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Local pubs and blogs could help build a Hyperlocal Chamber of Commerce

I love it when stories join up … or rather when I can spot ways to join them up. It’s seems particularly relevant when they are about network building.

The other day I wrote about RSA research into how local stores (particularly B&Q in this case) can act as local social hubs, and also about RSA work networking local Changemakers in Peterborough.

Now Tom Matchett has blogged his ideas for a Hyperlocal Chamber of Commerce, which would further catalyse social connections between local businesses and residents, to the benefit of both.

I’ve chatted to Tom over the past few weeks about that, and also about his previous work on how local papers can combine traditional print with online publishing of their content and that from citizens reporters.

In addition, there are models emerging for “reverse publishing” content from hyperlocal blogs in small local advert-heavy publications, and maybe sharing some revenue with the bloggers.

Tom’s idea for the Hyperlocal CoC goes a step further, by adding into the mix one or more local business hubs, then running events and other activities to build a stronger local social and economic community. He writes in his blog The Digital Bohemian:

The Hyperlocal Chamber of Commerce will be established as a social enterprise exploring and developing methodologies to create new (and strengthen existing) hyperlocal business and community eco-systems.  It will build through engagement, education and collaborative activities to establish commercially successful, sustainable hyperlocal business models.

The project will then roll out on a broader scale with supporting educational collateral from the initial pilot projects documented online and on film. As a key part of its modus operandi we will try to work closely with existing hyperlocal bloggers to assist them in creating a sustainable financial model to support their activities and drive long term commitment to their work in hyperlocal.

The first two proposed locations for the initial pilot schemes are Highgate Hill and Stroud Green both of which are very local spaces to me, this is important at this stage as it will fit very well with my other commitments in terms of consultancy work.

The first venue will be The Old Crown on Highgate Hill, which has limited footfall during the day (and so space for meetings) coupled with a lively and diverse clientele in the evenings. Tom adds:

My questions are, what if we could use their space as community and local business convergence hub in the daytime that would create new very localised business and community networks? Additionally, what if you could build around this and other hubs to build networks and develop models that are then self-sustaining?  How can you engage hyperlocal bloggers, businesses and the community to create a co-promotional media and marketing network?  How do you make this a “win” project for all parties involved?

I suggested to Tom that he might like to apply to join RSA, where the social entrepreneurs network should provide further support – as well as connections to the projects I mentioned earlier.

I was very impressed by the range of enterprising projects I heard about when I went along to a Spotlight event at The Westminster Hub recently. I shot some video with the help of RSA staff member Clare Reilly, as you can see here. We didn’t get sound level right on all the interviews, but I think you’ll get a sense of the enthusiasm and optimism.

There’s more information in the cleverly put together time-lapse video on the RSA vimeo channel.

Chatting with RSA staff at the event led to an invite to meet up with the Fellowship team, led by Michael Ambjorn, and talk further about social reporting. I think there could be scope for staff and Fellows to collaborate in reporting on both projects and events.

Maybe I can make some further connections to the work I’ll be doing with community network builders in Manchester, that I wrote about here. What’s the similarities and differences between using reporting for network building in an organisation like the RSA, and in local communities? Or in developing a Hyperlocal Chamber of Commerce?

One of the most interesting spin-off conversations with the Fellowship team was about how Fellows and staff could use social media to recruit more Fellows. If you are interested in RSA Fellowship, there’s information here.

I digress … but that’s the nature of networky storytelling. Follow the strands, and you usually bump into interesting people and ideas. If you can’t make use of the connection immediately, blog a piece and it will come in handy later.

Maybe that’s the difference from some other forms of more journalistic writing, where there’s greater pressure to come up with a hard angle. And maybe it’s why I bridle at over-labeling reporting in communities as citizen journalism.

Hmm … social reporting as networked narrative? Which I find has brief a Wikipedia entry … and will lead me on to other ideas ….

Businesses can be community hubs, says RSA report

Increasingly the “social bumping places”** where we might come across other local residents in our communities are stores and supermarkets … and the RSA believes that this could be turned to greater advantage for both shops and shoppers.

In a recent report called Community Footprint: Shared Value for Business and Communities, the RSA suggests that businesses “should act as ‘community hubs’, helping promote social interaction amongst their customers and developing local action plans to create happier, more resilient communities”.

When I was in the RSA recently, talking to Ben Dellot about social network analysis and local Changemakers, I also spoke to Emma Norris, who is associate director of the Connected Communities project.

