The Fifth Risk

As I write this it’s unclear whether the current British Government will survive. Amidst the chaos, spare a thought for the civil servants who have to keep the show on the road. They’re incredibly important.

For a description of why their expertise matters, read Michael Lewis’s new book The Fifth Risk. It’s terrifying. There’s no other word for it. It examines what’s been happening in the transition from the Obama to Trump administrations.

Lewis interviews people who worked in three of the most ‘boring’ and misunderstood government departments — Energy, Agriculture and Commerce. Actually those departments are responsible for nuclear safety, the US food supply and predicting the weather — including tornados. Without their expertise and knowledge, the US would be an extremely dangerous place.

You could sum up his conclusion on the machinery of government as ‘I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that’. It takes dedicated, intelligent, experienced people to make things work. The implications of the complete failure of Trump’s people to understand this are scary but perhaps the worst is the nuclear threat. That’s where the title of the book comes from. The first four risks rattled off by the person who used to run nuclear safety are fairly obvious — a dirty bomb, a broken arrow and so on. But the fifth risk is ‘project management’. There is no evidence that the Trump team understands that and good people further down the organisation are leaving in their droves.

Fortunately, we have far fewer political appointments in the UK so the majority of the machinery of Government remains when you have a change of political leadership. I know ‘experts’ are out of favour at the moment, but I for one am very glad they exist.

Inner City Pressure

I’ve read a lot of new books this year but haven’t got round to writing up little reviews of them like I was doing last year. So I thought I might try and catch-up with posts about the standouts over the next few months.

The first is ‘Inner City Pressure: the story of grime’ by Dan Hancox. It might be the best book about 21st century politics in the UK that I’ve read.

The grime scene started in Bow, a mile or so away from where I live in East London. You can see the ‘three flats’ in the photo on the cover of the book from our window. The book is the story of grime from about 2003 through to the current day.

The headlines would have you believe that grime was just about gangs, guns and knives but it was also a creative outpouring about how badly politicians and the people who ran London at the time misjudged the impact of their policies on the lives of poor people (particularly poor black people) in East London. People in the grime scene were persecuted by the police, the city and politicians — in a way that was only thinly veiled racism.

The music was (and is) incredibly claustrophobic. Lots of the early lyrics focused on a few square miles around Roman Road and Bow. Dan Hancox contrasts it with the expansive, epic ‘Empire State of Mind’ by Jay-Z about New York which is full of wealth, bling and private jets. Grime is about what it feels like to have no hope of escape and Hancox thinks Dizzee Rascal called his album ‘Boy in Da Corner’ because he felt trapped. The urban music scenes in the US and UK scenes were very different. These days people from both scenes are multi-millionaires but the music came from very different places.

I remember going to grime nights in Shoreditch in 2005/6 and having no idea what was going on. Ten years later and some of the people who were there are some of the most successful artists in the UK music industry. Not only have they become successful themselves but they’ve changed the way the music industry is organised. Grime was about being an outsider and independent which meant that it took them ages to actually break through — as Hancox points out, grime wasn’t really commercially successful until 2016 (except for a few artists who had to morph their style to get mainstream acceptance). Now the independence that grime artists hung on to is much more the norm. The music industry has been transformed.

The book is a fantastic story of some of the people who hung on in there for over a decade while the music they loved gradually gained acceptance. Take Wiley who is interviewed throughout the book — you get the feeling he believed it it would be big from one day. He was always building up people, and helping out younger artists. There’s a hint of satisfaction in the later interviews with him, that a bunch of poor black teenagers from an estate in East London made their mark. You can’t help but root for him. Against the mainstream, against discrimination, against politics, against the police, their message finally made it — like he always knew it would.

Are countries over?

Photo some rights reserved by Raja Habib.

I think it was nearly ten years ago that I hosted an event with Clay Shirky for Demos in London. Clay was talking about Here Comes Everybody, his fantastic book about the role that decentralised technology is having on society and the collected audience of wonks, geeks and innovators all nodded along in agreement to most of the things that Clay said.

But part way through the Q&A, things took an odd turn and the expressions on the audience’s faces changed. Clay said that he didn’t think we’d need nation states in the future. His example was Belgium which at the time hadn’t had a government for over a year because they couldn’t agree on a new coalition. Nothing particularly bad had happened — the bins were still being emptied and hospitals still worked. Towns and cities had continued to operate without the elected national politicians being able to decide who was in charge.

After the event I started thinking that perhaps many of the problems we face are a realisation of that tension — the institutions of nation states are struggling to work out what they’re for and citizens are confused as well. Neatly overlaying identity and governance has always been difficult, but it’s in flux once again and national politicians now focus simply on the things that are unique to them — the use of force and control over borders.

