Lightweight Structures for Social Innovation Startups

Coming out of Social Innovation Camp, I've been wondering how the projects we helped to kick off can find sustainable structures for development.

Our criteria for the camp selected for ideas that could be carried forward after the weekend. The winning projects have certainly showed dynamism and commitment; but how can they organize to get things done when it's not (yet) anyone's day job? How can they get structure without losing the passion?

Synchronously, similar questions & suggestions have cropped up in other discussions. In the Gaming for Good roundtable folk wondered how to apply the voluntary association & dynamic purpose of the World of Warcraft raiding party to the real world. At the Tuttle Club Breakfast , freelancers were feeling their way to structures that sounded to me most like medieval Guilds (an idea that Open Business has already written about) . And in an ippr briefing, the MP Tom Watson invoked the cooperatives of the nineteenth century as a good fit for organisations making a social use of the web.

Seems there's a sea-change coming as organisational models are mutated by the web. With the emphasis on lightweight, dynamic & flexible structures, it seems to echo the radical architecture of Archigram back in the 1960s.

Whatever model we raid, from real or imagined history, there's still the practical question of who pays the bills. Sustainability is the plan for all Social Innovation Camp projects, whether from a commercial business model, grant funding or a mix of the two. Can we also learn from open source, where companies pay staff to work on open source projects for part of their time because there's a wider value to the employer? Social Innovation Camp had the backing of a sizeable posse from Headshift (thanks guys) - perhaps signposting a wider possible solution where commercial companies support social ventures with geek-time? As my colleague Peter Grigg has pointed out, companies need to go beyond CSR and get real about supporting pro-social activity; and what better way than to back projects like these ?

Games for Good

I'm really starting to think that games are one of the magic ingredients in getting this new wave of social change off the ground. When I was at Amnesty I wanted to use games to raise awareness, but maybe we should just make more actual stuff in to games if we want to get a result.

After a the excitement of last weekend's Social Innovation Camp I wondered if part of its magic was that it was a game. Applying competitive teams, rules and time limits to a bunch of hackers & creatives really did the trick.

Last week's How I fell in love with Wikipedia article quotes its first employee saying "it's almost more like an online game, in that it's a community where you hang out a bit, and do something that's a little bit of fun: you whack some trolls, you build some material, etc".

In this week's updated post on Thinking out of the (x)Box: Gaming to expand horizons in creative writing Ewan McIntosh reports myriad ways in which "Certain games are incredibly effective at generating more expanded horizons in students imaginations when they are writing and speaking creatively or transactionally", And his references to "the moral dilemmas and complexity of decision-making in more long-term games like Sim City or Rollercoaster Tycoon" indicate how games could impact the youth enterprise agenda of my day job.

But it was Charlie Leadbeater's invocation of I Love Bees in Social Software for Social Change that switched me on to the exciting social potential of alternate reality games (ARGs), a trail I followed to Jane McGonigal's World Without Oil. As Jane says; 'Reality is broken. Why aren't game designers trying to fix it?'.

So with all this incoming synchronicity I was delighted when David Lundblad invited me to the Gaming for Good event he's puttiing on with Johnnie Moore on Wednesday, April 16, 2008 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm at NESTA: "An informal gathering of people who think that organisations and society can benefit from a deeper appreciation of the upside of gaming - whether that's online mutiplayer games or real world games..." According to David, they see the three main themes as gaming to improve products & services, gaming to improve organisations, and gaming for social good. As per Ewan's stuff, we should add gaming for education. Then you've got yourself a pretty broad swathe of social impact where games could be a magic ingredient.

Whereas Games for Change (G4C) uses gaming as a way in to social issues, it might be that the bigger long term impact comes from a general spread of a gamer attitude. Research tells us that young people in the UK already treat social media as a multinodal game; so the gamer attitude could spread to online/offline projects for social impact, bring with it the energy, imagination and lateral thinking that makes solving problems into fun.

Social Innovation Camp: speed-startups for social impact

Social Innovation Camp happened this weekend, and it rocked.

Inspired by a mashup of netsquared, barcamps and seedcamp, it brought together a diverse bunch of hackers & social change activists to cook up prototype projects over the space of a weekend.

