On being more interesting

Another year, another blog upgrade. Yes I have taken the plunge into the mobile-first generation and switched www.sociability.org.uk to the juggernaut that is Squarespace. It's taken me quite a bit of getting used to, but it does look lovely on a tiny screen, which is how all the best websites need to be these days.

Aside from the platform though, there are a few other changes at Sociability this month. I'm writing this from the rainy south coast where I'd been holed up for much of last year writing my latest book, A Mind for Business (available in all fine bookshops and makes a lovely gift, hint hint). Having spent most of 2014 writing a book, I've been struck by just how rarely I'm posting on this blog, and trying to work out whether that's just because I've been busy, or because there's something not quite right about it.

My conclusion, such as I have one, is that the problem was that my posts back then weren't actually very interesting. I was writing about social media, which frankly hasn't really interested me so much since it got taken over by advertisers and Taylor Swift. Not that I have anything against dear old T-Swizzle, mind. It's just that when I was working on School of Everything and co-writing Social by Social, technology seemed to be the new frontier. Now, I look at the torrent of new dating sites and micro-blogging tools and wonder where the new frontier went after all. Even more worryingly, I look at the hacking and slashing of public services that now lurks behind the 'radical disruption' banner, and wonder just where the invisible revolution we were promising a few years ago has actually ended up.

No wonder, then, that I haven't been feeling very inspired to blog about technology lately. So I think it's time I wrote about the things that actually are interesting me. After all, before we can be interesting, we must first be interested. And I am very interested. In so many things. 

Since starting Mindapples as a business in 2010, I've grown more and more interested in the workings of the human mind, and the emerging and chaotic findings of psychology and neuroscience. I am not so taken with the rather tedious attempts to apply all this amazing research to increasing sales or boosting 'efficiency', but I am interested in the human mind as a design consideration. I am interested in how understanding and harnessing our humanity can help us improve how we live and work, and what society would look like if we designed it around human nature rather than trying to change it all the time.

In the lucky West, we live in a world increasingly dominated by technology that improves our lives, but it is often developed without a detailed consideration of what we need to thrive. Public services are built without thought to their emotional impact, and society is run on some quite archaic principles about human nature, from the myth of rational independent economic choice to a worrying overuse of eye-witness testimony.

So here on Sociability I intend to write about other things I can't write about elsewhere: the effects of society on our minds and our wellbeing; the psychology behind some of the big political and social phenomena of our age; the essential ingredients of human nature that can be harnessed for good or channeled towards evil.

In short, this blog is going to be about humanity, not technology. Or perhaps sometimes the intersection of the two. I will do my best to write for myself rather than for anyone else, and to write what I find interesting rather than what I think I should be saying. Let's see where that takes us, and if I have to rebrand the site again, so be it. After all, anything's better than being boring. Happy reading!

Shiny thing make it all better

Newsflash, folks: disruptive innovation isn't that new after all. :-)

"Don't be afraid of bronze."

Three ways to change the world

How do we tackle inequality and exclusion? How do we have high quality but affordable public services? How do we provide dignity and care for an aging population? How do we modernise our infrastructure? How do we stabilise our economy? As we plough through Party Conference season, questions like these are perplexing our leaders and policy researchers as we struggle collectively to see a route to a stable and thriving society. What you will notice, though, is how rarely these problems are tackled head-on by leaders. They will talk about the things they believe in, and their desire to tackle the tough problems facing our country, but the solutions they then propose seem to be so much smaller in scope and limited in impact. Too often it seems that the problems exist on a much bigger scale than the tools and techniques we have to solve them.

Last month though, Matthew Taylor of the RSA outlined an interesting framework for approaching such problems in his Chief Executive's Annual Lecture.

In it, Matthew argues that there are three fundamental drivers of social power:

  • hierarchical authority - "I'll do what I'm told"
  • social solidarity - "I'll do what everyone else is doing"
  • individual aspiration - "I'll do what I want"

All three are fundamental to our nature as human beings, but the balance between them has changed considerably over the last century.

Hierarchy has been enfeebled, by our loss of faith in our leaders and institutions, and by the social technologies that now enable us to mobilise against them. Our trust in strangers and solidarity with our neighbours has been stretched by increased social diversity, the fracturing of the class system and growing social inequality. Of the three, individualism is now the strongest, but it has become narrow and materialistic, undermined by the inefficacy of markets to organise our needs, and by the lack of strong hierarchy and social solidarity to restrain it.

The result is a growing fatalism about problems that cannot be solved through individualism alone - problems like climate change, the pensions crisis and the economy. Our leaders proclaim bold rhetoric designed to appeal to our other social drivers, such as the appeal for solidarity in the "Big Society" movement, but the solutions they propose don't match the rhetoric.

We are not creating the kinds of solutions that can tackle our problems, Matthew argues, because we are not designing solutions which make use of all the sources of our social power.

To solve our biggest social problems, we must build up the strength of all three of these social drivers, and harness them together to create solutions that involve everyone. And he argues that to do so, we need a design mindset, not a policy one.

(There's a lovely story about the sociology of queueing around 18 minutes too.)

Who gains from growth?

We have often heard governments in recent decades saying that growth is good for everyone. Never mind wasting precious resources on panaceas for the impoverished, they say, we need to pump prime business and jump-start the economy. Invest in growth, so the argument goes, and the standard of living will rise for everyone.

A report today though seems to confirm what many of us already suspected, that economic growth does not benefit everyone after all. At this delicate moment of cuts, this news is troubling for those of us who are already worried about the inequalities dividing us from our neighbours, or who are simply unlucky enough to be in the poorer half of society.

The Gardencentreshopping href="http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/publications/who-gains-growth-living-standards-2020/" target="_blank">Resolution Foundation's Who Gains from Growth? report, published today with Warwick University and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, predicts that the lowest income families in Britain stand to lose 15 per cent of their incomes by 2020. Middle-income families will also lose out in the long-term, with only the wealthy standing to gain materially from economic recovery.

all working-age households below middle income in 2020 will be worse off than those in the same position a decade earlier. A household at the bottom of the low to middle income group1 in 2008-2009 had an income of £10,600 a year. By 2020-2021, under the baseline, the income of a household in that position falls to £9,000 a year (in 2008/09 prices), a real terms decline of 15 percent. A household at the top of the low to middle income group would, in the same position, see its income drop from £23,000 per year in 2008-2009 to £22,200 in 2020-2021, a real terms fall of three per cent.

