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!

Why I wrote A Mind for Business

So my new book, A Mind for Business, has recently been published by Pearson. Beyond the commercial and practical reasons for writing it, this book is actually rather important to me. Though my background over the past decade has been more in innovation and social change than the study of the mind, the subject of how our minds work has fascinated me of late, and has become the cornerstone of both the Mindapples campaign and the changes I want to see in the world.

Put simply, my argument behind this book is as follows: I believe our society is operating with a surprisingly primitive and inaccurate model of how our minds work, and this is causing us a lot of problems. (This is true of the UK in my specific experience, but I suspect the argument applies in many other places too.)

We have quite a good understanding of our bodies , but our minds are still, for the most part, the province of myths and hearsay, from throwaway comments about ‘brain chemistry’ to films about using 100 per cent of our brains. These misconceptions are mostly found in pub conversations and pop culture, but they seep into our everyday discourse to affect every aspect of how we live and work, from job interviews and GP visits to law courts and even public policy.

Some of these inaccurate views – such as the economic assumption of independent, rational choices - are being challenged, but many more – the faith in eye-witness testimony for example, or the persistence of ‘left- and right- brain thinking’ – persist, influencing our choices and shaping our lives.

These beliefs interfere with our ability to work effectively and manage people properly. They prevent us from realising our strengths or forgiving our weaknesses. They prevent us from understanding each other, and interfere with our relationships.

The closest term for this in modern psychology is mentalisation – the ability to accurately assess what is happening in your mind, or in someone else’s mind, and relate that to behaviour. Our ability to understand our own mind and the minds of people around us directly affects the quality of our life and work - and more importantly, it is a skill which can be taught and learnt.

So my purpose in writing this book is to dispel the old, inaccurate views of our minds, and replace them with models that work better. By presenting an overview of the most robust, evidence-based models currently on offer, I hope to help us all understand ourselves and each other better, to work smarter, feel calmer, and get along better. The findings collected have certainly helped me, my colleagues at Mindapples, and the participants in our training sessions, and I hope through the book they will help us collectively as a society too.

Models are never perfect of course, and they are rarely finished. We are a long way from being able to make perfect predictions about human behaviour, and perhaps we should be grateful for that. But we all need models, and we use them unavoidably and habitually to make thousands of assumptions about ourselves and others every day – and so I think we should try to make those assumptions as accurate and useful as possible.

I hope this book can contribute to this process of discovering ourselves and others, and help us all harness our minds more effectively, and improve how we live and work.

Buy now from Amazon

5 things funders can do to support innovation

For the past few years I've spent my professional career developing new organisations that deliver public benefit, and for the past four years in particular I have spent my time developing and raising money for my current enterprise, Mindapples, which aims to inspire and support everyone to take better care of their minds. Over my time developing Mindapples, I have met many funders and written many funding proposals. Some have been successful, most have not. I have heard a lot of feedback on my work, and had a lot of conversations about what people want to fund, how to measure success, the need for sustainability, which company structures are best, and so on.

Throughout this I have been struck by two recurring themes: firstly, that the people who are most complimentary about what I'm doing usually aren't the people who actually support us.

1. Drop the eligibility criteria

I have lost count of the number of strange reasons Mindapples has been ruled ineligible for funding by organisations that aim to promote our kind of work. Here is a selection of just a few of them:

  • we don't fund early stage ventures;
  • we don't fund established ventures;
  • this could be funded elsewhere;
  • you can't find match-funding;
  • we only fund organisations with a turnover of at least £200,000;
  • we don't fund health promotion work;
  • we don't fund mental health projects;
  • we only fund work in deprived communities;
  • we only fund registered charities;
  • we only fund for-profits;
  • we only fund academic bodies;
  • we only fund people under 30;
  • we only fund projects in these target boroughs;
  • we only fund service user organisations;
  • we only fund organisations who provide healthcare services on site;
  • we only fund projects led by clinicians;
  • we don't fund projects that the state would normally fund;
  • we only fund projects that the state will also fund;
  • and so on. You get the idea.

Every time you add an eligibility condition to your fund, you create a barrier to innovation. Good ideas come from anywhere, and if you specify where they have to come from, you miss most of the best ones. Give up on the notion of bureaucratic systems to identify innovation, and start making decisions based on your assessment of the actual project and social need.

