Metanoia Openness

Things can only get louder!

NESTA’s shiny glass and chrome offices on the edge of the City of London are rather swanky. It’s a bit like finding yourself in an uber-stylish wedding, one of Anouska Hempel’s boutique hotels or, possibly, the latest series of Battlestar Galactica.

Black Arne Jacobsen chairs are set off by white walls, white drapes and white orchids. Plush grey carpets muffle your feet (although no need as everyone’s in trainers). You can almost hear the doors swish as you step out of the lifts. The meeting rooms for break-outs have round walls and are known as ‘pods’.

Needless to say, the 160 guests who’ve just arrived seem to take to this 21st century environment like proverbial ducks to water. The auditorium is a sea of gently humming i-phones, laptops and digital cameras as people blog, tweet, message and record each other with all the earnestness of a roomful of children writing notes for Santa.

We’re here for Amplified08, the brainchild of Toby Moores and Mike Atherton. Bouyed up by the confidence around social media in London, and un-deterred (in fact, positively spurred on) all the talk of credit crunch Christmas and looming recession, Toby and Mike have decided we’re in a ‘perfect storm’ for change.

Toby estimates that around 2,000 people in London, maybe 10,000 across the UK believe that social media has the potential to create a positive difference in people’s lives. Amplified08 aims to harness that conviction by holding a series of ‘unconferences’ across the country – visiting a different UK city every three months, and culminating in a massive event in Summer 2010.

As Toby says: “If we, quarter by quarter, region by region, build it, we’re going to be able to change the way things are done.”

Most of the delegates seem to enjoy the spirit of evangelical optimism, others mumble about “hippy rubbish”. It’s possible we’ve become part of a cult, but then no-one has parted with a large amount of money or disowned their family…yet.

The way unconferences work is that it’s up to the audience to decide the agenda and put on the sessions (which works great if you’re not paying, not so well if you are). Half the fun is outside of the sessions where you’re meant to network like crazy, preferably with people you don’t know (difficult in social media settings as its always the same hard core who show up).

Amplified08 has the additional twist in that we’re urged to go to sessions we wouldn’t normally go to. I start off with #15: Dynamic practice interfaces for local government (business case), followed by #23 Young People and Social Media and #06 Bretton Woods II (okay I admit that last one excites me, but it’s getting late).

In the boardroom, @stephendale is talking about knowledge management in local government. His take on existing KM systems? “Knowledge being captured in a web repository is where knowledge goes to die”. Steve’s efforts to build a workable wiki for best practice across the UK’s 400 odd local councils are admirable. As always with these things, the real issue will be not so much the technology per se but getting people to actually interact fruitfully with the thing once it’s up and running. Calling it an ‘efficiency library’ (though I like the term) may not be the way forward.

Over in the Faraday pod, chairing the session on youth, @digitalmaverick (aka Drew Buddie) tells us he’s recently had “an epiphany” through using Twitter. Drew teaches ICT at a comprehensive in Hertfordshire and has nearly 2,000 followers on Twitter. Making contact with hundreds of people across the world, whether it’s to discuss technology or share recipes, seems to re-affirm his belief in the general good of human nature.

Inspired by Dave Eggers’ legendary TEDtalk, Drew wants to do something for children using social media that really engages them and produces positive results. All around the room, there are general gripes and moans about the way the education system (in the UK at least) doesn’t address social media properly or, indeed, seem to take it seriously.

Drew mentions that, despite the stereotype of young people revealing everything about themselves online, sometimes anonymity is preferred. He produced a collaborative play where pupils of all ages contributed lines and characters. When he offered to throw a party so all the cast could meet each other in person, the pupils refused – they liked the fact that a grade 11 was working alongside a grade 6 but completely unaware of the fact – that anonymity actually enhanced the creative process because there were no pre-conceptions about what each party was capable of.

@simonperry is concerned about children growing up online and being unaware of the “digital shadow” they leave. I’ve never heard this term before but google it and find out it was coined in an EMC report earlier this year and refers to the data you unintentionally leave about yourself as you browse, make purchases or are filmed on security cameras. The shadow makes up a part of your digital footprint – the mass of digital information there is about you, including email, social-networking, blog posts etc.

@antoniogould points out that personal information you actively leave eg in social networks can be just as damaging as unintentional information. He recalls the story told by Danah Boyd of a young black man who passed the Oxbridge entrance exams but was rejected because of the derogatory anguage he used on his MySpace profile.

@philoakley thinks it’s ridiculous that Microsoft’s hold on schools (as the main supplier of software) means that issues such as open source simply don’t get taught or discussed. Why are kids being taught to use pc-based Word and Excel, he asks, when open source and cloud computing is more important to the future of the web?

Another contributor whose name I failed to get refers to the web as “the eternal memory of our indiscretions”, which turns out to be a nice term used by academics Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross (Carnegie Mellon University) to describe the nature of social networks.

The final session on Bretton Woods is the liveliest. Taking his cue from World Bank President Robert Zoellick’s suggestion that we need “a Facebook for multilateral economic diplomacy“, @paulmassey wants to know if any of us have a new perspective on solving the global financial crisis.

Comments veer from the indignant (“Governments are pushing immense amounts of money into these very ill patients…the market is saying ‘this is dead!’) through the reflective (“The idea of a social stock exchange is interesting…”) to the blatantly optimistic (“If we had a few top notch developers and a few lawyers we could develop something great and hand it to the UN!).

No firm conclusions are reached but everyone agrees the conversation is worth continuing – the hashtag #bw2 is born.

With that, we all break for wine and olives. It feels a bit like fiddling while Rome burns.

Randomness, connectivity, serendipity…these are all themes of Amplified08. I met a lot of good people and learnt interesting things. The sharing and openness is great (although yes, that could all change once big money is involved), but for now the momentum seems positive. Roll on Amplified09!