Tag Archives: community

This Happened Edinburgh and Creative Edinburgh

Four years ago, I spent an evening at the first This Happened Edinburgh – an interesting, collaborative event where technical and creative people discussed some of their innovative projects. (I thought I had blogged about it at the time, but clearly I failed to do so!)

After a four year gap (whilst I was down in London – where there is also a regular “This Happened” but where I found it impossible to get a ticket, such was demand!), I went to This Happened Edinburgh #9 last week.

This Happened Edinburgh #1 was the first event like that I had been to: four creators discussing their projects; this time, I knew what to expect. First time around, it was in a crowded upstairs room of a pub; now it was in the much more salubrious surroundings of Edinburgh University’s Inspace gallery, a white space which may well have been designed for events such as this. Much techier, much smoother, much cooler – but much less “funky”, too, and more deliberate and knowing.

The four projects were as interesting as those four years ago – I was particularly taken with Shenando Stals examination of the emotional geography of walkers’ Edinburgh – how our emotional sense of a city is created and alters our everyday experience of place – and Gianluca Zaffiro’s description of a project involving the users of social networks managing their own data (rather than the firms running the social networks).

The mantle for the funkier side of things has been taken up by Creative Edinburgh who, amongst the other things they do, have been organising a series of irregular events called “Glug” (part of a broader programme of Glug around the UK – I do like the subtitle “Notworking”: for all the self-unemployed out there…) where entrepreneurs and artists give short talks about their projects. Loosely curated around a theme – the first one I went to was on “collectives” (from I learned that collectives come in all shapes, sizes and ideologies – and it is the people not the idea that make it work! And I meant, and failed, to write about that at the time, too); the last one, in December, was on “materials matter“, though I’m not sure the case was proven: it was the creativity and the ideas that came through for me, the materials just being the medium.

Creative Edinburgh’s Glug evenings are more entrepreneurial and less academic than This Happened; maybe a bit more social, too. Not necessarily better – just a different focus. Both present a series of fascinating, engaging talks, and I look forward to more.

“Caring Capitalism”?

There was a bit of an unintentional theme running through a couple of events and conversations I’ve been to over the past few weeks regarding the future of capitalism and corporations, and then last week Ed Miliband’s speech at this year’s Labour conference continued his emphasis last year on “predatory capitalism“.

Miliband was talking about aggressive capitalism which he saw as damaging the economy, and I doubt anyone could really disagree right now.

Last month I went to a talk on “caring capitalism” – perhaps the antidote to Miliband’s “predatory capitalism”. Focusing on social enterprise – as the speakers pointed out, a broad term with no real definition (though Wikipedia has a go) – as a means to create a more just society, a few different models were explored: though frankly none of them seemed particularly new.

For Helen Chambers and Mary Duffy, a social enterprise is one which exists specifically for social purposes, working within a commercial, for profit model – with a commnon principle “to do good”. Two specific organisations – Haven Products and Rag Tag ‘n’ Textile – were used as examples though the latter is a registered charity (and hence a not-for profit – although presumably just as many charities run retail, for profit operations, it does too). Both these organisations work largely for the benefit of their employees, providing opportunities to those who might otherwise not find employment.

Other objectives for social enterprises include working for the benefit of employees more generally, suppliers (such as fairtrade), the environment, and the wider community.

Whilst social enterprises might explicitly have such objectives, I can’t help thinking that most commercial corporations implicitly act in a similar fashion: a business which works against customers, suppliers or the community should not prosper, at least in the long term: if you work against customers, they will move (that’s what competition is about). Many commercial, profit-seeking organisations make large donations to charity – including banks such as the near-collapsed RBS. The rising interest in corporate social responsibility has focused investors, managers, employees and other “stakeholders” on organisations’ governance, ethics, ways of working and their internal and external relationships. (Much of this may be mere window dressing, though…)

Much of the talk was about social investment. It sounded like a wall of philanthropic finance was pouring into a small, undeveloped and fragmented sector: this could distort the economics and lead to imperfect allocation (one of the things markets are supposed to be good at – though the economic crisis has clearly dented that particular claim). But the amounts of money are still chickenfeed compared to the amounts spent by governments.

Nor is philanthropy anything new – Andrew Carnegie distributed his large wealth, endowing libraries, museums and universities; other “robber barons” such as Frick, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt did the same. Indeed, contrite financiers such as Michael Milken have tried to make amends through charitable donations and work, though the rich have long been using the gains – ill-gotten or not – to buy forgiveness.