What is particularly troubling is that, as the report itself says, "all the projections in this report rest on GDP forecasts of modest growth to 2015 and of annual average growth of 2.5 per cent from 2015-2020 which, by comparison to more recent forecasts, now look optimistic."

In other words, even if the Government deliver what they promise on economic policy, most of us will still lose out.

The shift has much to do with changes in the job market, in which admin and manufacturing work is being replaced with lower-paid roles in retail, caring and leisure. As the report summarises:

The UK economy is set to create both more highly skilled jobs at the top and more low skilled jobs at the bottom, while jobs in mid-level occupations are in decline. While these changes in the structure of the labour market are good for most people, they are also set to boost pay far more for higher income households than for those lower down

When I read this I was struck by its similarity to Professor Richard Florida's recent RSA President's Lecture. He argued that economic growth is now linked closely to the levels of creativity in our cities, and that nurturing the creative industries and high tech businesses such as in London's Tech City holds the key to making Britain internationally competitive.

In the Q&A afterwards, I asked Richard about the implications of this for the job market. If our economy is increasingly based on creative, high tech businesses - ones that, for example, radically compete with traditional publishing businesses by cutting bookshops out of the loop and allowing authors to self-publish and sell direct - then what does this mean for the number and nature of jobs available in this new economy?

His answer was sobering. He pointed to the growth in "personal services" - massage, personal shopping, pedicures - and suggested that this was the future growth area for the labour market. To his credit, he made the strong point that we need to make these roles creative and enjoyable for people, and ensure they provide a good standard of living, but I was still left feeling uneasy.

Are we becoming a two-tier society, of the wealthy, tech-enabled "creative classes", and their servants?

This report today seems to suggest that there is a risk of greater divisions, at least if we continue to push single-mindedly for growth without looking at the wider social factors at play. Whilst the  report itself doesn't suggest specific policy directions for solving this problem, and stresses the complicating factors such as the spread of unemployment or withdrawals of benefits, it does point the way:

Some alternative scenarios – boosting low wages, improving skills or raising female employment - lead to modest improvements for those in the bottom half of the income distribution. However it is only when all three measures are combined that many people in the bottom half become substantially better off.

Of course the report will have its critics and it needs to be submitted to rigorous review. What is clear though is that we need a much wider and more informed debate about growth than the stultifying "increase public spending" / "get Britain back on its feet" bun-fight that is currently dominating our political discourse.

We need our Government to focus on getting every part of the economy back on its feet, particularly those who are suffering most right now. Because if we don't, we risk more and more people becoming disenfranchised in a system that simply doesn't allow them to win.

UK Riots

New Season, New Sociability

September is here and the leaves are turning brown. As Philip Larkin once wrote, “begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” A time for renewal, perhaps.

Sociability launched in 2007 in a very different environment to 2012. Back then I was part of a small but passionate movement to use “web 2.0” tools to reorganise our social systems, improve public services, connect people together and build the world we want to live in. Now civic responsibility has given way to economic reality, and unfortunately many of those that were leading this charge are now pursuing other strategies to survive in this leaner, meaner world.

But Sociability has persisted, and so too have many of the projects and conversations we were part of five years ago. Being a network has made us more resilient to change, and many of the trends we were part of in 2007 have grown rather than receded.

Three years on from our publication of Social by Social, the Arab Spring, Wikileaks and #Occupy mean everyone is now talking about the role social media is playing in social change. Four years on from starting Mindapples, the Government is now measuring our national wellbeing and there is more talk than ever about the centrality of mental health real venus factor reviews in public health. Two years on from the publication of Local by Social, the Big Society agenda and spending cuts have made collaborating with citizens a key part of the work of local authorities and public service organisations.

Okay, so maybe we didn’t expect the Olympics to be quite as good as they turned out to be - but hey, we can’t get everything right.

So as we enter our sixth year, with a revamped website and a new focus on social business and social technology, we hope that over the coming years we’ll continue to push boundaries and break new ground, and have some interesting conversations along the way.

We hope that our new projects, Lock-in TV and Do a Bit, will turn out to be as prescient as our previous innovations, and that we can continue to help our clients adapt to an increasingly turbulent but also ever-more dynamic new global market.

And most of all, we hope people will keep sharing their ideas with us and helping us learn more about the world we live in, and how to thrive in it.

Expect to see a bit more blogging from me too. I’ve missed blogging.

Happy Autumn everyone.

Andy

Patchwork: joining up social services

Today I'm at the launch of Patchwork, the new service by Futuregov. Patchwork is a lightweight web app to help social services support people better, by bringing together information from within different services, and from individuals and families, and displaying it in a useful way for social workers. As an Associate of Futuregov, I've been following their progress on this project since the start and it's fantastic to see it finally launched. I've also been lucky enough to be part of the team capturing the learning from the project for NESTA so I thought it worth putting out a few thoughts on the project to explain why I think it really matters. The process has been long and involved, full of the kind of administrative and cultural challenges that I'm all too familiar with from attempting to bring Mindapples into the NHS. What's remarkable is that Futuregov and their dedicated commissioning partners in Litchfield District Council and elsewhere have steered it through without compromising on the initial vision, and all credit to them for managing to create something that works, rather than something that ticks the boxes.

Here's why it's great:

  1. It doesn't look like normal Government IT systems: it feels easy, even pleasurable, to use and navigate, it's relatively frictionless, and design lead Ian Drysdale has worked hard to balance a user-centred design approach with the tight requirements of policy and legislation. Less like SAP, more like Facebook.
  2. The system is social in its architecture, mapping the relationships associated to a case first and making it possible to see the dozens of different agencies and individuals who are often working on each case, and to know who to ask when you want more information (always my preferred approach to knowledge management).
  3. It brings together information from every available source, including service users themselves, creating a much richer picture of people's needs and giving individuals and families a voice in the systems that support them, without requiring busy practitioners to enter data twice.
  4. The technology behind the snazzy design is solid, built using the latest tools of "web 2.0" commercial apps rather than the more rigid and old-fashioned platforms that usually characterise Government supplied systems, and particularly they have spent a long time tackling critical issues like data security and permissions.
  5. The delivery method, as a hosted web app using interoperable standards to draw service data together, is cost effective for councils and (after a little redevelopment work) should be easy for clients to deploy.

