live volcano in Hawaii he found the naked planet of 4.3 billion years ago — — molten rock flowing, zero life. “Your boots melt. You smell early Earth.” On the western coast of Australia he shot a rare surviving living reef of stromatolites, made of the cyanobacteria who three billion years ago transformed the Earth by filling the atmosphere with oxygen. Lanting took pains to photograph without blue sky in the background, because the sky was not blue until the cyanobacteria had generated a planet’s worth of oxygen.

The photos are absolutely stunning. You can find them here.