Can RSA help bridge the social innovation divide?

There’s something of a digital divide emerging in the UK between those who believe that web-enabled social innovation is almost impossible within established nonprofit organisations, because of their management structures, culture and generally low-level of tech skills, and those who believe charities can make the change if they really try. See my item on Social Innovation Camp for illustrations of the “outsider” view.

That makes the 250-year-old RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce) a particularly interesting case study. I was highly enthusiastic a year ago when the new chief executive Matthew Taylor (ex adviser to Tony Blair) launched RSA Networks as an initiative that would re-invigorate the venerable organisation by bringing 27,000 members (called Fellows) into the heart of the body to work more closely with staff, and also form an outward-looking civic innovation network to do good things in the wider world. That was the original enlightenment vision of the people who founded the RSA in a Covent Garden coffee shop.

As you can see here (scroll down for earliest item), I and others supported the plan, set up OpenRSA to add some extra zest, and took a lot of inspiration from the process, including setting up The Membership Project to share the lessons.

A big part of RSA Networks was the introduction of an online platform to help Fellows share ideas and develop projects collaboratively, while also meeting face-to-face and getting support from staff. If that worked it would provide some vindication for the “insider” view of technology-enabled innovation. NESTA put £100,000 of public money into the programme, and will shortly be publishing an evaluation report.

I haven’t seen the report, but I think it is fair to say that there is some divergence of views about how successful RSA Networks has been, at least on the technology development and adoption front. I confess that I got very frustrated with the programme, and you can see my personal account here, with possible lessons, in the same format as my account of Social Innovation Camp.

The past year has clearly been very challenging for staff trying to move from a hierarchical command and control approach that kept Fellows on the sidelines, into a more open, networked, collaborative style of doing things. These problems were very honestly spelled out in the interim evaluation by Sophia Parker.

After a flying start last year with a prototype online system (screenshot above) developed in a few weeks by Andy Gibson, Saul Albert and colleagues – in close collaboration with Fellows – RSA Networks is now moving to an in-house platform that is currently so slow and lacking essential functions that user-testing was suspended, and has not yet been resumed. While there are plenty of ideas for action on the old system, there is now little online activity. I understand that newly-appointed regional facilitators are doing great work in the field, and what always worked with RSA Networks were the get togethers around the programme, or on specific projects. (I should emphasise that my narrative here is mainly about the high hopes but low realisation of insider web-enabled innovation).

Since the whole programme was something of an experiment, one might expect RSA reporting to reflect something of the what-worked and what-didn’t approach demonstrated in the interim report. However, there is nothing of that in the current Journal article, which confidently predicts that the new platform will launch next month as “a powerful tool enabling Fellows and their guests to connect with other Fellows and develop ideas into action”. The annual Impact Report is even more upbeat,  claiming a test site was launched in August, and calling the new platform “a cutting edge social networking site”.

Maybe staff and their contactors can pull it off, but if not I think there is a great opportunity to escape potential embarassment and provide some genuine service in bridging the outsider-insider digital innovation divide. Here’s some ideas, informed by my meandering around the social innovation landscape and work on the 2gether08 Festival – but completely deniable by all parties mentioned. This may well be news to them, and they may not want to join in.

1. I think RSA Networks should unashamedly put all its lessons into the Glory of Failure project developed by Mitch Sava on the platform, and described here. In his piece Mitch argues that we are too frightened of failure, but that if we embrace failure and uncertainty we can learn far faster, and gain insights that will lead to real innovations. He comes up with a range of suggestions about how to do this, adding:

“Ideally, these will be bolstered by a programme targeted at organisations to promote an environment tolerant of failure and uncertainty as expected by-products of innovation. These could include tools or methodologies for more innovation-friendly risk assessments, project postmortems, performance development regimes, and organisational structures and processes. These will be based on the best thinking on innovation in organisations, and case studies from respected leaders and institutions on how they incorporate a healthy tolerance of failure into their ethic”.

