innovation

Netsquared - the European Remix?

REMIXING THE WEB FOR SOCIAL CHANGE

I think Europe badly needs a Netsquared conference and online community, or something like it. NetSquared's mission is 'Remixing the Web for Social Change', and it does this though a framework that includes community blogging, case studies, major conferences and local monthly meetings. It has just held its second major conference , where 350 invited participants gathered to accelerate 21 Projects that were selected by the NetSquared community as having the greatest potential to leverage the social web to create social change.

NETSQUARED 2006: THE NEW WAVE

I was lucky enough to be invited to the first Netsquared conference, which was a buzzing mix of geeks, activists and tech philanthropists. For me, some highlights included Howard Rheingold discussing the way hispanic youth in LA used MySpace to organize against anti-immigrant legislation encountering the Genocide Intervention Network, which is such a good example of a web 2.0 enabled NGO start-up seeing Camp Darfur in Sercond Life and, of course, the workshop on Human Rights and New Communication Technologies where i was a presenter :) (MSNBC published a good overview of the first conference called Can Web 2.0 change the world?)

A NICHE FOR NETSQUARED EUROPE

Of course, there are already some great tech & society conferences in Europe. I recently did a workshop at the eCampaigning Forum which covers a lot of the key issues, but is very tightly focused on professional ecampaigners. I was also impressed by the LIFT conference which had a great diversity of content - but although they were kind enough to give us a platform the 2006 conference to talk about human rights & web 2.0 most of the event lacked any kind of activist edge.

THE SOCIAL-TECH SWEET SPOT

Those of us who have been part of the Netsquared experience can see the need for a similar incubator for web-enabled social change in the UK & Europe. The proposal is to establish project like Netsquared that hits the sweet spot at the overlap of technology & social innovation. The goals would be

  • To stimulate web-enabled social innovation
  • To create a an online-offline community for learning skills, sharing experiences and developing expertise
  • To sustain socially progressive activity through alternative business & organisational models

net2-website-02-2

STRATEGY & ACTIVISM

Creativity and innovation are fundamental to the social web, not least because it empowers initiative at the grassroots level through an architecture of participation. This is attracting a lot of interest and engagement from groups and networks with a social mission. A Netsquared Europe would be well-placed to channel this dynamic and support some strategic development of this field. Tapping in to European movements for social change would also bring a more activist strand to the event.

THE ORGANIZATIONAL QUESTION

The conference and community could also address 'the organizational question' i.e. the challenge that Web 2.0 raises for traditional NGOs and non-profits. The many dimensions of this challenge have been spelled out recently by Michael Gilbert in The Permeable Organization , Steve Bridger in Whose cause is it anyway? and Katrin Verclas in Online Communities Redux: Why They Matter to You. Perhaps, like the second Netsquared conference, it could aim to incubate a new generation of web-enabled non-profits that use new forms of organising to deliver more directly on their missions.

OPEN SOURCE DNA

Like many other radical innovations, Netsquared Europe will have open source embedded in its genes. Not only because much of the innovation would be impossible without open source tools, but because the DIY attitude of open source software communities is the best innovation paradigm for web-enabled social change. As Karim Lakhani says, the open source model is about "the movement of innovative activity to the edges of organizations and into communities". I think a conference & community like the one proposed in this post, that brings together developers and social change activists, would be a prime site for another open source principle described by Lakhani: "the intersection of firms and communities and the emergence of hybrid models of organizations that blend and blur firms and communities".
INNOVATION IS A CONTACT SPORT

I'd like to add a tip from the new programme at NESTA who's strapline is Innovation is a Contact Sport. NESTA Connect "will focus on creating new, unexpected or extreme collaborations - blurring the traditional boundaries between disciplines, organisations and places. We believe such collaboration has the potential to generate radical, transformational innovation." At their Uploading Innovation Event I highlighted the reasons why online innovation and human rights are closely intertwined . A conference like Netsquared Europe could be a great opportunity to creare unexpeted collaborations by mashing up the new wave of social entreprenuers with dedicated networks like The Association for Progressive Communications and young upstarts like the Web Activist Collective .

WHO'S IN THE MIX?

The success of a project like Netsquared Europe will depend on the collaboration of organisations and networks that already reflect facets of its goals. Take the original Californian tech-visionaries of Netsquared and remix with the professsionalism of the eCampaigning Forum, the European activist focus of Total Tactics, the open source know-how of the Tactical Technology Collective and the enterprise of The School for Social Entrepreneurs and what do you get....?