2. Do your research

Once upon a time I was amazed by how little funders seemed to know about the markets they invested in. However, now I've learnt more about how VC firms operate, I'm actually much less surprised than I was, because doing the level of research an average VC expects would cripple most grant funders. Unlike the private sector, they are spread too thin. Whilst commercial firms tend to specialise in particular verticals like clean tech or education, Organisations that fund 'innovation', for example, find themselves bombarded by bids from healthcare, microfinance, education, youth engagement, prison reform, public service redesign and so on. Now ask yourself: how many organisations do you know who are experts in all these areas?

No wonder then that most funders are forced to rely on external experts, who are often themselves too specialist to advise on everything, or worse, may be competitors of the applicants. (This has happened a number of times in my experience in the social innovation sector, and it is often difficult to find out who is even providing expert advice on applications, making the whole thing desperately murky.) 

The alternative is that they rely on applicants to tell them about the market, by asking them who their competitors are, what their research base is, how they prove the social need, and so on. If funders are going to really get to grips with an issue, they need to do their homework, and that means being embedded in the sector they are trying to change, not just parachuting into it and claiming to be radical and disruptive. 

3. Stop coming up with new ideas

As a funder, you don't know as much about any market as the entrepreneurs and innovators on the ground. Any guess you make about what solutions are needed will be just that: a guess. It is very tempting to sit around in the office and come up with new projects, but you are just adding to the pile of untested ideas when there are already plenty of better, more developed ideas out there that haven't yet been put to the test. I have even had the experience of being told there wasn't enough evidence for the efficacy of my own projects, by funders who then went straight on to give larger grants to completely new ideas with no track record at all. Yes, of course sometimes there are new ways of doing things emerging that need to be tried, but chances are if you've thought of it, someone somewhere has done it, and maybe they need your help.

Coming up with ideas is great fun, but try to resist the temptation. Instead, spend your time exploring the social issues facing us all, learning how and where they show up, and figuring out how to measure impact in those areas cheaply and reliably. Then be as open as possible to where the solutions might emerge. If you publish the goals in a clear enough way, you don't need to specify how they will be solved, and you may find that some existing ideas turn out to work brilliantly. What's more, you may find that your money is better spent helping promising ideas learn, improve and scale up, rather than feeding more innovations into a sector that is well known to have a big funding gap for promising early stage projects.

4. Find out what your peers are doing

Funders tend to move in packs. Whatever buzzword is flavour of the month - volunteering, sustainability, exercise, employability - you will tend to find a number of funds focussing on it at the same time. The result is that funders specialise in areas that already have plenty of money, and neglect areas where they could have a big impact. Think, for example, how many volunteering projects were funded in 2011-12, and how few mental health projects; yet wind the clock forward, and young people's mental health is flavour of the month and volunteering has had its turn. Strangely though, this clustering doesn't seem to result in genuine collaboration between funders or the projects they support. Very often we hear stories of two near-identical projects being funded simultaneously, and both then struggling for sustainability. 

So question your assumptions, ask yourself why you picked these themes rather than others, and check your prejudices at the door, because I assure you that you have them. Find out where other funders are putting their money. If you want to follow them into the same markets, do it strategically and try to support projects your peers have already found work. If you want to address areas of genuine need, look for the gaps in the current funding landscape and plug them.

5. Decide whether you are a funder or an incubator

If you want to fund things that will be sustainable, it is not enough to give them a handout and then say "where's your sustainability plan?" If your goal is to create sustainable enterprises then you need to invest in a pipeline, help them find clients, teach them to sell, introduce them to follow-on capital, and do all the other things that commercial incubators do well. If you don't do these things, you are basically getting great projects started and then leaving them to die on the vine.

Recognise too that sustainability is not always possible. Not everything that is worth doing has a business model, and not every social need has a corresponding market. If you want to create viable businesses, recognise that this means you will have to ignore most of the really challenging and important social issues of our time. If you want to tackle real social problems, accept that you or one of your peers needs to support these organisations to continue their work after your initial investment, otherwise you will just be adding to the set of projects that did wonderful work but then had to shut down because no-one would pay for the public benefit they created.

