Tuesday 1 December 2009

A busy end to a busy year

I've never known a year in which I was so busy with so many projects as 2009. At times, I've felt like a walking case study in "spreading yourself too thin". But I've also been incredibly lucky in all the remarkable people I've had the opportunity to collaborate with.

As 2010 comes around, I'm going to be thinking seriously about how to achieve a slightly saner balance between work and reflection, dreams and responsibilities, getting things done and spending time with the people who matter to me. In the mean time, though, it's good to be finishing the year with a series of events that reflect the different directions I've been pushing in - and which bring together many of those collaborators.

Please join me for any or all of the following...

Wednesday 2nd December, 7 till 9pm - DIWO at the Dark Mountain private view - HTTP Gallery

For the last six weeks, I've been acting as "guide" to Do It With Others at the Dark Mountain - a collaborative art project organised by Furtherfield.org. Artists, technologists, writers, activists and others were invited to correspond with each other online and offline, producing work in response to the Dark Mountain manifesto.

Come along to HTTP Gallery to see where this led us. The evening will include a live performance, representing the online controversy which was one of the defining moments of the project.

Nearest tube Manor House - more details on finding the gallery here.

Thursday 17th December, 9.30am till 3.30pm - "Innovate to Save" - County Hall, Maidstone, Kent

This is a free one-day conference organised by the Technology, Research and Transformation Team at Kent County Council.

I'll be talking about the rise of the "Why Don't You...?" Web - people using online tools to organise real world activities, rather than to virtualise more areas of life. I'll be drawing on my experience as co-founder of School of Everything and Signpostr, and trying to connect what we've learned from these projects to the challenges facing public services in a time of shrinking budgets. There's an impressive range of other speakers, so I hope I'll have something useful to contribute.

Book for Innovate to Save.

Thursday 17th December, 4pm till 9pm - Space Makers Agency / Brixton Village Christmas Celebration

I'll be rushing back from Maidstone to join the Christmas celebration at Brixton Village indoor market. Space Makers Agency has been working with the market's owners, the local council, existing tenants, artists, activists and entrepreneurs within Brixton to bring a mixture of temporary and long-term occupants into twenty empty shops around the market.

The first wave of new businesses and projects are setting up shop over the next week or two, and we're inviting everyone to come down and welcome them with mulled wine and seasonal entertainment from 4pm on the 17th.

The cafes and restaurants around the market should set your tastebuds watering - while, with late night opening until 9pm, it's a chance to do some Christmas shopping and support both new and existing businesses in the market.

So do join us to welcome the new occupants – and celebrate the past and future of this wonderful 1930s indoor market.

RSVP on the Brixton Village event page on Space Makers Network

Friday 18th December - launch of COMMONSense Apazine - Access Space, Sheffield


It's taken a while, but the magazine I edited for Access Space last year is finally being published. All kinds of people submitted thoughts, stories and art work exploring the idea of "the commons" and of "common sense".

If you're in Sheffield, come and join us for the launch party from 5.30pm - details here.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Making a living, shaping our lives & muddling through

A birthday is a good moment to step back, to reflect on the stage in life that you've reached and how the world looks from here. It's also a time when people are supposed to indulge you, so I'm taking it as an excuse to voice some more personal thoughts than usual. If I'm projecting the ordinary life-dramas of the people I know onto a grander screen than they deserve, then please be kind.

Looking around at my peers, I've had a sense in the last year or two of our crossing a threshold. It's partly a work thing. I have the impression of us leaving behind an "early career" phase, characterised by acquiring skills and experience, during which we were to a large extent interchangeable: we got work by being there and being able to do it, but if we hadn't been there, someone else could have done it equally satisfactorily. Increasingly, this is giving way to work which is commissioned on the basis of our particular abilities and insights.

Clearly, this is a privileged experience – and I recognise how lucky I am to get paid to pursue my passions – but perhaps it also has echoes of older models of a working life. The transition I'm describing feels rather like the completion of an apprenticeship, passing into a stage of life in which one's competence is acknowledged and experience valued.

One effect of becoming less interchangeable is that you have, potentially, greater autonomy. At the simplest level, you may no longer need to locate where the work is in order to get work. I'm certain this is one reason why many of my London friends have begun talking seriously about moving elsewhere, creating our own bases somewhere further from the noise and expense of the capital. In recent months, I've found myself in the middle of several sets of ongoing conversations along these lines.

The changing situation of our working lives is one reason for the new seriousness of these conversations, but life is not all about work. Briony Greenhill – who's been keeping an excellent blog called The Blended Lifestyle – summed up what a few of us had been talking about with the simple question: "How do you want to live?" This opens out into where, with whom, on what terms, at what cost, with what commitments.

For the first time in my life, many of those I experience as my peers are having children. There are people I grew up with in Darlington who have teenagers by now – but, until recently, when a friend announced that they were becoming a parent, it felt like a huge divergence in our lives. Today, I see friends and collaborators whose lives are on similar paths to mine starting families. That's new. So the question of how we want to live also includes the question of what kind of parents we want to be and how (and where and with whom) we want to bring up children.

Before anyone gets excited, I should say that this is still very much an academic question for me! But it seems important enough to start thinking and talking about it now, rather than leave it till it takes on a practical urgency...

How does the possibility of parenthood fit into our lives and the world in which we find ourselves? Again, anything I can say about this comes from the peculiar position of myself and my friends, living the postmodern dream, with our highly-networked, creatively-precarious lives, skittering over the surface of a global city and Twittering our schemes for changing the world, never too far from becoming cartoons of ourselves.

One question I have is whether (and how) these ways of living can survive and adapt to the responsibility of parenthood. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman talks about “liquid modernity”, a style of living in which all relationships and agreements can be dissolved at a moment's notice, a condition best-suited to the young, single and successful. If that is really the essence of the playful, post-structural lives we've been enjoying, is parenthood the point where our sense of living in new ways hits the buffers? Or is there more room for weaving commitment and playfulness, the sense of reality as something to be made and remade with the sense of the lasting effects of our actions and the need to live for things more constant than what feels good right now?

One thing that strikes me is how badly our postmodern myths prepare us for seeing ourselves as mothers and fathers. It's not that we're short of mythic material, fantastic characters from which to borrow a sense of our archetypal selves. But our heroes and heroines seem to inhabit a perpetual adolescence. The Greek, Hindu and Norse myths are family sagas. Even Christianity, which tends to be more screwed up about these things, has an image of a mother and child close to its core. Now, I've been converted in recent times to the way of the graphic novel – the best comic book series have the depth and magic and good old-fashioned drama of a real mythological cycle – but I can't help noticing that none of the characters in 'The Invisibles' has children.

It isn't just our heroes whose adolescence stretches out towards middle age. Something similar has been said of us as a generation. What is often missing in such criticism is the role of our economic experience in shaping our lives. On paper, we may be a more affluent generation than our parents, but break down the numbers and you get a messier story. Even after the impact of the recession, house prices are still twice as high in relation to average income as they were when I was born. More of my generation went to university, but we graduated with loans our parents' never had. (Anya Kamenetz's 'Generation Debt' tells this story in a US context.) On the other hand, the older we got, the cheaper and more spectacular the gadgets became. Swings and roundabouts, I guess... but you can't live in a PlayStation. So another strand underlying the conversations about how we want to live is the difficulty we have imagining how we could provide the kind of security we experienced in the families we grew up in.

Every generation has its difficulties to contend with – and there are plenty of ways in which ours is fortunate. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm interested in looking honestly at the ways in which life is different for us to how it was for our parents, accepting the irreversibility of much of this, and seeing it as an opportunity to find new ways of living together, making things work, muddling through. (I mean, the reason I'm basically hopeful, even with all the social, economic and ecological tsunamis I suspect we'll live through, is that humans are really remarkably good at muddling through.)

Yes, I want to sing the praises of muddling through – because, if we are going to find new ways of living, they can't be utopian blueprints. 'Changing the world' has become an anachronism: the world is changing so fast, the best we can do is to become a little more observant, more agile, better able to move with it or to spot the places where a subtle shift may set something on a less-worse course than it was on. And you know, that's OK – because what makes life worth living was never striving for, let alone reaching, utopias. It always has come down to the simple things: being with people you care about, helping each other through, telling stories, piecing together bits of meaning, noticing something for the first time and sharing it with someone, eating together, doing work which meets your own needs and those of the people around you, getting a good night's sleep. Really, as long as we're here, that stuff is unlikely to be much more lost than it has been in the excesses of recent history.