Emma explained how they had worked with B&Q to research the relationship between their store in Sutton and local customers. They found 42 percent of customers had some interaction with other customers in the store and that 23 percent of customers asked other customers for DIY advice.

The report found that 70 percent of customers say they will remain loyal to a brand that demonstrates social value even in a recession, and suggests businesses should:

  • Identify a member of staff who will be leading on community work – if possible a local person whose role should include building local partnerships with third sector organisation and social landlords.
  • Give permission for staff to spend a certain amount of time (e.g. two hours) every week on community-relevant activities
  • Design and create a central community orientated in-store space that can be used for training and skills events, customer information sharing and innovation.

Emma said:

Businesses who are willing to be pioneering and give something back to customers and the community in concrete, tangible ways will feel the benefits. People will spend more in their stores and customers will stay loyal in hard times. What  more can businesses hope for than that?

The term Community Footprint refers to ways in which the project was able to measure the impact of a store in its community – both positive and negative. That means it should be possible to demonstrate quantifiable benefits … not just urge community engagement as a good thing. Social responsibility and ethical business can have a street-level focus.

Emma said that the approach could be extended to clusters of shops, encouraging networking and collective benefits for shops in High Streets and other areas. The RSA has a large membership of Fellows, who are increasing active in RSA projects. Emma said RSA staff would be particularly interested in talking to Fellows who might want to take up the Community Footprint approach in their area.

** For more about social bumping places, see this report of a workshop in Manchester on Asset Based Community Development.


Big Society

Beyond Big Society towards Big Competent Citizens

I’ve been reading the latest RSA contribution to the contentious Big Society discussion  … or what used to be a lively discussion since it has rather died down in the past few months (earlier posts here).

Government has carried on with BS policies like localism, but toned down calls for citizens to do more for each other. That’s because promotion of BS as a brand was drowned out by shouts of “its all a mask for the cuts” together with “we’ve been doing this for years” and “no-one is going to volunteer for a party political idea”.

At the same time there’s been continuing muttering from a wide range of people that there are good ideas in there if we could change the name, recognise the many past and current traditions of community action, and de-politicise the whole thing. We need to move on – but how? read more »

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Where do we gather on Big Society – besides London and Twitter?

Yesterday morning NESTA launched the Neighbourhood Challenge, promising the first new Big Society money for local communities. In the evening RSA hosted an excellent event with NCVO on voluntary organisations in BS. In between I had a couple of productive BS-related meetings … all in London, of course, where the public events were as useful for informal networking as the main content – good though that was.
There was lively commentary on Twitter, and some blogging – including a thoughtful piece quoted below by my friend Kevin Harris, long-time specialist in community development and neighbourhoods.
The online content will be dispersed in the cloud of continuing chatter, and those interested in Big Society as friends, critics, or critical friends will go their various ways until the next meeting. In London.
At the end of the day I met up with another old friend who is keenly interested in Big Society, not least as a specialist in whole-system change within organisations and communities, but who is not part of the London crowd.
There’s currently no bigger system-changing policy in the UK than Big Society … and I would love to give you a neat online link to summarise that. But there is no one place to go to, and nowhere online to gather apart from Big Society in the North, which is limited by the amount of effort volunteers can put into such a big topic.
In the evening I gave my out-of-town friend a run down on the BS landscape … which I am tempted to replay here, but that would be to break some (gained in London) confidences. I’m trying to be a helpful, positive, joining up sort of social reporter. It can be frustrating. read more »

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Social entrepreneurs add zest to RSA's civic innovation mission

I’m really hopeful that the RSA social entrepreneur’s network, launched last night, will bring a fresh burst of energy to the contribution the 250-year-old organisation can make to social action and civic innovation. The RSA has an excellent events programme, staff-led projects … and some 28,000 members (Fellows) across every profession and sector.
This diversity is a great strength – but as I’ve written before, this means there is no one shared passion around which people gather. The aim of the Fellowship, expressed in a draft Charter, is in part to work together on projects for social benefit. The Charter currently says:

In order to achieve this, we commit to working collaboratively and practically to make a positive difference to the world around us. We will be open to new ideas and committed to spreading the best of them. We will be supportive of others and respectful of differences. We will be honest, courteous and transparent in our working methods. We will be generous with our time and abilities not seeking personal or financial gain and measuring our success by the impact that we have, not the recognition we receive.