Ok, everyone hates a know-it-all, and it's not nice to tell busy people how to do their job. In fact, that's often why funders and frontline innovators fall out in the first place. We're all busy, and we're all doing the best we can. So what do I know? But after nearly a decade in this space, I've found that an alarming number of funders fall into one or more of these traps, and that very often everyone is so busy they haven't even thought about it. In an under-resourced and over-burdened sector, it's easy to fall into simple traps and fail to notice you've done so.

Over the past decade, I've met all kinds of amazing people in funding organisations, and worked with some brilliant funders. I've even been rejected by some brilliant funders who were quite right not to fund my half-baked idea. But I think a few small changes could make a big difference, and if we don't speak out when we think things could be better, then we really aren't our jobs right.

So what do you think? Am I being too critical, or underestimating the work that foundations do? Or are these things getting missed in your experience too? Answers on a postcard...

5 ways to change the world

Recently I gave a talk at Scanners' Night, a charming ideas and networking evening hosted by John Williams, author of Screw Work, Let's Play.

After an initial chat about Mindapples, for the second half John and I tried an experimental discussion about "how to change the world" in which I shared a few of my tips for achieving social impact, based on my experiences of running social innovation projects and start-ups.

It was really nice to have a chance to reflect on what I've learnt from School of Everything, Mindapples, Sociability and the RSA, and I was surprised by how different my approach is now compared to when I started. So in the interests of helping other people seeking to do something positive in the world, I thought I'd share my top five tips for social entrepreneurs and budding world-changers here. 

1. Find the positive action that everyone around you wants to do, and help them do it.

If you try to do everything yourself, you will run out of money first and energy second. Figure out what other people might do to contribute to your vision, and make it easy for them to do it. Perhaps if everyone did one small thing, or volunteered for your project in some small way, the world would change. Think, for example, how much easier it is to improve dental hygiene by getting every child in the world to brush their teeth, than by training up ten million oral hygienists.

2. Sell things to people for money.

The biggest reason social projects don't make money is because they never ask anyone to pay them any money. This has two effects: they have no money, but also, and much more importantly, they never put themselves under pressure to deliver real value to their customers. The more you charge for something, the better it needs to be. Stop letting yourself off the hook, and instead challenge yourself to put a value on what you offer and then make good on it. Even if you end up giving things away later, the quality of your work will be so much better for it.

3. Make people's lives easier.

It can be tempting to enroll people to your cause by explaining how hard everything is and how much you need help, but the best projects are a joy to help. Make it easier for your customers and beneficiaries by providing a service they can't live without, and make it easier for influencers and investors by giving them the solution as well as the problem. You don't have to have everything worked out, but nothing is more demoralising than feeling a task is impossible. 

4. Be nice.

You will often be told that you need to be ruthless to succeed, but in my experience unpleasant people burn their bridges and quickly run out of favours. Yes, you need to make tough decisions, and yes you can't be generous and forgiving about everything and still have any integrity or quality standards. But - and it's an important but - there is no advantage to being nasty, and no reason to be unpleasant even if you need to be firm. Be nice, and be kind, because people notice, and people are the best asset you can ever have.

5. Be beautiful.

Ok, so perhaps not the most obvious point, but beauty can get neglected in the quest for a better future. People remember people and projects that delight them. From being well presented in a meeting to having a really charming website, don't underestimate the value of good looks and charm. Many a contentious project made it through because someone was just too charming to turn down.

Of course, these are just a few thoughts that emerged on the night, and lists like this can be cut many ways. These things have worked for me though, at least in small ways, and I can certainly say I achieve more and do more good by following these principles than I did a few years ago. So I offer you that, for what it's worth.

Feel free to disagree though, since that would be my tip number 6. :-)

Four mistakes social entrepreneurs make

This week my increasingly useful Linkedin news feed brought me an interesting article by Scott Annan in Business Insider about the mistakes young entrepreneurs make that waste time and money. I'd summarise Scott's list as:

  1. Sell your product quickly rather than spending ages developing it
  2. Don't worry so much about people stealing your idea
  3. Find out what your customers want rather than assuming they are like you
  4. Don't get distracted from selling things by the endless possibilities of new ideas

It's a nice piece and I think Scott's list is very useful for anyone starting out on an entrepreneurial career. It occured to me that it might be worth writing another list for "social entrepreneurs". The normal lessons of business obviously apply to anyone seeking to use it to improve society, but there are a few particular pitfalls that I have noticed social entrepreneurs seem to fall into more often than their commercial brothers and sisters.