Hmmm... Don't they say that most people are optimistic about their own future prospects and pessimistic about those of the world in general? It feels like this post is riding a similar see-saw. But it's brought me to the other reason, I guess, why I find myself in conversations about finding some kind of shared base, putting down roots somewhere quieter and more grounded than where I've been living in the recent past. It's that sense – which underpins pretty much everything I've been working on, from Space Makers to the Dark Mountain Project, the Institute for Collapsonomics, Signpostr and even School of Everything – that we could do with tools, habits, ways of thinking which will continue to serve us if and when many of the systems and institutions we've been brought up to rely on turn out to be less reliable than we expected. This isn't about survivalism or some ideal of self-sufficiency, just about doing what we can to loosen our dependence on things we don't understand or control - remembering our (dismembered) ability to meet our own needs.

Well, shake a jar and you see what rattles out! Those seem to be the contents of my head right now: a few marbles rolling away out of sight, perhaps. (What is it they say, better out than in?) But if you followed me this far, I'd love to know where any of this knocks into your thoughts and experiences and attempts to make sense of where things are at.

Also, a few of us are talking about organising some events to open up our "How do you want to live?" conversation - so if you'd like to be part of that, let me know.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Exciting Space Makers news!

It's been such a busy few days, it's taken me a while to update this blog with some very exciting Space Makers news.

Last week, we agreed a project with the owners of Brixton Village indoor market (the old Granville arcade). This is an amazing space - a 1930s building, a couple of minutes from Brixton tube - which is already home to all kinds of local businesses and artists studios. Check out this 360deg panorama from Urban 75 to get a sense of why we were so excited when we first went to visit it.

At the moment, there are twenty empty shops in the market - and the owners had approached Lambeth Council to talk about ways of bringing in new occupants. The council introduced them to us - and over a series of conversations, we got them excited about our approach to reusing empty space.

So over the next few months, we'll be finding and supporting a range of projects, businesses and organisations to take on shops in the market. Some will be temporary pop-up projects, some will be permanent. We're looking for ideas at the moment - from local organisations, businesses, artists and others. If you're interested in getting involved, then sign up for our Space Race event, which is a chance to meet our partners and find out about the practicalities of taking on a space:

Tues 10th November, 4.30-9pm - Brixton Village, Coldharbour Lane

We'll be accepting proposals from the 10th onwards and the first wave of occupants will be going into the market soon afterwards. The Brixton project is being led by Julia Shalet, one of our first group of Space Makers Associates - and most of the rest of the gang will be getting involved.

I'm really excited about what we can do with this project. It's a chance to show that the empty shops movement which has sprung up around the UK this year has a role to play in the longer-term future of our local economies. And it's the first of a number of Space Makers Agency projects over the next few months which will build on the conversations and connections made through the Space Makers Network.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Space Makers Agency

When we sent out the email inviting people to tonight's Space Makers relaunch at the Young Foundation, it listed me as the "Founder" of the Space Makers Network. "Finder" might have been a more accurate term, because I didn't so much create the network as stumble across it.

Space Makers came about by accident. Back in March, a group of us were due to meet UnLtd (the foundation for social entrepreneurs) to discuss funding possibilities for "alternative third spaces" - defined by Vinay Gupta as "facilities which are neither office nor cafe nor workshop but have elements of all three and more." On the day, the UnLtd representative had to cancel due to illness, but the message didn't reach us until we had already arrived at their offices, so we had the meeting without him.

Ten of us talked about projects we'd been involved with - co-working spaces, hack labs, art spaces, community cafes and take-overs of empty buildings. We also found ourselves talking about the number of high street spaces coming empty because of the recession and the possibilities for reusing these creatively and in ways that would respond to social needs.

It felt like it would be worth continuing the conversation, so Maria from The Hub, Islington asked me to organise a meeting there the following month. Lots more people came to that event - including Gaia Marcus, who volunteered to coordinate what we were now calling the Space Makers Network. Over the months that followed, we met in a variety of spaces around London, reflecting the mixture of worlds coming together in the network - from Space Studios in Hackney to NESTA, the Whitechapel Gallery, and even a set of treehouses in Regents Park.

We've also built relationships with other organisations interested in the creative reuse of empty space and the larger questions this raises - from the Empty Shops Network (with whom we're organising a national conference in Worthing on 19th October) and the Meanwhile Space project, to architecture practices like 00:/ and social innovation centres like The Young Foundation. And, through the online version of the Space Makers Network, we've connected up with individuals and groups around the country who are involved in exciting projects to bring dead space back to life and create collaborative environments for work and play.

Although Space Makers is still very new, my involvement with this area goes back to my experiences as a journalist and a community activist in Sheffield. Much of my time there was spent in the Cultural Industries Quarter - the first of its kind in the UK - which owed its existence to the reuse of empty industrial buildings following the city's economic collapse in the early 1980s. By the time I arrived, twenty years later, the origins of the Showroom and the Leadmill were only preserved in their names - but the DIY culture of making and recycling was still at the heart of the city.

I got involved in projects like Access Space, a walk-in IT centre using recycled computers, and the MATILDA centre, a chaotic year-long takeover by artists and activists of a huge empty building in the middle of the city. Those experiences taught me a huge amount about what can be achieved with enthusiasm and imagination, but also (in the case of MATILDA) about the limits of projects which can't find a way to relate to existing structures and institutions. Both the buzz of the city at that time and the tensions between top-down and bottom-up approaches to cultural regeneration were brilliantly captured by Go! Sheffo - a fanzine that read like a love letter to the city.

For me, the spirit of Space Makers is rooted in the spirit of those projects - joined with their lessons about the importance of building relationships between different kinds of organisation (and individuals) which don't always understand each other's ways of doing things.

The need for that attitude today is not just that we're faced with large numbers of empty spaces in need of imaginative reuse - although it's clear that the ghosts of Woolworths will be with us for a good while yet. Beyond the immediate effects of the recession, the events of the past year mean that, whoever is in power after the next election, there will be less money to spend on the kind of cultural and community regeneration projects that we've seen in the past decade. Across the range of activities which government - local and national - supports, the same choice will be faced again and again: do we do the same things we have done before, but fewer and cheaper versions of them? Or do we do things differently?

There is a reason why the ways in which government does things tend to be expensive: it is seldom able to tap the reserves of good will, enthusiasm and deep pragmatism which people draw on when they get together and make things happen for themselves. For all the welcome enthusiasm which government has shown for "slack space" projects this year, those projects which are happening around the country are largely being driven by this kind of bottom-up energy. I can't help thinking that these projects offer a more inspiring starting point for thinking about the future of public services than Ryanair or EasyJet.

Tonight, we're announcing the Space Makers Agency, a parallel organisation to the Space Makers Network, which will collaborate to develop ideas and practical projects to create the kind of collaborative, sociable spaces we've been talking about over the past six months. The agency is still taking shape: we have a group of associates with a wide range of experience and a record of making things happen, and several projects getting underway in the next few weeks, working with local authorities, property owners and local communities. Like the network out of which it has grown, though, its core strength should be the ability to bridge between worlds and to work with the energy that is released when people come together with a determination to make something happen.

Monday 31 August 2009

Signpostr.com goes live as reality bites for this summer's education leavers

Back in the early weeks of this year, I wrote a couple of things about how we could use the internet to help people handle the personal impact of the recession. Those posts generated a lot of conversation and several projects.

Thanks to the huge dedication of my friend Colin Tate, one of those projects has now hit reality. Signpostr is a site aimed at anyone who's not in secure employment - and particularly at those who've left education this summer into the toughest job market in a generation. It was inspired by my proposal for "digital resource-maps for people who have lost access to the market as a source of resources". Resource-mapping remains a key element of the site, but it also offers a place for people to talk honestly about how they're finding the search for work, and to get together and develop projects which make use of their skills in the mean time.

It feels like a long time since I was writing that "What you do when you find yourself with a lot more time and a lot less money on your hands than you’re used to... may be the most important question of 2009." Back then, people were still struggling to get a sense of the shape of the recession. Today, there's much talk of a rapid turnaround in confidence and a return to economic growth. In terms of unemployment, however, the hard times remain ahead for a great number of people. The latest figures show a record fall in the number of people in work, with under-25s particularly badly hit.

