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.





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…. 🙂