So here are my top four mistakes, in my experience, that first-time social entrepreneurs make.

  1. Looking for funding rather than looking for business. Most social entrepreneurs aren't doing it for the money. Unfortunately that means they often spend far too long trying to win the approval of influential people like funders and journalists when they should be working. If your idea of success is getting investment, no-one should invest in you. If your idea of success is to be self-sufficient so you can put your next plan into action, then you might actually get somewhere.
  2. Thinking you know better than your customer. If commercial entrepreneurs start by identifying something that people want to buy, social entrepreneurs sometimes start with the opposite: a desire to get people to buy something they currently don't. There are far too many "shoulds" in social sales pitches. Remember that if you want to be a business, you need to sell what the customer wants, not what you'd like them to want. Do business in the world as it is, not how you'd like it to be.
  3. Overestimating the market. Most social entrepreneurs think they've spotted a niche that no-one has ever seen before, but in many cases the market they have spotted is either hard to profit from or just not ready yet. A lack of competitors can be a sign that you're missing something. If you are years ahead of your time, be realistic about how much time and money you'll need to reach profitability, and how many new competitors you'll have when the time finally comes.
  4. Taking too long to issue the first invoice. Business is about selling things to people for money. If you aren't doing that, you are just preparing to do business. The quicker someone pays you money for something you've done, the quicker you know what line of business you're really in. Questions of organisational structure, financial planning, marketing and scalability only matter once you have figured out how to make money.

None of this is rocket science. And let's face it, most of us have made these at one time or another. But as a wise man once said, the trick of life isn't to learn from your own mistakes: any idiot can do that. The trick is to learn from other people's.

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg

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.)

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.


The Corporate Society?

This afternoon I was at the Roundhouse in Camden for Business in the Community's "Communities Summit", courtesy of the Big Society Network, listening to Prince Charles and the Prime Minister issue a call-to-arms for British business to step up and take responsibility for the challenges facing the country.

This felt like an important moment in the somewhat chequered history of the "Big Society" policy agenda, and also of the up-and-coming social enterprise movement. Essentially this was David Cameron's most decisive attempt yet to reboot the Big Society as something more tangible, turning it from a rather elusive and abstract policy of community involvement into a clarion call for business to support grassroots action in communities around Britain.

It was useful to hear this new direction, primarily because the greater clarity it brings should finally make it possible for people to take action in support of the "Big Society" project - which, as I have said before, has been hard for many of us to get behind previously.

But this clarity is also helpful because it names something which has often gone unsaid in the Big Society rhetoric, which is that if private funders and volunteers are to play a leading role in delivering our public institutions and improving communities, this will naturally mean private businesses - who are capable of mobilising far more money and manpower than any other sector of society - having a much greater say over the running of our society.

Where I found myself in tune with this thinking was on the importance of businesses stepping up and taking responsibility for the impact they have on society. As David Cameron indicated today, the Government can do a lot to tackle the obesity crisis, but all its public health campaigns and NHS services will fail if corporate interest continues to make it harder to eat healthily than to eat unhealthily. All the nudges the Government can muster will still pale in comparison to the huge efforts spent by consumer brands to push people back the other way.

Prince Charles, who I've always rather liked, bless him, also spoke very passionately about the opportunities that businesses have to make a positive impact on the world, and challenged all of us to do more to use our resources to do good. And he's right. Businesses have so many assets, and so many skills in delivering quality products at scale, that to point all that infrastructure solely at wealth creation seems like a wasted opportunity. Business in the Community's new "business connectors" programme is putting resources from major UK businesses like BT and Greggs on the ground, in communities, doing excellent work joining things up and making things happen.

And this is all good stuff. The PM's call for businesses to take more responsibility is very welcome at a time when there is so much pressure on the private sector to give back to the communities from which it profits, and in which it resides. I was even vaguely in agreement with the Prime Minister when he said:

“In recent months we’ve heard some dangerous rhetoric creep into our national debate that wealth creation is somehow anti-social, that people in business are somehow out for themselves... Business is not just about making money, vital as it is, it is also the most powerful force for social progress that the world has ever known.”