Most social enterprises are small: perhaps it is easier of small organisations working outside the usual constraints of (non-social) investors “to be good”. Certainly large, international corporations seem to suffer from much of the criticism – perhaps because they are further from their suppliers, customers and communities: and of course one of the main advantages of large organisations – the ability to leverage economies of scale – means that someone, somewhere is paying more or getting less than smaller firms.

I still believe that outside a few industries – tobacco, arms and extractive industries, perhaps – all businesses benefit from “doing good”, if they want returning customers. Perhaps some organisation structures are better fitted for this than others – cooperatives, employee-owned firms or mutuals, perhaps. With businesses focused on customers, employees and suppliers, all organisations would be “social enterprises”: exploitation of one or oanother of these key groups would be to the detriment of the business.

Or what am I missing?

“The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited”. And a bit of a rant by me…

I went to the RSA to hear Stephen Armstrong talk about his journey last year, following in the footsteps of George Orwell, which he describes in The Road To Wigan Pier Revisited. It was a disturbing and challenging talk, because it suggested to me that there had ben a systematic failure of politicians of all hues over the last fifty years.

Armstrong described how, despite the growth in wealth and incomes in this country, the poor were in much the same situation as Orwell described in 1936.

Armstrong told lots of stories – he is a journalist, so that is what he does. Most were depressing – housing estates designed to isolate those living there; employment contracts which won’t guarantee to pay you, but will stop you claiming benefits; short term employment contracts which disincentivise working since leaving and rejoining the benefits system means the worker may go weeks without money; workers too scared to talk openly about their working conditions because they fear reprisals from their employers; the police enforcing civil contacts by arresting debtors so debt collectors could take back property.

Some stories were heart-warning too: the community centre putting on art classes which seem to change the way local people view themselves and the works around them; communities coming together in the face of adversity; a former steel worker with a tattoo of George Orwell on his arm, telling Armstrong “not to fuck up” the book.

Most of the stories told how those in power had let down the people below them – those at the bottom of the pile. Inequality in Britain is at the same level as 1936. (I can’t find the figures, but this data and infographic show a dramatic increase in inequality between mid-1970s and 2000s.) The transfer of population and jobs from the north to the south has taken the heart from communities – just as the relocation of people from slums to new estates broke long-held ties. The de-industrialisation from the 1980s onwards has created a non-working class, whom the demonisation of “chav culture” has left unrepresented. It is easier for politicians to point the blame at “benefits fraudsters” (despite getting his figures very wrong – as pointed out by that well know left-wing paper, the Daily Telegraph) than it is to collect taxes from global corporations.

Armstrong didn’t mention it, but that much of this happened under 13 years of Labour government is a shocking indictment.

(This makes me sound like a rabid socialist; I am not. But the gross wrongs undertaken by politicians seem – well, so wrong!)

Armstrong didn’t have any solutions; nor did the audience. There are no simple answers to complex problems. But the failure of party politics to meet the needs of much of the population suggests to me that party politics won’t be able to supply the answers.

Armstrong believed that much of the problem lay with the disruption of established communities: so perhaps the answers lie within the communities themselves. He mentioned on community leader who, on being asked if the “big society” might be one answer, responded that the big society would fail because it was imposed from above: it had to be communities which solve their own problems.

This may be too much of a get-out clause for central government: they need to take steps to enable communities to tackle local issues. Party politics at a local level has not provided any answers. Is there another model that could enable local communities to coalesce and take locally-oriented action? What would central and local government need to do to facilitate true localisation? To put power in the hands of local people? And can they do it before the underclass we have created decide to do it inspite of, not because of, their representative politicians?

(You can listen to Armstrong’s talk here. Anyone with any solutions can tweet them to Armstrong on @RoadToWigan – he’d love to hear them. Or maybe it would be better just to put them into action…)

Talking about Dialogic Learning…

Last week’s Everything Unplugged discussion was about dialogic learning. I first came across the term “dialogic” when I heard Richard Sennett talk at the RSA last month: Sennett contrasted dialogic against dialectic: the first involving discussion, listening, and understanding, the second involving argument, debate, confrontation, polarisation and adversarial stances.

Our discussion could be summed up by “statement of the bleedin’ obvious”: learning through discussion, sharing ideas and collaborating rather than the intervention of an expert (ie a teacher) to direct our learning and lead us to the truth, has clear benefits. But then we are a self-selected group of people with a clear interest in self-directed leaning through discussion. That’s what we were doing there. Of course it seemed obvious to us.