And it worked. People brought dedication, passion and skill. They had some fun. They went without much sleep. (I wrote my half-way analysis at 2am; Live from Social Innovation Camp, the laboratory of buzz).

Two things stood out for me; first, it proved (again) that the social web is a generative platform for social impact; and second, that it's possible to do events that go beyond talk and lead to real projects and social businesses. But of course, that's the business of netsquared as well :)

Our small organising collective is now recovering, er, aiming to help the projects sustain and grow. There'l be a lot of write-ups, inteviews, videos etc coming out of the camp - more of this later. In the mean time here's a flavour (more materials at Social Innovation Camp materials):

David Wilcox says Social Innovation Camp: imitations, please and thinks that it "will make a big difference in the way that we think about doing good stuff with new stuff".

A full narrative from Bobbie Johnson, our embedded Media Guardian blogger:


A view from partners The Yahoo Developers Network.

Enthusiasm from a sponsor (which is nice!) at Accelerating Social Innovation: lessons from SiCamp where Roland Harwood says "On of the big lessons for me of the weekend was how limited organisation can unleash ideas, which is counter-intuitive for many".

"Teamwork, Quick!" by participant Huey Nhan

Photos on Flickr.

Videoclips and mini-interviews by David Wilcox at Qik

YouTube videos tagged with sicamp and sicamp08 (mostly by The People Speak team)

All the feeds from our backnetwork (warning: includes tweets!)

Live from Social Innovation Camp, the laboratory of buzz

Amazing amount of buzz at today's Social Innovation Camp. A diverse bunch of dedicated folk has alighted at the Young Foundation ; and Simon Tucker 's welcome last night made it clear we're continuing Michael Young's tradition of disruptive social innovation.

Prison visits and creative tensions

Working with the Prison visits team (I like my projects to be gritty :) was fascinating. For me, it surfaced some of the tensions implicit in the Social Innovation Camp mission, as we discussed our way passed the idea of creating a better information site or helping NGOs to coordinate better. And there's some merit in asking whether nonprofits, designers, and techies can talk to each other . (The answer, by the way, is yes).

Benign Ruthlessness

There's also a creative tension between the breadth of the social mission and the endless possibilities of technology versus the need to produce a working prototype in less than 2 days. Time to apply Michael Young's principle of "benign ruthlessness". With a bit of prompting from Greenman we settled on a simple user review system as our technical nugget. As Jeremy Gould pointed out, we can emulate MySociety projects by offering users more opportunites to get involved as later steps. And since the potential for big vision advocacy relies on building the community, we wanted an easy and useful hook to get it all started.

photo of prison visits team by jeremy gould

Campaigning by doing

As someone complained that the Government should be doing this stuff anyway, I remembered one of my personal aims for setting up Social Innovation Camp; a notion I'd call 'campaigning by doing'. As our friends from the Prison Advice & Care Trust pointed out, prisoner's advocates can argue till they're blue in the face without any response from The System. But with the low barrier power of the social web, we can do something small right now to tackle a problem by tapping in to the experiences of those who are affected. And if that snowballs, like Patient Opinion, it becomes something that institutions have to take notice of.

Adapt or die: the accelerated historicity of the Camp

As I wandered around all the projects I was struck by the different approaches; from an attic of half-a-dozen geeks to a discussion circle of eighteen worrying about trust, from massively detailed user stories to balloon metaphors. It seems to me that the Social Innovation Camp is a laboratory, fast-tracking the kind of fall-out that startups experience, and raiding the recent history of the social web (from wikipedia to netmums) in search of conceptual templates. I'm sure that Aleksi Aaltonen will have more to say post-Camp about the patterns of co-creation that emerged.

Lines and Circle

When Mikey from The People Speak was interviewing me about the Camp he reported his observation that the geeks tended to sit in straight lines. And I saw plenty of discussions happening in circles. Should lines and circles be the new logo of Social Innovation Camp?

The Unbearable Lightness of Mashups

I was excited to discover, a mashup tool for people who witness acts of violence in Kenya. You can report the incident that you have seen, and it will appear on a map-based view for others to see. I'm a long-standing mashup fan, & I bet loads of other web-obsessed activists like me were thinking of something exactly like Ushahidi while watching Kenya disintegate on the news.