Futuregov have been in the "social innovation" space alongside Sociability and many of our little network for a good few years now, and they're really starting to go places. It's tough to say why some businesses grow and thrive over others, but I think the key to Futuregov's success has been that their business model is actually quite traditional: they sell managed web apps to support public service delivery. What gives them the edge over their competitors is that they take a new-style social innovation approach to solve them together - putting out an open call for help at the start, facilitating practitioners and service users to design the tool together, adopting an agile and forward-thinking technical strategy, iterating and testing as they go. The problems they are solving - in this case, helping different divisions of public services to talk to each other - are recognised problems for which their clients have budget, and their innovative approach allows them to solve problems which their competitors cannot, and deliver products which are far than their often slow and complacent competitors in the public sector IT market. Put simply, they innovate in their own products and processes, but not in their business model. Clever people.

Today, Futuregov have announced £280,000 in start-up funding to take the Patchwork forward and develop it for scale. Congratulations to Futuregov on this fantastic achievement, and also to Litchfield District Council, NESTA and all the other many people and organisations who have backed them from early on. It's great to see such a practical and passionate project making real headway towards improving public services and, hopefully, saving lives.

5 #bigsociety questions

Interesting news this month that Steve Moore has taken over as Director of the Big Society Network, and that the Network is poised "to launch a new series of events, projects and partnerships over the coming months which will showcase an array of new innovations in support of our remit." Having worked a little with the Network already on their NESTA-funded Your Local Budget platform, I think it's time I posted a few of my thoughts and questions about the Big Society project. Like many others in the social innovation world, I've been tentatively exploring what the "Big Society" actually means and whether I want to be part of it. I think I have a general understanding of what the Big Society is (unlike most of my friends, who have never heard of it at all!), that it is about clearing the way and providing support for individuals and communities to solve their own problems, rather than waiting for the government to save us. Part of this I assume is about removing the regulation and bureaucracy that gets in the way of citizen action and involvement, and part of it is about creating the conditions for individuals and community groups to contribute more to the running and improvement of the society we live in.

This is all good stuff, and certainly my conversations with the individuals involved has confirmed my general sense that there is good work being done here by good people. However, I still have a few significant questions about how it will work in practice, and these are questions to which I need to know the answers before I would be happy to say the Big Society will be a good thing for this country. By posting them I do not intend criticism (and I'll also post some positive Big Society ideas shortly), but to trigger a debate and get some answers, so that we can all be clearer about what we are supporting here. So here goes...

  1. Does anyone ever get paid? If good work is now to be done on a voluntary basis, then what is the future for those of us who currently earn money improving society? I believe that if we can make improving society something that financially sustains and rewards those who do it, we will get a lot more good done. For many years now, I have been proud to be part of the social enterprise movement, working to create new ways to use business principles and revenue generation to achieve greater social impact. Yet now almost every week I seem to be approached by another public sector organisation asking me to give my time for free to help them transform their business, because "it's a good thing to do". So is money now only to be used to reward people who are not delivering social benefit? Must we all become lawyers and bankers to fund our expensive habit of improving the world? Or should we look instead, as Windsor and Maidenhead have proposed, to alternative currencies to support ourselves? And do we really know what the socio-economic impact of all this will be, particularly on the voluntary sector and the social enterpreneurs that the Big Society claims to support?
  2. Who's in charge? One of my consistent surprises about this Government is the top-down nature of many of their announcements, which seem to be the continuation of New Labour's behaviour change programmes rather than the traditional free-market Conservative approach I was expecting. If the Big Society is to flourish, it cannot be led by the Government, or the credit claimed by the politicians. The role of the State should be to support the activities of communities and create the conditions for the activities they want to encourage, and make things easier - through funding, infrastructure, resources, support. Yet it often feels as though by launching this initiative (and particularly in a time of radical cuts) the Government is calling on citizens to work for the State, to help out with public sector projects, deliver public services. So do we, the Big Society, work for the Government to help them achieve their aims, or will public servants become what their name suggests, and support us to do what we think needs doing? And if it's the latter, how do we decide what the State should support?
  3. Who is accountable? Schools, hospitals, policing and the like are the responsibility of the state: we pay our taxes on the expectation that critical services will be provided to all of us on a fair, equitable and democratically-accountable basis, presumably because we grasp that the wellbeing and prosperity of the people around us is important for our own health, wealth and happiness. Ensuring greater involvement from service users and community groups in public services is fantastic, but it takes time and money to get right, and proper democratic accountability to ensure vulnerable people remain protected. Volunteers also have their own agendas and problems to worry about, particularly in a recession, and the Government still remains ultimately accountable if things go wrong, so are they just creating more problems for themselves later by not taking responsibility now?
  4. Who pays for volunteer management? Volunteer management is a complicated task and requires a considerable amount of work to get it right: not voluntary work, but full-time work by reliable staff who aren't making their money elsewhere - and this work must be paid for. My experience of running voluntary projects (and I've run a large one, unpaid, for two years now, in Mindapples) is that getting people to volunteer is the easy bit, especially in the internet age; the hard part is finding time to tell them what to do and make their efforts join up properly. I don't need more volunteers, I need money to pay for staff to organise them and scale up our efforts. The Big Society Bank is excellent, but the sums being proposed are tiny compared to previous state funding for the voluntary sector, so what is the plan for sustaining and strengthening our existing voluntary infrastructure in a time of social change and fiscal constraints? Unless we have a plan for how this is going to be paid for, I will be relying on the only people who have any spare cash (or Nectar points) these days: wealthy philanthropists and large corporations. And that isn't the Big Society, that's Victorian England.
  5. What happened to democracy? The Big Society aims to "take power away from politicians and give it to people". But the State is us. The public sector exists to represent the views of the whole population, serve the interests of the many whilst protecting the interests of the few, and answer to the people for its actions. How have we become so alienated from our State institutions that private, independent organisations seem now to offer more possibilities for putting 'the People' in charge? Democracy and equanimity are difficult and expensive to achieve, and by cutting away these layers we may achieve greater efficiency, but do we leave ourselves vulnerable to increased social injustice, and subservience to the needs of the wealthy and the confident? There are tools for ensuring this of course, democratic organisational structures and community governance models, but when I hear talk of creating "the U.K’s biggest mutual: to which all citizens will be able to belong", it feels like we are trying to rebuild the State in parallel, not because it will be any better, but because we have lost faith in the current system. And replacing it... well, that sounds very expensive indeed.

