Category Archives: social media

SEEFA symposium identifies challenges to innovation in Ageing Better – it’s culture as much as tech

Summary: a symposium on innovation, technology and later life provides confirmation that many of the challenges to making use of tech for ageing better are organisational and cultural as well as technical. We have plenty of tech – the issues are how to personalise and support use appropriate to people’s needs and situation. But ageing organisations can’t do that if they aren’t using social tech themselves.

I found the SEEFA symposium last week on ‘Transforming not excluding – the impact of information technology and innovation on later life’ most useful because it didn’t focus on innovative technology. It was more of a high-level distillation of the sort of day-to-day conversations people are having in the field. However, it could have been even more useful with some additions, including fairly standard social tech. More on that later.

SEEFA is the South East England Forum on Ageing, and the event was hosted in the Lords by Lord Filkin, who is chair of the Big Lottery Fund’s Centre for Ageing Better. Several score people, mainly in later life, were addressed by Baroness Sally Greengross and a good range of speakers with experience in industry, ageing, care and other fields.

I was one of a panel asked to make a contribution, and there was a lively Q and A. The symposium was facilitated with an informal-yet-informed touch by Guardian public services editor David Brindle so that, unusually for this sort of event, if felt like a big, sensible conversation.

I was particularly listening out for confirmation or otherwise of the ten provocations about innovation in Ageing Better that I posted recently, and the challenges I distilled from those for the Ageing Better exploration.

You can also review key points yourself from the symposium, because John Popham declared #itlater the event hashtag and dived in to lead some tweeting and then created a Storify.

Here’s my provocations, (enhanced with some comments I received). I’ve added points from the symposium discussion, and from people tweeting in response to the stream. See John’s Storify for attributions.

1. There isn’t an opt-out from technology – but you can choose how much you participate. (Technology has changed the world dramatically, and it will continue to change. What’s important is enabling people to choose how they engage).

From the symposium and tweeters:
Why isn’t technology transforming people’s lives as much as it might? Are people aware of the potential?
Technology is changing fast – you don’t have to be older to get out of date.
People can feel more in control of their lives with appropriate technology  - but tech makes things smaller and faster, which can be challenging.
Social connectedness is a key determinant of personal well-being.
Older people don’t want to be singled out – they want to be part of everything.
“Older people” is not an identity but a statistical category

2. Government is concerned that many older people are not online – but there are limits to what government can do. (People will engage with what’s interesting and useful to them, and use devices that most suit their needs).

From the symposium and tweeters:
Focus on the individual, their needs and interests.
Focus on what tech can do – not what it is.
There are distinct business benefits in connecting older people – however some businesses don’t want older customers who create problems.
Everyone needs a reason to change, and changes to services could be the catalyst.
Lack of basic education and literacy is still a barrier for many.

3. Everyone needs Internet access … but beyond that, no one size fits all. (Cost is a barrier, and then personalisation is important).

From the symposium and tweeters:
The lack of rural connectivity continues to be a huge problem.
Confirmation at the symposium about cost – or perceived cost – as a barrier to adoption, and the need for personalisation of devices and use.
There is no such things as a typical older person
Be careful about language. “Older lady said she didn’t need “mobile banking” because her tablet never left the house”.
Need to build people’s confidence

4. Computer courses and basic skills training don’t meet the needs of many older people. (Tablets are much easier to use than computers for most purposes, and smart phones and smart TVs may also meet many people’s needs).

From the symposium and tweeters:
The digital skills needed for work are generally not the same as those needed for non-work entertainment, learning, communication.
People working in organisations have tech “done for them”. It’s a shock to retire and find you have to do-it-yourself.
Older people tend not to search Youtube for user guides. Printed manuals are still needed.

5. Simpler interfaces are needed for computers and mobile devices – not just more functions. (Older people should be involved in design).

From the symposium and tweeters:
A lot of discussion about the need for co-design.
Why are there no big new products for older people at the Consumer Electronics Show?
A lot of support for “simpler”.
Some people were urging inclusion of older people as users of the latest tech, while others favoured more simple, low-cost options. It’s probably not either-or – it depends on the individual, their situation and preference. Personalisation – not general dumbing down.

6. Relatively few organisations in the ageing field are actively engaged in the online world or using collaborative tools. (Using social technology should help enable greater greater cooperation).