And for this year's education leavers, the reality of being out of work is starting to bite - a point made well by Lucy, one of our Signpostr bloggers, who graduated from the University of London this summer:

The summer days have ducked and slipped past us. It is September, and for those graduated this year, it’s a moment of horrible clarity. While failing to have a plan or concrete employment during July and August seems like a usual and fluid state of affairs, facing down a long winter in the same position is a truly unnerving experience. This is the first September in several years to be absent from reading lists and timetabled commitments, and it has arrived.

Hopefully Signpostr will prove useful for Lucy and others in her situation this autumn. We'll be doing our best to help users connect with each other, with potential employers and with other groups and organisations. And we'd like to invite you to sign up and explore it for yourself - and, particularly, to pass on that invitation to anyone you know who's looking for work, has just left or will soon leave education.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

School of Everything: Time to Unplug?

It's been ages since I've written anything about School of Everything on here. That's a reflection of the direction my life has taken since the start of 2009: I've gone from full time involvement with SoE to spending two days a week there and the other five starting all kinds of new projects. But for the next few weeks (and possibly longer) I'll be going back to basics and hosting School of Everything: Unplugged! on Wednesday mornings (10.30-12.30) at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

The only way is up: Paul, Pete and Mary at BedZed in October 2006, the day we started work on School of Everything

There were five of us who started School of Everything - Pete Brownell (aka Greenman), Andy Gibson, Mary Harrington (aka Sebastian Mary), Paul Miller and me. We met through a series of experiments with online/offline culture and DIY education - particularly the Pick Me Up email zine and the London School of Art and Business. (Bryony Hendersen, who helped start LSAB, remembers it as "a playful meeting place for established and emerging artists and businesses to meet, challenge each other and provoke learning systems.")

Individually or collectively, we'd also been involved in things like the University of Openness and the Boxing Club at Limehouse Town Hall, Access Space media lab in Sheffield and the Knowledge Lab events at Lancaster. It was those experiences which inspired School of Everything - along with the ideas of Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society and the story of the Free U at Palo Alto.

Over the past three years, the five of us have taken that inspiration and created a website which does some of what Illich envisaged when he wrote about "learning webs" and "peer-matching networks". We raised two rounds of funding from Channel 4, the Young Foundation and some great individuals who believed in us - and won a New Statesman New Media Award, a UK Catalyst Award, and were Honourees in the 2009 Webbys. The site now has over 20,000 members and thousands of people come to it every day, most of whom are looking to learn something new in their local area.

Along the way, I've tried to stay grounded in the culture of self-organised, curiosity-driven learning that School of Everything grew out of. Those roots have been nourished by experiences like the Illich colloquium in Cuernavaca in 2007 and the Temporary School of Thought this January, as well as working with organisations like Personalised Education Now and the Blackden Trust.

That said, the process of building a commercially-sustainable organisation means that the big picture can sometimes disappear from view. This was brought into focus a couple of months ago, by the lively discussions on TechCrunch when we were nominated for the Social Innovation category of their Europa awards. Dejan from aleveo.com asked what was so socially innovative about "aggregation of teacher ads"? At the time, Pete wrote a piece on the company blog which set out the difficult questions we've asked ourselves, as we've tried to balance vision and pragmatism:

School of Everything was founded on extremely lofty goals - we wanted to change the face of education... It is very important to us that our work is more than just a commercial enterprise - but it is just as important to us that it is a commercial enterprise. At the moment we are hard at work building the tools that will allow us to survive as a project... Perhaps we have been too quiet about our big idea, or does it make sense to quietly go about changing things step by step?

There's no easy answer to that, but as the guy with "strategy" in his job title - and standing a little further back than the full-time members of the team - I guess part of my role is to hold that long-term vision. So when one of our photography teachers, Tony Hall, suggested starting a face-to-face meetup in London, it felt like an opportunity to renew our roots in the sociable, playful, improvisational learning culture of Pick Me Up, the LSAB, the University of Openness and the rest.

That's why Tony and I have started School of Everything: Unplugged! on Wednesday mornings in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall. Quite how these meetups will evolve neither of us knows. One inspiration is the simple, open format of Tuttle Club, the weekly meetup Lloyd Davis runs at the Institute for Contemporary Arts. We can talk about free-schooling, deschooling and e-schooling, about our own experiences of teaching and learning, or about anything else that's on our minds. There's free wifi for anyone who wants to bring their work with them, and there's coffee from the RFH cafe - though it's also the kind of place where you can hang out for hours without anyone expecting you to buy something. Various other members of the SoE team will be coming along over the next few weeks, so there will be a chance to talk about what we should do next with the site, as well as getting a makeover for your teaching profile - or advice on how to create one.

This is an experiment. If it works, Tony and I will make it an ongoing event, and we can look at working with others to start meetups at other times of week or in other parts of the country. If it doesn't, that's OK! Whatever happens, going by my experiences to date with School of Everything, I'm confident that we'll learn a lot along the way.

* Directions to the Royal Festival Hall are here. Once inside, we'll be in the foyer area, to the left of the dance floor, from 10.30 till 12.30. I'll take the big orange furry Every Thing along to make us easy to spot - but if you have difficulty finding us, give me a ring on 07810 650213.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Arrr... Come Be A Pirate With Me!

Avast, me hearties! In my continuing career as a professional amateur, stumbling through other people's specialisms, I've joined up with The Beekeepers - a remarkable crew who "design games, interpret history and create unique events".

My first voyage with them will be this Sunday, when we're organising Pirate Day - a set of events across London:

Join The Beekeepers and assorted seadogs as we mount expeditions along the dark arteries of London’s past, recovering tarnished treasures buried beneath the City’s streets. Wearing an eye patch and going ‘yarrr’ makes you feel like a pirate, but real pirates also have adventures.

We’re all headed for Treasure Island: a pirate village that’s sprung up, as if by magic, on the banks of the Regent’s Park boating lake. We’ve moored two mighty vessels there: the Queen Bee with its precious cargo full of books containing the world’s knowledge; and the Sea Hawk, with a viewing platform from which you can see London anew. Who’s with us, ye landlubbers?

Come and shiver your timbers with us! Get all the salty details here.

Come to the GlueSniffers summer party!

Over the past six months, I've been helping organise a regular London meetup called GlueSniffers, bringing together people from the tech industry and people from the world of development and NGOs. The aim is to build better connections between interesting people on both sides - and to generate new thinking about the questions that have historically been framed in terms of "development", particularly in the light of the internet, mobile and social media technologies.

Tomorrow night, the GlueSniffers gang will be letting our hair down with a summer party at the offices of the Movement Design Bureau in Bermondsey. Please come and join us!

There's more information - including directions - on our Meetup page, here. Please sign up there, so we know you're coming!

Friday 24 July 2009

Looking for an intern interested in the reuse of empty spaces

Do you know someone who wants to get experience in urban design, community development and creative regeneration?

We're looking for someone who is available part- or full-time over the next few weeks to get things moving around the reuse of empty shops and other spaces in Tower Hamlets. This would be a flexible, project-based internship, organised through Space Makers, and working with myself and Elin Ng.

The project would include:

  • identifying and researching the ownership of empty properties
  • identifying agents who may have a portfolio of properties they have difficulty in leasing
  • looking at people who we could get to support our project (e.g. councillors/arts trusts/community business leaders)
  • co-ordinating proposals for temporary uses of empty properties
  • looking into how Tower Hamlets council may be guided by guidelines (e.g. LDA guidelines, the Mayor's London plan etc)

We're an unfunded, volunteer-driven organisation, so we would only be able to cover the most basic costs - but you would get to meet and work with a range of people active at a local and national level, finding creative possibilities among the challenges of the recession. You would have the chance to demonstrate your ability to get people together, make things happen and generate tangible results. The project and your role at the heart of it will be well documented online and this should enable you to stand out when looking for employment or applying for courses in related fields.

If you're interested in finding out more, please contact me at writetodougald@gmail.com or on 07810 650213.

Do you have a project for an empty space in Tower Hamlets?

