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.

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

Stop Press! 21st century enlightenment coffeehouse: online Q&A.

The RSA House, the beloved home of the Fellowship, will be undergoing some radical changes to transform levels -1 and -2 into a 21st century enlightenment coffeehouse. This landmark project will provide much needed space to support the RSA in its continuing mission, to enrich society through ideas and actions.

This is the project’s first public event. The Director of Fellowship and project leader, Oliver Reichardt, will be discussing the plans and taking questions from attendees. The Q&A format is an excellent opportunity to get your voice heard and offer much welcome comments and questions. Fellowship Councillor, Rod Hyde will be hosting. The process that has led us to developing the House was sparked by Fellows’ feedback and we want to ensure that Fellows are engaged and involved at every step of the project…..

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…. 🙂

An Idea Reborn

This site came about in response to Matthew Taylor’s letter to fellows of the RSA (bold mine) :

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 coffee house 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

(bold mine)

Our chat during the zoom meeting was as follows:

Chat transcript follows:
10:06:48 From David Wilcox : I suggest we form a Virtual Coffee House group to work with Rod – and research as Brendan suggests
10:07:30 From Philip Finlay Bryan : yes
10:07:52 From David Wilcox : if we are serious about a global digital collaboration space it would require the same degree of planning as the physical space
10:10:34 From David Wilcox : or do we call on MT and staff to create a team, if we don’t have the capacity
10:11:45 From Brendan Dunphy : Agreed re a VCH group and happy to participate
10:12:13 From David Wilcox : thanks Brendan – I think you have more experience here
10:12:24 From Brendan Dunphy : Your point about resources is key – £3.7m vs £0 – which will deliver the greates value and ROI?
10:13:29 From Brendan Dunphy : I think allocating 10% of the £3.7m to the VCH is not an unreasonable request in the 21st century, the era of digital?
10:13:34 From Judy Rees : its felt in Brentford too!
10:14:08 From David Wilcox : Agreed Brendan – push for resources first? Can’t be done by volunteers
10:15:38 From David Wilcox : how about using the hub blog to advocate VCH (or whatever we call it)
10:17:04 From Philip Finlay Bryan : i have registered there to be used BTW The calendar on the hub is great
10:17:23 From David Wilcox : partly advocate, partly do some small scale demo of Forum plus hub plus accelerator?
10:17:44 From Brendan Dunphy : I think we need to re-educate MT, Ollie and the CH team and make a bid for 10% of the budget!
10:18:35 From David Wilcox : I like the idea of re-education … help them understand the potential. And gather support from other Fellows
10:19:24 From David Wilcox : Thanks Philip – so do we have a VCH blog?
10:20:06 From Philip Finlay Bryan : it just redirects to the forum atm but sure can be a blo
10:20:18 From Philip Finlay Bryan : blog
10:22:37 From David Wilcox : Do we have agreement that we form a VCH group, and the group aims to advocate, educate and demonstrate the potential of a VCH? And have a VCH blog to do that?
10:22:56 From Philip Finlay Bryan : sounds good
10:24:21 From David Wilcox : so far I think we have Brendan, me and Philip, working with Rod. Anyone else?
10:24:34 From Judy Rees : me please
10:25:00 From David Wilcox : great
10:25:32 From Chris : i’m happy to be involved
10:26:23 From David Wilcox : thanks Chris … and I would say I’m not aiming to take the lead here. Something for the group to decide.
10:27:23 From Philip Finlay Bryan : i would like to go public with the hub open it to all on the forum
10:30:40 From David Wilcox : Checking – Do we have agreement that we form a VCH group, and the group aims to advocate, educate and demonstrate the potential of a VCH? And have a VCH blog to do that?
10:30:53 From Philip Finlay Bryan : yes
10:34:45 From David Wilcox : I’ll have to go soon …
10:35:41 From David Wilcox : any chance of a summary of where we are?

David added from the Forum which is worth a read : Virtual Coffee House – Vision – Version 4.pdf(76.4 KB)