I believe in the aspirations of the Big Society. I believe that the people of the UK are the state, and the Government serves us and should help us achieve our goals. I believe people are basically good and can be trusted, and that current public service culture disempowers vulnerable people and makes it hard for individuals to contribute to their own lives and communities. I believe that passionate individuals and grassroots organisations outside the Government should step in to solve problems which cannot be tackled by top-down authoritarian solutions, such as community and social care, public health promotion, invigorating communities, guiding the cultural and social development of our children, monitoring the activities and efficacy of the state infrastructures. However, I do not think that this work should be free, nor that paid civil servants can hand over their jobs to volunteers and remain in their lofty positions. And I continue to believe that the running of our state infrastructure is ultimately the job of a democratically-elected body of paid agents acting in the service of the people.

These are just my current questions: I have heard many others, and doubtless others will emerge as we go. The message for some time has been that we are in charge and we must find the answers to these questions. As Steve says, "it is a work in progress". However, if the Prime Minister and other prominent figures are prepared to say the Big Society is a "Good Thing" for Britain, I'm presuming they must have thought these issues through first? If the leaders know the answers, please let them share them with us - after all, they're part of this Big Society thing too. If they don't, then I would question why they are telling us how great this will be when so much remains uncertain. Either way, I believe these questions need to be answered, and that means we need to get on with it together.

The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

to launch a new series of events, projects and partnerships over the coming months which will showcase an array of new innovations in support of our remit.

Hand Made Communities

I settled down this morning to have a proper read-through of my friend Tessy Britton's new book, Hand Made, and feel inspired to write a post about it. In fact, two posts - you can see my thoughts on it from an individual and health perspective over here. Inspired is the perfect word for this book actually: a collection of hand-picked stories from all manner of collaborative and creative projects the world over, which collectively represent an "emergent new community culture". From more familiar examples like The Big Lunch, to lesser-known gems like Maurice Small's Community Gardens project, and one of my favourite projects ever, Jerry Stein's Learning Dreams (disclosure: Mindapples is also included), Tessy has unearthed an amazing set of stories of creative, positive projects that are bringing people together and building connection and community in startlingly effective new ways.

Seen collectively, the projects tell a story of a new model for community-development - or perhaps an old one that we have somehow forgotten. They are all positive, constructive and creative, based on people designing and building the world they want to live in, and finding others to join them in this work. They route around existing systems and do it themselves, using the assets they find in their communities to build and strengthen their communities. And most importantly, they all start from individuals taking immediate action to shape the world around them and change things for the better. Hand Made is a book that reminds us we have far more control than we think over the world around us, and shows us that the best way to engage people is to help them do what they want, and build what they need.

Everyone seems to be talking about "community" at the moment, particularly in the context of the "big society" - and there is much that can be learnt by policy-makers from this humble little book. If the Government is serious about supporting and nurturing community development, it needs to build an infrastructure and a supporting culture for the kind of creative, inspired people - what David Barrie calls the 'militant optimists' - that are featured in Hand Made. We need to build a cultural and economic context in which human-centred, positive, creative projects like these can thrive and grow, without telling people what to do or what they need. This will take a serious reinvention of the culture and mechanics of government. As Tessy observes in her introduction, "our existing systems can supress creativity and [attract] individuals with management mindsets rather than including essential creative or community-building ones". Someone told me recently that the policy world doesn't understand humanity, it only understands statistics, and community-building is human work. It's easy to forget that when you spend all your time looking at the big picture.

I've been reading Visa founder Dee Hock's extraordinary autobiography One From Many, about which more in future posts. His definition of community particularly appealed to me: "the essence of community, its very heart and soul, is the nonmonetary exchange of value. The things we do and the things we share because we care for others, and for the good of place." Community is relentlessly, unapologetically voluntary. It does not correspond to the tools of the state, the mechanics of the economy or the mindset of management. In Dee's words: "It arises from deep, intuitive understanding that self-interest is inseparably connected to community interest; that individual good is inseparable from the good of the whole". You can't build this common interest - this "community" - through top-down commands and centralised management: all you can do is create the conditions for growth and support what people want to do.

This isn't the harsh world of the open market though. This is not a free-for-all in which the state rolls back and a thousand entrepreneurial flowers bloom: this is about creating a nurturing, managed space in which the projects and people who are enriching our lives and strengthening our communities are supported and cared for. Community development of the type described in Hand Made does not take place in the wild, competitive scramble of the jungle; but nor can it be found in the safe, highly-regulated, controlled worlds of the zoo or the factory. Instead, it is found in the garden, the managed space where the conditions for growth are carefully maintained, but growth itself is not controlled. When building digital communities, or developing Mindapples, I have developed a habit of saying to myself: you can't make flowers grow faster by shouting at them. Gardening is not an industrial process: it is far more powerful than that, and much, much messier.

If this Government is serious about stepping back and allowing communties to take more control of their destinies, first it must accept that its role is to support people without commanding them, and protect them without controlling them. Its role is, in short, to serve - and let us lead.

Change world have fun

One of the best things about my job at the moment has been spending lots of time with people who work in consumer branding and marketing. No, wait, really... hear me out. Yes, I work in the internet, and specifically how to use it to achieve social change through grassroots campaigning and providing better services. I've also been part of the social enterprise sector for a few years, and written a few bits of policy advice, and between all these worlds I've met a lot of amazing people who want to use the power of business and media to change the world.

What's striking though is how little awareness there is in the social sector of the tools and techniques that are used every day to launch and grow international brands. It's almost as if, just because it's good for you, it has to be boring. Or, if it's commercial, it can't be changing the world.

But why can't a better world be fashionable, or aspirational, just like a new bar or a great pair of trainers? Why can't social enterprise be as fun as www.springwise.com? And more to the point, why can't we harness the awesome skills and powers of big brand marketeers to sell things that heal the sick, help the poor, or make our society work better for all of us?

