A pirate, a professor and a political compass

March 14, 2008 Comments Off on A pirate, a professor and a political compass

Over the past week, I’ve been reflecting on the ideas of two people: Jonathan Zittrain (a professor) and Matt Mason (a pirate, or at least a fan of pirates). This has got me thinking about the ‘political compass question’ again, which goes something like this …

Right and left just aren’t enough anymore. We don’t live in a world where collective vs. individual sums up who we are (if it ever did). In fact, the much bigger tensions in today’s world are: democracy vs. authority; diversity vs. singularity; ecumenicism vs. fanaticism. We are in a struggle between open and closed.

The thing is, most people still see the world through one-dimensional-political-spectrum-goggles. Sure, we hack around this. Youth culture. Open source. Punk capitalism. Matrixed social movements. Internet culture. We know how things are changing, and we are accelerating the change. Yet, despite these hacks, the imaginative frame that organizes political parties, schools, governments, big media, laws and, to a certain degree, our identities is stuck in the left-right mud. This is true almost everywhere I have been in big, bad world.

We need a new political compass, urgently. The left vs. right spectrum has hit a wall. It no longer helps us see what’s possible, or even what’s necessary. We need (at least) another dimension to help us explore the possibilities of open vs. closed on a mass scale. I’ve been playing with this diagram for a while now:

Left vs. right thinking has us log jammed on pressing issues like the environment, intellectual property and the evolution of markets. A few people are making breakthroughs on these topics, and they seem to be doing so by dumping the left vs. right mindset for open thinking. Grafting open (and closed) onto the map  that focuses our political imagination could help us break the logjams on a much larger scale.

This idea is not new. Paul Ray called for a new political compass in 1994 (and then trademarked the term. Silly man.). More importantly, I stumble across people hinting at the need to add open vs. closed (or, at least, open) into the broad conversation about economics, society and politics almost every week. Paul Hawken’s book on new social movements. Matt Mullenweg‘s off the cuff comments about the real meaning of open source (last 10 mins of this talk). Meg Wheatley‘s articles about emergence. All are contributing to the debate and evolution of a new political compass, even if they don’t know they are in the game.

This where Zittrain (the professor) and Mason (the pirate) come back in. I think they know they are part of the game, and are trying to help rebuild our politcal map.

Zittrain is concerned that the Internet is about to be killed off by the very culture of openness that it created. As outlined in great blog coverage of a recent Zittrain talk, the argument goes: folks like pirates and virus makers are using the bottom up nature of the Internet to do things that piss people off. This plays into the hands of governments and businesses who want to ‘fix’ things with laws and technologies that will take away the flexible, bottom up qualities of the internet. The only solution is to amp up our efforts police the Internet using well structured, rule based community policing like we see in Wikipedia.

While this argument is interesting, and the threats are very real, what really caught my eye was the Zittrain-o-gram used to show the political terrain upon which all this is happening. It looked something like this:

What I like about this diagram is that it shows the tension between closed (aka top down) and open (aka bottom up). These are recognized as distinct terrains on the map. We need maps like this. What I don’t like so much is the way this sets up the rigorously open (the communitarians) and the anarchically open (the pirates) camps as enemies.

Matt Mason’s new book, The Pirate’s Dilemma, helps explain why. Starting with Walt Disney’s use of fairy tales, winding through punk / hip hop / graffiti / open source, and ending up with pervasive, transient remix culture, Mason argues that pirate culture (and youth culture) is a major force of innovation. Yes, it competes with both traditional business and (sometimes) organized approaches to open. But, in doing so it forces more established players to take pirate innovations on board, increasing efficiency in the market, creating better products for consumers and (often) making the world a better place.

Mason diagrams this by inverting the traditional prisoner’s dilemma diagram (altruism vs. selfishness) into a pirate’s dilemma diagram (altruism AND selfishness). The bottom like is that market players and society win if the integrate the innovations of pirates. Those who don’t lose. The diagram looks like this:

I like this diagram. Just like transcending right vs. left, turning the prisoner’s dilemma inside out helps us expand beyond our limited 20th century political imaginations. More importantly, it shows that the pirates are actually contributing to the success of other players in society, including the rigorously open folks that Zittrain encourages us to back (and we should back them, for sure).

For me, the opportunity here is getting the open meme onto the broad social, political and economic map. As we do this, we should see the Zittrain’s communitarians and Mason’s pirates as yin and yang. Something like this:

We need both halves of open. And, while each group needs to insist on doing things its own way, we also need to recognize each other as allies. As Boris Mann blogged yesterday:

Basically, sniping other open projects isn’t cool. … The “enemy” here is proprietary systems. They are not good for business, they are not good for communities, and they are not good for the growth of this interlinked web of data that is becoming truly useful.

While Boris is talking about software, the same idea extends to the whole open terrain. We don’t need to agree on everything (that’s the point, right). We just need to make it clear that open offers possibilities that most people can’t even imagine yet, and that closed is not what we want. My sense is that we’re on the cusp of building the maps and memes we need to make this message crystal clear.

Shoelacing social innovation

March 7, 2008 § 1 Comment

Social innovation (or any kind of innovation for that matter) can be a lonely gig. There you are, focused intensely on an issue or problem that you are passionate about, trying to invent / evolve / evangelize an approach that will really make a difference. Poverty. Hunger. Education.  Democracy. Knowledge. Whatever the issue, that’s all that matters. One day, you’ll have time to connect to other innovators to share what you know … and learn about what they’re working on. But not now. One day. 