From the symposium and tweeters:
If you aren’t using social technology you can’t understand it
Organisations in the field generally don’t provide staff with equipment, software and devices relevant to people’s personal non-work needs
If people in organisations don’t use social technologies, their ability to share knowledge is severely limited
“What does it say that only four people in the room at #itlater have tweeted during the event”

7. Digital social innovations in services are not scaling. (There’s too much focus on the tech, and not enough on what it does, together with a lot of re-invention).

From the symposium and tweeters:
There is much potential for using tech to help people in care lead a good life and connect with friends and family. Why not adopted more?
Funders are supporting new developments, rather than encouraging adoption and adaptation of existing

8. There is a raft of research, but little knowledge-sharing of that and day-to-day practice. (A lot of research is hidden and not transferred to practice. A culture of competitive tendering reduces people’s inclination to cooperate and use what’s already available).

From the symposium and tweeters:
“Not invented here” is a huge barrier to adoption. Partisan discussion of issues and solutions doesn’t help.
Need to break out of the silos.
Much research and other knowledge is in formats that are unusable by practitioners – we need new knowledge products.
In 2015 all digital events should be promoted vigorously with a hashtag inviting wider debate and be live streamed
“We’re sharing as much as we can on http://connectingcare.org.uk ! Plz suggest more & banish wheel reinvention”
The first step to change is securing the buy in – changing organisational culture to be more open to innovation and tech

9. The energy for change lies with apps, connectors and storytellers. (To which we can add, evolution of trusted technologies such as TVs. Bring the storytellers together).

From the symposium and tweeters:
The potential for using TV was one of the hot topics at the symposium, with recommendations for a number of devices.
Tablets are increasingly proving more attractive than computers – but again depends on the individual and activity.
We need to be better storytellers about how people are using technology
Don’t push people to use stuff they have never experienced. Start by letting them see how others use tech

10. The digital divide is no longer a useful metaphor. Reality is more complex.

I’ve mixed insights from the symposium into the exploration provocations partly for my own purposes, and partly to show how it is possible to build on existing knowledge. All of these points could be remixed into a different set of provocations – and you are welcome to do so.

What’s now important, I think, is focusing on key challenges and developing ideas tro meet them. I’m trying that on the site hosting the exploration into innovation Ageing Better.

When David Brindle called on me for a contribution at the symposium I said (expanded somewhat here) that when I was a mainstream reporter on the Evening Standard in the 1970s we had typewriters, hot metal type-setting and a cuttings-based library. Reporters were a crucial channel – if they did their job well – in transmitting what was new and innovative. Few people had access to a cuttings library. Newspapers and other publishers owned the technology.

I noted as a reporter then, that we would see, in any field, a cycle of forgetting. Faces would change as people moved jobs, but the same stories would resurface as “news” every three or four years, if you checked in the library. Most people wouldn’t have a cuttings library, and so couldn’t know whether it was new or not – which was fine for a lazy reporter.

But why is it that we see the same sort of thing today, when people have the means of research and publication on their smartphones? Why is so much publishing of newsletters and reports designed for the paper-based library, rather than a format that allows easy sharing? Why is research funded that duplicates past work?

At the symposium there was no reference to the work of organisations like Nominet Trust and NESTA in this field,  to sites like Connecting Care, or people like Shirley Ayres who do so much, often unpaid, to share experience in the field. I’ve gathered those and other references here.

I think that discussion at the symposium, and what I’ve gathered from the exploration, provides insights into the re-invention of wheels, lack of sharing, and silos:

Culture

  • Organisations operate in a highly competitive funding environment, so they are reluctant to share ideas that might be used by someone else in a bid
  • Funders and sponsors want organisations to demonstrate how their resources produced results. Collaboration could dilute that.
  • Organisations want to promote their work and profile.
  • There is comfort in staying within your professional silo
  • Managers want to control and deliver – not encourage innovation and exploration that might not meet targets
  • Government wants scale and it is easier to do that through one-size rather than personalisation
  • Senior people in London-based organisations are more easily able to go to events and network with policy people and funders than people outside London. There’s not much incentive for the London circle to share.
  • “Networking” is what you do to increase your knowledge and influence … not to help connect others with ideas and opportunities

Technology

  • While social technology does not on its own enable cooperation and sharing, it makes it far more possible, and among those who use it engenders a culture for that.
  • Most organisations, and their staff, in this field are trapped in old tech systems designed for a different age. Even if they want to use social tech they may not be able to.
  • Learning has to be done in people’s own time, often with their own devices
  • Where social media is used, it is mainly for broadcast and marketing, rather than sharing useful resources
  • Unless people are using social technology, they don’t know what’s possible

Of course there are lots of exceptions … but am I wrong? John Popham has recorded some heart-felt audio here on organisations and social tech.

