UK Catalyst Awards

School of Everything won a UK Catalyst Award (from the Prime Minister no less) last month, which was particularly nice following so hot on the heels of our New Statesman New Media Award a few weeks ago. Aside from obviously being very flattered, what struck me about this one though was the curious focus on individuals compared to other social innovation awards. They seemed very keen to attribute each winning idea to one person and praise these special individuals for their unique creativity. There seemed to be little understanding of the teamwork that actually underpins genuine innovation and social enterprise. We even had to ask them to put the names of all five co-founders on their awards website.

The Times Business section just featured a nice interview with me about the idea behind School of Everything, and re-telling the story to them reminded me of just what a collaborative process it has been to get this idea off the ground. If we'd been driven by one person's vision, I don't think we could have done it, at least not in the way we have. School of Everything is the product like best e cigarette but of all our experiences of education, the writings and experiments of various pioneers in the sixties and seventies, the advice of our friends and colleagues, the activities and desires of our users.

Ideas don't just pop out of thin air, they emerge from conversations, collaboration, stimulation. It's wonderful that the Government are starting to recognise the contribution of social innovation and web 2.0 to our communities and social services. But maybe they need to adjust their perceptions about how change actually happens, or else they risk undermining the very thing they seek to celebrate.

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] if you're interested in "partnering up", or leave a comment here.

Getting real

Sociability Associate and The People Speak co-founder Saul Albert recently pointed me in the direction of this post by Dan McQuillan about the relationship between social networks and social action. Saul and I are currently developing the second phase of the RSA's new networks platform to help their fellowship collaborate on action-based social and civic innovation projects. It's a fascinating project and I'd agree with Dan that this kind of system seems like the next step for social networking. Someone from Yahoo asked me earlier in the year what exactly I do with LinkedIn. Once you've collected all your contacts together, met a few extra people and got to 100% in the "profile complete" stakes, well... it all just sits there, doesn't it? I'm more connected than I've ever been, but so what?

Of course, online knowledge-sharing and relationship building is important for all kinds of activities; the point is, at some point it needs to leave the virtual world and "get real". There are good examples of social technology being harnessed to stimulate action, such as My Society's nifty (and Facebook-enabled) application, Pledgebank, but aside from a few notable exceptions the majority of online tools for social enterprise currently seem to fall into two main camps: raising awareness by joining "campaigns" or supporting "causes"; and donating money so that other people can make things happen with it. Of course, this fits with the two main uses of the internet since day one: exchanging information and exchanging money. But with so many new collaboration tools emerging, how can the internet be harnessed to actually get things done?

One excellent example of networks being harnessed for collaborative action is open source software. A distributed group of people get together using online tools to collaborate in the creation of something tangible the benefits of which are then shared openly with the community. It works, it's more powerful than anything commercial business can come up with, and surely provides some useful models for the third sector. The other, of course, are the activist networks, distributing responsibility for action among a community and sharing information about what's planned and what's happening. The latter are the most interesting to me, because they move between online and offline - between the virtual and "real" worlds.

So what lessons can we learn from these about how social networks can be used to stimulate action? The RSA has built up a big head of steam around a huge range of projects, and the next step is to turn some of them "real". If we can crack this one, we'll really be going places.

Free collaboration tools

With more and more tools available either free or for small sums to help people collaborate and share information, I've been compiling a list of the best ones I've come across. (Thanks to Saul Albert and the School of Everything team for their contributions to this list.)

  • FolderShare: my favourite, a simple application which turns any group of un-networked, web-enabled PCs into a virtual shared drive (backed-up onto all machines, available offline, and it even includes good version control).
  • FilesAnywhere: free tool for sharing documents and files online, including version control and multiple workgroups functionality.
  • Skype: an obvious one, the most common internet telephony service also offers handy chat functions, plus Skype Prime for video conferencing.
  • Wordpress: collaborative blogging can be a powerful way to collaborate and develop a project; Wordpress now allows private blogs accessible only to selected users. (It also produces nifty little websites like this one...)
  • PhpBB: vanilla free bulletin board software, often cited as the open-source standard.
  • Google for Domains: particularly their e-mail and calendar tools for project management.
  • Google Docs: excellent for collaborative concurrent authoring of documentation and project plans.
  • Wikispaces, Wikidot, Stikipad: free wiki tools for recording ideas, meeting notes and decisions collaboratively in a shared space. (See also the neat new Facebook wiki tool, Wikimono.)
  • the most well-known bookmark-sharing system is increasingly popular with organisations for sharing useful links
  • Feedburner: the free RSS aggregation and subscription tool, now including e-mail broadcasting (subscribe to this site for a demo)
  • Hiveminder: a simple-to use but powerful task management tool, with support for groups and email integration.
  • 37 Signals: these guys offer some classic project management tools, including Backpack, Tadalist and Basecamp.
  • Zoho: a range of online project and collaboration tools including wiki and task manager.
  • Huddle: yet another new project collaboration engine, but slick and with many features.
  • Openworkbench: basic Gantt and project planning charts, editable and shareable online.
  • MindMeister: powerful collaborative online and offline mindmapping software
  • Gliffy: diagramming and project planning software online.
  • Rememble: social site for timelining and sharing a range of media, from text-messages to photos. Useful if you have too much communication! (Disclosure: my friend Gavin actually runs this, but I was recommending it before I knew him.)
  • Compendium: excellent if rather technical tool from the OU for mapping discussions and capturing decisions.
  • Surveymonkey: simple, free survey tool for basic questionnaires and consultations.
  • Highrise and SugarCRM: cheap and effective contact management tools for managing wider engagement (Highrise is actually provided by 37 Signals).

So, anything I've missed? There are new tools emerging all the time and I make no claims to completeness, so if you've got anything to add please share it in your comments below. Happy collaboration!


Last week I gave a talk on peer learning with Ben Vershbow of NY think-tank if:book. He's been doing some fabulous things in collaborative reading, which I think could have big implications for the way blogs and discussion forums interact. If:book have developed a hack for the Wordpress platform which places comments to the right of each paragraph of a blog post. It's based on marginalia in old-fashioned academic texts and is intended to allow collaborative annotation of academic texts - but it's such a simple tool that I think it's got much wider implications.

We've been playing with an installation of the system based on the talk we gave at, with some success.

The software itself is available for free at I strongly urge you to check it out and put it to good use!