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Joining up ideas for a smarter democratic London

Summary: inventing some fictitious Londoners and telling the stories of how technology could help them engage with their city could both help create Smart London and enliven the next Mayoral election. A virtual panel of real Londoners could offer a running commentary on the campaign. Celebrations for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and its role in establishing our democratic rights, could add some historical perspective. Here’s how I got to those ideas, started to join them up …. and how they might move forward.

Several events and chance connections over the past week have given me ideas around how Londoners might engage more fully in shaping the future of our city, and the election of the next Mayor. I’m pitching these now because there’s an event this evening that might help bring them together.

This post is also an experiment in whether the socialreporter role of joining up ideas and encounters to some purpose may have a useful effect … so please bear with me on the twists and turns.

The first event last week was the workshop I helped run about how older people can use phones, computers or tablets to engage more fully … or become digitally included, in the jargon.

The second event was a discussion about the next stage of the Changing London project, with a mix of online activity and events leading to a book of ideas for Mayoral candidates in 2016.

The third event was a discussion about how to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the 1215 Magna Carta, and use that to rekindle people’s interest in the democratic rights that it helped establish.

The common thread, for me, was the tension between living in a world increasingly dominated by global forces … of technology, corporate power, climate change … lessening interest in traditional democratic institutions … yet increasing power in the personal communication devices we have.

So how can individuals use this technology to do more to shape the political context, and improve their lives?

I think that even the most enthusiastic advocates for the power of social media, and potential of online democratic engagement (and I’m one) would have to concede that the Internet isn’t proving a simple fix.

The workshop with older people confirmed one tech size doesn’t fit all, and making use of the power in our pockets, bags or laps – at whatever age – is challenging. We have to personalise our devices, and organisations seeking to support or engage have to work that way too.

From discussions after the workshop the idea surfacing most strongly was the need to help organisations in the field learn how to use iPads and other tablets, and connect through apps. That’s as well, of course, as through current computer-based systems,  face-to-face and in other ways.

Without higher levels of capacity among organisations there will be a big disconnect between office-related digital literacies and the personal ones we need to develop.

The Changing London event was a chance to both explore key themes – developing a friendlier London, and one good for to children to grow up in – and how to develop more ideas online and through events.

I made the point that we were getting, through the excellent Changing London blog, lots of specific ideas that could be coalesced into the sort of big ideas that Mayors like to promote. But what was missing was the personalisation. What would a particular policy or programme mean to different Londoners? If we could personalise the relevance we could expect people to engage more fully.

At this point I remembered a chat, after the workshop, with staff running the Greater London Authority Talk London site that offers Londoners the opportunity to engage with researchers and policy makers. They suggested looking at the tech-led Smart London initiative which affirms that “A Smarter London must reflect London’s needs and character, both its residents and its businesses”.

Indeed … but how to make the connection? Fortunately I was skimming the latest always-informative NESTA newsletter that included an article by its chief executive Geoff Mulgan on Smart Cities … and at the bottom of that was a reference to work they had supported on Future Londoners. This involved creating some imaginary characters to explore the possibilities of urban life in the future.

Some of the Future Londoner profiles

That was just the sort of thing we did in the workshop with older people: invent some characters and then work through their needs and interests to apps and devices that would help. Our bigger vision, as I wrote yesterday, is developing a Living Lab for that sort of exploration.

At this point I happened to exchange emails with a friend who asked if I was going to the Involve 10th anniversary event this evening … where Geoff Mulgan would be speaking. I had dropped a comment on Geoff’s blog post, but a chat over a drink would be more effective, and Involve are specialists in citizen engagement who might be interested in these ideas.

I’m particularly impressed by their NHS Citizen project, which is about creating discovery-gathering-assembly spaces, online and off, to connect service users, providers and Board members. It’s being developed by some of the best people in the field: The Democratic Society, Public-i and Tavistock Institute as well as Involve. It’s just the sort of whole-system approach that’s needed more widely.

My ideas crystalised a little more through the meeting about Magna Carta, reconvened yesterday with Hoz Shafiei and Steve Moore, who I know through Lobbi (earlier post here). I wondered whether the celebrations might include ways to encourage people – young or old – to explore what democracy has meant through the ages, and how best to exercise our rights now.

