The paradox of creativity: Looking ahead it seems impossible. Looking back, it seems inevitable.

(from The Fellows Forum)

The paradox of creativity: Looking ahead it seems impossible. Looking back, it seems inevitable.

As a recent Fellow based outside the UK I was attracted to the RSA by its values and its vision to become a global fellowship. I have yet to unearth the strategy or timeline to implement this vision. The plans for the Coffee House do nothing to confirm this vision, but rather suggest it is only a vague well-intended aspiration.

Whilst I fully support the re-development I am concerned that the opportunity is being lost to take a major step towards fulfilling the vision of a global RSA through the incorporation of digital technologies to enable Fellows to connect, engage and collaborate, regardless of location, time of day or day of the week. There is a danger the CH will only benefit the c. one-third of Fellows that live in London and the South East and do little to attract, retain or engage those Fellows unable or unwilling to take advantage of its location and limited opening hours.

Existing digital platforms are broadcast in nature and largely inadequate for collaboration. Their presence in the CH will have little impact. Designing the space without new collaborative technology sends a message to global and regional Fellows that we will continue to be second-class Fellows and that the RSA only functions in London and during UK office hours. There is no vision or strategy to say otherwise.

I fear that the reasons given for not incorporating new digital platforms at this stage reflect a deep misunderstanding of digital technologies, as well as the essential role they play in engaging and achieving the goals of the Fellowship in the 21C. Digital technologies (unlike buildings) are ephemeral and a permanent experiment – there is no ‘long term’. It is entirely reasonable to expect any technologies chosen today will quickly fade, will fail to meet our ever-changing and increasing demands and better technologies will emerge. But even with these constraints, digital technologies are the foundations of an engaged and global Fellowship in the 21 C, 365 days a year, 24/24 and 7/7. A 21C CH that is not digitally globally accessible is no more than a revenue-earning flagship store for the RSA brand, valuable but not visionary or compelling.

My messages are these:

  1. If we have the vision to be a global Fellowship then let’s start acting on it with the CH, otherwise, let’s stop talking about it. We all pay the same fees, we are all equal and we all deserve access to the RSA resources, in-person or digitally. Increasing the RSA’s physical assets whilst not ensuring a digital equivalent is (unintentionally I’m sure) discriminatory and increases the gap between those in London and the South East and the rest of us, including those without the means, time or physical abilities to take advantage of the investment.
  2. Let’s stop using past IT ‘failures’ as a reason to do nothing, saying it’s too hard or expensive (it is and will always be). Doing nothing is not a neutral decision as presented but takes us back because the world continues to move forward without us, we fall further behind. Technology is a challenge we need to master if we are to become relevant in the 21C, our future depends on it.
  3. We have a golden opportunity to develop a 21 Century Virtual Coffee House – a parallel digital platform that will support all our growing global Fellowship in new and exciting ways and make it an unrivalled and easily accessible asset for the RSA, its research and staff. This is not an alternative to the Coffee House, it is a creative extension of the Coffee House, available globally and welcoming to all Fellows regardless of location, personal commitments & working hours, financial means or ability to travel.

Joining up hubs, clusters, networks and individuals for a networked Fellowship

There’s a lively discussion in the Fellows Forum (login required) about the 21st Century Coffee House, and the idea of a Virtual Coffee House. I posted there (some editing):

Thanks Philip for setting up and referencing my post where I explain how the “virtual coffee house” metaphor emerged as one way of thinking about the online extension of the physical coffee house.

However, I would emphasise it is just a metaphor, and one that could be limiting. One might be tempted to say “haven’t we got a virtual coffee house in this Fellows Forum … a place to connect, chat and develop ideas and projects?”

To some extent… but we need something that embraces the formulation by others here:

… it is a great opportunity to move to a networked & distributed model where each Fellow is (by definition) a local hub with their own profile, assets and connections, both within the RSA and externally.

There’s some similarities, for me, between this discussion and one in progress on support for London civil society.

There London Funders and large organisations are supporting the idea of a central resource hub as The Way Ahead. Useful – but it is not enough. I and others have argued for a more networked system, and community groups have formed a consortium to achieve that – called Our Way Ahead. As another contributor on the Forum says about challenges to the current Coffee House proposals:

It makes me think of the old phrase “the peasants are revolting”!

I’ve used this diagram a lot – redrawn as you’ll see in the post from one developed in the early days of the Internet.

We do need forums and hubs – but we also need to become hubs, and join those up.