As I’ve said in this piece, I found the symposium very useful and interesting, and I was glad of the opportunity to contribute. Big thanks to Peter Dale and Julia Pride. It was impressive.

However I don’t see how SEEFA – or any similar organisation – will be able to take their exploration into technology, innovation and older people to the next stage without more use of the technology themselves.

For example, in terms of this sort of event I would suggest a plan, as part of the logistics, to blend online and offline activity, including:

  • Social media accounts for the organisation – at least Twitter and a blog
  • Online research by staff to scope the field, and curate some resources relevant to the event to set the scene
  • Pre-event activity online to engage people who may follow the Twitter stream, contribute, and/or blog
  • Online registration – if places outside the organisation are available
  • An online landing page about the event which can then be referenced in tweets
  • Speaker bios and outline content so that contributions can be co-ordinated beforehand
  • Recruiting participants to tweet
  • An agreed hashtag
  • Video interviews, and ideally streaming
  • Curation of online content after the event

If John Popham hadn’t committed time and expense to come to the event, and then act as a social reporter to declare a hashtag, lead the tweeting, and Storify the tweets, we would have to wait some weeks for a report. It might then not be in bit-sized pieces that can be shared. (I do the same sort of thing, but John is a better live-tweeter. He does great video too). There wouldn’t have been much external participation without contributions from Paul Webster and Shirley Ayres, creating content and alerting their networks as well as John’s and mine.

So my friendly suggestion to SEEFA is this: before publishing a report of the symposium, no doubt including barriers to innovation, please start using the technology! SEEFA’s experience in doing that, together with some of members, would provide very valuable additional insights.

Update: SEEFA have kindly invited me to talk to their executive about the technology challenges facing organisations. I think this will be a great opportunity for me to share some ideas – and also learn about the realities of running an organisation with volunteers and limited resources, in a fast-changing world.

 

 

The challenge of networking civil society

Summary: local activists and volunteers need to share their achievements and experience in hard times. The publicly-funded sites for this have some limitations, and  smaller sites, mainly run by volunteers, don’t have the resources to grow. Is there scope for more joining up, rather than further top-down solutions?

Government policies of localism and cuts to the voluntary sector are pushing citizens and community groups to do more for themselves on the ground, and find their own ways of learning from each other nationally. A couple of recent events prompted me to review what is available online.

The first event was an invite to chat informally to a new team in the government department of Communities and Local Government about the role of social reporting in helping sharing. It was very encouraging to meet a young team full of enthusiasm and enquiry, who describe their remit like this:

The neighbourhood engagement team are working to open up the conversation on neighbourhoods policy to a greater range of people: sharing enthusiasm, tapping into a wider pool of ideas and examples and exploring how government can best support those who want to have greater control and influence in their area. Workshops and online platforms will empower those active in the community to continue the conversation across professional silos, supporting each other to innovate in local arenas with less central government direction.

The second event was a webinar, organised by Globalnet21, on whether social networking can “help create a network of mutual independence that strengthens the countless groups that are the social glue of our civil society”.

That nudged me to prepare the slides that I posted earlier, based on work I did last year with Big Lottery Fund, as well as the blogging I’ve done here about social reporting. I’ve linked a lot in this piece so you can find starting points for your own research, and draw your own conclusions.

