Using technology to disrupt centralised decision-making

I am starting to write this hoping it will not turn into a rant. I’ve said this before, many times, and I suspect I will say it again, many more times.

Britain is one of the most centralised countries in the world. Decisions are made in London all the time about issues that affect us all. Many of these decisions are taken in small meetings which involve no one with a perspective from beyond the M25. I myself have been at meetings in the capital where I have been the only attendee not based in London but where it has been assumed that everyone present can speak with experience of the whole country.

It need not be like this any more. We have the tools to change this situation. The London-based decision makers who take the top-level decisions are already open to scrutiny. We can watch their discussions on the BBC Parliament Channel.

The internet allows us to take the Parliament Channel principle into all aspects of decision-making. It’s a straightforward task now to live-stream your meeting, involve remote attendees using tools like Skype and Google+ Hangouts, and engender online discussion using Twitter, Facebook or online fora. It’s not happening anywhere near enough. Why not?

One of the factors, that I’ve observed myself when in London, is those serendipitous meetings, where people just happen to bump into each other, exchange views and start working on a collaborative solution. This happens everywhere, but it happens a lot more in London, where there are more people, and where such collaborations can often get direct access to funders and decision-makers very quickly. How we spread those sorts of benefits is a trickier challenge, but, I am sure technology has a role to play.

So, let’s do it. Let’s use new technologies to break down centralism in decision-making.

Making Futurism Visible

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be live-streaming one of the Bromford Group‘s Future Fifty events in which the housing group is celebrating its fiftieth birthday by organising a series of events which look to the future. This one was a collection of “vignettes” delivered by Digital Futurist Mike Ryan on what the coming decades will mean for Digital Communites, The Digital Home, and Digital Health and Care. I recommend having a look at the talks via my archive of the live stream here, there is tons of thought-provoking stuff in there.

I was prompted to make a point in one of the Question and Answer sessions, based on my observations of the audience. During some of what I thought to be totally reasonable predictions by Mike, I noticed one or two people gasping and others giggling. This brought home to me the real divide in our society between those of us who live every day with the possibilities offered by new technologies and those to whom these things are a peripheral interest. The point I made to Mike is that the widespread ignorance of the potential offered by technological developments leads to very bad decision-making by people who have no idea about the directions new technologies are heading in. I would categorise two really major decisions in this area; UK Broadband strategy and HS2.

Thus, the Government is convinced that 24Mbps is sufficient for anyone’s needs and has based its rural broadband roll out strategy on this assumption. On the other hand, any of us who works with these things on a daily basis knows that our requirements for bandwidth is escalating all the time, and that, within only a few years, most people’s needs will greatly exceed 24Mbps. This means that the current infrastructure being installed with government subsidy will need to be replaced before too long. This is why many of us argue that we should be installing Fibre to the Home, which is capable of being upgraded to very high speeds, rather than the interim technology of Fibre to the Cabinet.

The second bad decision is HS2, with billions of tax payers money being thrown at a solution which is little moved on from how the Victorians wanted to move people around. Not only is HS2 an idea which is out-dated now, it won’t be implemented in full for getting on for 30 years by which time, such technologies as holographic video conferencing and 3D printing will be mainstream. People say that video conferencing has failed to catch on, but holographic video conferencing, in which a 3D image of the person is projected and can move around as if in the room, will create a tipping point as a much richer and more satisfying experience than seeing them on a flat screen.

And people think that 3D printing in a frivolous bit of fun. But, already furniture, buildings, and even body parts, are being produced by 3D printing processes. Once the cost of the machinery comes down to affordable levels, 3D printing will greatly reduce the needs for goods to be transported. They will be printed, or more accurately, manufactured, in the homes or the workplace.

These are just 2 technological advancements which will transform lives and, greatly reduce the need for travel, meaning that long term investments like HS2 make very little sense. But, of course, they will also require us all to have broadband speeds significantly greater than those which the government thinks we will need.

Most people think you are a fantasist if you make predictions like this about technological advancements. But this is because they don’t see the trends which lead to them. They are not public enough. What can be do to make “Futurism” more visible? I think it’s vital that we do.

The Sociable Company

I’ve recently started a very interesting project with some lovely people at Express Telephony. I’m working with them to develop a social media strategy for the business. Express Telephony is run by husband and wife team Martin and Karen Adams, who I first met when they contacted me following #twicket, the live village cricket match we streamed at Easter 2011.

