“Open Everything”

Back in November, I went to Open Everything, in the Roundhouse. It was the day after the US elections, and there was a slight sense of euphoria in the air.

I went out of interest in things “open” and collaboration generally, but also specifically because I had hoped to hear Charles Leadbetter at a conference in September, which I had to pull out of; since I was in the south of England anyhow, when I saw he was speaking, I took the opportunity of going along.

The meeting took place in the bowels of the Roundhouse, a former railway engine turntable shed – right in the centre. There was no natural light, and circular corridors ran around the building – it was easy to get lost (although, let’s face it, all you had to do was keep walking and you got back to where you started!).

It was a very interesting programme; this is my take on what some of the speakers said (and I may or may not have got it right!). Glyn Moodyhad the first slot, discussing different views of “open”, what it meant in history (with a reminder of some fascinating examples – the original commons, the development of scientific thinking and so on), and what it meant in the modern world – particularly the world of the internet. In Glyn’s view, it required collaborative working, freely shared and added to, and a community in which these principles could flourish. it didn’t mean uncontrolled, anarchic or disordered.

There followed a “speed dating” session where four groups gave micro-presentations on how they were developing open ideas and products – all on the internet. Of these, I was really taken by Social Innovation Camp, an organisation that runs events to develop technological solutions to social problems. This was really interesting. They are planning an event in Glasgow early in 2009, which I hope to be somehow involved in.

Rufus Pollock, an economist and one of the founders of the Open Knowledge Foundation, explored the value of openness in society. He saw openness as an extension of property rights rather than their antithesis – just rights which are exercised in a different way. Again, he saw sharing and community as central to modern ideas of openness, and the value it creates for society. As an economist, he was able to pull out some interesting figures – not least in pointing out that happiness hasn’t increased in society in over 20 years (his point being that the use of copyright hasn’t added to human wellbeing – whilst those who are active in collaborative communities increase their wellbeing through friendship, appreciation and sharing).

Charles Leadbetter talked about rethinking openness, starting with the development of open organisation structures and how it benefited those working in organisations and the organisations themselves. One of the key criteria was that these structures were emergent rather than planned, and – a theme through the meeting – encouraged sharing. There were difficulties, too – being emergent means there are no robust models, and open organisation have (apparently) collapsed throughout history. A lot of supposedly open models are really rather limited – they use openness when it suits them, but tie things down most of the time: he used MyStarbucks and Dell Idea Storm as examples which espoused openness but weren’t really open.

He then tried to define openness: and there are a lot of different meanings. What is open – knowledge, communication, decision-making, access to resources? Who is being open with whom? Are there degrees of openness? What motivates people to be open? Interesting questions, each with many answers: openness is a spectrum.

This lead into a debate with all three of the main speakers so far – Glyn, Rufus and Charlie. I didn’t feel the debate really worked – if only because each speaker was approaching the subject from their own perspective and their own definitions of openness. There were lots of interesting ideas though – especially around how to monetise the skills developed in an open environment: this got the audience quite het up. (I am not sure I followed the controversy, actually: I would have thought that the skills gained were monetised through existing employment markets: people who improve their IT skills working in the Linux community are more employable than those who don’t. People who develop their people skills in a collaborative environment are more employable and able to influence potential employers than others. But then I believe in markets! [And that is another post…]) Whether money is a motivator for people involved in collaborative communities is a moot point – as Glyn said, “once you start paying people to do something they love they stop doing it.”

The role of openness in digital goods – such as computer code – as opposed to analogue goods was also an interesting discussion: digital goods are easy to share and change, promoting collaboration, and easy to copy.

After lunch there was another debate, focussing on “open society”. Geoff Mulgan, who worked on strategy and policy for Tony Blair (I won’t hold that against him) chaired a discussion with Tom Steinberg of MySociety.org, Richard Allan, a former MP and current head of government affairs at Cisco, and Robin Murray. Both Tom and Richard are part of the Government’s “Power of Information Task Force”. Tom described how the sites TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow and WriteToThem have lead the way in open government, usurping the services developed for the Parliament website. (I used TheyWorkForYou to contact my MSP and MP in August – the website made it very easy.) I particularly liked the idea of PledgeBank – letting (erm) local communities organise themselves into campaigns. (I must be warming to this idea of social entrepreneurship and communities!) Richard discussed how the Government is looking at using technology as a tool to promote openness. Robin – who was most enthused by Obama Barack’s election victory – explored how technology could be used to make government more transparent, particularly using peer-to-peer technologies; he was also worried, though – the tools used by Obama’s campaign to get the vote out have lead to high expectations which he might not be able to live up to in power.

The discussions missed out what, for me, is a crucial contradiction in terms of the UK Government: much Government activity seems to be the opposite of open: the centralisation of power (despite the devolution agenda), the obsession with managing data, the strong desire for the introduction of ID cards, the extension of police powers and stop and search. In recent weeks, of course, the police have been trying to plug leaks in the Home Office and arrested Damian Green – which, apparently, weren’t covered by the official secrets act (hence the use of archaic laws to arrest Green) – hardly screams “openness”.

As often happens, some of the most interesting conversations happened in the breaks – and in the pub afterwards. It was a very worthwhile day – there were some intriguing ideas discussed, and I met some really interesting people. Still, there was a lot left undiscussed: there was a strong focus on technology, and it didn’t feel like Open Everything – everything is far, far broader!

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