Next steps for the Number 10 e-petitions

In a pub after the 2007 eCampaigning Forum, Tom Steinberg of mySociety laid down a challenge. Though out of the media headlines, the Number 10 e-petitions engineered by mySociety are still getting tens of thousands of visits a day. Tom's challenge was "what's next?" - how do the people visiting and signing petitions get connected to something actionable? What about all the charities and non-profits that are campaigning and working on the same issues that people are petitioning about - how do people get connected to them?

Tom repeated the challenge a couple of weeks later at The Social Impact of the Web event at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce) - "we built, as a independent contractor, the Number 10 petition site... 25,000 people a day are coming... what I'd like to do is be able to point people to a debate about what happens next... petitions, a very low form of political engagement, can help get people more engaged..." Tom also triggered a conference debate about the relative primacy of tools versus people. He's an advocate for the disruptive effect of new tools - the things that the toolsmiths create challenge the way we do things. Several speakers from the audience challenged that, arguing that it's not the tools which are transformational but the people.

So here's my tool-centric attempts at an answer to Tom's challenge.

Option 1: Ask people to tag their petitions with relevant keywords (in the same way as for Flickr photos or other user-generated content). Link this to a Google Custom Search Engine which indexes a range of charity and NGO websites with relevant campaigns, and display the search results as action links. A proof of concept Advocacy Search was set up by Fairsay a few months ago. One catch here is the effort required to build the site list for the search, especially if refinements are used to provide targeted search (e.g. for 'Campaigns' or 'Advice'). On the plus side the Google CSE is set up to enable collaboration.

[disclaimer: proposing the use of Google tools in no way overwrites my opinion of their actions over China: see also Open Letters Shame Corporates For Their Complicity In China & Real-Time Revisionism]

Option 2: Use petition-tagging tied to an NGO 'action registry' which aggregates all the current advocacy and campaigning actions from the non-profit & NGO sector. Such an Action Registry is proposed as part of Fairsay's eCampaigning Tool (currently in Beta release). Another route to aggregating actions would be to develop a microformat for web actions (see also my proposal for a Prisoner of Conscience Microformat).

The broader debate about whether it's tools or people who are transformational segued in to another of the presentations at the RSA, when Bronwyn Kunhardt quoted Heidegger: "The social character of man is determined by his use of technology". An old pal of mine called Jeremy Weate wrote an excellent paper on this subject called Imaginalysis - or the Technologies of Place. Pointing out that "Heidegger claims τεκνε (techne) most fundamentally refers to ‘disclosure’ or ‘unconcealment’" he asserts that this understanding of technology implies that its meaning is forever contested. Since "the imagination is the conduit or schema by means of which what shows up in the world acquires meaning and significance" we are able to re-imagine the meaning of technologies, rather than seeing them only as the devices of the dominant order. Seems to me this is a tendency at work in all socially-conscious hacktivism (see also eCampaigning for Internet Freedom).

Chuggers in Cyberspace

I'm starting to get a bit bothered by the innovative fundraisers in BINGO's who are pushing in to places like MySpace & Second Life, because I'm afraid that hunting for donations in the new virtual spaces will put people off the other things an NGO can offer (like opportunities for activism). It's ungrateful, I know, considering the fact that fundraisers bring in the money to pay my wages. And I feel quite ambivalent about it, because at least the fundraisers are agile enough to know that MySpace & Second Life are important developments, which is more than can be said for many campaigners!
So I applaud their drive to innovate, but I'm concerned about face-to-face fundraising leaking over in to experiments with social networking. (According to the Guardian newspaper, face-to-face fundraising "is the name given to the fundraising technique where teams of cheery, bib-wearing young people in the street sign up passers-by to give money regularly to charity via a direct debit. But people who are not fans of the fundraising teams have been known to refer to them as "charity muggers" or "chuggers".)

The participative nature of the social web makes it a place where people can go beyond a passive role, and potentially become part of the solution they want to see. Of course I understand that many folk don't have much time to give, and sometimes giving money is all that is possible (hey, i've got a family too). But what happens when folk in Second Life start to teleport past the office of the human rights organisation, because they don't want to get hassled for a donation? Or when people reject MySpace friend requests from campaigns because they can sense it's just a sting?

I know I'm pointing the finger at the wrong people. It's not the fundraisers' fault that they're being creative - that's a good thing! But it would be a shame to see NGO's written off because something as interesting as Save the Children's virtual yak gets hammered in the same way as Heifer's water buffalo (a critique that resulted in widely-watched YouTube video, BTW). The root of the problem is the strategic failure of non-profits to embrace the disruptive nature of the Net. Perhaps, as some suggest, the corporate model is no longer well suited to public benefit work, and the internet itself will play a part in the emergence of new structures for organising around social impact.

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