In part, we were talking more about the Wikipedia article on Dialogic Learning, which reads like an essay and really needs editing (which, somewhat hypocritically, I haven’t been bothered to do), rather than the concept of dialogic learning itself.

But despite perhaps being obvious to us, the idea of dialogic learning is useful. Sennett pointed out how it leads to collaboration rather than confrontation. It teaches people to think for themselves, perhaps in a creative fashion, making new connections and challenging established ideas – critical to innovation, perhaps.

At a time when schools are being criticised for schools are being criticised for failing to adequately prepare students for university and “teaching to the test“, dialogic learning could be a useful method.

We may all know this – but it doesn’t make it any less valid…

(David Terrar’s thoughts on our discussion can be found here.)

“Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere”: Paul Mason on the social media, revolt and the connected self… #RSAmason

Paul Mason, talking at the RSA on his new book “Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, supplied the bits that I had felt missing from the recent RSA Job’s Summit: he explained why the great and good – the economists and politicians with whom we entrust management of our economic and social government – don’t (and won’t – can’t) get it. (You can here a recording of his talk here.)

He was trying to explain why around the world – most notably in the “Arab spring”, but also China, Russia, and the west too (with the Occupy movement) – there had been public uprisings of one sort or another. He painted it as a Shakespearean tragedy in which the common people – the “fools” – sounded philosophical and the powerful and elite sound like idiots.

His argument had three strands:

  1. economics
    The “global financial crisis” is not a crisis but the collapse of the neo-liberalism model: the expansion of free markets, deregulation and globalisation since the 1980s lead only to their collapse: the old idea of “get a job, get a house and save for your pension” won’t work any more. The young today will be poorer than their parents, because the nation-states themselves are bankrupt. The never-ending growth of the world economy cannot be sustained, and this is causing a massive rethink in the young. The trouble is that there is no alternative to neo-liberal economic model: religion hasn’t worked, communism hasn’t worked – where else are people going to turn?

    Society’s promises to the young have been broken. The neo-liberal model helped the rich elites to grab more power, but with rampant inflation people are grabbing some back – and it is a growing, disenfranchised middle class who have nothing to lose. Mason quoted Taine from 1879 – “don’t worry about the poor, worry about poor lawyers” – except now in a garrett there is a laptop…

  2. technology
    With easy access through mobile and broadband communications to social media, the elite no longer have control of information. Commodified technology makes anyone a publisher, and governments can’t control it. (Though I couldn’t help but recall Evgeny Morozov’s talk in which he discussed how governments can use these technological tools to manage and control information.)

    To Mason, these new technologies and tools reconfigure the dynamics of power. In Kenya, for instance, the spread of mobile communications is seen as the “same as democratic transition”. Social media allow collaboration and co-operation between tribes who would previously have fought each other – they can foster trust from a distance and highlight similarities.

    Knowledge is now distributed and instantly available, rather than being restricted and controlled.

    These new tools are non-hierarchical – but the power-structures in society, like political parties, unions and global institutions are rigidly hierarchic, and this is why Mason thinks they “don’t get it”: they cannot understand how decentralised, self-organising groups such as the demonstrators in Tahrir Square or Occupy Wall Street can function. They cannot conceive it – no beliefs but a will for massive change, no leaders and no command structure. The demonstrators can move more quickly and fluidly than the police – mediated by social media.

  3. lack of leadership
    Mason quoted Karl Rove describing the world’s leaders as those who create reality – ”when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities”. Now it is out of their hands: it is the those without formal power who create reality, and this is causing a parallel change in behaviour and thinking. Mason drew parallels with the changing perceptions early in the 20th century: a sea-change in society. (He attributed this view to Virginia Woolf – which someone else has verified – but I can’t find anything about Woolf expressing this.) Mason sees a new conception of the self – connected, networked and “leaky”. (Not sure if I really get this, but it is an interesting idea!)

Where does that leave us? In an increasingly uncertain world. Mason drew uncomfortable parallels with late 1920s and 1930s Europe, and we know how ell that ended. Nationalism is on the rise in southern Europe – and in Greece and Italy, elected governments have been replaced by unelected technocrats. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, is reaching scary heights. (This was the starting point for the RSA jobs summit, of course.)