Since I wrote about "freecycling" empty high street shops, there's been a lot of activity - some of which is starting to bear fruit. Both online and at our monthly London meetups, the Space Makers Network has brought together people and organisations interested in both practical projects and longer-term thinking about the collaborative reuse of space.

Now, together with Elin Ng and Emily Miller (who's also running the Meanwhile Project), we're looking for proposals for empty shops and spaces around Tower Hamlets. We can't promise that we can match your idea to a space, but we do have a meeting with the local council in ten days time and they've asked us to come with practical proposals for specific projects.

If you're in or near Tower Hamlets and you have a potential project, you can complete an outline proposal using our online questionnaire - or come down to the Gallery Cafe in Bethnal Green between 6 and 7.30pm next Thursday and talk it over with us.

Projects need to be:

  • temporary - we're talking about making use of a space for weeks or months, not as a permanent base
  • capable of being put into action quickly - do you (and people you know) have the time to make your idea a reality in the very near future?

Apart from that, we're open to just about anything - not only art projects, but spaces for work and play, temporary businesses or museums, community projects of all kinds. If we're able to help you take your project further, we'll probably ask you to write up a fuller plan for it. For now, though, just give us a brief outline of what you'd like to do (and why) by completing the online questionnaire.

Once again, we won't be the ones making decisions about whether projects get spaces, but we will take your proposals to the council and do our best to get things happening.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Dark Mountain Project Update

So there we were, last Friday night, in a barn in a field beside the Thames to launch the Dark Mountain Manifesto. (Those relying on sat nav to guide them in were foxed by the half mile walk from the nearest road, which added a suitably uncivilised edge to the evening.) Paul talked about how he got fed up with journalism and the environmental movement. I called George Monbiot some rude words. Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, Chris T-T and Marmaduke Dando lent us their voices, giving memorable and moving performances. Much good local beer was drunk and a fine night was had all round.

Almost a week on, I'm still posting off copies of the manifesto to our subscribers. (If you haven't received yours yet, apologies.) We've been reviewed by the Morning Star and the RSA's Arts & Ecology blog, whose editor called it "erudite, lyrical and, most of all, apolcalyptic in an almost William Blake-ish kind of way". Slowly, the word spreads outward, and Paul and I will be writing articles for various places over the weeks ahead.

Meanwhile, if you missed the launch, check out Andy Broomfield's beautiful photos. And if you're still wondering what all this Dark Mountain stuff is about, this interview I did with Anab Jain may help.

Dougald Hine talks about the Dark Mountain Project from Anab Jain / Superflux on Vimeo.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

MP for Westminster: Tomlinson "in the wrong place at the wrong time"

Mark Field is the MP for the Cities of Westminster and London. When the G20 came to London this April, it was in his constituency that tens of thousands of protesters came to make their voices heard. Numerous incidents during those protests have been scrutinised by the media and the police watchdog, the IPCC - but none has received more attention than the death of Ian Tomlinson. A local newspaper vendor, Tomlinson got caught up in the protests, was struck and thrown to the ground by a police officer and died soon afterwards - a sequence of events initially covered up by the police, until cameraphone footage emerged.

My friend Mike Bennett wrote to Field, as one of his constituents, expressing concerns about the policing of the summit and asking a series of questions about the "relationship between police, public and politicians". Mike has published his letter and Field's reply on his website.

What startled me was the phrase Field used to describe Tomlinson:

"an innocent man who appears to have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time"

Is it me, or is this is a deeply inappropriate description of the situation?

What if Tomlinson had been a protester - would he still have been "in the wrong place at the wrong time"? Or would that have made him fair game?

Friday 19 June 2009

Help Build Some Amazing Treehouses!

One of the most exciting things happening in London this summer is the Treehouse Gallery that's planned for Regents Park - and, if you have any time on your hands this month, you can help make it happen.

The gallery is the work of some of the wonderful people behind the Temporary School of Thought which I was involved with back in January. All kinds of magical things are planned for the treehouses through the summer - and I'll be curating three days of strangeness from 7th-9th August.

Right now, a team of volunteers are building the treehouse structures offsite, at Area 10 in Peckham:

Steph and Claudia, who have organised the project, tell me they could do with some extra pairs of hands. The build is going on from 9am till midnight every day, so there is plenty of opportunity to get involved. So if you have a spare couple of hours - or even a spare few days - please do go and support them.

For more information, go here.

Friday 12 June 2009

Wanted: university leavers to try out Signpostr

Back in January, I asked how we could use social media to help people cope with the personal consequences of the recession. That post sparked a lot of conversations and several projects. From today, we're looking for people to start trying out one of those projects - specifically, young people who are leaving education into the toughest job market for a generation.

Signpostr is a response to the rapid rise in unemployment here in the UK and elsewhere. The site is about helping each other find a way through the recession. It gives people a space in which to:

  • talk honestly about the realities of the current job market

  • find and share information about resources that are useful for finding work and living cheaply

  • create projects, gather people and resources, and get things started

The situation is more urgent today than it was in January. Even if the current signs of economic recovery continue, hundreds of thousands of people are still expected lose their jobs in the months ahead. Among the harshest hit will be those leaving education this summer. As the Guardian reports this week:

figures compiled by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, which works with careers services, suggest that one in 10 of this year's graduates will be out of work, and many more will be working in bars and retail to make ends meet, or leaving the country.

So it is with those graduates that we want to start testing Signpostr.

From today, the site is open to those with .ac.uk or .edu email addresses - and we are looking for people to try it out and help us improve it.

If you've just left college or university and are looking for work, try it out - add some Resource listings for things you've found that help save money or increase your chances of getting a job; create a Project for that idea you've got that you'd like to make happen; tell people what you need and what you can offer.

If that's not you, can you help us by spreading the word to people you know who are leaving education this summer? Send them a link to:


Finally, you can follow @signpostr on Twitter, where we'll be talking about the site, sharing ideas about looking for work, living cheaply and helping each other through the recession.

Thanks to everyone who's joined in the conversations that fed into this project - both online and face-to-face! I look forward to continuing those conversations as we put Signpostr to the test.

Thursday 11 June 2009

Why journalists write so much rubbish about Twitter

Around the start of 2009, the media here in Britain discovered Twitter. At times, it's been hard to tell whether the service had just crossed the chasm or jumped the shark. What's distinctive, though, is quite how bad the reporting of Twitter has been - significantly worse, I would say, than the equivalent coverage of Facebook, when it made a similar leap into public consciousness a couple of years earlier.

"Oh yes," my dad said, when I mentioned Twitter to him back in February. "It's one of those things that people are using that means they don't have real conversations any more." I couldn't blame him for getting this impression - I'd heard the same report on Radio 4 earlier that week - and I'm no unbridled techno-enthusiast myself. Yet what has annoyed me about the reporting of Twitter is that these claims of its anti-social effects are so dramatically at odds with my experience as a user. I can honestly say I've never met a tool which has led to so many interesting offline, face-to-face experiences.

Of course, the media coverage is unlikely to harm Twitter. My mum even signed up for it the other week. (You can give her a nice surprise by following @dougaldsmum!)

But, since I keep hearing the same recycled nonsense, I thought I'd write a couple of posts about why I've found Twitter such an exciting tool - but, first, about why the media find it so difficult to report well.

As I see it, there are at least three significant problems when it comes to covering Twitter, over and above the usual reasons journalists get things wrong.

1. Because it was Stephen Fry, Russell Brand and co who brought it to their attention, they focus on celebrity Twitterers. The trouble is that trying to understand social media by looking at the behaviour of celebrity users makes about as much sense as trying to understand society by looking at the behaviour of celebrities.

2. A number of eloquent and apparently expert voices have offered very strong opinions on the service, without having used it or apparently paid much attention to how others actually use it - in some cases, making unjustified use of their authority in other fields. Oliver James, Alain de Botton and Baroness Susan Greenfield are all guilty of this. (And don't take my word for it - Ben Goldacre, the Guardian's Bad Science columnist, accuses the Baroness of "abusing her position as a professor, and head of the Royal Institution... using these roles to give weight to her speculations and prejudices in a way that is entirely inappropriate".)

3. Twitter takes time to get your head round - and journalists are permanently in a hurry:

  • The value of Google was immediately obvious the first time you used it and got good search results, whereas the value of Twitter grows on you gradually.

