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 “



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