There may be different outcomes in different parts of the world. And it is unknowable, perhaps. Mason questioned whether the nation state may be challenged by technology – but where would this leave the welfare state (the safety net for those unemployed, in the UK and parts of Europe at least)? Twin – and opposing – forces of localisation and globalisation may lead us to new models.

Perhaps we do indeed live in interesting times.

[Mason also gave a talk at the LSE – you can read a transcript here (pdf).]

Richard Sennett on “Together”

Once more at the RSA, to hear Richard Sennett talk about his new book “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation”. (Audio here.) He had some very interesting things to say – it was thought provoking – but I was not necessarily convinced.

Sennett reckons that cooperation and collaboration is natural to people – indeed, he said he believed that it might be genetic in nature (though I’d have thought it would be easily explained through culture, especially as Sennett said it develops as we learn – a lot of play is about developing cooperation).

But he then said it is difficult and requires practice – if it is innate, there is clearly a learnt element. Still, it is clearly a complex skill: Sennett focused on three attributes which he contrasted with their modern antithesis, to show where we might be going wrong.

  1. dialogics v dialectics: education and legal systems (and much else) lead us to dialectic debate, often confrontational (anyone listen to the “Today” programme or watch “Question Time”: they may then understand that confrontational debate does little to promote understanding and collaboration…); in contrast, dialogic requires the exercise of listening skills – more listening than talking, and what talking there is is questioning and probing. Co-operation requires understanding built on dialogue
  2. subjunctive v declarative: Sennett lambasted the “fetish of assertion” – aggressively asserting “I think…” or “I believe…” demanding for a (usually confrontational) response. Instead of confronting others with our convictions, Sennett advised using subjunctive propositions – “It seems to me…” to open discussion and invite participation – building collaboration and teamwork rather than confrontation
  3. empathy v sympathy: identifying with others – sympathetically feeling their pain – closes down discussion: understanding another’s position without being able to identify with it, but accepting their need to attend to it, sends messages and builds understanding, It requires curiosity rather than compassion – an interest in other people

[I’m not sure that I am in total agreement with Sennett about these, particular his second and third assertions, though he maintained there is research to support his position.]

Sennett proceeded to discuss co-operation in urban society and workplaces; once more, he was interesting if not (to my mind), wholly convincing. He asserted that the way that we organise work and (his word!) community in modern [western?] society reduces and disables learning to co-operate with those who differ from us.

With regard to work, the focus on project work with short term timeframes plays lip-service to teamwork, but doesn’t let us develop the understanding required of each other to actually pull it off. We don’t have the time to spend with others building that understanding, instead focussing on our short term objectives – after which we move off to work on the next project. We do not have enough invested in the success of our enterprise, instead seeking the next fix.

I disagree about this: those working in a project environment rely on others in the team to deliver the result. We have to co-operate – and having the skills to do so is crucial to our success: those informal “people” skills which might not appear in the job description are necessary to help us build our reputation.

Sennett believed that despite cities being full of difference, we are living in more and more homogenised societies, and rarely mix with those from different races, religions or classes. We are segregating ourselves.

Whilst I can see some aspects of this, I do not believe it is new: surely society was much more homogenous one hundred or two hundred years ago? There are many more opportunities to mix in today’s multicultural society: it might be easier not, but the opportunities are still there.

Sennett had some interesting things to say about the Occupy movement – he has taken an active interest in the movement in the USA, and it seems to fit his model of dialogic, subjunctive, empathetic behaviour. Politicians of all flavours – the dialectics supreme – literally don’t get it: non-hierachical, self-organising, learning, the Occupy movement is about experiences rather than demands, and growing from the shared experience.

Much of what Sennett had to say resonated – particularly stemming from conversations at Tuttle and the C4CC, as well as institutions like the RSA itself creating space for discussion – but the very existence of these fora actually weakens Sennett’s thesis.

Creativity and Collaboration: exploring C4CC

Friday Mornings . Tuttle at Centre for Creative Collaboration

Photo by Tony Hall, on flickr

I once had a conversation with Brian Condon, one of the people behind the Centre for Creative Collaboration, where I asked (more or less) “what do you mean by ‘creative’? What do you mean by ‘collaboration’?” [I must have felt I knew what ‘centre’ meant…] Brian neatly sidestepped my question by telling how he’d had a similar conversation with someone who had been trying to build such a space for several years; they were still stuck on their definitions, refining the semantics but being neither creative nor collaborative. It is better to start something and see where it gets to rather than get tied up in what it actually is, Brian said.

