The 2007 Virtual Coffee House vision. Do we have the energy to create one for 2017?

As I explained here, the idea of an RSA Virtual Coffee House – to complement the new £3.7 million ‘real’ Coffee House planned at RSA HQ – was prompted by an original VCH idea and demonstration created by six RSA Fellows in the North East in 2007.

The original VCH vision document was developed by Peter Churchill, and former RSA trustee Don Pinchbeck has provided a commentary on its creation. With their permission, I’ve posted both papers on the OpenRSA wiki , alongside the story of other RSA attempts to create online systems for Fellows.

However, I think it is worth publishing Peter’s vision here too, for ease of reference and commenting.

What strikes me, re-reading the paper after recent discussion, is the way that the vision blends together the different layers of connectivity needed and discussed here: the central RSA hub, the various local and thematic networks, and the role of the individual as a sharing knowledge hub.

You can read Don Pinchbeck’s history here about the development of a first VCH using the Ning system, and how it prompted establishment of a dozen or so similar systems around the RSA, subsequently closed.

Do we have the energy to refresh Peter’s vision for 2017 … or propose that as Fellows we work together with RSA staff to create something that will really fulfil the vision for the 21st Century Enlightenment Coffee House as “an engine room for a global network”.

There’s discussion in the Fellows Forum (login required) and an ideas space on this blog.


Peter Churchill September 9 2007

This paper briefly sets out the background and intent behind the Virtual Coffee House initiative.

At the outset our group wondered whether the RSA North East was too geographically widespread and its fellows too busy doing other things to be effective as a force for change. Over a period of some months we looked into whether the internet offered some possibilities for making us all better connected as a community.

Ideally such a “virtual” community would share some of the characteristics of real world communities, offering such experiences as:

  • Bumping into to friends and acquaintances in the street
  • Dropping into the local café/pub/community centre/university union
  • Going to meet people in the privacy of their homes/workplaces
  • Going to parties, for no reason except to see what happens
  • Participating in community events as an organiser/presenter/observer
  • Being introduced to new people at any of the above
  • Finding out about other communities through any of the above
  • Becoming involved in those other communities, which then overlap and might interact
  • Reading/watching/listening to what is going on in the world around
  • Sharing knowledge and experience of events
  • Helping, and being helped by, those you interact with

The following description of a “visit” illustrates how a virtual place (the Virtual Coffee House) might be designed to satisfy some of these together in an integrated and potentially exponentially effective way.

All of the features described are already in use on the internet (including one or two on the RSA web site) but, as far as this group knows, no-one has put together something quite like this, which:

  • Is recognisable as an extension of our normal experience
  • Amounts to more than the sum of its parts
  • Is not purely recreational or commercial
  • Can be used by many disparate groups
  • And can really help to underpin our daily lives.

A Visit to the Virtual Coffee House

I am sitting at my computer. I click onto “The Virtual Coffee House” web site link. It is half an hour before the monthly Education Club Night I am going to.

The home page loads with the message “welcome to the Virtual Coffee House”.

I can see who is around, and what they are doing. I see a couple of new names and click on them to see the details they have chosen to share: their interests and skills, who they know, which groups and projects they are involved in, their reputation in each area they subscribe to, and how they feel about being approached on various subjects.

I see one called Paddy is involved in some of the areas that interest me, and will be at an interactive lecture I hope to see next week, so I make a diary note to contact her in a couple of weeks unless we become acquainted during the discussion.

A new contact of mine called Don is there. Last week I had a message from him asking if I would be willing to have an online chat with him about his project, having seen my posting in the Help Offered area. I have discovered he knows several of my other contacts, has a good reputation, and might have the skills to help with my own current project. I click on his instant message icon, exchange a couple of brief hellos and then go straight into a video call.

He is quite new to the VCH and doesn’t know about (a bookmarking service). As it will be a great tool for his project I take over his desktop and guide him through it using the VCH’s own, adding a couple of new links myself while I am at it. I take the opportunity to record the session and post it on the VCH Videopedia for others to refer to in future. I intend to use it as part of a video conference I have organised for a group around the country in a couple of weeks.

At the end we arrange to meet at the VCH a little later.

I then go to the Projects Labs section: this is a window into all of the projects being undertaken through the VCH. I browse the categories and find a new project in the “sustainability” category that looks interesting: I decide to subscribe as an observer and get daily alerts as it has already attracted some reputable contributors: if it proves of real interest to me I may apply to become a participant. I see there is a live discussion going on and take a quick look: there is no-one I know there so I carry on.

I go back to the main Project Labs list and find the “society” category I have subscribed to. I had my weekly alert about new postings last night and go straight to the project I set up: I respond to a couple of comments on the discussion forum, review some changes to the documents we are working on, and add a link to the programme I have drawn up. I also edit a comment I made last night.

Next week there is an on-line project meeting so everyone needs to have seen it in advance. I then go back to the home page.

Club Night

On the home page is a window displaying formal and impromptu events in and around the VCH community: preplanned events are listed in the calendar (including tonight’s, for which I received an automatic reminder this morning); events currently happening are shown on a scrolling display that links to each event discussion and resources.

Some events are open to all comers, some require “joining”, some (such as project meetings) are private to invited participants only.

Some I can simply observe, some you can interact with. At the click of a mouse I can join in, register interest, or post an event of my own.

In 20 minutes time two events I am interested in will start. One is 300 miles away in London: I can listen in to it live, or come back later and hear it whenever suits me.

The other event is part of the Education club night. I am going to that one because I want to take part in the discussion afterwards. There will be speakers in Cape Town, Boston and Dubai.

The Café

I click on the Café icon. Inside the Club Night participants are gathering in one corner with, as usual, a number of other tables of people around the café doing other things (a mix of text chats and voice/video discussions), and a number of people including Justin who I know wondering around seeing what is going on. I approach him and we exchange a few words. We then move to a table where Philip, another of my acquaintances, is in an interesting discussion. I decide to leave them there and catch up on it later, and move over to the Club Night area. I exchange a few words with a number of people before I receive a five minute alert about the event.


I have a quick look in the library to check the VCH video I made earlier has arrived and is working. I also see a new file on networking and bookmark it for a later look.

The function rooms

The event is being held in one of a number of bookable areas. I click on the event link and a window opens displaying the dozen or so participants, a text chat, and a presentation screen where I can see Claire who is chairing the event. She then welcomes each of us by name and location, and the presentations begin. At the end a number of questions are raised and responded to. I briefly return to the main club night area, leaving the last few participants starting a video chat: something else to catch up on later.


The RSA Regional video conference event on 23rd March 2007 showcased some of the tools and web sites that inspired and informed this Virtual Coffee House idea. Since then Matthew Taylor has set out an agenda for change that seems perfectly aligned to the aim of the VCH group. ([more here](rsanhistory) on Matthew Taylor’s vision and developments that followed)

The next stage will be one of two options:

  • To add the is idea to the RSA’s deliberations about how to use Web2 with a view to this or something similar being developed by them
  • To develop it as far as we can as a self-funded NE Region project.

In an ideal world the project would benefit from leading edge design and development skills to produce an exemplar tool that could be deployed by other legitimate and worthy organisations.

The Virtual Coffee House Team.

  • Claire Maxwell
  • Paddy Deans
  • Don Pinchbeck
  • Justin Souter
  • Philip Aranzulla
  • Peter Churchill

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 “