As you can see from the tweet, Hoz and Steve are setting up a new charity – the Great Charter Foundation – with some inspiring ideas focussed around events and awards during next year’s 800th anniversary celebrations of Magna Carta. Maybe we could recreate some characters at different time over the past 800 years, tell their stories, and compare with those of citizens today. We’ll hear more about the Foundation very soon, I believe. **

Fictitious character are fine to help us think about different people’s needs, and how their skills and circumstances affect the opportunities they have. But how could we bring real Londoner’s into the discussions in a way that might liven things up?

At this point an email pinged in from Mark Magnante, who is developing the Miituu app and web system video that enables people to record their views in text audio or video via their own devices (webcams and Android/iOS tablets and smartphones). The results of the visual questionnaire can be displayed in lots of ways, including as an impressive video wall. Mark was updating me on their latest developments and wondered if I had some ideas on how these might relate to any of my projects.

National Voices members use Miituu to say what patient leadership means to them on a video wall

First thought – perhaps we could create an online panel to both generate ideas and provide feedback on whatever Mayoral candidate were promoting? Maybe it could be continuous sounding board during the campaign rather than the equivalent of a one-off focus group.

The video wall is just one method that might be used, among many.

In order to take things forward we might run a workshop, a bit like the one last week, to co-design a whole-system process of engagement.

We could start by filling out the characters of fictitious Londoners – today and in tomorrow’s Smarter London – and then choosing from a pack of ideas the activities, policies and programmes that might meet their needs and interests.

We could look at the dependencies between ideas – if you choose this, what about that – and who would need to be involved to take things forward.

We could explore how different communication methods could help develop the social-political ecosystem needed to engage citizens, organisations and agencies in making a better London.

The Changing London blog and book would certainly be in there, and ways to use the Magna Carta celebrations. But I’m sure we could come up with dozens of ways to encourage mainstream and citizen-led media to join in.

A first step would be to do some mapping of the communication hot spots and connectors in London. Maybe we could end up with a London Citizen equivalent of NHS Citizen. Involve and their partners would be the people to talk to on that.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, back in 1977/8 I co-authored a book about the future of London for Thames Television, associated with a conference – London Looks Forward. We got it out just before the GLC elections of 1978, with a suggested manifesto drawn from our researches. While it was well-received, I doubt if it made much difference.

These days we have the means by which Londoners can help develop their own manifestos …. ideas for the Mayor, suggestions and requests to other agencies and organisations, and the means to explore through personal technology what they can do to improve their own lives.

I don’t really know how these ideas might join up – but it matter at this stage? I particularly liked one blog post from David Robinson on the Changing London site, where he likened the creative emergence and coalescing of ideas to Trusting to the rumble – tipping up a big wooden box of children’s building blocks, old cotton reels, random wooden offcuts and all sorts of odds and ends, and then seeing what you can make. These days the Internet is that digital box of pieces. Please throw in a few more to this small selection. I’ll let you know if any of the organisations I’ve mentioned are doing their own joining up.

Update: Here’s an audio interview I did with Geoff Mulgan, NESTA CEO, and Simon Burall, director of Involve, at the 10th anniversary event, and Simon’s post about his vision for the future.

** Update 2: More now here on the Great Charter Foundation

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Preview of the Living Lab for (digital) life

The workshop that Drew Mackie and I ran last week, exploring how to help people adopt digital technology, is part of a suite of games and other methods we are developing, with Sangeet Bhullar, under the title of Living Lab. I wrote then that I would explain further – so here goes.

The Lab idea follows on, in part, from work we did for Nominet Trust on the usefulness of technology at different time of life: firstly for young people, and then for later life. We now have a proposal in with their funding challenge on technology during life transitions.

I’m naturally delighted that we are through to the second round. As well as filling in the appropriate forms we were asked to provide a short video, which is here. I confess I left it rather to the last minute – but the Trust were very helpful in saying they wanted enthusiasm rather than high production values, so I hope it does the job. Drew provided the illustrations.