2. RSA Networks should follow through with a couple of ideas hinted at in the help file on the new system – giving some ownership to Fellows.  Answering the question “Why can’t I start a discussion without starting a project?” It explains that the system is dedicated to project development, and says … “You can only start a discussion by connecting it to a project. This way the site will remain action focused. There are many places for general discussion elsewhere on the web. One such place is the OpenRSA site”.
Addressing the question of “Who facilitates the platform” it invites Fellows to become facilitators, adding “This is your community and we are hoping that it becomes a self-governing site”.

I doubt if Fellows (well not me, anyway) would want to take on management of the new site, but the older site developed by Saul, Andy and colleagues could be upgraded and provide a platform for a limited number of projects and discussions, allowing a real test of what’s possible once the enthusiasts are given a chance.

3. … and here’s the interesting bridge-the-divide bit. Why not reach out to Social Innovation Camp and some of the many partners in 2gether08 see if there is a mutually-beneficial deal. Currently RSA runs the best free public events programme in the UK – sharing internal knowledge and convening a host of top-level speakers. Why not do the same online? This might be done by making the (old, upgraded) site open to those “outsiders” who are camping and meeting up, but lack such a sophisticated online space. (Caveat – RSA would have to hand over or share ownership to make this work). Also invite advice from charities who are innovating internally – one of my favourites is Breast Cancer Care.

4. Use The Membership Project – already supported by RSA and NCVO – to share and develop experience with other membership organisations, as proposed in the past. I know this should be an easy one from discussions already underway: it would be even more valuable if part of an overall opening-up process.

5. Look out for ways in which RSA Fellows could more easily meet face-to-face. Although the RSA House is a stunning venue for events, weddings and much else, the only place Fellows can meet is the rather small bar. Crazy. Perhaps RSA could do a deal with the new Kings Cross Hub and other places where innovative people gather for work and sociability.

I’m not saying these ideas are the way forward, or that they would work. They are just some “what ifs” to encourage (I hope) RSA and others to get together and put into practice some of that collaborative innovation rhetoric. If NESTA further exercised  some of their excellent convening capabilities, I think people would turn up. Most people know each other anyway, outside the confines of their institutions. As Dan McQuillan wrote: “Part of the creative energy for Social Innovation Camp came from freeing the participants from the expectations of their days jobs; the camp was a license to say ‘all power to the imagination’.”

Can’t we do that more often?

Afterthought: I haven’t included anything above on what RSA might do with the internal system that it plans to launch next month. Maybe that betrays me as a bit of an “outsider” – I’ve certainly argued (unsuccessfully) in the past for making the RSA system at least partly open. I’ve been concerned in this post to suggest how RSA could make more outside connections with web-enabled social innovation programmes than it has in the past.

However, many of the ideas on the RSA Networks site, from Fellows, don’t need much technology, if any, and these could well be followed through on an internal system, in parallel with the external collaboration I’m suggesting.  There are some technical fixes to be done on the new internal system, but its success will ultimately be determined by how far the RSA Fellowship department can  enthuse other staff and Fellows about its potential. If – as the help file currently says – the aim is to make it a “self-governing site”, it will be the volunteer-users who determine how far it is used. If RSA Fellowship can make a better internal online offer than people can find outside, it may succeed. If not, it won’t. That will again be a really interesting experiment for The Membership Project. I’ve made some suggestions here about the conditions for internal success.


  • October 7, 2008 - 11:24 am | Permalink

    Hi David – very interesting. I only signed up a couple of days ago so haven’t yet fully explored but as I’m currently living in Devon the online aspect will be important for me if theres to be any value to membership.

    I’m a bit tired of the ‘social network model’ – I sign up, post in details I’ve already posted elsewhere, check my email contacts for ‘friends’, wait & see if anyone posts on my ‘wall’ etc. etc. so in some ways I quite like the ‘project oriented’ approach and definitely like the concept of discussions being based around real action.