The point at which I felt a little uncomfortable though, was when he attacked what he called:

“the snobbery that says business has no inherent moral worth like the state does, that it isn’t really to be trusted, that it should stay out of social concerns and stick to making the money that pays the taxes.”

Of course there is a value to these corporate-sponsored projects to deliver value to communities and improve society, even if it is mostly felt by the people inside Government who are aware of just how much large-scale public services are starting to cost. But when Mr Cameron spoke out firmly in defence of the value of, for example, great schools run by banks, and workplace education placements delivered by supermarkets, I felt uncomfortable. So I was surprised when he questioned the motives of people, like me, who feel uncomfortable about such things.

I felt it was disingenuous to suggest that anyone who is suspicious of corporate-backed social projects is some kind of snob, acting not in the public interest but according to a misplaced and rather grubby ideology. This attitude seems uncharacteristically dismissive of the natural vigilance that many people display over our civic institutions, always checking that our public institutions are being run in the interests of the people and not private interests, ensuring that democratic processes are followed, and championing the most vulnerable so that they are not left behind.

When talking about the contribution business can make to improving society, we would do well to remember what private businesses are created to do, which is to maximise profits for their shareholders. I am a Director of two for-profit businesses, and that is my job, as laid down by statute: to make money, not for the wider community, but for the few people who are hard-working or fortunate enough to own shares. In some businesses, the beneficiaries are the staff, such as in partnerships or staff-owned co-operatives; in others it is the customers, such as in Industrial and Provident Societies; but for most, the beneficiaries are the shareholders. Not the public. Not society. Just a few private individuals within it.

And that's fine. I'm quite happy to make money for my shareholders, if I can, particularly if they have taken risks with their own money to back businesses which I believe should exist in the world. What isn't fine is to pretend that the company structure we have built to do that work has any other higher purpose, or to criticise people who are suspicious when companies that are legally obliged to maximise profits for their owners claim to be interested in anything else. I can talk all I want about my desire to improve society, but when I go to a Board meeting I am bound by company law to put those considerations to one side and focus instead on growing the profits of the business.

This is not purely a problem that affects for-profit companies. Just in case anyone thinks I am being an anti-business snob at this point, I should add that even non-profit businesses have their own agendas too, whether that's to serve a vulnerable minority or to champion a particular agenda.

There is only one institution in this country that is legally obliged and institutionally accountable to act in the interests of all the people of this country, and that is the State.

That's why we have a State.

I know it is hard to argue with a well-intentioned project that is persuading private businesses pledge £750m over four years to good works in communities, and I don't wish to denigrate the excellent work that is taking place in the Corporate Responsibility world. The more businesses can be involved in the work of improving our society the better, because our businesses are part of our society just like anyone else. Bring it on guys, you are very welcome here.

But I think it is just as important for us to have a strong "Fourth Estate" of journalists, scrutiny bodies and concerned citizens, a proud tradition of so-called "snobs" checking that if our public institutions are to be funded by private interests, they do not end up acting in them.

To do anything less would be an admission that we can no longer afford democracy.

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 ideas

Recently I posted 5 Big Society questions which I felt needed answering if I could endorse the project wholeheartedly. Yesterday the Times ran a front-page story about how the movement is in crisis because of lack of definition and popular and third sector support, and I'm afraid I now agree with Matthew Taylor's analysis here that "If the Big Society debate doesn’t get more substantive and granular quickly, it will feel like the only credible thing to do is knock the whole idea." I think this would be a great shame, since the Big Society project is creating a powerful space for new thinking to emerge and giving local government in particular a mandate for positive change and greater community engagement, all of which are good things. But to echo Matthew's sentiments, there is far to much unsupported assertion going on and not enough evidence or testable hypotheses, and I am further troubled by the regular dismissal of issues and counter-evidence as "naysaying" or "negativity", which is stifling debate in this area as many participants (including myself) try to act positive in the hope of being on the right side of funding decisions in the future.

I agree that we must be positive and collaborative about coming up with the answers together. I also agree that most if not all of the new infrastructure to run the Big Society must come from entrepreneurial solutions rather than government (such as this interesting new crowdfunding platform). But when I hear people who are not social entrepreneurs telling me how the social enterprise sector works, or politicians making bold claims about how the obstacles which currently exist will magically disappear without any explanation of how this will happen or acknowledgement of the value in the existing systems, then I can't help feel we're heading for a political trainwreck.