Below is the backup document that we also submitted. This further diagram from Drew makes the connections between the different elements in the Lab, showing how the three basic activities of Games, Storytelling and Network Mapping can combine to:

  • Define connections between individuals, groups and agencies.
  • Locate assets that might be shared
  • Develop the personas that are typical of the community of users, and the digital literacies they need
  • Define the tech selections and workflows that would benefit the personas
  • Assess the implications for strategy

Element of Living Lab
Here’s the document supporting our proposal.

The Living Lab is a space to explore, online and face-to-face, how we can use personal technology to make the most of life, at whatever age. Our two explorations for Nominet Trust showed the importance of digital technology for young and older people, particularly at times of change.

We distilled common principles for policy and investment from a wealth of examples, heaps of research, and scores of innovative projects. But general principles are of little practical use in finding what might work for an individual, their friend, children, or elderly parents.

The reason is that everyone’s needs, skills, circumstances and preferences are different, so one digital size doesn’t fit all. Outside organisational systems, all technology adoption is personal. If people can’t understand and choose, they can’t enjoy the benefits.

And being smart with computers doesn’t mean you necessarily have the digital literacies needed for meaningful and safe online participation for young and old online, or can advise and support people on smartphones and tablets.

This raises a number of challenges:

  • How can organisations, that are aiming to help, understand diverse personal needs, match those with rapidly changing technology, and scale up support?
  • How do we ensure that all those involved in providing support to others also have the necessary digital literacies to inspire and engage young and old to develop their own knowledge, understanding and personal learning journeys (online and offline)?
  • What might these look like and what are the digital literacies needed by all involved in the process, to create a supportive ecosystem, able to respond to individual and diverse needs and interests? How best should this be delivered?

The Living Lab provides a way for individuals, groups and organisations to explore these issues, learn about possibilities, and plan ways forward.

Over the past 30 years, working in community engagement and social technology, Drew Mackie and David Wilcox have found three approaches that work well. Firstly, games enable people to play through possibilities. Secondly, stories make the use of technology human. Thirdly, networks enable learning together.

The Lab will add another dimension by combining these three elements with the essential ingredient of digital literacy.

In the last 20 years, Sangeet Bhullar’s work has focused on supporting adults and young people to develop a critical and meaningful understanding of online spaces, services and communities (referred to here as digital literacy), as well as the necessary digital competencies needed to benefit from these online communities and services, and use them safely.

Together we are creating a suite of workshop games about choosing and using technology, developed from experience over the past 15 years. These are linked with group storytelling techniques designed to bring to life a range fictitious characters and their experiences. We will use some elements of the game as well as stand-alone exercises to help explore and develop the baseline and other digital competencies needed for positive and safe online experiences.

We have developed the fictitious town of Slipham, populated with some engaging characters and supportive organisations, to provide the context for the games, stories and the way networks and digital literacies can develop.

Slipham also provides a set of networks through which the various connective needs of individuals, community groups, enterprises and agencies can be explored. Existing assets (skills, equipment, premises, organisational structures, etc) are also modelled.

All games materials will be available online for download, with Creative Commons licenses, and each element will link to further resources online. Together they will create:

  • A DIY system that can be used face-to-face and online by anyone without our support.
  • An open process of gathering stories, situations, and methods to foster a network of people interested in further development.
  • An open source framework within which others can add or develop solutions.
  • A space to explore the digital literacies needed for effective online use, and the implications of the move towards personal, mobile, “appified” technology solutions.

We already have a range of workshop materials that can be developed for DIY use. We have started to build a site where workshop cards provide a design framework to link through to more resources onsite and elsewhere.

Here’s some of the work that we have done that underpins our approach.

Guides examples:

Games examples:


The idea of Living Labs

  • Wikipedia
  • Open Living Labs network
  • The Digital Practitioner – Digital Leader Programme Collaborative Blog – a collaborative blog developed for a ‘Digital Leader’ programme to support Community Digital Inclusion workers and volunteers develop their own knowledge, skills and digital literacy so that they could, in turn, provide better support to their organisations, peers and service users in their use of online technologies.

Update April 10 2014: we have now learned that we were unsuccessful in the bid to Nominet Trust, who said “although we were incredibly inspired by your proposal, we are simply unable to fund all of the high quality applications we receive.” However, we do have a number of projects through which we are starting to build elements of the Lab, and will be seeking investment elsewhere.