I remembered our conversation when I was at C4CC last week to take part in a discussion led by James Wilson about what people actually involved in the C4CC thought it was and what it did. James, a former inmate resident of C4CC, had carried out a piece of research by asking other projects what the C4CC did and how it worked. It was a fascinating, thought-provoking presentation. Brian and his colleagues have clearly made something quite special at the C4CC – a space for seed-projects to work, experiment and collaborate.

James’ respondents had similar semantic difficulties to me in defining ‘collaboration’: they couldn’t! It was all about the context – the serendipitous conversations that cross disciplines without specified goals. It is different from teamwork. There was talk about “real collaboration” and “true collaboration”.

Whatever it is, they felt the C4CC helped it happen: setting up different projects in close proximity in a neutral venue helped promote the serendipity; people working on the projects believed that their openness, trust and willingness to communicate helped create the right mindset to overcome barriers to collaboration. An openness to unpredictability within an unstructured context – allowing for improvisation contingent on the situation and need. It was all about the context – and highly social. For some this was due to a change in the power dynamics, part of creating new structures and ways of organising with shared values – an openness to experiment. Some described C4CC as an ecosystem.

They were a surprisingly positive set of people: there was little about the C4CC that they wanted to change, though having more communication between projects – through more formal presentations, for instance, or specific “problem solving” sessions – seemed to be desired. This was interesting given the views that the unstructured, serendipitous approach to collaboration was beneficial.

Making C4CC more sustainable was one thing those working on projects desired: “making sure it’s still here!” C4CC is funded by several London-based academic institutions; finding a business model that would promote rather than stifle the collaborative environment is difficult, and in times of austerity, funding may be at risk.

Measuring the outputs from somewhere like C4CC is difficult. How would one define success? The space clearly works, and the positivity of people involved – perhaps self-selecting – was apparent. (I wonder if positive, open and communicative people are by their nature more collaborative? Hermits need not apply…) C4CC clearly evokes strong, positive reactions.

We discussed whether it were possible to recreate C4CC – the extent to which there is a recipe for such a venture. There are clearly some things which are necessary – a suitable space, a bit of management and selection of projects – but I believe much of what Brian and his partners have built down to the social mix of the projects – the people that work in the centre itself.

#c4cc after another #tuttle

Photo by Lloyd Davies, on flickr

(You can see James’ presentation here.)

Trying to value “social capital”…

Last month, Lloyd Davis gave two performances at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, telling stories from his recent trip – sorry, social art project to the States, “Please Look After this Englishman”.

Today, he set off on his next project: an unplanned, working journey around the UK, led by the contacts, leads and ideas generated from social media.

Lloyd’s performance was very enjoyable – he is a good storyteller – and thought-provoking. I meant to write about it, but my own social art project – sorry, trip up north got in the way, and I didn’t get around to it. Until now.

Lloyd Davis, telling tales

I won’t tell my own versions of Lloyd’s tales – you’ll have to see him for those – but some of issues he raised. Lloyd travelled from San Francisco to New York, guided by his social media contacts (with the proviso that he needed to stop off at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas). His contacts prompted his route, where and with whom he stayed, and even how (and by whom) he was entertained. We are clearly a perverse bunch: he was directed north from San Francisco to Seattle, west to Wisconsin and then south to Austin, before heading back north to Maine and finally New York. Not the most direct route – although that wasn’t really the point of the project.

Redrawing the map of the USA

His contacts – largely his online friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends – became his safety network. (It would be interesting to know how many degrees of separation this network extended, but of course anyone can become a one-degree of separation friend online with the click of a mouse.) They put him in touch with people and places, and occasionally the net broke: he found the extent of his network when it was overstretched and vague contacts wondered who the hell this guy was and what he wanted.

It seems to me that this was an exercise in realising “social capital” (a phrase Lloyd used, too) – but also it made me think what a bad term social capital is. It is of course a metaphor, a way of conceptualising the value of a social network as one might value the capital built up by an enterprise.

But a balance sheet or bank account isn’t the right model for this concept. Social capital is not spent: indeed, using social capital – as Lloyd did, by meeting and conversing with his many connections – actually creates more social capital, rather than depleting it. The highly intangible – and possibly volatile – nature of social capital mean it isn’t something that we can consciously build a stock of.