Implicit in this is the idea that Fellows will voluntarily collaborate on projects for social benefit … but not make any money or further their business interests. So far this approach hasn’t been very successful. Back in 2007 the RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor  promoted the idea of the Fellowship as a network for civic innovation, with a very successful event where lots of idea were generated. However, in practice it proved difficult to follow through on any scale – there’s wasn’t strong enough motivation or support. There’s now a Catalyst Fund to support project ideas from Fellows, but sums are small, and Fellows can’t get paid. Useful, but again modest.
I think the social entrepreneur network can add a complementary dimension to this very worthwhile voluntary work of the Fellowship and its Council … now bubbling up on the central networking site and many other local sites.
Social entrepreneurship recognises that you can develop an enterprise for social benefit while also making money. As Malcolm Scovil of Leapanywhere, who is promoting the network, said when I interviewed him last night, its OK to have a business that makes profits as well as making an impact  on society, particularly where those profits are re-invested in the enterprise. Making money is not a bad thing – so do well by doing good. Malcolm wrote in the network group:

My two cents on whether social entrepreneurs should be rewarded financially if they build successful, profitable organisations…hell YES.
However, would-be social entrepreneurs shouldn’t wait around for somebody to deliver a profitable social business model on a silver platter.
Those of us that want to create real sustainable impact in the world need to innovate even more than the average entrepreneur.
We need to rack our brains and try and try and try again not just to get a good idea off the ground but to get both good AND sustainable ideas off the ground.
This network should become an invaluable platform for showcasing social business models that work for both society and for the risk takers (that means real economic benefits to investors, founders and the teams in the trenches!).
Indeed, we can go further than that. This network already has over 175 social entrepreneurs committed to the future of business for the common good.
We can challenge each other to generate new models and to merge existing ones to come up with better businesses. Then we can set these in motion, learn from mistakes, make them succeed and then mentor the next generation in how they can do the same.
Action action action.

Malcolm thinks that William Shipley and other founders of the RSA, meeting in the coffee shops of Covent Garden, were early social entrepreneurs.
I think the social entrepreneur network is important for the RSA – and social action – on several counts. Most importantly, the people who turned up last night, and the many who couldn’t make it to London, have great stories to tell about how individuals and small groups can make a difference in the world. We heard four brief presentations last night, and I’m sure it could have been 40. These stories will provide substance to Matthew Taylor’s latest mission, which is to develop a 21st century version of the Enlightenment that fostered the origins of the RSA.
The recognition that it is OK to use RSA networks to make business connections, where these lead to social benefit, should release a lot of energy. The connections made will, I suspect, benefit not just the people and projects involved, but also increase activity online and face to face across the RSA’s diverse Fellowship. It will increase the social capital.
So what’s next? There was a comments and ideas wall at last night’s event, and I’m looking forward to a summary. Meanwhile my suggestion for a start is modest: meet up and tells good stories.
It is difficult to get a room at RSA HQ without paying for it, and the bar is rather small … but there’s now a coffee point on the ground floor where Fellows are encouraged to gather for a chat. Why not fix a time each week, and see who turns up? That’s the way the now hugely successful Tuttle Club started. (I think ace-networker and entrepreneur Oli Barrett has ideas on this front, so there’s a good chance something will happen). Then invite anyone interested to tell their story in a three minute video, posted to the network, with an invite to people to get in touch. Once we got started I’m sure there will be no problem in developing the idea, and – most importantly – coming up with ways of working outside London.
Last night’s event was made possible by the work of RSA staff including Sarah Tucker, Laura Billings, and Clare Reilly … and that’s just who I spotted. I’m know there’s been more work behind the scenes. Thanks.
Maybe I’m being over-optimistic, but I thought the event was the most interesting step towards realising the civic innovation potential of the RSA since the November 2007 get-together. There’s now a chance that some bottom-up personal passion may match the top-level thinking from Matthew Taylor on 21 century enlightenment, now clearly set out in yesterday’s blog post.

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.

Crowds, tribes, teams: Tuttle turns to consulting

Most Friday mornings in London social media types gather at  The Tuttle Club. It isn’t so much a place as a style of doing things, and a moving cloud of conversations gently crafted and convened by Lloyd Davis.