  • We don't have good short-hand ways of explaining what it does. ('Micro-blogging', for example, is a really misleading tag.)

  • To complicate matters further, getting the best out of Twitter generally requires the use of an external client (a program that runs on your desktop) such as Tweetdeck, rather than visiting Twitter.com directly. Most non-specialist journalists, like most internet users, are only beginning to adjust to the possibility that the web isn't about going to sites, but about information coming to you.

So unless a reporter has been using the service personally for long enough to get a feel for it, they are very likely to pick up the wrong end of the stick. Or mistake the stick for a snake.

Friday 5 June 2009

Video: The Long Doom?

Here are the videos of my talk at the London Long Now meetup on May 27th. Thanks to Paul for organising the event - and to Vinay for filming it. To find out about future Long Now events in London, go to their Meetup page.

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Space Makers: Tony Sephton, Desksurfer.com

Tony Sephton is the founder of Desksurfer.com, a new site that gives businesses and organisations a simple way to sell spare desks on an hourly basis - and gives freelancers/etc a way to find temporary desk space. The site just launched in London and is currently looking for more offices to offer desks.

I was keen to talk to Tony because Desksurfer is a really simple example of making use of slack space/time. In fact, it's an idea that several people have floated around the Space Makers Network, so it's great to see it put into practice.

I'm also interested in how this could develop in other directions - Desksurfer provides cheap deskspace, but are there also circumstances under which you could provide free deskspace through a similar model? (Having a Freecycle version as well as an eBay one?) And how about home-based co-working, as Jelly are doing in New York?

Thursday 28 May 2009

Heterodox Futurists

I had a very interesting evening last night, talking at the London Long Now meetup, on the subject of 'The Long Doom?'. The question mark matters, because I'm not interested in making predictions, nor in pessimism. What I wanted to explore was how we get better at imagining a wider range of futures - at making the distinction between "the end of the world as we know it" and "the end of the world, full stop".

I'll post a video of the talk and the discussion that followed soon. In the mean time, I wanted to share some links to other people whose long-term thinking about decline and collapse scenarios has helped me get my bearings. They fall into the category (which I just made up) of "heterodox futurists": that is, they think and write about the future, while standing outside the orthodoxies characteristic of mainstream voices and organisations.

John Michael Greer, whose erudite comparisons between the current state of the world and the rise and fall of previous civilisations appear weekly at The Archdruid Report.

Dmitry Orlov provides darkly entertaining reflections on the parallels and differences between the present-day USA and his experiences of the collapse of the USSR. (Both of those blogs have also been distilled into excellent books - Greer's 'The Long Descent' and Orlov's 'Reinventing Collapse'.)

Drop-out intellectual Ran Prieur is a constant source of thought-provoking links and his essays offer an unusual balance of social critique and techno-curiosity.

Finally, Eleutheros's occasional posts at How Many Miles From Babylon are worth the wait (though concerned less directly with the future than with the present, as seen from the outside).

There are plenty of other interesting voices out there, associated with the Peak Oil community, the Transition Towns movement, "anti-civilisation" anarchism, mutualism and other positions, many of whom provide a useful balance to mainstream narratives. What I appreciate about those I've listed here, though, is that they speak for themselves, exploring a set of ideas, and not acting as the voice of any particular group or movement.

So, who else should I be reading who falls into that category?

Tuesday 26 May 2009

The Collapsonomicon #1

Things are getting busy, so I thought it was time we started a Collapsonomics-themed weekly email. I haven't set up a proper email list for it yet, so if you want to sign up, get in touch at info@collapsonomics.org. (I'll also try blogging it on here each week.)


Today - 3.30-5.30pm: Noah's lecture on 'Collapse Dynamics' at the London School of Economics. Graham Wallace Room, 5th floor, Old Building:


Today - 6.30-8.00pm: Space Makers Network meetup - joint event with Silicon Hackney at SPACE Studios on Mare Street, an organisation that has been taking over buildings on cheap leases to provide space for artists since 1968. Nearest tube Bethnal Green.


Wednesday - 7.00-8.30pm: "The Long Doom?" - I'm talking at this month's Long Now meetup. What would long-term economic contraction look like? At Demos, Tooley Street, SE1 2TU - nearest tube London Bridge.

Thursday - 6.30-8.00pm: Talking about the past and future of financial markets with former hedge fund manager John Loder. This is a small group session at the School of Everything offices, followed by pints at the Camel.


And finally...

Homeless or Hipster? Learn how to tell the difference:


Then try the quiz:


Wednesday 20 May 2009

G20 Reflections: Sousveillance

The big story of the events around last month's G20 summit was sousveillance: 'the conscious capture of processes from below, by individual participants'. The death of Ian Tomlinson and the subsequent unravelling of the police account of events marked how far social technologies have changed our society, even since the last major summit in Britain, the Gleneagles G8 meeting in 2005.

That week itself marked a breakthrough for the role of members of the public in newsgathering. When the 7/7 bombings cut across summit and protests alike, it was camera phone images which told the story. However, while "user-generated content" had already been a buzzword in the news industry for a year or so, the conventions by which this material should be incorporated into reporting were still emerging and had yet to change the way news was created.

What the Ian Tomlinson case highlights is how far we have now moved towards a new information eco-system. It is significant that:

1. The key footage was gathered not by a protester but by a banker visiting from New York - the cameraphone in the hands of the passerby is now an important tool.

2. Other footage was largely posted on broad platforms like YouTube rather than narrow platforms like Indymedia.

3. News outlets in general are now largely comfortable with the idea of leading on stories driven by user-generated content.

4. Some news outlets (e.g. the Guardian, Channel 4) are developing a fairly sophisticated ability to work with user-generated content - not only providing a channel for its wider dispersion, but playing a role in piecing together a large number of individual elements to provide context and a degree of verification, giving credibility to stories which challenge the official version of events.

The deeper implications of this are interesting. Any of us who have been on a few protests over the years know that the policing of the G20 was hardly exceptional: practices such as kettling, baton charges on crowds, aggressive use of police horses, removal of ID numbers and so on have been common, in many cases for decades. In the past, it has been possible for senior officers and politicians to turn a blind eye to such behaviour, or even encourage it, while maintaining a public line about the decency and high standards of the British police. That situation only remained tenable, however, so long as the flow of information about events on the ground was relatively weak. Most people in this country will tend to take the word of a Chief Constable or even a Home Secretary over that of the most articulate, reasonable and well-groomed anarchist. However, the same people can react very differently to video footage providing direct evidence of police aggression.

What is interesting here is that, without any change in the values and standards professed by politicians and senior police officers, the stronger flow of information is likely to change the actual practice of policing. (This reminds me of an argument Slavoj Zizek makes in 'Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?' about the tactical effectiveness of taking appearances at face value: rather than simply pointing out the gap between words and reality, one can use the words as a point of leverage for closing that gap.)

How far and how deep will sousveillance go? Where else could society be radically changed, simply by holding existing professed standards to account, with the support of new and stronger flows of information from below?

One other story caught my eye recently - the reporting of the video of an Abu Dhabi prince torturing a man he claimed had cheated him in a business deal. Johann Hari's astonishing investigative report on Dubai (a great piece of old-style journalism) highlighted the disturbing foundations of the Middle Eastern states which have come to play a key role in the world economy. Could more direct documentation of the realities of these countries ever lead to a radical change in the ability of western countries to profess democracy and human rights whilst relying on their money?

The conclusion of Hari's piece, though, acknowledges the extent to which the extremes of inequality and injustice in Dubai are only a microcosm: more generally, our economic life tends to be dependent on situations in other parts of the world which we'd rather not think about. Which brings me, finally, to my friend Vinay Gupta's essay on 'The Future of Poverty' and the question which he poses: what will be the consequences when - as is set to happen in the next decade - cameraphones and mobile internet become widely available to people who still don't have the basics of clean water, decent sanitation or reliable food supply?

These are the kind of questions which we explore at the monthly GlueSniffers: ICT for Development meetups I organise with Vinay and Mark Charmer of Akvo.org. If you're interested in joining us, sign up to get alerts when we schedule a meetup.

Monday 27 April 2009

How not to predict the future (or why Second Life is like video calling)

Yesterday afternoon, I was speaking on a panel at the National Digital Inclusion Conference. We'd been asked to talk about "what learning should look like in 2019, and how technology will have changed how we consume, create and collaborate to develop ideas, knowledge and skills."