My task is to assist them to raise their social media game, and to embed the skills and practices to maintain progress in the business. Express Telephony is a Universal Communications services provider to businesses. They provide telephony, mainly VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) and internet connectivity to companies over a wide area radiating from their base in Hertfordshire across London and the Home Counties and into East Anglia, but they can operate anywhere really and have a few further flung customers. The business is based on personal service. As Martin Adams says, “… a lot of the time it becomes more about meeting a need than making a profit”. I saw this philosophy in action when I spent a day on the road with Martin visiting customers, and witnessed him solving numerous minor problems with care and attention to detail. I’m convinced that this is a key part of what sets the company apart in an industry dominated by a few big players offering standardised services which seem to be backed up by very inadequate customer services, leaving businesses without connection and communications for days, weeks and sometimes months at a time.

Martin and Karen can report a multitude of examples where customers have left them for a seemingly cheaper, standardised service, but have ended up coming back when they realised how poor that standard service is. In the modern world, businesses cannot afford to be cut off from their communications links, and they want someone to act promptly when there is a problem in this respect. And, of course, one of the key issues that Express Telephony faces is that a key part of its business is dependent on others, i.e. the pipes and wires (mainly wires, of the copper variety) that connect its services to the internet, are owned by others whose standards of customer service and attention to detail are often not in the same league.

This is why I am enjoying working with the business so much. I often say that it is pointless trying to graft a social media presence onto an organisation which is not, in itself, inherently social. Where social media works well in business (or in any other field really) is where it provides an outlet and amplification for social exchanges within the business and with external customers and partners. The way Martin and Karen engage with their customers makes it apparent that they really care about their needs, they want to help other businesses grow, and Express Telephony acts, in many senses, as a business development hub. I aim to help them expand that side of their operations, using social media as a tool for engagement.

This assignment has already been an interesting learning curve for me in that the northern home counties are one of the few areas of the country I have never spent much time in. So, I’ve seen some places which are new to me. I’ve been quite surprised at how rural Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire are. And, in an internet and telephony sense that still means poor connections, in most of those places. I have witnessed at first hand how Martin works miracles with multiple lines and bonded cables to eke every last Megabit out of those old copper lines, and he really is something of a miracle worker in that respect. It is another reason why, when customers turn to another provider, they often get a poorer service as those suppliers are unable to make these adjustments.
I’ll be blogging more about my journey with Express Telephony over the coming weeks. In the meantime, you might want to check them out on Twitter @Express_Tel on Facebook and Linkedin

Here is a presentation Martin Adams from Express Telephony did at a BNI event


Social Media for Social Good

Often when people ask me what I do, I say “Social Media for Social Good”. I do things that are not social media, and I also help companies use social media to sell things, but a key part of my work, comes under that heading. And, as I often get asked to define what I mean, here goes.

Social media for social good is social media being used by public sector bodies, voluntary and community sector organisations, and social entrepreneurs to help make the world a better place.

Why should such organisations use social media?

Answer 1:

Because over time, social media will be the principal communication tools used by everybody. They will replace the telephone, email, marketing shots, press releases and newsletters. It’s happening now, just look around you.

Answer 2:

Because, especially in these austere times, they cannot afford not to. They need to use social media to:

  • steal other people’s good ideas and implement them with their own beneficiaries;
  • be open about their own practice, inviting suggestions for improvement, criticisms, and praise; and
  • crowdsource solutions to problems and opportunities for funding.

Alternative Boat Race?

This is not a political point, I myself went to a fairly elitist university so I might be on difficult ground.

But, it occurred to me that the annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge has the same 2 teams every year, and is something of a celebration of both academic and social elitism.

So, next year (the 2013 Boat Race is scheduled for Saturday 23rd March) can we stage an alternative boat race which is a celebration of diversity, talent and all aspects of a local community?

I’ll live video stream the alternative Boat Race on the web, along with a day of community celebrations. It could be an opportunity to showcase all that is good in a local community, benefiting from some of the publicity generated by that other event on the Thames.

So, I’m looking for a community that wants to celebrate itself on the web, and has access to a stretch of water and some boats, along with some brave souls prepared and able to get in the boats and “race” each other.

Who’s in?

The 21st Century Village Fete


On Sunday (31st July) I was fortunate enough to be part of the Hope and Social Garden Party, having been invited along to help out doing some social media stuff (mainly video) on the day. It was a truly amazing event, best summed up, I think, by Mike Chitty, who described it on Twitter as “perhaps the perfect combination of culture, commerce, community and conviviality“. Mike also suggested that Hope and Social are in the “memories business” rather than the music business.

I am not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the day, others have and will do that, and I’d just miss too much out in any case, because I was busy a lot of the time, and some of it just passed me by. There was too much going on for any one person to take in. And this is my topic. I think. on Sunday, Hope and Social re-invented the Village Fete for the 21st Century, and offered a model many others should follow.