I used to look down from my worthy pedestal on my friends in advertising, lifestyle magazines and brand management. Now I'm asking for their help. With Mindapples, we're asking everyone to choose a 5-a-day for their minds, with the ultimate aim of making looking after our minds as natural as brushing our teeth. It isn't a social project, it's cultural: we're building a new social trend, starting conversations, influencing culture and habits to change the way people live. Looked at from the right angle, Mindapples is actually a rebranding project: we're taking the concept of "mental health" and turning it from something frightening and depressing into something everyone wants to buy.

As we get closer to another election, someone said to me recently that the Government like to think they run the country, but really they're just the janitors. They make sure the heating's turned on, and the bins are emptied. If you want to influence the hearts and minds of people, speak to Nike, Ikea, or Pepsico. Just imagine what might happen if all those channels for influence were being used to build the world we all want to live in?

Local by Social published

I'm pleased to announce that Local by Social, my new policy pamphlet about government and social media, was published today by the Improvement and Development Agency and NESTA. Social media is changing the world in which we work, socialise and govern. From Twitter to eBay, Facebook to YouTube, new tools are emerging every year that place the connecting power of the internet in the hands of every one of us.

In this context, the expectations on councils to engage, work openly, be accountable and move more quickly on issues are growing. Meanwhile, councils are facing the biggest cuts in spending in the post-war period and are being asked to do more with less just as demands from local people are rising. Higher expectations combined with drastically fewer resources make the imperative to innovate critical. A new set of tools is needed to meet this challenge.

The pamphlet outlines how local authorities can use social media to achieve more for less. It also highlights the risk to councils if they ignore the technological advances of social media and the people using them, and the importance of government working sensitively with the community groups and social enterprises who are developing great new projects in this space, which is rather timely given the current MyPolice saga. It's designed to be read alongside our 2009 book Social by Social which can also be downloaded from the Social by Social website.

You can download the pamphlet from IDeA's site now, and also discuss the content on the Social by Social network too. There are some more links and examples on the IDeA website too, and printed copies will be available from NESTA and IDeA shortly.

Social media and social conventions

On Friday I spoke at Sadlers Wells at the Arts Council's Art of Digital event, Do the arts speak digital? The topic of the talk and the subsequent Guardian PDA panel discussion was "does the phenomenon and the tools of social media change expectations and relationships with audiences?" A few people asked me to blog it, so here's (roughly) what I said. Having recently published Social by Social, I didn't want to focus on the details of the tools and how to use them - anyone looking for information on technology tools and how to deploy them should check out the book. Instead I focussed my thoughts on the new ‘social conventions’ being created by these tools, and the implications on our culture and power structures as a result of all these technologies. How does it affect my relationship with my audience if the audience can talk back, and talk to each other?

I began with a story my friend Charlie once told me about a speaking job he did in Finland. He arrived to find he was speaking to an audience of one man. He gave his talk anyway, as best he could, and was rewarded with a large and pleasing round of applause from this audience member. Moderately satisfied, he gathered his possessions to leave but was stopped by a cry from the man: "But you can't go yet: I'm the next speaker!" Because that's the thing about audiences: you never know who's in them or what they might have to say.

I was speaking here to a silent audience in a darkened theatre: a common format for these events but actually a relatively recent convention. Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man (thanks to Dougald for putting me onto this) narrates the shift in the 19th Century from performances where the audience talked and participated, to a new social convention of a silent audience. But in this talk, I had a Twitter feed behind me showing the things the audience were saying to each other about what I was saying. So what are the conventions for interacting with that? Is it rude of them to interrupt me, or is it rude of me to ignore their comments?

The point is, it's not the tools that matter: it's the impact they have on our social structures and conventions. The media has changed: we already have a completely new ecosystem of news. It’s changed marketing too, with sites like Dell's Ideastorm and Skittles turning their website into a Twitter feed for conversations about their product acting as living proof of the Cluetrain Manifesto's "markets are conversations". Organisations and work have changed too: my various friends and followers on Twitter act as a distributed consultancy and community of practice for me.

I see this as a time to play with social conventions and find new ways to interact, with and without technology. A conference is a set of social conventions of audience silence, expert performance and public conversations - and these can be played with, as we do at the People Speak with things like the Twitter stream visualisation, or the talkaoke table. A blog is another social convention, in which we agree to listen patiently to what the author has to say before making our comments on their ideas. Discussion forums are flatter, with no hierarchy except a custodian keeping the space active and safe. Twitter is more complex again, a vast multiplicity of asymmetric relationships, public and private conversations and even old-fashioned broadcast. With each of these new tools comes a set of new conventions, each of which - as Rohan Gunatillake rightly observes - eventually leaks back into the rest of our society.

So if it's a time to play with convention, it's also a time to challenge some of the 19th Century assumptions about how things "should" be done. At the same time as the silent audience emerges, so too does the culture of street silence, the shift from the noisy, sociable marketplace to the silent, impersonal shop as the context for commerce, and the shift from consumer-commissioning to mass production of products. Amidst technological revolution, economic recession and climate change, all of these conventions are now open to challenge.

School of Everything is a social marketplace for face-to-face learning. We're moving from a 19th Century broadcast model of teaching to a social media approach where everyone can be a teacher. Similarly, Mindapples is about respecting everyone's "expertise" about what works for their minds. As I say in the introduction to Social by Social, it's about helping people do things, not doing things to people.

So for cultural organisations, what is cultural production when it’s not mass production? What are the conventions and power structures for facilitating social production of and around the arts? And what are the implications for expert practictioners when they are not stood in front a silent audience? Someone asked a question in the following panel about quality control on School of Everything, and also about quality in arts production, and my answer in both cases is that just because an organisation isn't taking responsibility for quality control, doesn't mean individuals aren't doing it themselves. We can all take responsibility for assessing expertise, curating content and making our own judgements; and the price we pay for moving up the power chain is that we must sit through more poor quality material. Thanks to these new tools, the choice is ours.

