Here’s a radical option for a London civil society Hub - build a network of people and projects

David Wilcox and Drew Mackie**

Update

This note as drafted May 8 2017, but not published until The Way Ahead conference in June, when I blogged: Here's hoping #TheWayAhead plans for a London resource hub become more networky

The latest development is an event planned for July 12: How #TheWayAhead for @LondonFunders is becoming #OurWayAhead for Londoners

Summary

The Way Ahead initiative to reframe support for some 120,000 London voluntary organisations, social enterprises and community groups will next month reveal plans including ideas for a London resource hub. (Update: event report Voices from the Tower may change tone of #TheWayAhead for civil society, as well as much else)

Five working groups have detailed plans for the future - but so far there has been no systematic engagement with citizens and community groups, no local piloting, and no significant attention to the role of the Internet in the hub.

That means any design for the hub may not fully reflect local needs, make best use of London’s assets, or reflect the way that Londoners access and use information.

This note suggests an approach that offers ideas from the Networked City exploration, and aims to make the most of the thousands of initiatives already supporting social action. We need a network to realise London’s assets, not a hub, so:

  • Focus on the idea of Connecting Londoners.
  • Explore with London Futurists how London is likely to change over the next ten years, and how people will be connecting
  • Pilot locally a range of methods, online and off, to make connections, starting with some simulation workshops.
  • Map the key people, projects and networks across London that can help with connecting.
  • Prototype communication systems that will connect London-wide networks, and help support local initiatives

As a start, set up a Connecting Londoners online forum and other tools for a learning and development network to take these ideas forward

Looking ahead

How will Londoners, in 10 years time, find out where to get help for themselves or their families in times of need; find local activities that interest them; share or sell items or services; find opportunities to volunteer; campaign for or against change in their community … and organise projects? How will they connect, communicate, cooperate, collaborate?

That’s the challenge facing London Funders and their partners in developing a vision for  The Way Ahead for London civil society at a major event on June 22 - which I reported here.

Hopefully in ten years time there may still be advice agencies, centres, charities and community groups with helpful staff or volunteers … as well as neighbours, health and social workers and other connectors to offer a friendly human face.

However, two things seem fairly certain. Firstly that there will be less public and charitable funding to support services. Secondly that use of the Internet will have grown, by organisations, groups or individuals. Whether information is transmitted by voice, print or online device it will be stored and accessed digitally.

That doesn’t mean that everyone will have to use the Internet - provided they can find other ways to make the connections that are important to them. It does mean that the architecture of communication will continue to change, just as it has with the introduction of print, the telegraph, telephone, radio, TV … and the Internet. Earlier means of communication were centralised, one-to-many broadcast, then one-to-one and one-to-group. The Internet is all that, plus many-to-many. Anyone online can connect with anyone else provided, of course, they have the online connection, devices and skills necessary.

If we want to know something we’ll probably Google it rather than going to the library or a directory of local services. If we want an update on the local groups we belong to we may check in to their Facebook group or their website. If we want to share information or organise some action securely with a select group of people we may use WhatsApp.  There are thousands more options for personal use, business, shopping, entertainment. Magically they synchronise across our phones, tablets and computers. They aren’t just stand-alone digital tools, they are platforms.

We should also think about a future where connecting for social support and action will depend even more than today on network platforms that support these different ways of connecting, communicating, cooperating, collaborating.  They may not be the current versions of  Facebook, Amazon, Google etc. Things change fast. We may decide that the deal of free use of commercial platforms in exchange for giving up lots of personal data, so the Internet giants can target ads, is not acceptable. It may even be that citizens will have developed their own platform coops.

London as a Networked City

Either way, as we have argued since our Networked City launch event, we should think about London as a Networked City.  It is gratifying the RSA agrees with that idea. As I wrote here:

Later this month[a] RSA is running a public event on Cities 3.0 with the line 'We've had 'Sharing Cities' and 'Smart Cities' - what's next for the evolution of the city?' Their answer: Networked Cities. (Update: RSA Networked Cities aim to make tech serve citizens - let's co-design with people and communities #RSACities)

The Way Ahead initiative is important because it will - or should - influence the way that London funders invest in charities, voluntary organisations, community groups and the systems that support them and London citizens.