I started looking at what platforms are being developed to help people share – about which more later. However, as you’ll see from the slides, I was also emphasising that sharing is about networks, not one-stop-information-shops, and it is people who make that work. It takes people who have some digital literacy skills, with the support of facilitators. An excellent post by Tim Davies says it very well and is worth quoting at length:

When we look at a successful example of online collaboration the most obvious visible element of it is often the platform being used: whether it’s a Facebook group, or a custom-built intranet. Projects to support online learning, knowledge sharing or dialogue can quickly get bogged down in developing feature-lists for the platform they think they need – articulating grand architectural visions of a platform which will bring disparate conversations together, and which will resolve information-sharing bottlenecks in an organisation or network. But when you look closer at any successful online collaboration, you will see that it’s not the platform, but the people, that make it work.

People need opportunities, capabilities and supportive institutional cultures to make the most of the Internet for collaboration. The capabilities needed range from technical skills (and, on corporate networks, the permission) to install and use programs like Skype, to Internet literacies for creating hyper-links and sharing documents, and the social and media literacy to participate in horizontal conversations across different media.

But even skills and capabilities of the participants are not enough to make online collaboration work: there also needs to be a culture of sharing, recognising that the Internet changes the very logic of organisational structures, and means individuals need to be trusted and empowered to collaborate and communicate across organisational and national boundaries in pursuit of common goals.

Online collaboration also needs facilitation: from animateurs who can build community and keep conversations flowing, to technology stewards who can help individuals and groups to find the right ad-hoc tools for the sorts of sharing they are engaged in at that particular time. Online facilitators also need to work to ensure dialogues are inclusive – and to build bridges between online and offline dialogue. In my experience facilitating an online community of youth workers in the UK, or supporting social reporting at the Internet Governance Forum, the biggest barriers to online collaboration have been people’s lack of confidence in expressing themselves online, or easily-address technical skill shortages for uploading and embedding video, or following a conversation on Twitter.

Building the capacity of people and institutions, and changing cultures, so that online collaboration can work is far trickier than building a platform. But, it’s the only way to support truly inclusive dialogue and knowledge-sharing. Plus, when we focus on skills and capabilities, we don’t limit the sorts of purposes they can be put to. A platform has a specific focus and a limited scope: sharing skills lays the foundation for people to participate in a far wider range of online opportunities in the future.

The challenge of supporting sharing and local innovation was picked up last year by the Big Lottery Fund (BIG) under its banner of People Powered Change, with investments of £5.76 million in a range of programmes including Your Square Mile and the Media Trust’s Newsnet, as I first wrote about here, and followed up later. I then worked with BIG for a few months exploring, with John Popham, how they might be more than a funder. Posts here.

As part of that work I put together a Netvibes dashboard taking feeds from the main community and voluntary sector sites.

I’m a little circumspect in what follows, because BIG is a client, and I know the people involved in Newsnet and Your Square Mile, and admire what they are trying to achieve.

Here’s Linda Quinn of BIG,  Gavin Sheppard on Newsnet,  Paul Twivy of Your Square Mile, in interviews last year.

The bad news is that at present it is almost impossible to find out what is going on, where to get help, how to to connect. As I aimed to show in this slide from the webinar (pdf download), there’s a big gap between local networking and national, with many unconnected initiatives in between.

I know it is early days, but as well as the CLG neighbourhoods team work, further announcements are due soon from BIG about People Powered Change (see below), so it is a good time to review progress so far, and how to build on or complement those investments. We have the elements of a rich knowledge ecosystem if we can join them up.

Your Square Mile (£830,000) has a powerful vision of what people may need locally, and a site that does a smart job of aggregating useful data and advising people about local services and the part they may play. There is currently no networking, but that may be a feature of next stage development. Baroness Newlove, Government’s Champion for Active Safer Communities, favours the site as the hub for community activists, as I reported earlier.

In addition Newsnet (£1.89 million)  has a vision of local hubs to connect a network of citizen journalists. Their site has some limitations, but there is interesting discussion and some good examples of hubs, with ways to upload and network news promised later.

In my view something like Newsnet has great potential if it can blend the dynamic of community reporting with citizens finding their own voices to tell their own stories. However this will take time, and on current plans Newsnet site will be archived in two years, when BIG funding ends. We can’t reckon it will be a long-term element in the mix (however, see update below).

Meanwhile a range of unfunded online communities like Our Society, ABCDEurope, and NatCan are doing well in each attracting hundreds of members and a wide range of discussion and resources. Networks like Transition TownsFiery Spirits and i-volunteer show what is possible with some modest investment in platform, and far more facilitation. Tim Davies facilitates Youth Work Online here.