Fortunately we (the peasants?) have a great start. This forum, and some emerging ideas for a public hub show that Fellows can create their own systems – as did the pioneers of the original Virtual Coffee House in 2007-08.

I suspect that the natural tendency of a hierarchical organisation like the RSA will be to go for a centralised solution, or say join up existing networks. The first two diagrams above. Our challenge is to demonstrate how a different architecture could work. Thanks to another contributor for referencing work Drew Mackie and I have done, and suggesting how to combine a central hub and distributed approach

It is not a great stretch of the imagination to visualise a display wall where this map is permanently displayed, constantly updated and the visual gateway to the Fellowship and our ideas, projects, interests and availability (and many other things) both in the coffeehouse and on line. For a prototype of what such a system and interface could look like and reveal see David Wilcox’s post here (login required)

(The post describes mapping of the connections between Fellows in the Forum)

The initial mapping work was supported by the Fellowship Council, so I hope we’ll have allies there in extending the approach. The current mapping perspective is around connections between Fellows, but it could equally well show projects, ideas and existing assts in the RSA ecosystem.

That was my original post on the topic. The real insight then came from a further contribution:

I think in practice the above 3 models are layers and each will continue to exist within the RSA. The Hub is central RSA projects, the Networks are Network Leads (theme, region etc) and the third individual Fellows. The end game is to have all 3 openly layers visible and easily accessible online (and off) and to see the interconnections between the layers so all stakeholders can be equally informed and participate at will, regardless of location!

I’ve vaguely had that in mind in the past, but seen things as a bit too much either/or. The fresh insight of thinking about layer sharpens up the challenge:

How to enable developments within adds between each layer – hub, network clusters, and individual networks. One approach is to try and create a platform that covers all aspects, and that was the vision for RSA networks back in 2007. However, as I’ve documented here, that and subsequent efforts by RSA have not been successful.

On reflection, hardly surprising.

These days we have more technology, but that’s perhaps made things more difficult, not easier. Everyone has their own preferences – whether email, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin or other tools. It is really difficult to get people to join yet another system that provides networked functionality.

The Fellows Forum has succeeded in attracting hundreds of Fellows to a discussion space, and there’s an emerging aim for low thousands. It is already a huge achievement for volunteers, led by Judy Rees. However, it is a closed system, so can’t do the joining up. For that reason another group of Fellows within the Forum is developing a hub to provide some linkages – and this could be a big help.

Even so, a networked Fellowship won’t really take off unless Fellows develop their personal capacities to link with each other – and with hubs and clusters – using a mix of methods.

In order to support that I suggest that we draw on the thinking of Harold Jarche, which you will find here, together with an interview with Harold that I posted here.

Harold’s model deserves another post, but briefly he suggests that to live and work successfully in the networked age, we all have to take responsibility for mastering personal knowledge management, and working across different zones of task or project groups, communities of interest and social networks – a triple operating system.


Harold Marche Triple Operating System

On this model, the Fellowship could be a learning and doing network, or network of networks and people.  The challenge then is not digital engagement of Fellows (how can we help Fellows join in a central system) but digital and network enabling (how can we help Fellows join up, for different purposes).

That’s only worth doing if there’s particular value in being a Fellow, and joining up with other Fellows. So, at root, it isn’t really about the tech, it is about the Fellowship offer from the RSA, and to each other.





Here’s how we can promote the Virtual Coffee House to RSA – and make it happen

As Philip Finlay Bryan writes in An Idea Reborn, the proposal emerging on this blog for a Virtual Coffee House (VCH) was prompted by two things: firstly plans for £3.7 million physical space in the RSA’s House to be called a 21st century Enlightenment coffee house, and secondly by memories of the original VCH.

Here’s more on how the idea developed – and how we might fill it out.

When Judy Rees posted on the Fellows Forum a copy of  Matthew Taylor’s letter to all RSA Fellows, announcing the coffee house,  I – and a few others who commented – thought “that’s a great idea … but how can it be “an engine room for a global network” when there’s no plans to create an online network?”

Fine for London Fellows and visitors, but what about the other 20,000 or so Fellows?

The FAQ says:

What technology will be available in the new coffeehouse?
For the time being, our project is concentrating on opening the maximum amount of space available at levels -1 and -2 of the building. Lessons from previous building works tell us that it is better to see how a space is used before investing heavily in technology that may not prove useful in the long term. Our current communications channels and social media presence will continue to connect to our global audience and we will seek to make the most of this ever increasing reach.