The Way Ahead initiative has five groups looking at the various way that community and voluntary sector organisations operate at present … and also a system change group looking at the architecture needed in future.

The key issue of architecture is how to deal with this recommendation in the original Way Ahead report:

A London Hub, working with specialist support, should develop standardized resources where possible, which can be customized and delivered locally. The London Hub could be made up of a network of organisations or be a formally constituted body.

On the face of it, the Hub idea seems sensible: avoid duplication, and build on what is there already. However, the challenge lies in developing a Hub - or something - that meets the other key recommendation in The Way Ahead, that any new developments should empower citizens and communities through what is termed Pragmatic Co-production: 

“Co-production is where Londoners work with those in power, and each other, in a way in which all voices are heard equally in developing a shared understanding of need and in crafting solutions to make London a better place.”

The strategic challenge for The Way Ahead is to marry the vision of empowered citizens and communities with detailed recommendations from their working groups … and also carry that forward with support from the Hub - or something.

Hub or network platform

Will the Hub be hub-and-spokes; or a way to connect existing networks and clusters; or a way to enable the thousands of organisations, groups and individuals engaged in social action to support and learn from each other. Will it reflect the communication architecture of yesterday, or tomorrow?

Will the proposal be “join us … subscribe to our mailing list” or “let’s join up existing organisations and networks” or “join in - let’s co-operate , collaborate and co-produce”.

There may be pressure to go for the “join us” model from large organisations who might find it easiest to deal with one central route into London’s civil society, or from existing London-wide organisations who see it as a way to ensure their survival. The “join up” model might appeal to those favouring a federated approach building on local CVSs (although I don’t know what their consultant has recommended).

Steve Wyler remarks in his report to LVSC on a hub:

There is some feeling that to date the Way Ahead report has been designed and promoted by a relatively small alliance of London-wide agencies, and has not engaged in depth with front-line experience and debates within London’s civil society – in other words, it has not been co- produced with Londoners and London civil society organisations in a meaningful way.

Instead of this top-down approach, what’s needed is “join in”, with a range of activities to build on and support the multitude of projects and social action operating at local level. There will be roles for London-wide and borough level organisations, but they should be enablers.

A top-down model will concentrate resources and influence in a few organisations, and give big agencies the easy option of dealing with the “representatives” of civil society rather than engaging more widely.

I think that a more radical and appropriate way ahead could be achieved by combining the key idea of Connecting Londoners, from Steve Wyler’s report to LVSC, with the work we have been doing with LVSC on Networked City.

Here’s Steve’s proposal, which I blogged:

London needs a new organisation called Connecting Londoners, says a report on how to support action for social good - whether that's undertaken by charities, agencies, public bodies, companies, local groups or citizens.

Connecting Citizens would have four main functions: improving the system of support, gathering ‘real-time’ intelligence about London’s community life, promoting positive change, unleashing the resources of civil society – in all cases working with and through other agencies at local, borough, and London-wide levels.

The risk of central Hub or consortium

At the moment - as far as I know - there is no substantial discussion among The Way Ahead teams about:

  • How to engage community groups and citizens in designing the support systems for the future.
  • How to help them and everyone else involved think in detail about what London may be like in 10 years. Steve Wyler has sketched out two scenarios in his report but they are not developed.
  • How to develop support systems fit for the digital, networked age

Here’s a provocation:

The risk is that the Hub will be designed on a business-as-usual model that reflects a political compromise between the existing organisations struggling to maintain their existence in the face of funding cuts. There will be a new organisation, or consortium, with representatives from existing ones that will develop its own mailing lists, newsletters, web site, events, training courses, publications. It will be a mix of “join us” and “join up” .

This  centralised or consortium hub will get some start up funding - but it will probably have to generate more by fund raising and developing services in competition with existing organisations. People won’t share their knowledge because they are in competition.

Maybe I’m completely wrong, and radical options are under discussion. Since nothing beyond Steve’s report has yet been published, we just don’t know.

A decentralised asset-based, networked approach

Instead why not follow the community development, co-production approach advocated in The Way Ahead report ...

