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David Wilcox

How to move #TheWayAhead into the networked age by Connecting Londoners

7 min read

Yesterday I reported that City Hall is commissioning consultancy work on a strategy for London civil society that will complement and extend plans from London Funders and their partners for a resource hub and other systems.

The hub, and other proposals in TheWayAhead initiative, aim to provide support for borough-level and front-line organisations that provide advice and help for Londoners at a time when funding is being cut.

It's a comprehensive brief covering many of the issues - but I'm concerned it will contribute to the top-down design approach of The Way Ahead that has led to grassroots organisations starting to develop an alternative - Our Way Ahead.

Here's some theory about hubs, networks and open approaches, followed by a few practical ideas on opening up discussion and development. We need designs for the networked age, focussed on the needs and capabilities of Londoners.

Hubs and networks

I hope that a diagram may help explain concerns about the current approach. It is based on Paul Baran's classic 1964 depiction in the early days of the Internet and the difference between centralised, decentralised and distributed networks.

network diagram

These days the Internet is much more complex - but the key idea is that information flows within a mesh network, not just from central or even decentralised points. In 1964 the points of distribution were relatively few large computers. These days the points include people's smartphones, tablets and personal computers, together many other ways of connecting and communicating.

Here's how this relates to the hub.

hub and mesh

When I joined discussion about the hub at the recent conference on The Way Ahead, and showed a version of this diagram, I was assured that it wouldn't be centralised, but more of a cluster of networks.

Even so, as I wrote here, the problem with the idea of a hub is that it will concentrate resources in one central organisation that is likely to compete with more local initiatives like Councils for Voluntary Service. We may drift from the current decentralised approach to a more centralised one - when we should be going the other way.

There are several reasons for moving towards a more networked approach that builds on and supports the expertise and connections of Londoners and grassroots organisations. First, if you design top-down through consultancy, working groups and committees you may get it wrong. Secondly, resources are likely to be tight in future, so any centralised systems are vulnerable. Thirdly, people will increasingly get their information online - whether directly as individuals or via people providing connections and support.

And if you want to encourage people and organisation to share, cooperate and collaborate - the key idea of Pragmatic Co-production in The Way Ahead - then you have to invent the future with them, not for them.

Open sourcing - from Cathedral to Bazaar

That's why a group of us started exploring the idea of a Networked City and Connecting Londoners.

The difference between top-down and bottom-up design was neatly captured in an essay and book in the 1990s by Eric S. Raymond called The Cathedral and the Bazaar. In the Cathedral model you design from the top, with each change created by experts. In the Bazaar model you open up and share development. Raymond's book was about software design, but I think the metaphor is more widely useful.

These days the Open Source model - designing bottom-up within an operating system that can itself evolve collaboratively - is widely adopted outside software development. We are increasingly adopting Crowdfunding and Crowdsourcing. My links above come from Wikipedia, one extraordinary demonstration of bottom-up development of content and sharing.

Put simply, The Way Ahead is still designing for the pre-Internet age with a business-as-usual model.

I'm not suggesting that smartphones are a substitute for good local face-to-face advice and support. Both are needed, and in both instances we should design bottom-up from personal usage and local expertise.

Ideas for a networked approach

But how to do that in practice, in the context of The Way Ahead and the City Hall strategy?

In this paper I suggest, with Drew Mackie, that we should build a network of people and projects, based on ideas developed from the Networked City exploration.

These are just some of the ideas we have developed. What's now needed is an open, bottom-up process to gather more, as for example the RSA are doing with their co-creation community crowdsourcing ideas on building a Citizens' Economy for tomorrow's world.

With others involved in Networked City I'm investigating how to build our own crowdsourcing platform, and will have suggestions on that shortly.

We also have plans for a knowledge cafe with David Gurteen to bring together people from The Way Ahead, Our Way Ahead, and anyone else interested. There's no substitute for a good face-to-face conversation.

Meanwhile, do check out the Our Way Ahead event on July 12 where we'll be discussing these ideas and much more.