I believe that social tools make the invisible networks of our culture visible, and therefore possible to engage with. A good arts organisation can rally a community around a cultural event, but all the ripples in the pond become visible too and arts organisations can engage with them. At what point does it become rude for them, and me, to ignore what the audience is saying? Cultural production can create meaningful culture, but it is social tools that embeds it and makes it diverse and relevant to a wider audience.

I think the biggest issue for arts organisations within these shifting social conventions concerns the role of performance. Social media is most certainly performative: when I Twitter I speak to a larger audience than were present at Friday's event, so don't for a minute think I'm not performing when I tweet. In fact, if you want to understand Twitter you could do a lot worse than read Keith Johnstone's Impro. But there are times when it is appropriate to improvise together, and others when it is better to be silent and listen. I don't want to send text messages during a play, I want to really watch the play (unless it's a really bad play...).

Arts organisations, like the rest of us, now need to consider the role of silence and performance in all their work, and deploy appropriate tools to assist the performance and embed the culture it creates. But that doesn't mean the moonlight sonata is improved by twittering through it or making Domain Exploration easier.

Announcing Social by Social

Yesterday I was at the Reboot Britain conference to launch Social by Social - my first book, co-authored with David Wilcox, Amy Sample Ward and Nigel Courtney and Clive Holtham of Cass Business School.

The book, which was commissioned by Nesta and published by Openmute, is a practical guide to how to make use of the amazing opportunities of social and digital technologies for social impact. We've collected the most useful resources around and woven them together with some inspiring stories, practical advice and thoughts on the future.

The book is aimed at anyone working in the public or third sectors, plus campaigners, community groups and even concerned citizens. It's 250 pages of practical advice and reference materials, and it's available to buy here for just £7.99.

We've also released all the content free online under a Creative Commons license. Read and download it, add your comments and remix it for your own purposes now at www.socialbysocial.com. We want you all to make use of these resources in your projects and consultancy work, so as many people find out about these technologies and what they can do as possible.

After the launch itself, David Wilcox and Drew Mackie ran another version of the Social by Social Game, which introduces people to new technologies and helps them develop their own social by social projects. If you'd like us to run a similar event in your organisation, or if you'd like more tailored advice, please drop me a line.

Real world marketing

I'm at b.tween in Liverpool today speaking on a panel with Adam Gee at Channel 4, Andy Bell from Landshare and Lucy Willis from Battlefront. We've been talking about using online and broadcast media to create action in the real world, in relation to School of Everything and other "social by social" projects. My main point was about the intersection of social tools and media content. Battlefront helps young people campaign and then tells their stories on TV and online, and so creates action in the world. Meanwhile, School of Everything is creating action by building tools to enable and inspire people to teach and learn from each other: the existence of the tool is the trigger for creating the stories. Landshare is the model I can see emerging between the two: an integrated commission of TV content and social platform, with TV content to inspire people to grow things on spare land, and a social tool to help them find and use land near them. In other words, the TV content is creating a culture in which the tool will thrive, and providing marketing for the site.

Web 2.0 can also feed back into traditional media by creating and locating stories for cultural programming. Whatever the model of commissioning, if you are fortunate enough to be creating real activity in the world, you can use that activity to create a feedback loop which rallies more and more people to your movement. Here's how it can work:

  1. Create a tool which helps people do something in the world - share land, teach each other, campaign for change, or whatever. Write the stories you want your tool to create, and build it so it supports those things to happen, smoothly and simply.
  2. Collect stories of the activity that results by engaging with your community, and share these stories back with the community through newsletters, blogs, Twitter etc. - and also with the public through any media channels available. Tell these stories in a way which makes audiences feel they could do it too.
  3. Give users a way to share and promote their activities too, to amplify the effect of the activity and let your users help you market the tool. Help the people who have figured out how to do it share that with their peers.
  4. The stories and media activity then become valuable resources in recruiting more users to the platform, which creates more activity to use in promoting the movement, and so on. By creating activity in the world, you create news; and by telling the stories through the media, you create a culture in which that activity is commonplace.

That's what we've been doing at School of Everything: we talk to our users (or rather Claire does), find out what they're up to, and tell those stories to encourage more people to join in. The media, social or otherwise, helps us turn the isolated interactions into a social movement.

As for media commissioning, I think there's a rich seam here for media companies to invest in start-ups, and also in media content to tell the stories they support. The question of legacy is problematic - Landshare and Battlefront are commissions that need to generate stories, so what happens to their community when they have to stop "broadcasting"? So I think you also need a business model to sustain the existence of the web platform (School of Everything relies on real-world transactions for its business model), and finance it as an autonomous start-up that isn't dependent on the continuation of the commission. We need more integrated partnerships between broadcasters and start-ups. And with the mutual benefit a well-designed broadcast and social campaign can bring, a TV-financed web start-up with broadcast tie-ins looks like an increasingly smart business proposition.

So all we need then is to come up with ideas for really compelling things we want to happen in the real world, that are interesting enough to make good way to learn how to buy twitter followers. Anyone?

The Social by Social Game

David Wilcox, Amy Sample Ward and I ran an event on Tuesday night taking non-profits through a process of brainstorming and developing projects using social technologies for social impact. The event, called the Social by Social Game, was inspired by the Social Media Game and also by the book we've been writing for NESTA called Social by Social.

Rather than repeat the details here, those of you who are curious should check out David's excellent blog post and videos documenting and explaining the event. The whole game is Creative Commons but still in development, so please take it and rework it, and let us know how it might be improved. And if you'd like us to run a similar event in your organisation or community, please do drop me a line.

Social by Social Game at Net Tuesday tomorrow

If you are in London tomorrow evening, June 2 with a couple of hours to spare, and an enthusiasm for exploring how to use social technology for social benefit, join us for a run of the Social by Social Game at Net Tuesday. As organiser Amy Sample Ward explains here:

The Social by Social game is a fun session to help people explore how social technology can be used for social benefit: whether that’s by a nonprofit, a social innovation startup, within a neighbourhood, or across a community. We’ll invent some of those places, then challenge each other in groups to develop plans using a pack of specially-developed cards and other props. It will be a mix of collaboration and competition that should give you lots of practical ideas that you can use in your own projects.

We facilitated a version of this game recently at SHINE09 and this should be a greatly improved second version. The game will be run by me, Amy and David Wilcox, and we’ll also give you news of the Social by Social handbook we've written, with Cass Business School, for NESTA.