  • communities identifying for themselves, with support if needed, what their needs are
  • funders, the public sector and civil society’s understanding of need being based on what communities identify for themselves
  • communities being enabled to change their own lives for the better
  • communities shaping solutions and responses to opportunities
  • communities shaping services delivered by others, whether these be public sector or civil society services
  • communities advocating and campaigning on their own behalf, with support if needed

 

… and apply that at London level?

The local community-level approach favours volunteers and practitioners - variously called community builders, connectors or organisers - finding out who is doing what in a borough or neighbourhood, mapping activities, skills and other resources, making introductions and generally building on what is there. Then it is possible to see what’s missing.

Here’s what might be involved in doing that at London level, building on some of the work we’ve been doing in during the Networked City exploration:

Overall approach

  • Help people understand what is going on. Follow through the communication proposals that were made at the public TWA event in November 2016.
  • Focus on the idea of Connecting Londoners, highlighted in a report to LVSC. Connecting is needed to help reduce isolation, promote integration, engage people in the development of local services, signpost local opportunities, encourage volunteering, enable self-organising for social action, develop greater co-operation between groups and organisations. Let’s make the most of Internet tools together with the best of face to face and other methods. Connect geeks and community builders.
  • Use a mix of mapping - both Justmap geographic and social network mapping as described by Drew Mackie to identify activists, projects, groups, organisations that can contribute - and benefit.
  • Support simple yet powerful systems for local communication, like interests.me, that give local groups a voice and ways to organise
  • Promote systems for connecting people with local services, like Community Connect in Barking and Dagenham
  • Use games and workshops, like our Living Lab simulation, and Together Tools to help people play through what’s needed.
  • Gather personal and civic tech solutions with organisations like Superhighways, TechforGood and Netsquared 
  • Build a network of people are connectors - who want to learn about connecting - to develop more ideas, and learn from each other.

Here’s how to apply that approach.

Connecting Londoners locally

Start locally. The originally Way Ahead project plan included some local pilots, but those never happened. Here’s another option.

Explore in more detail the local scenarios outlined in Steve Wyler’s report and what is involved in connecting at local level, both now and in the future.

  • Consult with London Futurists to gain a better understanding of the forces shaping London’s economy, society and environment. That will create a context for the scenarios. Here’s a powerful - and scary - vision David Wood presented at an event with Globalnet21.
  • Run workshops using the Living Lab simulation of a fictitious neighbourhood that we have developed as part of Networked City. That will test some scenarios. Here’s a workshop we ran with the Centre for Ageing Better to explore how older people, their friends and family, can use digital technology.
  • Work with activists and organisations in several localities to see how we can in future blend experience of community and organisational development with new approaches like network mapping, digital communications and citizen-led self-organising. That will make it real. 

Connecting Londoners strategically

The challenge in designing a Hub that connects and supports action across London is to understand and build on existing structures, and then add new methods for communication, cooperation and collaboration. To do that:

  • Map existing networks and resources that could form the basis for a distributed Hub
  • Identify gaps in support, drawing on insights from our local work and the recommendations of The Way Ahead groups
  • Prototype communication systems that will connect London-wide networks, and help support local initiatives

I've mentioned just a few examples of the excellent people and projects already working in London to support action for social good. What’s need is a framework and process to mobilise these existing assets …. not a new top-down hub.

How to get started

The approach I’ve outlined above is radically different from The Way Ahead (as far as I know). I hope it is useful to The Way Ahead steering group … and/or may appeal to any other group willing to convene a range of interests and develop a radical approach.

Here’s a contribution from us - David and Drew. We will:

  • Set up an a online forum, and other communication methods, that could prototype a development and learning network for Connecting Londoners. We’ll invite anyone involved so far in Networked City - and The Way Ahead - to join in conversations.
  • Contribute to any workshops on The Way Ahead, Networked City or other initiatives
  • Undertake some network mapping of people on the forum and at events to demonstrate how a networked approach could develop
  • Document insights, ideas, stories and projects in a wiki: Connecting Londoners - Guide for a Networked City. We'll invite members of the network to contribute their ideas and resources.
  • Work with Networked City project leaders to explore options for funding.

** David Wilcox and Drew Mackie worked as consultants with LVSC on the Networked City exploration from January to April 2017.

[a]It looks like this happened in May