Of course not everyone thinks countries are over. Donald Trump thinks nation states are a very good idea. His speech at the UN General Assembly contained a section saying as much: “the nation state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition. It’s in everyone’s interests to seek the future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure.” “Make America Great Again”, “Take Back Control” and so on all appeal to people who do believe in countries as the best way of organising things.

But I’m not sure that’s tenable in the long run. We’ll see much more change over the coming years and countries will have to find a new role. Today it has spilled over into horrible violence in Catalonia, tensions linger in Scotland about a second referendum, Kurdistan is at the centre of a battle for independence, the list goes on. Perhaps less obviously, individual cities are becoming more powerful and autonomous — something I think is a positive long-term trend.

Technology and inequality

A few years ago I wrote a blog post called ‘How to stop geeks becoming the next bankers’. At the time I was worried about technology exacerbating the job losses created by the 2008 financial crisis. I wrote “We need technology to solve the difficult problems we face… technology should be creating new and better institutions rather than just gradually eroding old ones and leaving a vacuum in their place.” But the motivation behind the post was my belief that technology has real potential to make the world a better place and I didn’t want to see it highjacked by people who just wanted to get rich off the industry.

So posts like Paul Graham’s at the weekend make me pretty angry. Whether he meant it quite like that or not, sticking up for inequality is at best a bad PR decision for him personally and at worst going to strengthen the backlash against the tech sector and Silicon Valley. In my darker moments I think we’re completely failing at stopping tech becoming as toxic as banking.

Arguing that inequality doesn’t matter is just daft. I’m all in favour of people getting rewarded for creating great companies but to argue that the point of creating companies is to get richer than other people is completely misguided. Making enough money to be considered ‘rich’ should be a side effect of creating something that improves peoples’ lives. And I don’t think anybody is arguing to eradicate inequality — it just shouldn’t continue to be so extreme. Society is a lesser place for every obscenely rich billionaire who does nothing with their wealth other than tickle their own ego.

I don’t believe that extreme inequality is inevitable — it has happened because of the rules and norms we’ve chosen and we need to get serious about changing them. Tim Harford, writing about some of the controversies around the ‘gig economy’, says that the relationship between state and the technology industry needs to be completely rethought:

“ … here is a far more radical approach: we should end the policy of trying to offload the welfare state to corporations. It is a policy that hides the costs of these benefits, and ensures that they are unevenly distributed. Instead we should take a hard look at that list of goodies: healthcare, pensions, income for people who are not working. Then we should decide what the state should provide and how generously… Call it libertarianism with a safety net.”

That safety net of course will come at a (taxation) price — something that a lot of people and companies in Silicon Valley resist. Listening to people at the more Ayn Rand end of the spectrum you get the feeling they would love Silicon Valley to float off into the Pacific away from the United States and all its pesky taxes and poor people. Or maybe the only plausible endgame is that the rich jump on the rockets they’ve built for themselves and leave behind the detritus of planet Earth.

Although it annoyed me, I’m glad that Paul Graham’s post has got a debate going. He partly rolls back his own argument at the end of the post, admitting that he’s really just made a semantic argument, suggesting, “Let’s attack poverty, and if necessary damage wealth in the process. That’s much more likely to work than attacking wealth in the hope that you will thereby fix poverty.” I think he underestimates how closely poverty and inequality are linked.

Mark Suster posted the best response from an investor I’ve seen. He ends his post, “I believe in income inequality in so much as it’s an obvious consequence of capitalism. I have no problem when success is rewarded with riches. But I don’t celebrate income inequality. It pains me.”

I would add that it’s something that pains me and that I want to change. The technology industry has created huge wealth and with that comes responsibility. I hope in the future it can create wealth as well as large amounts of social value — and hopefully do that with the benefits distributed more equally.

Opening up an idea —

I put this idea into the 4iP call for ideas but they turned it down (maybe because I’m supposed to be running one of their portfolio investments 😉 ) so I thought I’d just put it out there to see if anybody was interested in taking it on or helping out…

Starting a political party should be as easy as setting up a company. Innovation in politics is more likely to come from a new entrant than from the main established parties.

Needs and Benefits

Membership of the main UK political parties has steadily declined since the 1970s. Disaffection with parties and politicians is at an all time high. Yet despite this, the big parties have hardly changed their structure since being formed in the 19th and 20th centuries (see for background on the slow demise of political parties in the UK and internationally).