But another side of me is getting grouchy and cynical about mashups and social change. I can't help thinking 'so what?' - so what happens now, now that the violence has been mapped, or the corruption of representational democracy has been graphed? It's a funny feeling to have, because I can see how the simple power of visualisation could jolt people out of apathy. And it's awkward, because I need to vote in Netsquared's Mashup Challenge before the end of tomorrow - and Netsquared is an initiative that has inspired me a lot.

I think my gripes with mashups are both evolutionary ("we should go to the next level") and foundational ("there's a fundamental difference between the action of assembling data and the reality of social change").

IMHO, mashups would evolve by being more actionable. Many are collaborative, (people can contribute data) but not actionable - there's no clear plan for how the aggregation of data is going to change the reality it describes. Will the data in Ushahidi be used to hold the perpetrators to account, via the kind of analysis Patrick Ball did for Kosova?

And is there a realistic connection between mashups and social change anyway? I love the way a mission-based geek can pull together a proof-of-concept overnight. I love the sense of possibility that comes from an internet overflowing with information and data. But, chatting to a street activist friend from wayback (who's also turned geeky) I found we were both uneasy about the contrast between coding and community activism. Coding a mashup can be fast and frictionless - community activism is usually time-consuming, sometimes boring and occasionally confrontational.

But I can dredge up a memory from those days that would've made a good mashup. Hackney Community Defence Association supported many local people who had been wrongfully arrested by police. It was via a thorough correlation of incidents with the shoulder number of the officers involved that HCDA exposed drugs trafficking, planting evidence and perversion of justice by police at Stoke Newington in north-east London. An HCDA mashup could've combined a web-based reporting tool like Ushahidi with thorough cross-checking and statement recording by legal volunteers.

I think that, as more geeks overlap with people close to social issues (a la Social Innovation Camp), there will be more mashing up of tech and gritty social impact. In the mean time, mashups stand up for transparency and that's one of the web's most powerful memes. And probably, as I plough my sleepless way through Netsquared's Mashup entries I'll have to eat my cynicism because loads of creative people will have innovated beyond my limited idea of what mashups can do :)

Hat tip to Pete Cranston for putting me on to Ushahidi and apologies to Milan Kundera for mashing up his book title.

Update; ideas that will be developed at the Social Innovation Camp

We've selected the ideas that will be developed at the Social Innovation Camp, 4th-6th April 2008. A big thanks to all those who contributed to the more than 70 ideas we received, and to the advisory board for helping us decide on the six that the Social Innovation Camp can accelerate for the most impact.

The ideas are:

- Barcode Wikipedia

A site for storing user-generated information – such as carbon footprint, manufacturing conditions and reviews - against a product, identified by its barcode number.

- Enabled by Design

A resource for anyone looking to make adjustments to their lives, be it as a result of disability, injury or impairment.

- Personal development reports

An online system that supports young people to identify their personal skills and qualities.

- Prison visits

A tool to support the families of prisoners coping with the experience of being apart from a loved one.

- Rate My CV

A site for helping jobseekers using Web 2.0 tools, with a special focus on the needs of migrant workers.

- Stuffshare

Freecycle meets Street Car: a stuff club.

You can find out more about the decision process on our blog. The write-up also describes the different ways people interpreted the opportunity e.g. as a way of improving NGOs, or helping government reach people. I think the most interesting possibility is for disruptive innovation; for the people strongly affected by an issue to participate in solving it with the help of web tools. I'm starting to think of this as community hacktivism.

social innovation and geezer power

Where do you find performance art, geeks, and a bunch of older people with attitude? At last week's 'On the Margins of Technology' Symposium, part of The Not Quite Yet exhibition at SPACE Media arts.

I delivered the keynote presentation, which I've uploaded to slideshare;

I'd never thought about using performance art as a way in to technology, but I'm wondering now if it could be a missing link, a way to open up participation to groups that are far from being digital natives. This came across really strongly as both the exhibition and the symposium had a focus on older people. The flip of perspective to the older age was great as well, because I spend so much time looking at what the kids are up to with tech.

According to Lois Weaver, the use of performance for participation leans on bringing out personal and fantasy elements - there's an overlap in my mind with the general nature of the social web (blogs etc.) and in particular the Alternative Reality Gaming I'm finding so interesting at the moment.