Last night I attended the RSA lecture with the generally impressive Sir Ronald Cohen, and asked him how we can ensure social enterprises can compete with commercial interests for lucrative government contracts, rather than picking up only the non-viable markets. His answer was hopeful rather than evidenced. He believes that social enterprises will win tenders because they are culturally better suited and have greater connections with their communities - but there is no evidence of this happening now, nor of a plan to shift the structure and culture of government procurement to make this more likely in the future. It's a nice story, but there was no acknowledgement the lack of capacity for social enterprises to deliver critical national services, the bureaucracy of government procurement which favours those with the money to spend on navigating the process, the innate conservatism and risk-aversion of the public sector, and most of all the difficulty of scaling the kind of community and cultural factors which supposedly give social enterprise the edge. The reality, I'm afraid, is of large organisations bidding for large contracts which small community groups cannot feasibly deliver, social entrepreneurs spending months in negotiations for money which then disappears, commercial, academic and charitable interests mining smaller projects for their ideas, a lack of core funding or capital investment to enable social enterprises to scale up to meet these challenges, and a continual persistence of the attitude that the main advantage of the social sector is that we're really, really cheap. All soluble problems, but what are we going to do about them?

Nick Hurd has issued a 12-page call for ideas from MPs and activists on how to make the Big Society work (or so the Times tells me: I can't actually find it online). So with that in mind, here are five ideas that I believe are needed in order to create a thriving and meaningful "big society":

  1. Fix government procurement Government currently awards large contracts to large corporations on the basis of efficient delivery of often dated and ineffective solutions designed in advance by bureaucrats who are not directly connected to the problem they are trying to solve. Social impact bonds point the way to a public procurement model that is based on outcomes and allows innovative providers to pocket some of the cost-savings for game-changing innovations, and if it works it could be mainlined into all government procurement. But the only way we will create a sustainable social sector is if social organisations are given preferential treatment in procurement, either by forcing all bidders to have a voluntary element to their bid (forcing the Capitas and PWCs of this world immediately into partnership with voluntary groups), or by giving preference in contract awards to recipients of Big Society Bank investments.
  2. Build better corporate structures Current vehicles for social enterprise are not fit for purpose: they don't provide enough rigor to allow the charities commission to provide tax breaks, but also don't provide the equity return for either capital investors or social entrepreneurs. We need a new model which sits in the for-profit sector but with certain conditions, for example a restriction on what proportion of profits can be given as dividends or when they can be withdrawn, a cap on salary distance between best-paid and worst-paid staff, or incorporation of charitable objectives in the responsibilities of Directors. Currently, social enterprises need a non-profit vehicle to own the assets and protect the mission (and in the case of Mindapples, to give proper ownership and accountability to the community), a charity to get the tax-breaks, and a trading arm to offer a return to founders and investors. It's time to create a new integrated social enterprise vehicle that is fit for purpose, and for the government to offer hard financial incentives to philanthropists and investors to put money into the social enterprise sector.
  3. Make private enterprise accountable Banks and other high-yield for-profit entities do not, by their very definition, act in the interests of the whole population, but of the few. Private companies (and I speak as a Director of one) are duty-bound to act in the commercial interests of their shareholders, to the exclusion of wider social considerations. The result is a twofold madness: firstly, businesses prioritise the financial interests of their staff and shareholders over the improvement of the society those individuals live in, making us all richer in a poorer world, insulated from growing social problems by our similarly growing bank balances. Secondly, the full financial impact of businesses do not need to be considered by those taking the key decisions. The wider social impact of business remains an externality to the business transactions, something to be picked up by the government and the social sector in the form of, for example, massive recyling bills for processing excessive supermarket packaging, or social issues caused by low wages and redundancies. We cannot persist with a social model in which the public and third sectors perform palliative care to minimise the social impact of the private sector's actions, and must beg for corporate donations to do it. A gentle solution would be to legislate that all shareholders must vote and publish the social objectives for their organisation, and make Directors legally-bound to fulfil these obligations. This at least would force companies either to be bound by their supposed CSR commitments, or to come out publicly and say they are only interested in profit. A harder approach though is that if social impact bonds can be used to create positive incentives for social providers, they can also be used to create negative penalities for making problems worse. If every time Sainsbury's cost the local council large recyling bills, they were forced to pay a social impact bond that went towards paying public and social sector providers to fix the problem, they would soon think twice about whether their scotch eggs really needed those little trays.
  4. Invest in infrastructure We need to create the support structures and platforms to enable social enterprises to work and scale more effectively, which means we need a new fund (or a refocussing of existing resources) on infrastructure projects. If the government invested in infrastructure that the social sector could use, rather than trying to own systems and procure services not just for itself but for individual units of government, if you quickly give social and community groups the tools to reach considerable impact without needing investment. We need tools for organising volunteering activity, crowdfunding and donations, marketing and communications, accounting and payroll, recruitment, training and collaboration. We need spaces to work, better equipment, business advice, legal support, assistance with social impact (more on that below), CRB checks, accreditations, partnerships, access to capital and loan finance, tax incentives, support taking ideas abroad, and an array of other conditions and environmental factors for growth. All of these things cost money, but all of them are cheaper than the public sector's current tendancy to buy the same services over and over again for itself and refuse to share. Let's invest now in a shared infrastructure for public and voluntary sector partnership and start building this sector properly.
  5. Invest in evaluation and learning Most social enterprises and community groups know they are doing good because their communities tell them so, but they lack the resources to conduct rigorous evaluation or put their learning into a format that government or funders understand. If the Big Society Bank and the public sector generally is looking to the social sector to solve its problems, it needs to support innovative companies to understand what they are good at and where they fit into the government's priorities. It's all very well creating a social impact bond around a set of outcomes (for example, patient health indicators), but many of the most community-led and innovative organisations will simply not be able to prove that they can deliver on these metrics without spending heavily on feasibility studies and evaluation reports. Instead, the public sector should treat the social sector as its R&D department, and invest its own money (perhaps as part of the support infrastructure of the Big Society Bank) in scanning the sector, identifying and evaluating possible innovations, and working with social sector partners to share the IP created and take the best elements to scale. If it is up to bidders to prove why they can deliver on social impact bonds, the people best placed to do that will be Capita, PWC and other major corporate players who have the resources to do their own R&D and invest heavily in their own growth. And you can bet they'll be looking very closely at what they can learn from the social sector.