Rather than focusing on getting more people to join the existing parties, PartyStarter will encourage and help people to set up their own political parties. It is based on the belief that innovation in the way that parties organise and operate is more likely to come from new ‘start-up’ parties than from existing parties.

While it’s unlikely that any of the parties it creates will win at the next general election, there are an increasing number of elections that are winnable by smaller parties in local, regional and European elections. And there is a small chance that PartyStarter might create a party that grows quickly and can seriously compete with the main parties at the general election after next.

PartyStarter satisfies the need of people who want to make a difference to the political system but don’t have faith in the main political parties. It will show that political apathy is because Westminster village politics is out-of-date and not because people don’t care about political issues.


It actually only costs £150 to register a political party with the Electoral Commission but the process is difficult to understand and the reporting burden grows in complexity as a party raises more money and has more candidates.

Inspired by sites that make company formation easy and understandable such as, will take you through the process step-by-step with help at each stage and automatically generate the official forms and paperwork needed for the Electoral Commission.

Once a party is registered, PartyStarter will then help you find digital tools to administer and organise your party. Whether that’s blogging or twitter, or, PartyStarter will introduce people who may not be familiar with the web to powerful but low-cost tools so that they can innovate in the way they campaign and organise.

We’re looking for £20,000 from 4iP to create a not-for-profit company, build the technology and hire a project co-ordinator/researcher/troublemaker for six months in the run up to the general election in 2010. This period will be a perfect time to launch as media interest in politics and public ‘apathy’ will be high.


Once the site is built, the costs of will be low. The code for the site will be open-sourced allowing volunteers to help improve it and people in other countries to adapt it for their own systems.

There is the opportunity to grow some affiliate relationships with the necessary services for a political party — legal, accounting and banking — with PartyStarter taking a share of the revenue (this is how company formation sites often make money). This could be part of a a paid package to cover all the administration of a political party.

Overall though, the strategy for sustainability will be to keep costs as low as possible.

Competition is currently the only site that offers help registering a political party in the UK. PartyStarter will offer a much simpler service cutting through the jargon of political administration.

Institutional fix

Not entirely serious but somehow true:

Right now all our faith has poured out of the old institutions, and there’s nowhere left to put it. We need new institutions to believe in, and fast. Doesn’t matter what they’re made of. Knit them out of string, wool, anything. Quickly, quickly. Before we start worshipping insects.

– Charlie Brooker in the Guardian

My take on MPs’ expenses

This isn’t really about expenses. What’s going on has been brewing for a long time — it’s a more general disaffection with the structure of politics in the UK and a belief that politicians just aren’t up to the job of taking important decisions. It was only a matter of time before we found a touchpaper issue to really get things going. I’d focus on making Westminster a better decision making body. It’s going to take a long time for that to happen but there are some things that could be done quite quickly. So here’s what I’d do:

  • Halve the number of MPs — randomise which neighbouring constituencies get merged so there’s no argument about it. Do this before the next election.
  • Pay MPs 50% more.
  • Have no expenses system.
  • Don’t allow external employment. Being an MP should be a full time job.
  • All benefits or gifts received externally should be declared as they are now.
  • Have a mandatory 50% number of women candidates for all parties. If a party is to be represented in Westminster it must put up at least equal numbers of women to men.
  • Give up on the idea of surgeries. MPs need to accept that they are employed to take decisions on national issues. Councils are for local issues.
  • Ban donations of more than £5,000. Political donations should be tax deductible.
  • Parliament should sit around the year, MPs should have normal working hours, holidays and sick pay.
  • All votes should be free votes.

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, 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.

“Representative democracy was based on the idea that people are thick”

Us Now

I went along to see Us Now on Wednesday and I like it a lot — and not just because it’s got me in it!

The funny thing about being on camera is that you sometimes come out with things you didn’t know you were going to say. In Us Now I surprised myself when I said, “Representative democracy was based on the idea that people are thick. That’s just not the case.”

Now I do believe exactly that, but I’d never thought about it in that way until I said it. To be a bit more nuanced, I don’t believe that representative democracy is going to disappear but I do think it will change. It was one of the things I was trying to get across in the piece I wrote with Tom for the FT Magazine. The infrastructure of representative democracy, which in the UK is really political parties, is struggling far more than people recognise. I don’t think it would take much for any of the political parties to collapse very quickly because alternative ways of organising and financing are very close to having the same efficiency as parties.

As I say in the film I think the really interesting stuff will happen around the edges of government where people use digital tools to organise themselves to deliver services better than institutional government can. The film is full of examples of people doing just that.

I’m not sure what the plan is for distribution of the film but if you get a chance to see it, it’s well worth a watch.