But the biggest buzz of the day for me was The Geezers, a self-run group of senior men from Tower Hamlets who'd worked with artist Loraine Leeson on a project to harness the tidal power of the Thames. I'll leave it to The Geezers to tell their own story (in the words of their 'GeezerPower' leaflet!) - but it was a privilege to encounter them and other sussed participants, such as community mentor Vi Davies from Senior AGE. Basically, The Geezers ROCK - I want to join - where do I sign?


"We are The Geezers, a self-run group of senior men based at Age Concern in Tower Hamlets. Artist Loraine Leeson has been working with us on a project that started as research by Queen Mary University of London into the way that new technologies are normally invented by the young. Older people have more experience of life, yet this knowledge is seldom able to inform technological innovation. We may be past our sell by dates, but we still have a lot to offer - and a special interest in how the world will be for future generations.

When we thought about how technological development might be used to improve life on this planet, it occurred to us that perhaps the tidal flow of the Thames could be used to provide power for London. This isn't new, as centuries ago a water wheel was attached to London Bridge. In our living memories tidal technologies have been developed, but then set aside in favour of wind farms. Now the threat of nuclear energy is on the agenda again. We think it is time to let the Thames power London and we, the Geezers, supported by Loraine and others, intend to make it happen.

We have been doing our research! Starting with the older technology, we visited the water wheels of Three Mills and discovered how they alone could potentially power seventy houses. Between us we know quite a bit about engineering, mechanics, history, politics and the like, so our ideas developed and we took some advice. As a result we went to see a new form of wind turbine at Rainham Marshes which could be adapted to tidal flow, since it can turn in two directions. Then we looked at the Thames Barrier, a ready-made barrage across the river, and ideal for siting a string of turbines, since only a few lanes are used for shipping.

A visualization by the artist has helped bring all these ideas together. We don't intend to stop here however. The next stage will be to find resources to investigate the viability of the technology, look at different designs, consider where it could be sited and what the economic potential could be. We need some specialists on board and perhaps a postgraduate student or two to try things out. Even if we could just provide power for some homes for the elderly, or for the street lighting, that would be an achievement. The world now needs as many sustainable resources as it can get. It's time for GeezerPower.

Geezer Club: Dennis Banks, John Bevan, Eddie Brown, John Day, Tom Diss, John Griffin, Ray Gipson, Bill Hardy, John Hunter, Tony Johnson, Danny Langdon, Ted Lewis, Con McCarthy and Alan Pullen."

More Geezer info from Ray Gipson (ray.gipson AT or Loraine Leeson (l.leeson AT


Announcing the first Social Innovation Camp, 4th - 6th April 2008

I'm very pleased to announce the call for ideas for our first Social Innovation Camp .

"What happens when you get a bunch of hackers and social innovators together, give them a set of social problems and only 48 hours to solve them? We’re going to find out. In London between 4th-6th April 2008, Social Innovation Camp will bring together some of the best of the UK and Europe's web developers and designers with people at the sharp end of social problems. Our aim is find ways that easy-to-build web 2.0 tools can be used to develop solutions to social challenges."

Over the next few days we'll be adding more and more to the site and, hopefully, kicking off conversations about Social Innovation Camp. We'd like to see it as a mashup of barcamp, netsquared and a few other mongrel ingredients - but what it will become is largely UP TO YOU.

So please get stuck in, and help spread the word.

Can Social Technology help prevent Genocide?

The distressing footage of violence in Kenya and the reflective horror of the Darfur documentary 'The Devil Came on Horseback' prompted me to revisit Tom Glaisyer's thoughtful paper on Social Computing Technology and Genocide Prevention. I was struck by the fact that an analysis of the genocides in Armenia, Germany, and Rwanda shows there was enough information available at the time to have enabled preventative action. And yet that action wasn't taken. Tom concludes that "simple knowledge of genocidal potential or acts is insufficient to provoke people to act".