That got me thinking about how bad we are predicting the future of technology - and I saw a parallel which I'd not noticed before.

My usual example of poor prediction is the mobile industry. Video calling was expected to be huge, but it turns out hardly anyone wanted it. Text messaging, on the other hand, was an unexpected success. The point is that the technology landscape is shaped not just by what we can do, but what we choose to do - and simpler, less impressive technologies may turn out to be vastly more powerful as social tools.

What struck me yesterday is that the video calling vs text messaging situation has played out all over again online in the last few years. Except that this time it wasn't video calling but virtual worlds - and it wasn't text messaging but Twitter. Again, people's demand for high-tech, highly immersive substitutes for face-to-face experience was massively exaggerated - while the real story turns out to be the social power of stripped down, simple bits of communication that weave in and out of our First Lives.

(Of course, the reason most of the recent media coverage of Twitter has been tripe is that the journalists responsible haven't used it for long enough to realise how much of its power lies in the face-to-face interactions and relationships it sparks - but that's a post for another day...)

Monday 20 April 2009

"How to Freecycle Woolworths!"

For those of us who've been arguing for the creative reuse of empty space as part of a response to the recession, there was exciting news last week. The Department for Communities and Local Government announced £3m in small grants to help people reuse empty shops for creative and socially beneficial projects. Here's what they say:

People are increasingly worried about boarded-up shops and vacant land in their towns and cities. It is vital that we do all we can to enable vacant properties to be used for temporary purposes until demand for retail premises starts to improve. Not only will this help to ensure that our towns and high streets are attractive places where people want to go, it can also stimulate a wide range of other uses such as community hubs, arts and cultural venues, and informal learning centres, which can unlock people’s talent and creativity.

This kind of temporary use of empty premises has great potential for those "real world spaces which reflect the collaborative values of social media" that I've been writing about. (Thanks to Noel for first drawing my attention to the "slack space" movement in the comments on the original Social Media vs the Recession post.) And the turnout for the second London Alternative Third Spaces meetup at the Hub a couple of weeks ago was a sign of the amount of energy gathering around these projects.

Last week's announcement wasn't just about funding, although that was what made the headlines. Plans for encouraging temporary use also include:

  • a simpler process for local authorities to waive "change of use" planning permission requirements
  • providing specimen documents for landlords making temporary use agreements
  • a pilot project in five town centres, in which local authorities act as intermediary - agreeing a temporary lease with a landlord on behalf of a local community group
  • and, of course, funding for grants "to help with cleaning and decorating vacant premises, basic refit for temporary uses, publicity posters, and other activities that can help town centres attract and retain visitors"

It sounds like the details of how these grants will work are still being worked out, but all in all this an extremely promising set of proposals.

One further thought, prompted by a conversation with Dan Littler. Last week's announcement accompanied the launch of a guide for town centre managers on 'Looking after our town centres'. To make sure the widest range of people have access to information about the grants and other measures, though - and to contribute to the success of the projects they create - it would be great to see a practical handbook for "How to Freecycle Woolworths!" (At least, that's what we'd have called it in the days of Pick Me Up...)

Once you start looking, there are a lot of existing examples of the creative and constructive reuse of empty space, around the UK and beyond - and a lot of knowledge of what to do (and what not to do) has been accumulated by those involved. It feels like time that knowledge was tapped.

Thursday 16 April 2009

Announcing 'The Dark Mountain Project'

Today is an exciting day. After a year or so of meetings in pubs and emails backwards and forwards, it is time to announce the Dark Mountain Project - a literary and artistic movement for a time of massive global change.

The project grew out of a conversation with Paul Kingsnorth, started by a blog post in which he proposed:

a new publication: not a magazine, exactly, not quite a journal either, but something between the two and somewhere else as well. A publication which will match the beauty of its writing with the beauty of its design. A publication whose mission will be to reclaim beauty and truth in writing, but without sounding too pompous about it. A publication which will reject both celebrity culture and consumer society with equal vehemence. A publication which will celebrate our true place in nature in prose, poetry and art; which will hunt down ancient truths for modern consumption.

Gradually, that idea has taken a fuller form, and between us we have written a pamphlet which is intended as a first step towards that magazine. Over the next three weeks, we aim to raise £1000 in donations towards the costs of publishing that pamphlet as the Dark Mountain Manifesto and building a website to support the movement.

Why are we doing this? Because of the times in which we find ourselves. Because a collapsing economy and a collapsing environment are turning all our assumptions on their heads. Because nothing that we currently take for granted seems likely to come through the 21st century unscathed. Because civilisation as we have known it is coming apart at the seams.

We don't believe that anyone - not politicians, not environmentalists, not writers - is really facing up to the magnitude of this. We are all still wedded to the idea that the future will be an upgraded version of the present. It is in our cultural DNA. Perhaps this is why, as the warning signs flash out ever more urgently, we still go shopping, or plan for more economic growth, or campaign for new energy technologies, or write novels about the country house or the inner city.

A civilisation is built not on oil, steel or bullets, but on stories; on the myths that shore it up and the tales it tells itself about its origins and destiny. We believe that we have herded ourselves to the edge of a precipice with the stories we have told ourselves about who we are: the story of 'progress', of the conquest of 'nature', of the centrality and supremacy of the human species.

We believe it is time for new stories. The Dark Mountain project aims to foster a new movement of writers, artists and creative thinkers, a new school of writing and art for an age of massive global disruption. We are calling it Uncivilisation.

Very soon, we will be launching the Dark Mountain Manifesto, as a hand-crafted pamphlet and online. At the same time, we will launch our website. If enough people seem interested, we then plan to begin publishing a journal of Uncivilised art and writing. And if that takes off, there is much more that this nascent movement can be doing to help create the stories that will define these new times.

For the moment, though, we are looking for help. The Dark Mountain Project is not a prescriptive attempt to tell people how to write or think, but the raising of a flag around which we hope like-minded people will gather. So we are looking for people who might want to be involved: writers, artists, illustrators, designers, thinkers - anyone with whom this strikes a chord.

The other kind of help we need is money. Zac Goldsmith has already generously donated £1000 towards the cost of publishing the manifesto and launching the full Dark Mountain website. We are looking to raise the same amount again in donations over the next three weeks. If you can afford to contribute towards getting this project off the ground, please visit our fundraising page on Fundable.com. (Everyone who donates $20 or more will receive a copy of the manifesto and an invitation to our launch event.)

The challenges of the 21st century are too often framed only as technical problems requiring solutions. I believe that this is a form of denial. What we face is a challenge to the imagination - the challenge of imagining a liveable future in a changed world. I hope that the Dark Mountain Project can help place the imagination at the heart of our response.

Monday 6 April 2009

London "Alternative Third Spaces" Meeting

Last month, a group of us met at the London offices of UnLtd (the foundation for social entrepreneurs) to talk about alternative third spaces. This Wednesday we're holding a follow-up meeting at the Hub, Islington.

Alternative third spaces are facilities which are neither office nor cafe nor workshop, but have elements of all three and more. This includes co-working spaces, hack labs, arts spaces, social centres, community cafes and similar uses of space. There is a lot of interest and activity around these in London at the moment - and the potential for them to play a significant role in the response to the social consequences of the recession.

This meetup is for people interested in starting such projects, or who are already involved with them, to discuss ideas, funding models and legal structures, and to learn from the success of ventures like the Hub. We hope a network of people involved in alternative third spaces will emerge.

The meeting will take place from 6.30 till 8.00pm, Wednesday 8th April
at The Hub Islington, 5 Torrens Street, London EC1V 1NQ.

Saturday 7 March 2009

Deschooling the Edublogosphere?

This post from NZ edublogger Leigh Blackall - which I picked up via Stephen Downes - hails (or at least hopes for) a comeback for Ivan Illich's 'Deschooling Society', which reminded me that I should blog the video of my Temporary School of Thought talk.

Many thanks to Vinay for filming that! He also blogged an audio recording of the event, which got picked up in a thoughtful post from Andrew J Cernaglia.