The problem with the RSA’s current communication channels are that they are mainly in broadcast mode – sending out news and information from HQ.  This has been a matter of some contention for the past 10 years, during which time the RSA has had four attempts at creating online global networks. I’ve documented the history here.

An important part of that history was the creation back in 2007-08 of a Virtual Coffee House, when a group of Fellows in the north used the Ning platform and other tools “where Fellows and friends everywhere can meet, debate and catalyse change”. That pioneering effort led to another dozen or so similar systems being established around the UK: history here.

The original site has gone, but the Internet archive gives us some idea of what it looked like, albeit without the images.

Last year a rather acrimonious discussion started up again on Linkedin about the lack of online networking, but this time – as Judy Rees explains in a blog on the RSA site – she and other Fellows decided to take action themselves, and created the RSA Fellows Forum. There is also the framework for a Hub to support wider networking, a public facing blog, and discussion on the Forum of ways to better support Fellows projects. Taken together they offer, or will offer:

  • A database of Fellows on the Forum and searchable map of their connections
  • Some 4000 posts in the forum topics
  • An independent blog for Fellows
  • Link to other RSA content
  • Curation of social media
  • A wiki to post project ideas
  • An event calendar
  • Promotion and hosting of video conferences using the Zoom system

This seems to me a modest demonstration of what might be needed in a Virtual Coffee House to complement the physical space.  As Philip reports in his post, the Forum facilitators group discussed that recently, and initially concluded that we might promote the Fellows Forum, Hub and project Accelerator as just that.

However, the Forum and Hub is developed and maintained solely by volunteers, and on reflection promoting the VCH as well could be too much of a stretch.

In creating this blog, Philip has given us a space for discussion of ways to encourage official RSA to take on board the idea of a VCH.

My suggestion is that we create a VCH ideas platform to complement the physical CH ideas platform that will be launched shortly. OpenRSA did just that back in 2009 when were promoting ideas for early RSA networking initiatives.

We could post the existing features of the Fellows Forum and Hub as starter ideas, and invite more. Hopefully the RSA would create a VCH space on their platform and we could transfer ideas there … or if not use the exercise as a way to gain more support for the Fellows Forum and Hub.

Here is Matthew Taylor’s letter to Fellows. Details of the Coffee House the RSA site here.

“In 2018 the RSA will be creating a new space dedicated to realising our mission – a 21st century Enlightenment coffeehouse.

The Enlightenment coffeehouse aims to foster the kind of thinking and collaborative action needed to address the challenges of the 21st century, and the overall concept pays tribute to the eighteenth century founders of the RSA and to the pioneering spirit that inspired them.

This is an ambitious project that will open up parts of RSA House to the outside world for the very first time, and our aim is to make a significant contribution to the RSA mission. We want the coffeehouse to become the engine room for our global network – the kind of place where great ideas are born and shared around the world, and where new communities are built to tackle the social challenges of our time.

Over the last 240 years Fellows have played a significant role in the development of the House. For this next chapter we are encouraging proposals from Fellows about how the coffeehouse could help to deliver the RSA’s mission: 21st century Enlightenment: enriching society through ideas and action. I would like to ask you to pay some consideration to this question and help us shape the coffeehouse by submitting a proposal to our ideas platform when it launches in the coming weeks. The Fellowship will be able to vote for the ideas they think the RSA should take forward.

We anticipate building work to commence in January with the coffeehouse launching in July 2018. Full details about the project, including detailed plans, information about who we are working with, and the project costs, can be found on our website here.

This is an exciting development in the story of the RSA, and I very much hope that the Fellows of the future will look back at the creation of the 21st century Enlightenment coffeehouse as a pivotal moment in the RSA’s history.

As ever, thank you for your continued support.

With warm wishes,
Matthew Taylor “



The Coffeehouse Mission

An engine room for a global community

The coffeehouse will be a place where individuals become part of a greater movement for social change. It will be a natural home for anyone who wants to change the world, enabling people to connect, share knowledge, collaborate, and build new communities to tackle the social challenges of our time. Through the RSA’s existing digital platforms the coffeehouse will be plugged into our 28,000 strong Fellowship, making it the engine room for a global network committed to a 21st century Enlightenment.


I guess the term I would query is ” existing digital platforms” and how will the 28,000 strong fellowship be “plugged in”;  better yet how will it be displayed? (see Ideas for Matt)

Sounds like the RSA needs a forum…. 🙂