Rethinking networks as passionate human clouds

A meeting in London with Peggy Duvette, chief executive of WiserEarth, and also with Ed Mitchell, sparked some thoughts about networking – global, local, and organisational. Well, questions mostly. Warning: this is a bit of ramble that also takes in the RSA, NCVO, cloud computing and the local government knowledge hub.

I met up with Peggy at an evening event organised last week in London by Mike Zeidler, that was in itself a pleasure as these things go. It brought together people broadly interested in environment, social justice with a bit of tech as well. The presentations were minimal, facilitation light-touch, wine sufficient, and conversations engaging. Peggy’s visit to the UK was the spark, and some of the substance.

Anyway, I was thinking I would skip the usual video reporting chores when Peggy came over and said hello … maybe it was three tag words during the circle of intros: socialreporter – dot – com. A bit promotional, I know. Anyway we got to talking about what makes networks work, and I pulled out the iphone 3gs as you can see above.

I asked some pretty standard questions, to which Peggy added substance by sharp insights and the weight of experience in WiserEarth, which “helps the global movement of people and organizations working toward social justice, indigenous rights, and environmental stewardship connect, collaborate, share knowledge, and build alliances” and has some 30,000 members, and thousands of groups. It is “the world’s largest free and editable international directory of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and socially responsible organizations (over 110,000 in 243 countries, territories, and sovereign islands)”.

Three observations stood out for me from our chat: mix face-to-face and online networking, go where people are already gathered rather than expecting them to come to your place, and what makes it all work is passion for an issue. If people are passionate, concerned, and want to meet others then they will make the effort to use the tools.

This led me to reflect upon one of the other networks I have written lots about: the RSA. It has some 27,000 members (Fellows) around the world, with a diversity of interests to match those on WiserEarth, and some high ideals going back to its foundation in the elightenment years of the 18th century. There’s currently an exhibition to make the then-and-now links.

I used the interview with Peggy as a peg for a slightly provocative piece on the RSA City London network – “Is the network quiet because we have no shared passion? Do we need one”? Everyone says the RSA Fellowship has great potential because people cover so many interests … but there isn’t any one focus, and the online networks are very quiet. But then, WiserEarth covers a lot of ground, and people network there. I guess the difference is that WiserEarth presents itself as a place for action for the environment and social justice, while RSA has broader aims and a host of other activities to engage people.

Just before the event with Peggy I had spent a very enjoyable couple of hours with Ed Mitchell, who is currently developing a online network for the Transition Town movement.

As the wiki explains: A Transition Initiative is a community  working together to look Peak Oil and Climate Change squarely in the eye and address this BIG question: “for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?”

While there’s a primer, and a 12-step process for the transition journey, the movement is about as bottom-up as you can get. Dan McQuillan, speaking recently at the mypublicservices event, reckoned Transition was a good example of the way we’ll have to go for new-style public services in future. Do watch the interview for this, and his general reflections on power and transformation of public services.

Anyway, Ed and his team are evolving a system that will provide a central Drupal-based site, and also aggregate tagged content from just about anywhere (first pilot here). Ed’s doing that with a specially-formed group of developers in a way that looks set to be a model of tight-budget creative collaboration. Plenty of passion among both system user/contributors and developers, within a strong  framework of values provided both by Transition and the Open Source approach (sustainability, resilence, collaboration, distribution).

In conversation with Ed I recalled an excellent event run by the NCVO Foresight team a few weeks back on what tech changes will mean for nonprofits. It was organised in part by Guy Yeomans, who write here about ubiquitous connectivity – allowing us to be online anywhere anytime. An associated development is cloud computing, explained at the event by Robin Gear of PAconsulting. It means, among other things, that you can have all of your email, documents, networking etc handled by Google and other big players, storing your stuff in massive data warehouses in California. Or somewhere. You won’t know.