Most of all, what the Big Society needs is an accountable design process for the project, in which all of us can participate in the debate about what is needed, what can be done, and who is responsible for making it happen. There are many things the government can do to help make the Big Society happen, but they need to listen to all the people involved, both online and via local community networks, and work with us to solve these problems, either by taking action themselves or giving their backing to others to do what is needed. Unless we have an open, critical debate about the practical steps needed, facilitated by democratically-accountable institutions and conducted in a transparent and constructive way, the whole project is in danger of becoming nothing more than a small handful of people sat in closed rooms telling stories about how everything is getting better, while outside things go from bad to worse.

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.

Shine 2009

The Shine UnConference for Social Entrepreneurs starts today at Kings Place, York Way, London. If you're there already, you may encounter me helping out Anna Maybank of Social Innovation Camp with a short session on developing your own SI Camp ideas. And if you're coming tomorrow, please join David Wilcox, Amy Sample Ward and I at The Hub Kings Cross for the Social Collaboration Game. We'll be showcasing a new event format based on the content of our forthcoming book Social by Social. We'll be brainstorming ideas for how collaboration technologies can solve social problems in your neighbourhood, and then developing your proposals into a full pitches for funding - in just 2 hours.

Hope to see you there!

Going Postal

This is quite simply magnificent in every way:

Go Postal!

Read more at Social Innovation Camp, who are celebrating over 100 ideas for their second event next month - woo-hoo!

Save the Jet Ski

My random idea for a new environmental campaign just made Idea of the Week on Social Innovation Camp. Take a look! Thoughts and comments gratefully received - and please do submit your ideas to the next camp, I want lots of new things to work on and help with please. (Um, sort of...)

And check out the utterly bonkers video my friend Claire made to promote the camp. It's like getting a lovely long hug while on drugs...


