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 virtualcoffeehouse.org 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.
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.
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.