    However – I’m not from London, have never lived in London, spend as little time in London as possible. I’ve immersed myself in my work pretty much forever and have long avoided becoming somebody who attends endless meetings with ‘important’ people – in short my real life network is pretty small! With this in mind what I find lacking with the current network is that I’m not yet ready to dive in and start proposing projects – just like in a real life meeting I would want to spend time chatting ideas over, hearing about possible links & so on.

    If the network truly exists to instigate action then I think consideration needs to be given to the complete journey people need to go on to get to that stage. From not knowing anyone, to understanding how things work, to becoming more involved in discussions, to gauging likely interest & support to proposing a project etc. etc.

    So much as I’m tired of that social networking model, it is important to look at why some of that model is important in so far as building up a sense of community.

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  • October 7, 2008 - 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mike – your point about designing online networks for action so they match project development needs is crucial. I think the RSA Networks site had a bit of that technically … but there is no clear project process and little facilitation behind it. Social Innovation Camp has a strong process and facilitation, but no online platform. I’m suggesting there’s scope for collaboration, if both parties are interested.
    Have you found any other places that work well?

  • October 7, 2008 - 6:27 pm | Permalink

    No – I haven’t and I’ve tried a fair few! I think collaboration could be interesting between RSA and Sicamp – although I think Sicamp probably needs a bit more time to develop and I’m not sure that the process and facilitation actually were that strong. For one thing with Sicamp I was never clear whether the innovation was to do with the ‘social’ or the ‘technology’ – possibly both but I don’t think it came across clearly.

    Perhaps if you argue that sicamp is more leaned towards being technologically innovative and RSA is socially innovative, that could make a collaboration very interesting – especially if both parties gave good consideration to the preparation stages that help get the ‘social innovators’ and the ‘geek innovators’ properly prepared and ready to actually embark on a project together.

    I think this was lacking at the last Social Innovation Camp – it was presented as ‘everyone get together and dive in on the projects’ and there would be various expert help there to help develop the project – but actually what happened was there were a lot of enthusiastic geeks waiting to be told what to do and so this didn’t really allow for the kind of development time needed to properly consider the ‘social innovation’ aspects as it became all about ‘building a site’ (or what actually happened was people got caught up in discussions while the geeks got bored waiting for things to do and in many cases didn’t return for day 2!)

    I’d agree though that it could make a good collaboration but in both cases there needs to be much more consideration to how you actually instigate the early ideas and then nurture them to the point that you get the right people involved to help make them happen. I think this is ever so important, not least because if not done, there is a risk that the only projects that get developed are those that involve the best connected people and while connections are ever so useful, if you’re seeking true innovation you need to cast the net far & wide so that you catch the really clever ideas before they swim off into obscurity.

    A good online platform could help not only nurture those early ideas but also generate a community that is able to decide itself which ideas are strongest enough to be developed. For example although I was really pleased my idea was selected to be developed at the Social Innovation Camp – the fact that it was selected by a small group of people weakens the process. If instead theres an online platform made up of people who are experts (as in theory with the RSA) then you should be able to entrust the decisions as to which projects should be developed to that community, rather than the selection by a minority, and then further judging by a minority who expert as they may be in their particular field, can’t possibly be expert in the vast range of possibilities available through something like this. So instead you use the online platform to support ideas, and then entrust the decisions about which ideas should be developed to that online community, and then you use the sicamp model of getting a load of people together to work on them – with one caveat which is that there should be no ‘winners’ – if you’ve got to that stage you should be serious about supporting the development of all the projects involved.

  • PeterC
    October 8, 2008 - 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Hi David

    Shame that the venture may have lost momentum – I wonder who could fix it. Interesting post – two things stand out for me: the need for openness and external connection (which you have always espoused) which my limited positive experiences with LinkedIn endorse – access to experts as well as enthusiastic amateurs; and the need for the widest range of ways to engage – from live chat, forums, archives, events (online and offline) to suit all tastes, in an accessible and inviting framework.

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