Tuttle started in a room over the Coach and Horses in Soho – as you can see here, together with an explanation of how the Club was named after Harry Tuttle from the film Brazil. Tuttle then moved to the ICA, and for the last couple of weeks has been on the roof of Inn the (St James) Park. Last Friday was a chance to ask Lloyd for an update and test out video on my new iPhone 3gs …. in particular whether I could get better sound by plugging in the headset and waving the mic in Lloyd’s direction.

As you’ll see in the video, Tuttle has been going very well, and has now spawned The Tuttle Team. This is an innovative consulting approach to discover  and understand client needs using a process of refinement through three forms:

Crowd: 10-15 of our members meet with a similar number of your people in a relaxed space for free conversation. People are briefed beforehand on the issues facing the client, but the conversation is allowed to wander in the same way that it does at the Tuttle Club itself. It’s an opportunity for blue-sky thinking.

Tribe: 7-10 more specialist contributors are identified to drill down further into issues raised in the Crowd session. These people meet again with a similar number of representatives from the client in a series of short facilitated conversations. The main output is a document detailing what we’ve learned so far, a strategic approach to untangling some of the problems and a few immediately realisable benefits and projects.

Team: 3-5 people come together with specific skills to deliver the projects identified by the Tribe. That is, to do a specific piece of agreed work — writing a document, creating a website, making a movie, working with staff in a mentoring or coaching capacity.

I was in on the first round of a session recently with a client, and I think it worked really, really well. Client feedback was good too. I’ve been in too many consulting situations where we start with the wrong brief because  it isn’t until you actually get going that you all understand the situation and what might be possible. The Tuttle approach allows a lot of re-framing, and re-thinking of what skills are needed, on all sides.

Harry Tuttle was a freelance repair man, played in the film by Robert de Niro. The defining Tuttle Team consulting quote is: Sam Lowry: Can you fix it? Harry Tuttle: No, I can’t. But, I can bypass it.

If you are interested in getting help from the team, contact Lloyd, or better still come along and say hello in person on Friday. All welcome.  Next week’s Tuttle is going to be rather special. As you can see here it is at Channel 4 with Manuel Castells author of The Rise of the Network Society – who, as Lloyd says, has been influencing thinking about the social dynamics of the web for as long as we’ve had a web. Demand is likely to be high, so there’ll probably be a signup linked from the club event site.

Meanwhile, I’m suggesting over here that the RSA might try some Tuttling for its London City Network meetings. We had something rather Tuttle-ish for a meeting of candidates for the Fellowship Council last Thursday at Royal Festival Hall, and staff are investigating whether there might be some flexible spaces at the House in John Adam Street. I think Harry would be impressed.

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RSA rebranding: is Twitter the one to beat?

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) has survived my cull of memberships because, although the conventional benefits are thin, it is currently such an interesting place. I’m paid up for another year, and even pondered taking life membership to avoid such vacilitation in future.
However, the organisation has failed to persuade my friend Amy Sample Ward that she should come up with £145 for the honour of being a Fellow. It’s not the possibly sexist label that’s put her off – as she explains here – but rather that the RSA can’t explain what it is for.
This has recently been exercising chief executive Matthew Taylor and staff, as he very honestly explains on his blog (which, by the way, I think is probably the best of its kind by the chief exec of a charity).
Matthew and staff have been discussing rebranding among themselves, while at the same time Matthew emphasises the huge importance of the 27,000 members (Fellows). This led me and some others to explore the contradiction of designing the t-shirts without consultation while suggesting the wearers should be empowered and encouraged to be ambassadors for the organisation. Airlines often get into trouble with staff for doing that … it’s even worse when they are paying you rather than the other way around.
The deeper contradiction is that many people are flattered to be invited to be Fellows because getting FRSA after your name sounds grand …. but in fact it is no qualification at all. Anyone can join with a a couple of upright-looking recommendations. The point of Fellowship is that you shouldn’t look to the benefits for you (magazine, bar, library, label etc) but rather what you can do for society. That’s why RSA was started 250 years ago in the coffee houses of Covent Garden.
Problem is, as one friend of mine put it, “why should I become a Fellow of the RSA when all the excellent lectures are free, and I can do more with my Twitter friends than I can through Fellowship?”
Amy makes that point more strongly:

The RSA, like many other organizations, suffers because of a lack of the most powerful aspect of its branding.  I do not plan to accept the Fellowship invitation because I have not, whether online or in person, from the invitation materials or conversations I’ve had with others, gained a clear understanding of what being a Fellow even means.  Furthermore, and most importantly to me, I have not been shown how a Fellowship will help me in my work at changing my community and the world.