If you are not familiar with Hope and Social, you should check them out, mainly here. They are less a band, more a modern phenomenon, trail-blazing the way for new ways of working in the 21st Century music business, offering their music on a “pay what you can” basis, and pushing back the frontiers of social media interaction with their fans. I worked with some members of the band, mainly guitarist Rich Huxley, last Autumn to put on a Social Media Surgery for Musicians in Leeds, and this was an illustration how they not only want to reach out to their fans and supporters, but help their fellow musicians find new ways of operating in the changed landscape where probably no one is ever again going to make multi-million profits from the sales of music alone. At this point, I should give a special mention to Ben Denison, who organises a lot of stuff the band does, particularly in the social media and event management fields.

Hope and Social go much, much further than most musicians in engaging with their audience. Not only do they use the usual social media channels to interact with the public, but they seek to draw their fanbase into their community so engendering a feeling of one big family, having fun together. Key to this is the organisation of events which enhance their performances and make them a much more interactive experience than standing or sitting and watching them play on stage. So, last year they mounted the Hope and Social Funbus which involved hiring an open-topped bus and taking 70 people from Leeds to Runswick bay on the Yorkshire Coast, playing their music on the way, on the beach, and on the way back. And then, last winter, there was the Hope and Social Snowball which started off touring Leeds pubs singing carols, performing “Living on a Prayer” on the steps of Leeds Town Hall (see video below) and then performing a gig in a magical winter wonderland.

The point about all this is, not only do the band and their supporters have a great time, but, because the audience is having so much fun, they tell their friends, it’s an experience they want to pass on, and, in the age of social media, many of them use the available tools to tell their stories about it. So, blogs, tweets and Facebook posts inevitably spring up, creating a buzz around the event, and inspiring a sense of jealousy in those who were not part of it, which makes them determined to be at the next one.

HSGP3And so, to Sunday’s Garden Party. As well as two different stages, showcasing a range of different bands from midday to after 8pm, Hope and Social had organised so many things for people to do that there was no excuse for boredom at all. There were some of the trendiest and most cutting-edge local food retailers there, along with a bar selling cocktails and local ale. There was a Hula Hoop demonstration,

a delightfully messy Paintball Swingball,

And many more wares on offer

Vodpod videos no longer available.  

What perhaps summed up the spirit of the day for me, more than anything else was when Hope and Social band member Ed Waring led his headphone-clad party from the Silent Disco in the next field into the main stage field to dance through the audience, oblivious to the music of the String Fellows who were playing on the stage at the time.

All-in-all it was a brilliant day, capped off by a barnstorming performance by Hope and Social themselves, which can be heard on this recording by East Leeds FM. The whole event was an assault on all the senses, with something to please just about everyone.


And so, returning to my theme. I think this was a 21st Century Village Fete. I reckon there are very few events that successfully fill the gap between the rock festival-type happening, which mainly appeals to young people and hardened festival-goers, and the village fete /country show-type thing, which is mainly of interest to an older or specialist audience. What Hope and Social created was something that had a very wide appeal, and I reckon a large part of the audience were in the 25 to 50 age range, which probably doesn’t get properly catered for by traditional events. And it was helped by the fact that kids were let in for free.

And that brings me to another point. Costs. This could only happen because people paid to get in. I think it was a bargain at £15 per adult, with kids for free. There are lots of public events these days, often paid for by local authorities, which are free of charge, but often have a declining audience. Hope and Social have proved that relevant, entertaining, events can be done for a reasonable cost. Many of the publicly funded events are under threat now, because of declining budgets. There are lots of entrepreneurs out there who could do what Hope and Social have done, and they could do it by putting on events that people really want to be part of, not what has traditionally always been done.


Hope and Social brought together some amazing talents from far and wide, coupled with amazing food and drink, and other entertainments. But, every community has people who want to, and are able to, perform, every community has people who can make food, and every community is capable of making its own entertainment. Hope and Social have developed the blueprint for the 21st Century Village Fete, I hope more communities, individuals and organisations will take up the challenge to spread the model.

A more or less complete set of my videos from the Garden Party can be viewed here, and my photographs are here.

For more material, which is emerging all the time, search Twitter, Youtube, Flickr and elsewhere for #hsgardenparty

Community Development and “Nudge Theory”

This post is a quick response to a recent post by Mike Chitty, 32 (Tentative) Beliefs About Community Development.

As usual, I agree with 95% of what Mike says. Actually, that’s not usual, nearly all the time I agree with everything Mike says. This time, however, I depart slightly from Mike’s point of view, or at least I think I do.

