Building a hothouse

May 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Last week, I had a rare 45 mins with
Mark Shuttleworth. He asked: what do you think the Foundation has
achieved in the last year? I answered that it had 'stabilized and
grown strong'. Which is true. After a few rocky years, the Foundation
is now in a position to actually pursue big ideas like free textbooks
and learning analytical skills p2p-style in a serious way. Yet, I
knew my answer wasn't quite right. The Foundation hasn't just stabilized, its, well, this sounds silly, but …


… it's turned into a hothouse of
ideas, invention and activism. The hothouse image came up as we were
brainstorming new metaphors for the theory of change. At first, I
wrote this one off. But, reflecting on two weeks at the Foundation's
Cape Town office, the hothouse image has stuck with me. It feels like
that is exactly what we have built.

Amidst the clatter of the open plan
office, sparky ideas constantly bounce off the walls. Over the course
of just a few hours the other day: Andrew and Sam were debating the
merits (or lack thereof) of the OLPC / Microsoft deal. Steve(2) and I
were comparing South Africa's mother tongue education policies with
the last 30 years of French immersion in Canada; and all of us were
trying to figure out why the Lego mashup of Eddie Izzard's Death Star
is so good (which is actually very important if the projects
you're building hinge on contribution and creativity). The Foundation
has truly become fertile ground for the exchange and evolution of

Of course, fertilizer on its own is
just crap. Thankfully, the Foundation also has some promising seeds
in the ground. Mark's Siyavula free textbook project has not borne
fruit yet, but it's definitely taken root. He is now grappling with
concrete issues like setting up an online repository, putting 1000s
pages of existing content online and recruiting community leaders and
volunteers to make this content better. Sam is at a similar spot with
Kusasa, working through the practicalities of testing grade four
peer-to-peer learning content in seven schools. And, new seeds like
Steve(1)'s Village Telco are also going into the ground. Much is
growing, and it is real.

What's most hot-house-y – and what
you really only feel in the office – is the the ideas and the
action really feeding each other. The fellows don't just write
papers. The people running concrete projects don't just project
manage. They dance together. Just think: Mark (creating free
textbooks) is sitting across the room from Andrew (the intellectual
property fellow) as he works on a competition bureau complaint
related to educational publishing. The natural thing that happens is
that they help each other. This is what is going on all the time, in
subtle but quite powerful ways.

The bad news: you can't really see this
from outside, which is not very hot-house-y. Fixing this is critical.
We want people to take inspiration from (or take issue with) what we
are doing. We also want them to contribute to (or simply rip off)
what we are doing, even before our work has fully borne fruit. This
won't happen until people can pick up and even join into the office
vibe from outside. As a simple first step, we've agreed to compile
all the existing Foundation blogs
as the main feature on the front
page a of our site. Much more is in the works.

Next time someone asks me what we've
done in the last year, I'll have a better answer: we've built a
hothouse. A very good one. True, it's only produced a few tiny
victories so far (the Cape Town Declaration and South Africa's vote against OOXML at the ISO). But, after a week in Cape Town, I am quite hopeful
that it's about to produce a great deal more.

PS. While I love the hothouse metaphor, I am still not completely convinced we should use it for the updated theory of change. Comments on this highly encouraged.

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