It is clearly something that is created through social interaction and social acts. Sharing something on Twitter, writing a blog post (perhaps even this…), meeting new people, introducing others – all these things (and more!) can create value within a network.

It isn’t a zero sum game – there isn’t a finite amount in an account in which we can measure the rise or fall as a result of our actions. Or inaction – I am sure that my social capital decreases when I have quiet periods on twitter or fail to post to this blog for a month or so (an all too frequent occurrence). It isn’t static.

I’m not sure where this gets us, aside from a belief that borrowing the metaphor from a financial concept is less than helpful. Is there a better term that more adequately explains the ephemeral nature of social capital? I’m not sure that I can think of one – at least, not yet.

(You can follow Lloyd’s progress around Britain on Twitter, @LloydDavis.)

Conversing with Like Minds

I spent two days – and two nights – in Exeter last week, at Like Minds. I had heard a lot of good things about the last event held in Exeter, and followed their Finnish summertime adventure on Twitter, so when this one came around, I took the opportunity to participate.

Like Minds fell somewhere between an unconference and a more formal affair. There were set “keynote” speakers, but there were several more freeform sessions. Some of it worked really well, some bits less so.

There were three (or four, depending on your definitions…) different components to the days. First up in the morning were immersives, in-depth discussions around various topics; then there were lunch-time sessions, debating different issues; and lastly in the afternoon were the keynote sessions, more formal conference-like elements. Between each keynote, however, was time for small-scale conversations, ostensibly to discuss the keynote but more practically to talk about anything one wanted with the people sitting nearby (or anyone else!).

This meant that there were lots of different ways to interact, to discuss and learn from each other. I loved the idea of the lunchtime sessions – gathering at local cafes and restaurants to debate a variety of fascinating topics – but the actuality of trying to take part in a fascinating discussion at the end of a long table proved frustrating. The lunch moderators were great, but it was hard to talk against the background noise of a bustling restaurant playing loud music. This meant that the debate broke up into conversation with one’s immediate neighbours.

The first lunch session I went to was on crowdsourcing and creativity (Ann Holman wrote about the discussion). The second was on making innovation happen. The discussion in each was lively – agreement and disagreement fuelling the conversation. Both dealt with intangibles to a degree – we argued about definitions of crowdsourcing, creativity and innovation; there was a fair bit of challenge.

The immersives were good, too. The first, led by Andrew Davies, focused on social media and publishing – interpreted as the legacy business of publishing. The general view was that the old business model was dead – nothing new about that – but there were diverging views about whether this mattered and what could replace it. In part, the stance taken depended on how “old media” the speaker was: those that had most to lose from the push online seemed to care most, which I doubt would surprise anyone. There was a lot of discussion about the difference between creation and curation: someone said that “curation is providing the context” – fitting creation into the narrative, perhaps. I think creation and curation overlap to a fair degree (a topic picked up by Andrew Dubber’s keynote the next day). With social media, we can all become curators: sharing links on Twitter, for instance. This has always been done to a certain extent – think of friends sharing articles from a magazine or newspaper – but social media have allowed users to do this more consciously, and to broadcast the result. Think of paper.li, for instance. (Curiously, today someone mentioned Newspaper Club to me today – a way of creating one’s own hard-copy newspaper using online tools and, I assume, materials.)

In the other immersive, Joanne Jacobs led a discussion on using social media for small, local businesses. This was full of great stories and pragmatic advice, and will get me to start using social bookmarking tools (another form of social media curation!). Alastair Walker has a rather more in depth overview!

The several keynotes were more of a mixed bag. On each day, there was one keynote I really didn’t enjoy; I won’t dwell on these, but it was only at these times that I drifted and started playing on Twitter. There were several interesting keynotes from the not-for-profit sector – I really liked Sim Stewart’s presentation on Cofacio, an online tool to engage with helping others.

I would have liked the chance to question the keynote speakers, though; for many, this happened in the bar later on, but I wanted to take Robyn Brown who discussed the work of the National Trust to task: she felt that there were relatively few members of the NT present, and she hoped next year there’d be more; but actually the NT has 3.7 millions members – say, 7% of the adult population – and perhaps 20% of the audience said they were members: over-represented, then. (Frankly, much as I respect the NT, I think it frightening that it has nearly eight times as many members as the three main political parties in England put together (476,000, according to this House of Commons paper.)