You see, Mike argues, very persuasively, that community development only works if people are allowed to identify their own self-interests and that what produces collective social progress is when people with similar and compatible self-interests find each other and work together to achieve change (at least this is what I think Mike believes, I hope this very brief summary doesn’t distort it).

I couldn’t agree more with this, but it does beg the question, how do you encourage the process to start? In an ideal world, everybody would understand where their self interest lies and would know how to find others with like minds. But, it is obviously not like this, so how far do you go to encourage it to start, and where is the line between encouragement and corralling people to follow visions that bear no relations to their lives. The latter is where most community development and regeneration has ended up, producing one of two results. Either all the poor people are displaced from an area and are replaced with those with the resources to live in the regenerated landscape, or nothing changes except for a few new shiny buildings and jobs for outsiders.

So, the self-interest approach has to be better. But, what about the argument that poor communities are a drag on the resources of the taxpayer, and that it is therefore in all of our interests to “nudge” them towards regeneration. Can we get this right?


Explaining the Big Society

People are still saying they don’t understand what the Big Society is about, despite attempts to explain it from the likes of David Cameron, in his conference speech yesterday, and Lord Nat Wei in his blog. Julian Dobson has been raising the level of debate, and there has been some high quality to and fro on the Big Society in the North Forum.

Still people are saying they don’t understand it. I really don’t think the mainstream media are helping on this. I was struck by this quote from an article in the “Evening Standard”:

….ours is a nation that pokes fun at those who do try to make a difference. From Dad’s Army to Citizen Smith to the Vicar of Dibley, we mock those who attempt things for the common good.—

There was also an item on “Newsnight” a few months ago which just set out to ridicule the whole thing.

So, I’ve had an idea. “The Apprentice” has just returned to our TV screens, with teams of obnoxious, self-obsessed, self-promoters, scratching each other’s eyes out in an effort to avoid the fatal finger of the blessed Lord Sugar. Why not adapt this format, so we have teams of people wanting to do good for their communities competing to implement the best (Big Society) community initiatives? And, to make it more effective, I think the activities of each weekly programme should take place in the same community, so it is possible to measure the impact of the actions, and demonstrate how one community can grow a series of projects which engage local people and grow community capacity.

I am not sure if the “you’re fired” element would be appropriate in this variant of the format. But, then again, perhaps it would. If you’re not effectively doing good for the community, then you’re out. Step aside and leave it to those who CAN do it.

The main benefit of this is that other communities would be able to see the Big Society in action and transfer the lessons to their own neighbourhoods.

Any TV producers up for this?

Leeds 2030 Vision and the Big Society

Last night I attended a workshop on the “Vision for Leeds in 2030”. I’m sure we’ve all been to things like this, lots of men in suits sitting around talking about USPs (unique selling points) and landmark buildings, etc., etc, Well, this one was different. Firstly, about a third of the group were women (not good enough, though!), secondly, only one man was wearing a suit (and he apologised for it), and thirdly, there was hardly any of the usual “visioning twaddle”. Instead, a theme emerged from the evening which was that successful cities (and successful communities of any kind) are about human relationships. We talked about needing to create spaces, physical and virtual, where people can interact in informal ways without agendas, and how that can lead to the long-term evolution of places where people want to be, primarily because they know their neighbours and fellow citizens, want to interact with them, and want to build collective spirit and understanding. I found this immensely encouraging, and I hope it is taken account of more widely. I believe it is especially important in a city like Leeds which is such a place of contradictions, with one of the most vibrant and thriving enterprise economies in the north of England existing alongside some of the poorest communities anywhere in the country. This kind of approach could lead to the creation of conditions where the people of Leeds can put their collective brain power to the task of solving the city’s problems and building on its strengths.

I also thought the event was important in demonstrating how the “Big Society” philosophy is starting to influence the way people think. There was a lot of talk about how we need to stop planning, strategising and theorising, and just get on and do stuff.

Two examples in particular came up. One was about the Leeds Mayor’s Show, which used to be the biggest Mayoral parade in the country outside London, with communities and groups from all over the city vying to produce the best float, and the whole city turning out to cheer them on. This was effectively killed off when the policy of the police charging for their services at events was introduced, and policing costs made it unviable. This policy makes all sorts of communal events difficult to stage, and, if the Big Society is to be made a reality, we need to find a way to go back to how it used to be.

The other issue that was raised was the fact that Leeds Bradford Airport is not connected to the railway network, despite being separated by three fields from the Leeds – Harrogate railway line. Surely, the obstacles that have prevented this connection can be overcome in the spirit of the Big Society.