While his paper is a careful analysis of the various roles the social web could play, especially in supporting 'the third side' ("the surrounding community, which serves as a container for any escalating conflict"), it's basic thesis is that personal connection is the necessary driver for prompt intervention. Hence the potential for social technologies, and I'll quote the BBC's Bill Thompson again because he says it so well:

"What happens when the photos on Facebook and Flickr show devastated crops and starving families – and these people are not just faces on the television but old friends, people whose likes and dislikes and reading habits and favourite films we know and share? The world is different when it’s the people you know, and I do not think we will be able to resist the forces of change when our friends are dying on screen, in front of us, and we know that we could do something but have decided not to."

Of course, there were no laptops or wifi networks in the burned out villages in Darfur visited by Brian Steidle, the disillusioned peace monitor profiled in 'The Devil Came on Horseback'. On the other hand, the amazing spread of mobiles in Africa has already led to some human rights uses (for example 'Rural Women To Report Human Rights Violations Against Them Using Mobile Phones'). And it's interesting that the concrete project propose by Tom Glaisyer looks to me a lot like the WITNESS Video Hub. So the humble mobile may become the technology vector for a genocide prevention platform.

But maybe, when looking at the impact of the social web on genocide, the focus on tools is the wrong tack. After all, as Tom also points out, all technologies can be used to promote genocide as much as to prevent it. There is such a thing as User Generated Racism and fascists and racists "get" Web2.0.

The critical point is the influence of culture on whether human rights are defended or abused. In The Wealth of Networks Benkler points out how rights-based liberalism (the basis for most human rights organisations) is made impotent by ignoring the power of culture. Within cultural (and counter-cultural!) values lie the shared motivations for spontaneous action. Since the digital space is a cultural space I'm suggesting that the biggest brake the internet can have on genocide is by propagating an online culture pervaded by a sense of fairness & justice. Whether that happens by writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in to all web 2.0 Terms of Service, or by flooding social networks with raw human rights hiphop , history will judge the role of the social web in our darkest collective moments .

p.s. while writing this post I was intrigued to see how many torrent sites are hosting 'The Devil Came on Horseback' - that's got to be a good sign, no...?

membership & social networking

A freelance journalist asked me a bunch of interesting questions about social networking and membership organisations. I've posted my answers here. I'll point him to this link - if you've anything to add, feel free to comment!

Is Facebook a great means of building online communities, or a fad?

Neither. It's a laboratory.
How can membership bodies exploit social networking sites to build online communities?
Via tools like Facebook groups and Facebook Causes, which can cluster like-minded non-members around the organisation.
Can social networking sites add value to membership organisations?

Yes, by providing a more sociable(!) environment where people can explore what brings them together as members.
What are the pros for a membership body to use a site like Facebook to host an online member community?
They've done all the technical work, and they deal with all the terms of service.
What are the cons/pitfalls? (isn't Facebook unpoliced, isn't it hard to co-ordinate discussion?)
It's harder to coordinate discussion. The main problem is the time-intensive nature of this work, and the uncertain return on investment. Other pitfalls include the terms of service (see also 'pros') and privacy.
Is there a risk for organisations that don't embrace social networking sites, and whose members actively do, that they become increasingly irrelevant? Could they potentially lose their grip on their membership base?
Examples of membership bodies that have used Facebook as part of its member comms strategy, or even examples of where members have formed splinter groups on social networking sites.
Oxfam springs to mind. For splinters, see the famous Barack Obama example.
What lessons can sites such as Facebook teach membership organisations looking to set up/develop/improve their own online communications?
Start from the places where the people already are.
Is the technology behind Facebook something that can be adapted and adopted by membership organisations? If yes, how?
Yes, via the increasing trend for whitelabel social networks.
What are the positive ways in which the model can inform a membership body's web strategy?
The web strategy is no longer about the web site.
Are there any cautionary lessons that can be learned from Facebook?
I'm also looking for a pithy list of dos and don'ts – maybe 10 ways to make the most of social networking, and 10 ways to avoid cock ups.
Beth's interview with Carie Lewis has 5; and there's the Ten Commandments of MySpace Advocacy .
Also, not to neglect other social networking sites including Delicious, Digg, Reddit and StumbledUpon. How do they differ from Facebook and do they offer anything different to membership bodies?
They are social, rather than social networking as such (more 'collaborative filtering'). They can be useful .
Finally, what's next? As Friends Reunited has been superseded, what is the future for Facebook?

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