Our intention is to link the game to the book content, which will also be available online under a Creative Commons license, so after developing your social technology plan in outline during the game, you can use the Social by Social content to follow through. The game is Creative Commons too.

* Date: Tuesday, 2 June * Time: 5:30pm doors, 6 pm start * Location: Charity Technology Trust - 1 London Bridge, SE1 * RSVP: London Net Tuesday group

Community Consultancy

I'm looking for a research intern to help me develop Mindapples and other Sociability projects, so I wanted to know where I should post the opportunity to attract a bright, enthusiastic graduate (if you know anyone, please let me know). Rather than trawl the web looking for good sites and hunting out advice in forums and social enterprise communities, I twittered the question to see what my friends and contacts would suggest. Almost immediately, here's what I got back:

tomstafford@gandy mindhacks.com could do you a shout out if you'd like

adamrothwell@gandy W4MP works really rather well for us, even though we're not (err) an MP...

tomnixon@gandy Brighton and Sussex unis would both be v. happy to talk to you and help you find a graduate

noelitoRT @gandy looking for a bright, enthusiastic graduate to be my research intern on @Mindapples and other projects.

And because my Twitter is linked to my Facebook status too, I also got these responses through Facebook:

Aly Ripoarts jobs Imran Khanw4mp? Anthony McCannwww.jobs.ac.uk

Great stuff - thanks to everyone for providing such valuable advice and offering to help, you've solved my problem perfectly.

So what's just happened there? It's the sort of knowledge that isn't quite worth paying a consultant for, but which is still incredibly important when building an organisation. Traditionally you might get it from peers, mentors and other people in similar situations; you could also get it from Yahoo Answers, LinkedIn Q&As or potentially School of Everything. But Twitter is simpler and quicker than talking offline, more personal than the normal online solutions and well-suited to the tiny drip-feed of questions that comes with running a business. It's not a replacement for these other tools, or for mentoring, training or consultancy. It's something new, or rather a scalable version of something old: a peergroup of fellow professional supporting each other.

I have around 500 followers, plus various overlapping Facebook friends - not many in the grand scheme of things but they're generally quality people who know their stuff and with whom I have genuine relationships. They didn't cost me anything to acquire except time in being friendly and creating valuable content, and now they provide me with free consultancy that is worth a huge amount to me and my projects. In return I help people out and the whole 'economy' seems healthy and mutually beneficial.

The point is, there's far more to Twitter (and Facebook) than brand awareness and self-promotion. In engaging with a community of peers, I gain not just a media channel but an educational resource too. Much like a guild or professional association, Twitter allows me to build my own network of specialists with whom I share knowledge and swap industry insights. It allows me to build my own personal "guild" directed entirely to the skills and industries that interest me. They can teach me how to do my job better, whatever my job happens to be today.

So the next question is, how can you put a value on that? And the question after that is, why on earth isn't your business on Twitter?

A Visual History of the Internet

A little Friday fun for you: a lovely animation about the history of the internet, via my friends at Cognac.

Who Wants to Speak?

I've been doing some work as a host/facilitator for my friends at The People Speak this month, and in timely fashion they've just released a video of their recent Who Wants to Be? event at the Unicorn Theatre. The People Speak are the funkiest events company in London. They produce democratic gameshows and innovative event technologies to get audiences genuinely engaged in discussions. Co-founder Saul Albert is also a Sociability Associate, and their work in events ties in nicely with the online projects we've been building to engage communities and unlock the power of networks.

Who Wants to Be? is their most ambitious event yet: a gameshow in which the audience pay £10 each for a ticket, and then collectively decide what to spend the money on. Watch the video to find out what we decided this time - and watch this space for future events they and Sociability are running.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XH34nk9LsjM]

45 Social by Social Propositions

When I've not been living it up in Texas, I've been co-writing a book with David Wilcox, Amy Sample-Ward and Cass Business School on how to use web 2.0 and digital technologies for social projects. It's going to be called Social by Social: a practical guide to using new technologies to deliver social impact and it should be published and distributed by NESTA next month. The centrepiece of the book is a set of fundamental principles to follow to help make a social technology project successful, and I'd like to share them with you now and hopefully get your feedback before publication.

The 45 Social by Social Propositions

A set of principles and guidelines which we believe underpin the most successful ‘social by social’ projects.