SI Camp: The Movie

Social Innovation Camp: the Movie is now online, courtesy of our friends at The People Speak:

Feeling incredibly inspired now. We must do it again!

(I don't really think the truth is overrated by the way...)

Trampoline FlightDeck

Nice piece about my friends at Trampoline Systems in CRM Magazine this month, also featuring a nice cheesy quote from yours truly about the future of CRM software. You can read the full piece here, and I also highly recommend Trampoline's Enron Explorer - great for fans of network visualisation software and/or massive industrial fraud.

From the frontline... Social Innovation Camp

Long day at SI Camp (particularly long after the opening party last night), but there's some really fascinating stuff being developed here. Lots of great people have turned out to help, and the buzz is fantastic here. I've been dividing my time between Stuffshare, Barcode Wikipedia and Personal Development Reports, working with John Grant and others to help the teams define their propositions, focus their efforts and create compelling ways of explaining what they do. The potential for all three are huge, particularly the barcode guys who have such a simple idea but the potential to completely transform the consumer marketplace. I'm also having a lot of fun thinking up new names for them all.

On the way we've been creating lots of entertaining new buzzwords for what social technology does. I'm enjoying David Wilcox's new "social reporter" meme, and the cheekiness of attempting "market transformation", but my favourite so far is "behavioural publishing" - for when it's not about enabling new behaviours, it's about using technology to show what's already happening and encourage more of it. What behaviours of yours would you like to "publish"? Lots of fun to be had with this one.

Off home to relax now in preparation for another intense day of camping tomorrow. I plan to spend tomorrow morning interrogating each of the teams on their business models and 5-minute pitches, ready for the final show and tell in the afternoon. I wonder who'll win...?

Too much technology, too much innovation

This cracking piece about innovation on BNET got Dugg recently and deserves a share. Whether it's replacing car keys with complex wireless authentication technologies, or grafting endless functionality onto otherwise perfectly usable software - innovation is becoming synonymous with new things you can do, rather than doing what you want more easily. It reminds me of something I used to ask a few years back: how come in science fiction, everything works perfectly? Hover cars don't break down, phasers don't need rebooting, spaceships don't get stuck. Technology is often presented to us as this unstoppable force that will make our lives so much easier. But for every finger-print ID door lock, there is a team of fingerprint ID door lock service engineers; for every automated grocery reordering system, there is a pile of misordered vegetables rotting in the distribution centre; for every matter transporter there will be a matter transportation workers union. The more technology we have, the more humans we need to make it work.

This week I've got Social Innovation Camp, followed by Disruptive Social Innovators, and then an RSA "civic innovation" event, not to mention chats with about a hundred people with "social" and "innovation" in the job/business names. Meanwhile everyone from DIUS to Channel 4 is talking about supporting innovation and the Innovation Nation. We're in danger of overdosing, elevating the new above the useful and throwing away past successes. And more importantly, we risk elevating the technology, the "innovations", above the users themselves.

A line in Clay Shirky's recent Q&A at the RSA comes to mind (slightly paraphrased): "It's not about novelty, but ubiquity. If you are looking for social scale change, it's adoption."

Social progress is often about making more widespread use of what works already, not just putting new things in their place. Car keys work perfectly well, thanks: they're cheap and robust, they never need upgrading, and most importantly, everyone can use them.

So let's focus our energies on making simple, easily-supportable things that everyone can use, and spreading the behaviours and technologies that already work. And fewer hoverboots please. (Although having said that, this is waaaaay cool...)

Steal This Idea, Part 1: Partner Up

Social Innovation Camp unfortunately haven't selected Partner Up as one of their final proposals, so it's time to take this forward by another route. Thanks to John Craig, PRADSA, School for Social Entrepreneurs, David Wilcox and others for all your positive comments and offers of support. There's definitely some momentum to this one and it would be a shame to lose it. The trouble is, I really don't have time to lead the project myself, just to provide ideas, positive energy and design direction. So the next question is, who's interested in taking the project forward? UnLtd World, the Office of the Third Sector, the Charity Commission, Companies House, Innovation Exchange - please step forward. There are hundreds of charities, social enterprises, public bodies and commercial companies who need ways of working together, and maybe we can help them.

So please, steal this idea! Drop me a line at andy[at]sociability.org.uk if you're interested in "partnering up", or leave a comment here.