(Disclosure: I’m one of the group running Our Society).

Mandeep Hothi, writing for Guardian Voluntary Sector Network, reports on the results of some other BIG-funded work supported by DCLG’s Empowerment Fund, confirming again that investment in social media and technology is not in itself the answer. It is people who connect. Social media can amplify and assist … but we need to understand the fine grain of how that works as a blend of face-to-face, SMS, email, forums, Facebook and other methods.

Another of the People Powered Change partners, NESTA, are just beginning a big programme of research and development in the field of hyperlocal communications. Interest from the BBC may help catalyse a network of hyperlocal activists in London.

So … we know that just investing in technology isn’t the answer, and that instead it would help to improve and support the digital literacy of activists. We know there are a number of programmes that could join up to achieve this: I’ve only highlighted a few.

But who is going to help bring it together? Big Lottery Fund is a strong supporter of the idea of asset based community development: making the most of the resources that you have in any neighbourhood, rather than just looking at the problems and putting in more funds. Could BIG apply that philosophy to networking for civil society?

After the workshop we ran with BIG in December, Linda Quinn wrote:

We’ll then spend some time working our thoughts into an overall strategy that will inform a paper to our Committee in March. My sense is that much of what we discussed is about how we engage, how we share and how we collaborate. Some of this I think we can test out in pilots, some of it requires us to think how we might change our internal processes but all of it requires that we carry on the conversation with those who have helped us so far and hopefully will remain constructive critical friends and supporters in the future.

In drafting this post, I started at this point to write that Power Powered Change phase two, when announced, may be more about investment in people than in technology platforms, and that it might be developed in part by bringing together the various initiatives I’ve mentioned, and others, to co-design something  for the future.

However, I don’t know if that will be the case – and on reflection I don’t know that we need to wait on BIG … however welcome their support would be.

I then wondered whether there was more scope for joining up the smaller sites I mentioned – even if only by sharing newsletter items and some feeds, and having a shared signposting system of who is doing what where: a more accessible version of the Netvibes dashboard I developed.

Ideally this network of networks should be animated by some social reporting … helping people make sense of the civil society ecosystem, and joining up conversation. It would be the online equivalent of local community building, in this instance designed to make the most of the knowledge assets that we have.

What do you think? Is there a problem for activists trying to get information and advice, and connect with others? If so, should we follow Baroness Newlove’s suggestions, and focus on the development of one site, like Your Square Mile? Or should we try and build a knowledge ecoystem of smaller sites, and of civil society organisations better able to network online? (By we, I’m thinking of those who manage online communities or other civil society sites).

The NESTA hyperlocal research and development programme is very timely. Maybe we need something similar at national level.

Update: if you are interested in the big picture, Steve Dale has some deeply-researched slides and notes on The Future of social media and social networks

Update 2: I dropped a query about Media Trust plans into Newsnet discussions, and Gavin Sheppard responded:

“Whilst the BIG funding is for another two years, we’re committed to supporting the platform beyond that date. Obviously further development will depending on what funding is available to us, but I see no reason why the community can’t continue to grow beyond 2014″.

BBC collaboration helps network London hyperlocals

Today very big media (the BBC) met very small media (London hyperlocal bloggers and online community managers) and found they had something to work on together. It might be the start of something significant for local communities.

Their shared interest was that the London TV analogue signal will be switched off next month, starting on April 4. For most people it will be a simple matter of retuning their digital sets if they are using Freeview – but there are still many who will need equipment like a set-top box.

The get-together, in the BBC Council Chamber, was organised by Hugh Flouch of Networked Neighbourhoods

About 1.4 million people could be eligible for the BBC help scheme, which can include installation, advice, and follow-up support for 12 months. However, despite all the publicity, there may be some people who suddenly find their TV isn’t working any more.

Local web sites, like Harringay Online, run by Hugh and other local volunteers, have good connections in their neighbourhoods, as Networked Neighbourhoods research shows – and not just online. They are likely to know who’s who in local networks, and be able to get the word out in various ways.

