After the introductions, welcomes and fire alarm instructions Jonathan Kestenbaum of NESTA set the scene and explained what the conference was about.
The need for radical transformation of the UK analogous to switching off and on a PC that has started to slow down and behave irrationally. Jonathan said that he now understood what was meant by a perfect storm (and we had one coming up) as:
- A bankrupt public purse is being challenged to meet the rising expectations of the public.
- Society has found new ways of self organising.
- No shortage of ingenuity on the Internet.
Jeremy Hunt MP started the substantive discussion. To begin with I wasn't sure whether to be more mesmerised by his ability to speak lucidly on social networking without notes, or the fact that for ten minutes he was so even handed in his scarification of government and all parties' use of the digital tools available to them that it was hard to tell which party he represented. Mentioning Farnham was a clue.
I attended two sessions on the application of technology to learning. The first from Playgen was interesting and the presenter, Kam Star, did a good job of outlining the value of games as a learning tool that added value by delivering a hands-on feel. The examples of games developed for particular purposes or organisations highlighted the learning potential. For instance what do you think of the government's flood protection policy. The answers given after playing a game where you managed these resources for ten years differed considerably from those given before. Dawn Hallybone a teacher at Oakdale Junior School bubbled over with excitement, and completely swayed the audience with her infectious enthusiasm, as she described the use of games to engage and to enable pupils to learn. When good behaviour is rewarded with extra time learning (using these games) you know that you are at a different kind of school. She described how using the games improved results however measured, and how the results convinced her initially reluctant head mistress, converting her to an evangelist to game based learning. See Guardian article.
Martha Lane Fox (Lastminute.com founder and now the government's New Champion for Digital Inclusion) talked about the digital divide in the UK. Those without good access to the Internet tended to be the economically poorest or the oldest. But whilst access to tools and networks and skills to use them were two of the primary barriers to equality, a frequently overlooked factor is motivation. However, Martha told a pertinent story of visiting a day centre where old people were shown how to use the technology and why. A lady, most of whose family had left for another country was introduced to the web stuff primarily via Skype where she could talk to her grand-children for free, and Flickr where she could browse their photo albums. With this motivation to get started she was open to learning more. And as she said "You go back and tell them, duckie. Giving us access to this stuff saves money. If I couldn't come here and use this stuff I'd be in an old people's home."
Charles Armstrong of Trampoline Systems gave a great demonstration of new open source software One Click Orgs aimed at making easier the creation and management of groups and their establishment as legal entities, e.g charities or beekeeping associations. The sartorially relaxed Charles showed how the software would enable virtual engagement with little or no need for (regular) physical meetings. The software enabled a constitution to be created, membership to be managed, and decisions voted on and recorded, according to whatever rules were agreed. One consequence of this approach not discussed was the impact on "the committee", aspects of which become largely redundant, in particular the role of Chair and Secretary.
I also attended the Towards an Interactive Charter session. Neither Cormac or I wanted to miss it. Whilst the intent of the session was to focus on Government and why they were not using the interactive / social tools for greater effectiveness, a lot of the delegate discussion was talking about business, in particular large organisations. The view from the floor seemed to be that many large organisations were no better than government. Tim Davies' 50 hurdles to government take up of this technology are relevant, but seemed to overlook a more fundamental issue that Cormac has referred to in his review, that the most senior levels do not "get it". I have a more cynical view that some of these do get it, but do not need it themselves because they are there already, and have no intention of increasing the chances of being asked to leave before their due time. Providing potential upstarts with them means to be more effective is not in their interests. As Martha Lane Fox said earlier in another context motivation is key. One speaker from the floor got a laugh by pointing out that this issue is not new. "Ten years ago we were being told that this new technology - email had no place in government. That if introduced people would be using it all the time and there'd be no time for real work ...." which many people would agree was an astute observation. Tom Watson MP promised to raise awareness of the outcome of the charter once developed.
I ended the day with a long session with the developer Stan Stalnaker founder of Hub Culture and Ven - the social media alternative currency. Stan has views about how business will operate in the new economy and how people will operate. Stan expounds the P2P approach that Groundswell also develops. That in the near future we will operate increasingly People to People with less need for large organisations. One interesting aspect of the session was the use of a wiki called the Hub. It seems a functional and easy to use wiki as was demonstrated by real time use as the group brainstormed ideas for applying the P2P concepts to big issues like Democracy, Public Services, Health and the Economy. The real interest however was in the easy facilitation by Stan of a discussion that did raise interesting ideas about how Britain could be rebooted. One of the few sessions were ideas were being generated as opposed to being reported.