In a different key, I've just uploaded an article I wrote last year about Illich's influence on and warnings about the development of personal computing and the internet:

Carl Mitcham laughed when I told him I was working on an internet startup inspired by Deschooling Society. Now in his mid-sixties, Mitcham is a philosopher of technology, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines and former director of the Science-Technology-Society Programme at Penn State. He was also, from the late 1980s, a member of Illich's circle of friends and collaborators, the travelling circus which surrounded him from the closure of the Centre for Intercultural Documentation at Cuernavaca in 1976, until his death in 2002.

What made Mitcham laugh was his recollection of Illich telling him, in exasperation, “People are saying I invented this internet!” The thought of it was enough to make him throw up his hands in horror.

The story of Illich's influence on the internet and the reasons for his mistrust of it both deserve attention. Together, they present something like a paradox: how did a thinker whose vision of 'learning webs', 'educational networks' and 'convivial tools' inspired key figures in the development of personal computing come, by the late 1990s, to believe in 'the necessity of defending... our senses... against the insistent encroachments of multimedia from cyberspace'?


I just came across another blog that's picked up on Charlie Leadbeater's article on Illich and the DIY State this week, so it does feel like there's an appetite for these ideas at the moment. And if you were looking for more pieces of evidence, I guess you could say that us raising a second round of funding for School of Everything was also a good sign!

Tuesday 17 February 2009

'The Future of Unemployment'

Slightly belatedly, here's the article I wrote for last week's Agit8 magazine:

What do you do when you find yourself with a lot more time and a lot less money on your hands than you’re used to? That may be the most important question of 2009.

Start with the numbers: worldwide, the UN estimates as many as 51 million people could become unemployed this year. Here in Britain, if the analysts are right, one million people who currently have jobs won’t do in twelve months’ time. What happens next for those people will shape the kind of society we live in, over the next decade and beyond.

I want to think about some of the ways this situation could play out. In particular, I’m interested in whether the things we’ve learned from social media over the last few years can play a role in lessening the hardship of this recession and shaping the world which comes out the other side.


Thursday 12 February 2009

Hacking The Recession - TOMORROW!

If you're in London and free tomorrow, come down to the Hacking the Recession day at Birkbeck College - one of the projects that's spun out of the conversations I've been blogging about over the last few weeks. People with geek skills are particularly welcome, but they're letting non-coders like me come too.

To get a clearer idea of what to expect, I interviewed Mamading Ceesay, the brains behind the event.

DH: What do you want out of the day?

MC: We want to inspire people to come up with creative solutions to not only surviving, but thriving during the recession - that improves outcomes not only for individuals and their families, but entire communities. These solutions should not be based on needing state or local authority action but rather on ordinary people coming together and collaborating in similar ways to that enabled by the likes of Wikipedia and Pledgebank.

DH: And what about people who come along?

MC: It's about ensuring that there are options for you and the people you care about to lead purposeful, meaningful lives, even in a time of mass unemployment when there may be no jobs available.

DH: So what would success look like?

MC: Any of the following would be a really successful outcome, I think:

  • Working code that implements an idea that helps people deal with the impact of the recession.
  • Documentation of a potential solution for recession-caused issues, that provides enough information for a team to implement it.
  • A presentation/pitch that could be used to persuade funders and other kinds of supporters to back the implementation of a solution.

DH: Have you got some examples of the kind of thing you have in mind?

MC: Well, think about the kind of tools you use for jobs around the house. If there's a lot less money around, then there's less opportunity for people to have their own drills and so on. However, if there is some sort of tool library/directory system, you can find out who in your area has tools that you can borrow to get a much needed piece of DIY done. When you borrow a tool, it's recorded in the system as is the return of the tool. This enables more effective sharing and pooling of resources in a community that can no longer rely on money and the market for getting things done.

Another example - people being able to barter their time and skills with each other using a system combining the web and SMS. This would make it easier for a community to survive and thrive with much less money. It also helps people to be gainfully employed without a salaried job.

Hacking The Recession is happening tomorrow - Friday 13th February - at Room 540, Birkbeck College, WC1E 7HX. (Entrance off Torrington Square.)

For more details, contact Mamading.

Friday 6 February 2009

Clay Shirky at the LSE

Clay Shirky may be right that a loose collection of bloggers can't replace a newsroom full of journalists, but London's social reporters did a pretty good job of covering his visit this week. David Wilcox has a great write-up of his Tuesday night talk at the LSE, which I was there for, while Michael Mahemoff posted detailed notes from the ICA on Wednesday.

It was Shirky's change of mind on the democratic potential of the web which made headlines. "We are not ready for massive legitimating moves of unstructured participation across the larger issues," he told the LSE audience. "That’s the first time I’ve said that in public."

The key example he returned to during the discussion was change.gov - the Obama administration's official transition website, which asked people to vote on what should be his first priority in office. The issue that came out on top was the legalisation of marijuana.

Andy Gibson from Sociability points out that this doesn't actually prove anything about how people behave in a context of collaborative decision-making, since the site only gave them an opportunity to get attention. An exercise without any consequences isn't much of a guide to how people will act in a more serious situation. "If you want to know how people behave in power, look at how we run our organisations, our communities, our families, our relationships."

Meanwhile, JP Rangaswami - who was at the ICA talk - muses about whether choice over the allocation of our taxes might be the way to get beyond the limits of voting systems. That would certainly be one way to add that necessary seriousness. (And if it sounds unrealistic, check out the history of Porto Alegre's participative budget - and the UK government's plans for local participatory budgets in the near future.)

Interesting discussions - and a reminder of why I'm glad to work with such bright people as Andy and JP on School of Everything. But I wanted to pick out four other ideas which Shirky touched on, which relate to my recent posts about social media and the recession.

The sudden shift in role for new technologies in a time of crisis: For example, the London tube bombings took camera phones and video-sharing sites from "that's interesting" (or not, according to your opinion), to "this is a critical tool that we must have."

If this can happen as a result of a one-off event, what about longer historical moments of crisis, such as the one we're living through? "The global financial crisis we're in the middle of means that the speed and depth of adoption of some of these tools is going to surprise us - because we're in a situation where none of the old things work."

The complex relationship between money and motivation: Someone asked a question about how you pay the rent, if you devote yourself to a collaborative project. In response, Shirky brought up Edward Deci's experiment into the relationship between external reward and intrinsic motivation.

Deci set two groups of students the task of solving a kind of puzzle. One group were paid per puzzle solved, the other group weren't paid at all. After telling them that they had completed the task, he left each group in the room and observed their behaviour over the next few minutes. He found that those who hadn't been paid continued playing with the puzzles - whereas those who were paid tended not to. Conclusion: being paid to do something can actually reduce the intrinsic reward you might otherwise have found in the activity. Or, as Shirky put it:

The link between solving the grocery shortage problem and doing what you have to do isn't, in fact, linear - and there are places where money actually worsens the transaction. If you have a nice date, it's acceptable to send flowers the next day, it is not acceptable to send the amount of money the flowers would have cost!

It seems to me that, if - as I wrote last week - we need to get beyond the binary of employed/unemployed, the subtle relationship between intrinsically-rewarding activity and financially reward which Deci's experiment highlighted is worth bearing in mind.

The possibilities of the "cognitive surplus": I'm cheating slightly here, since Shirky didn't really talk about "cognitive surplus" on Tuesday - though he did when I saw him last year at Demos (here's the podcast). The basic idea is that major social changes can liberate a lot of time and energy, which initially gets channelled into an addictive activity which at least keeps people docile. According to Shirky, this happened in the early Industrial Revolution with gin, and again in the 20th century with television. After the gin era, the same energy was channelled more fruitfully into the social reform of the 19th century, the age of public libraries and self-improvement societies. So what comes after the TV era...?

Now, I'm not comfortable with the kind of treating-people-as-resources thinking which a phrase like "cognitive surplus" represents. But it's certainly true that one of the stereotypes of unemployment is of someone sitting at home in front of the TV all day. If there are suddenly a lot more people who are used to working full time and now need something else to do, how could we make it easier to use that extra time and energy in other ways?

The main characteristic of emerging models is their diversity: Shirky was talking specifically about making money. "This isn't a transition from Business Model A to Business Model B, it's a transition from Business Model A to Business Models B to Z."