We heard details of BBC plans from Liam McKay, Switchover Help Scheme Manager for London, and also from presenter Maggie Philbin, who has been spreading the word at events around the country. Then we got into huddles to come up with some ideas of our own, on how bloggers and BBC could work together. As well as local site managers, we had Matt Brown, editor of The Londonist, whose site has enormous reach throughout the capital. It all sounded very promising.

The bigger idea, as Hugh explains in the interview, is that BBC and hyperlocal sites both have a public interest role, and could work together more to deliver on that. BBC can’t always get to the grassroots … and while local sites definitely are grassroots, they need more nourishment to keep going.

The possibility of collaboration with the BBC, and other big agencies, could make it worthwhile for the bloggers and site managers to develop a network that could offer more more fine-grain communication locally. A London network isn’t a new idea, as Hugh explained, but this time something might be possible, particularly if the BBC could help out – perhaps by listing local sites at BBC London. There has to be something in the collaboration for both sides. Samantha Latouche explains more about the help scheme.

Maggie Philbin lives in Chiswick, and when she isn’t out evangelising the switchover help service, drops in to her local site to see what’s happening locally.

I go on to my local website chiswickw4.com at least once a day, and if I’m working from home it is slightly more, because there is something slightly addictive about checking out what’s going on. I know it doesn’t matter whether you have lost your cat or there has been some horrendous tragedy, I know the web site will cover it, and the forum will cover it. They are a really powerful source of local news and the place that you turn to.

“Sitting around this table today was this absolutely golden resource across London, of the people who know their areas. No matter how hard you try as a big organistion like the BBC you cannot know your areas as well as the people in this room. Tapping into this knowledge is really useful for the BBC – and I hope it can be reciprocal, and can go both ways.

I don’t think the London bloggers could have hoped for a strong endorsement – and if this interview is useful for a local site, you can get the embed code here. I would just be glad of a link back.

Networking civil society

I’m co-presenting a webinar this evening hosted by GlobalNet21 on the topic of Strengthening Civil Society Through Social Media. It starts at 19.30 GMT, and details are here. The event, organised by Francis Sealey, nudged me into putting together a presentation that draws on various piece of work I’ve done with Drew Mackie, John Popham and others. Here’s the slides, and you can view them with notes here, or download a pdf. The intro to the webinar is:

At times of financial restraint and when Governments are looking at how civil society can be recruited to deliver on their own agenda then how can we ensure that the many associations that make up civil society can protect their independence. Can social networking help create a network of mutual independence that strengthens the countless groups that are the social glue of our civil society? This is the topic of this webinar.

How do we develop social networking so that groups can have an influence and make a difference? Is it sufficient to just set up a meetup site or a NING site for example and then hope that it will take off into cyberspace and be successful. What more do we need to do to reach wider audiences and particularly vulnerable and marginalized groups that do not always join into existing online communities?

I’ll be joined by Joe Taylor, who will be talking about NatCAN, The National Community Activist Network, that has 630 members on a Ning network. Joe and the team behind NatCAN also use Skype and other tools to collaborate and help activists connect.

The event is part of a series by the Third Sector Research Centre in their Beyond the Radar programme: more here. That’s been exploring how small “Below the Radar” groups can maximise the impact of their activity.

As I hope you see from the slides – particularly the version with notes – I’m suggesting that we can’t expect social networking technologies on their own to empower groups and connect up the thousands of activists who could learn from each other. That depends – as ever – on networky people and more sociable organisations. I’ve used Drew Mackie’s cartoons of the various Networkistas, and I’ll be talking about the role of social reporters in making sense, joining up and helping out.

Tip to NESTA on hyperlocal research: go camping

The UK innovation agency NESTA has just launched a a major exploration of the future of hyperlocal media – covering everything from struggling local papers, and reduced local BBC services, through to new Government-backed local TV, and the blogs, online communities and radio stations run by passionate digital activists. The programme is starting with mapping who is doing what, followed by formation of a partnership, foresight research, and funding for innovative pilots. More here in my earlier post. Below I suggest NESTA might consider a more open process to complement current plans.

For the past few years people involved in websites and other digital stuff for for central and local government, and anyone else interested in civic services and interactions, have got together for free, open conferences organised by volunteers, with no set agenda, a minimum of Powerpoint and a max of conversation. Here’s the first one I reported, organised by Jeremy Gould in 2008. It was hugely stimulting … even slightly shocking … to see such creativity released from the realms of bureaucracy. Other unconferences followed specifically for local government, and other interests.