Yes, slogans and colors, font and everything else are all important parts of the branding.  It’s true. But the RSA is missing the most important part, at least in bringing me on board: proving to me that being a Fellow will help ME and not just that my membership will help THEM.

As folks mention in the comments on Matthew’s piece, I don’t need to build my resume (for better or worse, I’m fine with it as it is).  But I am completely open to any and all, whether organization or individual, ready to help me make our local communities and the global community as great as possible.

I must say that I have found the RSA useful in moving forward and amplify some ideas … particularly the membership project started by Simon Berry and I,  now being further developed by RSA and NCVO. I think there’s great potential in the regional networks now developing, and I’m putting some volunteer effort into the online network for London. Do join – it is open to anyone. There’s (real) free drinks on July 2. At the moment we are rather inwardly focussed on elections to the Fellowship council, but the relationships and ideas developed through the conversations will lead to more practical results, I’m sure.

In addition the RSA is starting some really interesting work promoting the development of local community web sites, as I’ve written before. I’ll be helping Nick Booth and Will Perrin on July 10, with some ideas of my own. We are particularly keen to recruit other RSA Fellows interested in setting up local sites or otherwise using social technology in their community …. you can sign up here.

I think that the rebranding solution is quite simple … well … the first steps are. Stop having internal meeting with consultants, and instead ask the Fellows to tell stories about the way that the RSA has helped them achieve more in the world than they otherwise might, whether as individuals or with other Fellows and friends of the RSA. Or how it might. I know, from the connections that I have made, that there are already great stories to be told. Use the emerging city and regional networks as a place to do that, through events, or online. Make it fun … offer prizes … whatever. Maybe even create a central blog for Fellows instead of limiting contributions to comments on Matthew’s … which may not get through. That’s why Amy had to post to her blog. Stop talking at people … help them speak for themselves. In the age of Twitter people expect no less.

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First video interview with MPs' expenses leak source

Last night’s gathering of the RSA London City Network was full of interesting people, but none more man-of-the-moment that Henry Gewanter, who I discovered to be the key go-between in leaking details of MPs’ expense claims to the Daily Telegraph.
Our discussions up to that point had been mainly around the forthcoming elections to the new RSA Fellowship Council, through which RSA members (Fellows) will be able to have a positive influence in modernising the 250-year-old institution. Well, that’s the hope of chief executive Matthew Taylor.
The general feeling from my conversations was that the RSA, while full of potential, could do with a shake-up … at which point Henry modestly volunteered some information about his more seriously disruptive role.
As reported in the Mail on Sunday, City PR man Henry worked with former Parachute Regiment Major John Wicks to leak details of the expenses to the Daily Telegraph … leading to massive political fallout on all sides. In the Mail, Henry explained he wasn’t paid – but wanted to expose malpractice, and challenge a government he feels has been chipping away at our liberties.

I am an American. I was brought up there and I believe that a free Press is the most important and the only defence of our personal freedoms, our liberty and democracy.
This Government has been systematically cutting back on our freedoms, our liberty and democracy for some years. That is why I have done it and why I have done it for nothing.

Despite this outing in print, Henry had not been interviewed on camera, so I pulled out my Flip and invited Henry to give me a mini-scoop, which he was pleased to do.
As you’ll hear in the interview, Henry feels that the Government has handled the whole thing very badly … that David Cameron has done well … and that the Liberal Democrats are the best of the bunch.  He is full of praise for the even-handed way the Daily Telegraph has covered the story, highlighting MPs who have claimed fairly as well as those who abused the system.
On reflection I guess I could have asked some more probing question, but it didn’t feel like that sort of occasion. Maybe that’s the nature of being a social reporter … you become more concerned about friendly conversations and developing relationships than about “news”. If Henry wants to tell me more, he can. There’s a small promise of that at the end of the piece …

Update: Newsnight have now interviewed Henry.

RSA offers support to community websites

Last month the RSA ran a fascinating if inevitably rather theoretical seminar on digital inclusion and social capital … now the 250-year-old organisation is taking practical action to support community activists who want to develop websites, following up an idea first floated by chief executive Matthew Taylor.
The aim is to bring together people active in their communities, but new to social media, with RSA Fellows and friends who can help, in a one-day event in London on July 11 (update: now Friday 10th).
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