  1. People want control. If you give them tools for taking more control of their lives, they will pay you back in attention, support and even hard cash.
    1. Empowerment is unconditional. Telling people what they can and can’t do with your platform is like an electricity company restricting what its power can be used for.
    2. People make technology work. Think about mindset, language and skills before you think about tools, features and screen designs.
    3. Know your limits. Technology can solve information problems, organise communities and publish behaviours, but they can’t deliver food or care for the sick.
    4. You can't learn to fly by watching the pilot. If you want to understand new technologies, start using them. Dive in.
    5. Start at the top. Get the boss blogging or talking on YouTube.
    6. Don’t jump for the tool. Be clear on who your target audience are and what you will do for them. Choosing technology is the last thing you should do.
    7. Start small. It’s always better to build too little than too much. Beware of specifying costly systems until you are absolutely familiar with the tools and know how people would use them.
    8. Planning ahead is hard. Find cheap, easy ways to try your ideas out with real people in real situations before committing lots of resources.
    9. Expect the unexpected. Be prepared to develop tactically, evolving as you go, and learn to maximise possibilities.
    10. Give up on the illusion of control. In a networked world, organisations can no longer control what people think or say about their products and services. If you’re worried, get involved.
    11. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. The more you open things up, the less risk there is of damage to your reputation. And restricting access can severely reduce usage and innovation.
    12. Keep it messy. Design to support conversations, relationships, stories - not to organise documents. If everything’s neat and tidy, it’s because no-one’s there.
    13. In user-centred design, everyone is right. Evolve any tools and systems with the people who will use them, and respect their complaints. Bring them in and let them help you.
    14. Never assume, always ask. You can’t know what your community wants from you without asking and they are waiting for you to ask. Be specific, define the issue, problem or idea, and let the answers pour in. but be transparent about your next moves and highlight the answers that informed your next steps.
    15. Design for real people. Tailor your offering to the real skills and characteristics of your users, not how you’d like them to be.
    16. Keep it simple. Every time you add a feature to your toolset, you make the existing features harder to use.
    17. Don’t centralise, aggregate. Do you really need data centralisation? Well do you? Use lots of different, disconnected tools and then pull the content together into a central location.
    18. Be a pirate. Don’t make things yourself; make use of what others have already shared.
    19. Empty rooms are easier to redecorate. Be fast and loose with evolving your platform in the early stages, but be cautious of changing things once people start using them.
    20. Build it and they may well not come. Build relationships and they probably will.
    21. The world is a noisy place. Getting people’s attention means offering them something valuable.
    22. Go where people are. Experienced users have plenty of existing places already, and newcomers are difficult to recruit. Go to see them and say hello.
    23. Learn to listen before you start talking. Good conversations require good listeners more than good talkers. Learn how to say things that people want to hear.
    24. Be consistent. Whatever you say in public, remember you are talking to everyone, all the time, so stay true to your principles.
    25. You can’t force people to volunteer. Contributing content and spreading the word are voluntary activities, so learn how to create good invitations and actionable opportunities.
    26. Respect how people choose to communicate. Some will write, others take pictures or make movies. Most people will just listen and view, and maybe comment.
    27. Enthusiasts are more important than experts. Attitude beats ability when tools are cheap and easy.
    28. Be realistic about who will create content. It's about the same proportion as put their hands up at question time.
    29. Put your energy where their energy is. Support the early adopters rather than chasing the sceptics, and they will become your evangelists.
    30. All energy is good energy. If people are taking the time to criticise you, they are engaged. Don’t waste that.
    31. Throw a good party. Make it fun and sociable as well as worthwhile to get more commitment.
    32. Be a good host. Make people comfortable and then get out of the way.
    33. Don’t forget the tables and chairs. If you want people to communicate or collaborate online, bring them together face-to-face too.
    34. Keep your powder dry. Set aside as much money for design, copy and user testing, and for marketing and community engagement, as you do for software and hardware.
    35. A marathon, not a sprint. Launching the service is just the beginning; the hard work starts once you have something for people to engage with.
    36. Content is king. Providing great content, whether it’s resources, information, connections or conversations, means new users will find you and others will stick with you. Give people the means to share this content too, freely and openly.
    37. Eat your own dogfood. If you aren't using your own services, why would anyone else? And you can’t influence the community if you aren’t in it.
    38. Your users own the platform. If they feel own it, they will trust it, help sustain it, and find ways to use and improve the tools; if they aren't interested, no amount of pushing will help.
    39. Let people solve their own problems. As the amount of work grows, so does the number of workers.
    40. Someone has to pay. Although many online tools are free, everything has costs of time if not money. If possible, make sure the money comes from the core purpose of the project.
    41. Don’t confuse money with value. Look at the other assets you have in your community, like skills, volunteers and goodwill, and put them to use in sustaining it.
    42. No-one knows anything. The only thing worth watching is what your users are actually doing.
    43. Failure is useful. If you want to know what works, look at what didn't. Fail often, fail usefully.
    44. Say thank you in public. People don’t need to have something hand-written on headed paper to feel recognized. Use your tools to acknowledge the people who helped make them in a visible way.

    These propositions are a starting point for a new conversation about using technology to improve the world we live in. So, would you sign up to them? We may be wrong. And that’s fine. Let us know your thoughts, share them with other people you think may be interested, and we'll be putting them out more widely for discussion, additions and edits once we've figured out the right format. You can also add your links, articles and comments on the School of Everything Scrapbook for Social by Social too.

    And stay tuned for announcements on the book launch, I'll keep you posted here.

    #SXSW takeaways

    I've been off exploring lately. Those of you who follow me on Twitter etc. will have spotted that I was at '#sxsw' - also known as "South by Southwest". The South by Southwest Festival is held every year in Austin, Texas, and it's a huge international (mainly US of course) festival of Film, Music and Interactive content. The #kebab unpanel - photo by Benjamin Ellis

    School of Everything were out in force promoting ourselves internationally, meeting other start-ups and soaking up new ideas. The flavour was very much Silicon Valley though and I was surprised at the lack of cutting edge thinking in the panel discussions. I've come back feeling that the quality of discussion in London is extremely high: hearing apparently cutting-edge panellists repeating ideas which I'd heard two years ago in London made me feel we're really at the heart of something interesting over here.

    I enjoyed Steven Johnson's talk about the eco-system of news, not least because I enjoy analogies to ecology to describe business developments. I also enjoyed hearing Bruce Sterling rant about the recession, the human impact of web 2.0 and the importance of bringing your own beer to speaking gigs. And I managed to get myself into an argument with Chris Anderson of Wired about the economics of 'free' culture and the future of publishing, which actually included him shouting "screw the printers!" at me. All rather good fun, and he was nice enough to Twitter me afterwards and continue the discussion over here.

    The highlight though was undoubtedly the British invasion of the conference with the now-infamous #kebab session. In the pub with Richard Pope on the Saturday night, we decided that the conference needed stirring up and hence that we should run a Brit-focussed panel about using the web to achieve social aims rather than just "how to monetise Twitter". The next morning, Richard found us an empty room to steal, nagged me into facilitating it, and we somehow persuaded Mike Butcher and others to announce it - until by 2 o'clock we had a room full of people waiting for us to do something interesting.

    We ended up running "Not another social media panel" - an improvised 'panel-slam' event where anyone on the panel could instantly replaced by a member of the audience. Be interesting, be knowledgeable, or be replaced by someone who has something better to say. The result was a pleasing array of organised chaos, including user-generated name labels and a live Twitter-stream for the event following (for some reason) the hashtag #kebab. By the end of the session (via some references to monetising waterboarding and assorted US vs. UK banter) the entire panel had been replaced including me, the room was packed and 'kebab' had trended as the fifth most mentioned word on Twitter. There's some video footage kicking around in the Twitter stream, and we also ended up on Techcrunch, the Guardian and even in Wikipedia. Not bad for a little idea we had in the pub.

    We're now wondering how we can start a SXSW-style event (with added kebab) here in London and rally some of the cutting edge discussions around the UK start-up scene. Anyone interested in helping out with that, let me know.