Credit David Pea

Today I went to ukgovcamp2012 organised by Steph Grey and Dave Briggs, hosted by Microsoft, with an attendance list of more than 200 people over two days, and around a dozen sponsors large and small. read more »

More media power-to, less power-over vanities

A day at the excellent POLIS conference about Media and Power, and participation in a panel on DIY Media Democracy, led me to think about two sorts of power in democracy, politics and community action.
One is power-over: who can make decisions or has influence – and the other is power-to. That’s the ability to understand and take action – where terms like capacity building and empowerment crop up. Communication and media is important in both.
Today’s event was about both sorts of power: citizen media power in the Midde East revolutions, campaigners using digital media, local blog sites challenging councils (Pits ‘n Pots), as well as the more traditional issues of journalists holding politicians to account, and politicians using journalists to further their aims. (According to former Labour spinner Lance Price No 10 could pretty much dictate the headlines to sympathetic journalists in the early happy days of Blair government.)
As someone said, it’s less a matter or a vibrant press and more one of a vibrant and rather vain game between politicians and journalists.
Although on reflection, the conference was perhaps mostly about power over …  more about the Citizens UK and Lord Glasman view of change, than the more collaborative community development approach of Locality, as highlighted here. read more »

No 10 wants to hear about your local digital project

If your community-benefit project would itself benefit from some endorsement from the Prime Minister, there’s a couple of days before the next round of submissions for Big Society Awards.

If, in addition, yours is a digitally-enabled project, you might have a good chance of being featured on the No 10 web site as one of 12 projects chosen each quarter, and getting an invite to a reception with David Cameron. Full details here including the nomination form.

Of course, you might say “wouldn’t touch it with a virtual barge pole” … and I share with others reservations about Big Society as brand and the many contradictions in policy it embodies, while promoting citizen-led action. Past musings here on various things Big Society-related.

However, those who have been to receptions for award winners report genuine, joyful enthusiasm, and about 500 submissions have been received since the awards launched last November. Are the activists being co-opted for political purpose? I think it is up to them, and would like to see the awards as one small way to make direct connection between the very London-centric nature of Big Society promotion and what’s happening on the ground. read more »

Neighbourhoods online are more sociable

We’ve had neighbourhood web sites since the mid 1990s, and before  that in North America, but not enough research into the extent to which they increase people’s sense of belonging or change attitudes to those public bodies that may engage online.

Today Kevin Harris and Hugh Flouch gave us the results of their work on behalf of Capital Ambition, focussed on three sites in London. Summary here (pdf). I talked to Kevin and Hugh at the lunch break of their conference, together with Debby Matthews.

Experience in Brockley Central, East Dulwich and Harringay Online shows that these sites do make a difference. As one person said: “I knew none of the neighbours until I joined the site”. read more »

An innovation hub may help make sense of Big Society

As the blogging, tweeting and media coverage of the Big Society idea increases (earlier posts here) it is more and more difficult for people to make sense of what is going on, and figure out where the opportunities lie. I’m seeing on Twitter a lot of ideas on how to deal with that: we need a wiki, a blogroll of best blogs, better tagging of tweets etc.
Yes we do, but who is going to do it?
Because there is no central government focus – and Big Society is intended to be bottom up – we should be prepared to do something for ourselves.
But who are ‘we’? It’s back to that problem of organising without organisations … fine in social media fantasy land, but difficult in practice. You need a framework, facilitation, procedures and so on. Wikipedia has a very big back-end for that sort of thing.
In addition, it isn’t only about places to go to – like a wiki. That would be a great start, but what’s really important are the conversations, the relationships, the opportunities for people to meet across the usual sectoral and organisational boundaries, and do stuff not just read about it and talk about it. In the jargon, we need a knowledge and innovation ecosystem, with lots of gardeners to help it grow – as I wrote here. I hope someone will plant a wiki as a kind of knowledge shed, then we can start growing more.

Innovation Hub process

Innovation Hub process

Larger image here and pdf

I see something really exciting on the horizon thsat could help. I’ve been hearing about an online space to enable government, innovators, investors and users to work together in a totally new way to reinvent government services, with a launch date in October.
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Redesigning Civil Society, collaboratively

The Guardian’s Societydaily roundup quotes my remark that “It’s obvious we are going to see big cuts in local services whoever is
elected, so we had better get thinking” So here we go.