To me, the emphasis on not trying to find a single replacement model applies similarly to the traditional concept of the "job" - I'm convinced that less of us will have "jobs" in future, but that that doesn't have to mean that more of us are "unemployed", in the sense of having nothing to do and being unable to support ourselves. It also applies (as we've been discussing in the comments on last week's post) to the kinds of spaces for learning, making, collaborating, hanging out and starting new projects which I wrote about: a national, one-size-fits-all programme to create such spaces would be a disaster.

I realise that's a lot of ground skimmed over quite quickly. I'm writing more about some of this for Monday's issue of Agit8, and I look forward to carrying on the conversation - here, there and elsewhere.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

A moment of pragmatism?

I'm heading off to LSE in a few minutes, where Clay Shirky is speaking tonight. Journalism.co.uk has an interesting interview with him today - the following passage jumped out, in relation to my recent posts:

Significant changes often come at times of crisis, like the current financial downturn, adds Shirky, who says we are entering a two-three year period which could shape society for decades.

"In a crisis people lay their hands on what works without regard to how they've done it the past," he says. Often seen as informal changes, significant technological shifts quickly become part of the established political landscape, he says.

Shirky hopes that specifically British issues will get raised at tonight's debate. "When this stuff charges in the US the questions are 'what are the kids doing?' and 'what is it going to do to companies?' In the UK it is 'what is it going to do for the government and social exclusion?'

Two ideas there that resonate with the conversations I've been involved in over the last couple of weeks. Firstly, that the UK already stands out for applying ideas from the social web to solving social problems. (That doesn't mean we've done it brilliantly, just that it seems to be more of a focus of people's thinking and activity in the British startup scene.)

The second one is the idea that a major crisis can generate a moment of pragmatism - a point at which new ideas and approaches may suddenly get taken seriously, with lasting consequences. I don't know about anyone else, but I've been aware of a pragmatic openness to radical ideas lately, from a surprising range of directions.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Social Media vs the Recession - an update

Thanks to everyone who made it to Bethnal Green on Thursday to talk about social media responses to the recession - and to those who couldn't come, but asked to be kept in touch. Trying to summarise all the threads of discussion would make for a long post, but three plans came out of the evening:

(1) To host a larger conversation about social media and the recession, somewhere other than on this blog! This will include gathering information and sharing stories about the ways people are using existing tools and networks (or building new ones), as well as about the kind of "real world spaces which reflect the collaborative values of social media". We're going to launch a group blog to do this and are looking for guest posts from various perspectives. We're also looking for co-hosts for a larger meetup where we can carry on this conversation face-to-face!

(2) To build a simple site which people can use to map resources, not just for the unemployed, but for anyone who finds themselves more cash poor and/or time rich than they're used to being. As a first step, Colin, Vinay and I are experimenting with building a prototype over the next couple of weeks.

(3) To organise a Hacking the Recession day on Friday 13th February, as part of JISC's Developer Happiness Days. Mamading is organising this and has posted some more information here.

I look forward to more interesting conversations about all this in the week ahead! If you're in London and coming to GlueSniffers on Monday or Clay Shirky/NetSquared on Tuesday, let's talk about it there.

UPDATE: GlueSniffers meetup postponed till next Monday (9th) due to snow

Wednesday 28 January 2009

Social Media vs the Recession?

I've spent a lot of time lately talking to people about the economic crisis, how it's starting to play out in people's lives - and what the things we've learned from social media over the last few years might contribute, in regards to lessening the hardship and shaping the world that comes out the other side. Following from those conversations, it feels like it's time to start sketching some of this out in a meaningful way.

Looked at very simply: hundreds of thousands of people are finding or are about to find themselves with a lot more time and a lot less money than they are used to. The result is at least three sets of needs:

  • practical/financial (e.g. how do I pay the rent/avoid my house being repossessed?)

  • emotional/psychological (e.g. how do I face my friends? where do I get my identity from now I don't have a job?)

  • directional (e.g. what do I do with my time? how do I find work?)

With a huge wave of unemployment breaking on the system, public services are likely to be overwhelmed - and yet need to be more responsive than under normal economic circumstances:

"Time is of the essence. The newly unemployed are not usually a focus of government policy because most will find work quickly. This is not true in a recession... Decisive government action now will prevent a temporary slide in employment becoming a permanent slump." Charles Leadbeater & others, 'Attacking the Recession', NESTA

During last week's new media breakfast at the Foreign Office, I was struck by a remark from a UKTI official: if this recession is to be different to previous recessions, he said, our industry has a crucial role to play in that. I guess he may have had in mind the way Finland's tech industry pulled it out of a deep recession in the 1990s, but it also set me thinking about the way the internet has been changing society at large.

Arguably the biggest thing that has changed in countries like the UK since there was last a major recession is that most people are networked by the internet and have some experience of its potential for self-organisation (whether through a myriad of internet dating sites, or through group social interactions such as Facebook, Meetup, Bebo, MySpace, and others - all carry the potential to connect people, both in the virtual and in the physical space). There has never been a major surge in unemployment in a context where these ways of "organising without organisations" were available.

As my School of Everything co-founder Paul Miller has written, London's tech scene is distinctive for the increasing focus on applying these technologies to huge social issues - rather than throwing sheep! Agility and the ability to mobilise and gather momentum quickly are characteristics of social media and online self-organisation, in ways that government, NGOs and large corporations regard with a healthy envy.

So, with that, the conversations I've been having keep coming back to this central question: is there a way we can constructively mobilise to respond to this situation in the days and weeks ahead?

Some ideas on what this might look like

One principle to keep in mind: access to tools and provision should not be limited to the unemployed. It is possible to design tools and offer services which are open to all, but have particular value to those with more time and less money. However, if these are walled off as exclusively for that group, this is stigmatising - and, more important, will stifle creativity by artificially restricting the range of possible interactions and connections. (This valuable approach towards open access is something I experienced first-hand over several years hanging out at Access Space in Sheffield, the UK's longest-running internet learning centre, where I as a (then) BBC journalist found myself learning to build my own website alongside guys who in some cases had been on the dole for much of their adult lives, and for whom the centre offered a route to starting a business, getting a skilled job, or getting funding for their creative activities.)

What follows is not a particularly structured list, though there are a few themes. The basic idea is that we're talking about digital resource-maps for people who have lost access to the market as a source of resources, with an aim to be an enablement tool for all levels of the participant community:

  • Information sharing for dealing with practical consequences of redundancy or job insecurity. You can see this happening already on a site like the Sheffield Forum.

  • Indexes of local resources of use to the newly-unemployed - including educational and training opportunities - built up in a user-generated style.

  • Tools for reducing the cost of living. These already exist - LiftShare, Freecycle, etc. - so it's a question of more effective access and whether there are quick ways to signpost people towards these, or link together existing services better.

  • An identification of skills, not just for potential employers but so people can find each other and organise, both around each other and emergent initiatives that grow in a fertile, socially-networked context.

If the aim is to avoid this recession creating a new tranche of long-term unemployed (as happened in the 1980s), then softening the distinction between the employed and unemployed is vital. In social media, we've already seen considerable softening of the line between producer and consumer in all kinds of areas, and there must be lessons to draw from this in how we view any large-scale initiative.

As I see it, such a softening would involve not only the kind of online tools and spaces suggested above, but the spread of real world spaces which reflect the collaborative values of social media. Examples of such spaces already exist:

Again, if these spaces are to work, access to them should be open, not restricted to the unemployed. (If, as some are predicting, we see the return of the three day week, the value of spaces like this open to all becomes even more obvious!) In order for this to work, such spaces would need to be organised with the understanding that hanging out can be as valuable as more visibly productive activities - both because of the resilience that comes from building social connections, and because of the potential for information sharing and the sparking of new projects. There would also be a need for incubator spaces for projects that emerge from these spaces and are ready to move to the next level.

What next?

These are some ideas that have come out of conversations with Vinay, Colin, Kalam, David, Mamading, Mike, Josef and others over the last couple of weeks. I'm keen to broaden those conversations, because I'm sure we can build on and better these ideas. I'm also keen to get some action going on - so a group of us are getting together at the School of Everything offices in Bethnal Green tomorrow night (Thursday 29th) to work on a first version of a site. Get in touch if you'd like to contribute!

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This blog was my online home between 2006 and 2009. Today, you'll find me scattered across the internet. To start looking, go to my personal website: http://dougald.co.uk/

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