I think Steve Moore’s talk on “the Big Society” would really have benefitted from a broader discussion. Over the last year, we’ve heard a lot about the big society, but it is one of those concepts that seems to mean all things to all men – especially our politicians who seem to badge anything they can as being part of the big society. Steve has contributed to the thinking behind the big society, and is clearly knowledgeable about it, but I didn’t really have a firmer idea about what the big society actually is.

I really valued the various conversations in between the keynotes – it really was all about the conversation.

There were two stand-out keynote sessions for me, one on each day. The first of these was Benjamin Ellis on thinking in a different way in the digital age. His self-depreciating manner and knowledgeable but low key style were a panacea for the mind-weary. Benjamin described how the “We Generation” think differently from the “Me Generation”, mediated by social media and freely available data: technology has facilitated a move from tightly controlled behaviour to “barely-planned behaviour”, where small decisions can be networked to have a big impact. There are lots of issues here – especially for those of the “Me Generation” (like me…): our structures and institutions rely on hierarchy and governance, which social media and new conventions can sweep aside. Firms and organisations will be changed by this – as an example, Google means that anyone can more or less find out how to do anything: the need to know information has mutated to how to find it. This isn’t new – Benjamin quoted Johnson on explicit (what we know) and implicit knowledge (what we know how to find). Now, all explicit knowledge is on the internet – and this could be damaging for today’s knowledge workers. For Ellis, it is all about creating a narrative – curation is, once more the context.

The other stand out keynote was Andrew Dubber on curation – or, nore correctly, his stance on anti-curation. This was a fascinating talk. Andrew dumped his slides, deciding that he would just talk, sitting on the edge of the stage. He too talked about creating a narrative to make sense of knowledge – and in doing so, creating value out of making meanings. His stance is that the curation should be left to the user – the audience. Dubber works on collaborative projects with musicians (such as the Jura Project and Aftershock), and he throws everything into the mix, putting everything online. The creator curates, and so does the audience: we decide what is valuable and what isn’t.

I don’t fully subscribe to this idea – when we create something, we are deciding it has some value, and in putting those creations into social media – like me putting photographs on flickr – we are making a statement that we think the media are worth showing. But the talk was fascinating, and I have been thinking about what Andrew said a lot since. It clearly made an impact!

Somewhere local: talking about the Unlibrary

Coincidences are strange; of course, we have to be thinking about things for them to coincide, but still… Just yesterday I was sitting in the Unlibrary in Crouch End (not to be confused with the UN library, clearly…), with others talking to the unlibrarians Anke and Chris about what the space could be like and how we might want to use it. And then today, I saw this post about libraries and their role in the community, particularly in this time of cuts and “the big society” (no, I don’t know what it means, either!).

The unlibrary is a space – a large room – in Hornsey Library. It was unused – it used to house LearnDirect – and it has been given over to community use. Anke and Chris have a vision to make it somewhere for local people to drop in and work, sometimes collaboratively, and share ideas and support (my words, not theirs!). A bit like a permanent “jelly”, with wifi, coffee, somewhere to sit, somewhere to work and people to chat to.

Anke and Chris’s question – what would be likely to get people to spend time there, and what would make it feel like a community. We came up with various ideas – being able to customise some of the space, having social events (funnily enough, going to the pub was high on the list!), playing music (though the consensus seemed to be that this might disturb some people and put them off).

It is quite hard to say what would make a venture like this work: we all have our own ideas about what would make a space somewhere we want to spend time. For me, having somewhere nearby to drop in and work – when I want to be sociable, collaborative and sharing – is probably enough. (The proximity of a fab bakery is just an added bonus!) Interesting people – like Anke and Chris! – would help, too – but I find most people interesting (“interestingness” something I’ve been meaning to write a post about!), so that isn’t such a hard gig.

I have concerns, too. There are businesses which do this, like the Hub, and there are cafes which people often use in this way, too – I’ve had lots of meetings at Starbucks and Pret a Manger (which beats Starbucks hands down on both coffee and ambience), and I’m sure there are many great cafes near the unlibrary – local businesses serving the community, the kind that the unlibrary is hoping to support. Will the unlibrary compete with these? Will making it somewhere I want to spend time make it somewhere other people don’t? (That music question again…) There is a strong desire to make it a space for local people – really part of the community – and I wondered whether being part of a neighbouring community would make me feel welcome or not.

I am very supportive of their ambitions: I think using a public building like this is a great idea, fostering local businesses and making the most of the space available. I look forward to spending time working and talking in the unlibrary when it is up and running!