Patrick Butler writes in the Guardian:

I have some sympathy with the signatories of this letter in “defence of civil society”, from a group of social entrepreneurs who feel that the election knock-about over David Cameron’s ‘big society’ has somewhat obscured, misrepresented or trivialised some of the ideas within it – citizen engagement, community ownership, self-help, public services co-ops and so on.

Adding:

Media cynicism about big society I expected. But I’ve been struck by how a combination of election fever and tribal loyalty has turned some liberal-minded friends and colleagues who I imagined might be sympathetic to some of the ideas in the concept into unfeasibly staunch defenders of the big state, as if what we had before us was a straightforward choice, one or the other. Friends who have for years bemoaned the decline in voting, the scarcity of cub scout leaders, and other signs of the erosion of social capital bristle at the chutzpah of Cameron for proposing to do something about it.

and concluding:

But if we can’t or won’t accept the need to find new ways of filling the spaces from where the state has seemingly no option but to retreat, the forthcoming cuts to public services are going to be even more painful.

The Guardian piece comes in the wake of a letter from Steven Clift, who has been promoting e-democracy and engagement across world for the past 15 years. He writes to 20 of his contacts:

Hey all, through about five different channels across different countries I’ve picked up on growing interest among community builders (particularly at the neighborhood engagement and local democracy level) in some sort of mix of digital guides and connecting tools that help people share lessons and civic energy across local communities. People want to move from talk to problem-solving and direct citizen engagement.

Some of you are into virtual guidebooks, others into Linkedin-like tools, local e-competitions, unconferences, or digital storytelling. I have my own interest in fostering multi-tech online communities of practice. What seems new to me is the level interest in connecting the active citizens (not just connections via trade groups or global sites like Zunia.org at the professional level) across communities directly via digital means. What is definitely new is all the simultaneous interest in channels that are not all that connected and some cases networks are that are new to me.

This is certainly the sort of thing that the Big Society Network wants to promote, and chimes in the exploration of social technology for local action on this wiki and the SocialbySocial network I’ve been developing with Amy Sample Ward and Andy Gibson, co-authors in the SocialbySocial handbook. It also gives me a nudge to do some joining up with guides I’ve written on participation and partnerships, and dig back into some entries on my old blog Designing for Civil Society.

The difficulty in blending social tech, social enterprise and older (but still very necessary) models of community action is that it is complicated … because local communities are complex. You can provide ideas for small scale actions by individuals and groups, but area-wide action involves building consensus among different interests, agreeing priorities, who does what, and so.

One technique I’ve found works (and of course there are others) are the various workshop games developed over the years with my colleage Drew Mackie, and more recently with Amy and Andy for Social by Social. They help people, working in groups, through the process of thinking about their situation, who they want to involve, and their goals, and then offer ideas for action on cards. There is then a follow-through in which people look at roles and resources, and the story of what may happen.

The most recent game focusses on social media, but Drew and did a Regeneration Game a few years back, for NIACE. It’s not now available from them, but we can easily reconstruct the cards and instructions, with ideas for nontech local action.

As a first step I’m planning to rework the local communities wiki with appropriate versions of the game (s). The different elements of the game (understanding your locality, involving others, choosing project ideas) can be linked to more detailed information, and where possible practical examples of neighbourhood action.

One of the most interesting issues for me, in linking tech-enabled social action with older methods, is how far the world of social media helps promote the principles and values we need for working together.

Amy, Andy and I had a lot of fun putting together a set of propositions for the Social by Social book, which you can see here. And just to show how things join up, I’m just off to a Net Tuesday event organised by Amy where David Turner will facilitate a discussion on the Cluetrain Manifesto which inspired our propositions. It has started me thinking about some proposition for redesigning civil society, big or otherwise. I’ll report back tomorrow. I’m expecting to re-inforce ideas about being open and human, generous … co-designing, learning from others, connecting across boundaries. I do know there will at Net Tuesday be people who think and behave that way … which is ultimate why social tech may help in our civic redesigning. It is people and collaborations that make things work, not tools, however smart.