We discussed this and other issues at tables: ours was focussed on membership organisations. I remember two insights. One was that organisations may need two divergent strategies, for those connected and unconnected; the other was that we should think about the “human cloud”. By the human cloud we meant that people will be less and less tied into formal communications relationships with membership organisations – for example – popping in and out of discussion forums set up in some prefined groups. Those who are connected, using social media, will cluster around topics wherever people of shared passion may gather. If their membership organisation offers the facility, fine, if not they go elsewhere. Or probably do both. What’s then important if you are acting as a convenor (like Transition Towns) is being able to both offer a central platform and also aggregate content tagged from elsewhere. (I later discovered discussion of the human cloud over at Sun Microsystems).

Twitter – explained here – is proving both a tool and a model for connecting clouds of people who cluster around events and interests defined by tags. You can also use lists, as Beth Kanter explains here. So, if someone is using Twitter it’s fairly easy to talk about clouds, more difficult if not. Maybe the analogy is a very fluid conference, or party, where conversations group and regroup. Anyone got some good metaphors? I think that the technical term is knowledge ecology.

The other place I picked up some really useful thoughts on human clounds and networks is the advisory groups for the IDeA knowledge hub. The overall aim – as I’ve written before – is to help local councils and other public bodies be more conversational in knowledge-sharing among themselves and with citizens. The project is being driven forward by Ingrid Koehler and Steve Dale, and they have blogged at SocialbySocial here and here.

When we met the other day we worked on a couple of realistic but fictitious scenarios, where a local strategic partnership was gathering people and knowledge around issues where they had to deliver results (these are known as national indicators). I was in a group looking at reducing alcohol-related harm. You can see from video of the report back, and Steve’s analysis here, that success depended partly on good knowledge-sharing but substantially on development and maintenance of the network of people – the cloud – that formed around the task.

So yet again the components for knowledge-sharing and action were a framework of values or target; some focus in an issue or task; flexible ways to contribute and access knowledge; processes to develop relationships and create a trusted social space, the power to convene, the capacity to facilitate. The tools were then whatever was needed to support this.

The challenge for local government, in developing the knowledge ecology model, may be whether people will have the same passion to make it work as those using WiserEarth or the Transition system. I’m really delighted that I’ll be working with Ingrid, Steve and others on these issues together with Amy Sample Ward over at SocialbySocial.net. IDeA will be using that shared space to explore where next, with links to the groups there working on community-based blogs and online systems. More soon on that.

The challenge for RSA may be whether it can offer its diverse membership something that makes it worth clustering around online (as well as the excellent public lectures programme, which you don’t have to pay for). Maybe there could be closer links with the lectures, and the strong programme of projects developed by staff. Anyway, the good news there is that the new Fellowship Council is going well – as live-blogged here by Jemima Gibbons – and Tessy Britton has been elected chair. Tessy is very positive, and there are some 40 others highly capable Fellows on the council.  One group is looking at communications and engagement, and there’s also plans for meetings of smaller interest groups in London, that could link to online development.

This is one of those blog pieces I felt I needed to write to get stuff out of my head … and in the hope someone might come up with good links to better explanations of human clouds and knowledge ecosystems. Please. And also so I can later write shorter pieces with reference to human clouds. Meanwhile thanks to Peggy, Mike, Ed, Dan, Ingrid, Steve, Tessy, Guy, Robin, Beth, Jemima, Amy and many others for conversations in the cloud.

4 Comments

  • December 21, 2009 - 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for mentioning WiserEarth.org. Come and visit us!

  • December 22, 2009 - 9:35 am | Permalink

    Thanks Justin – I’m already registered and looking around!

  • December 23, 2009 - 10:16 am | Permalink

    Peggy is awesome – as is Wiser Earth. You must have had a wonderful conversation. Wish I could have been a fly on the wall

  • January 4, 2010 - 11:50 am | Permalink

    Sounds very interesting David; given my personal interest in environmental issues and my work with NCVO Foresight on ‘techy’ issues which I’d been there! V pleased to hear you found our event worthwhile.

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