A week or so back, the Young Foundation and gaggle of groovy partners launched the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) to overcome this story of isolation. Here’s the web site:


The idea is great: radar emerging social innovations and lightly shoelace the innovators into a network (or at least make them aware of each other). Case studies highlight interesting innovations. Blog postings create a babble of emerging ideas. And face to face events (very promising) create the deeper human connections and content that will fire fuel back into the web site.

The problem is, great ideas also need to work in the real world. I have hope for SIX, but competing for attention, and even generating content, in a busy web world is tougher than ever.

As an already-busy-with-my-own-life-specialist-in-residence at SIX, I want to help with this. I want to contribute compelling content that draws people. I want to show up to comment and discuss stuff when it’s helpful. I want to evangelize and get people excited. The thing is, I am just as time and attention strapped as the next guy on the social innovation block.

My hope is that that basic web 2.0 tech mashed up with some good ol’ community media work can help with this. I scribbled some ideas on this earlier:


On the web 2.0 side, SIX could easily build up a more compelling feed of news by importing and rebranding RSS items from me and other specialists-in-residence who already have their own blogs. I’d be super happy to see them do this. The SIX editors just have to select the stories they want and publish them o relevant section of the site. I get extra exposure and a sense that I am contributing. SIX gets stories. Everybody wins.

SIX could quite easily build up it’s case study section with some simple audio interviews. Most of the case studies seems to be super short descriptions of a project. This is great as a radar, but doesn’t let me dig deeper. However, it’s very tough to get people like me to write a long case study, and expensive to get researchers and journalists to do it.One way around this is for the editors to do quick Skype interviews with partners who have projects to profile, and then post these as podcasts along side a one paragraph description of the case. Or, to do fast interviews at SIX face to face event. Either way, it’s like bootstrapped community radio on the web. We did something two years ago for the IDRC eALF project. I worked brilliantly, cost nothing and took up almost no time.

The other small and easy way to increase the value of the SIX site would be better and simpler outbound RSS feeds. Right now, I can only see a feed for the main blog page (which would be super useful if combined with the republishing idea above). However, I can’t see a way to get feeds of the case studies or the features. If I had this, I could radar for interesting articles, and then come to comment on the site when they come up.

SIX could definitely go somewhere, but it needs to make contributing and engaging easy first. The good news is that there are some smart (and young) people behind it all. I am going to offer to help out with some of the ideas above in the hopes that it move things along.

PS. I just heard that the Young Foundation is also doing SocialInnovationCamp. Very cool. I suspect (and hope) that some of the web / event 2.0 energy of SIcamp will infuse itself in SIX.

PSS. To see RSS feeds an rebranding in action, look at my original posting here and the feed version here.

Social enterprise: ready to go

December 7, 2006 Comments Off on Social enterprise: ready to go

Porto Novo, Benin – November 27 – December 1, 2006: The Benin workshop marked a departure point: ‘social enterprise’ became a central part of the conversation on sustaining the work of telecentres in Africa. The younger crowd in particular – people like Hilton Theunissen, Gbenga Sesan and Esther Nasikye – championed the idea. They were arguing that the way forward for African telecentres was a commitment to social change combined with an entrepreneurial spirit.

On the second day of the workshop, a small group formed to talk about social enterprise issues. They came out with a number of diagrams aimed at helping other participants understand their way of thinking:


This small group attacked the question of sustainability head on, saying that both social impact and financial sustainability were important. They pointed to the potential of offering services like education, health care and e-government that communities need but would also pay for.


On days three and four of the Forum, this social enterprise group got down to brass tacks to design practical projects to work on together. They came up with a number of ideas including a social enterprise training institute for African telecentres and the development of new services that African telecentres could offer to communities. The idea of creating a ‘social franchise’ that offered social enterprise packages was also floated. This group agreed to follow up quickly after Benin to put some of these ideas into motion.

Note to Hilton or Gbenga: tell me where your social enterprise think paper is so that I can link to it from this blog. I’ve seen it circulating in mailing lists but not on the web.

Two tales of telecentre sustainability

March 1, 2006 Comments Off on Two tales of telecentre sustainability

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka – February 25, 2006

Financing and sustainability are always topics of conversation when you get telecentre people together. Two interesting tales to note in this regard from the last few days in Sri Lanka …


Story one: Sarvodaya’s Nuwara Eliya telecentre is generating a profit, which is in turn used to subsidize other activities in their district centre (the building where the telecentre is housed).  Income from telecentre services is between RS80 – 100,000 ($US800 – 1,000) per month, and expenses are around RS70,000 ($US700). Income is generated from photocopying, Internet use and, especially, training courses. Courses include basic office software, graphic design and web design. While the profit is modest, a case of a telecentre subsidizing other social services is a pretty rare thing – especially when there is a 20 seat donor funded computer training centre just up the road. This situation may change when ICTA stops subsidizing the VSat under the Nanasala program.


Story two: As a part of their rural knowledge centre program, D.Net has turned to a novel fundraising technique: they hold a fundraising event every year in New Jersey seeking donations for the telecentre cause. At this event, Bangladeshi’s living in the U.S get to meet members of the D.Net team and see videos showing how telecentres are working at the village level. They are also asked to donate towards the cost of purchasing computers and setting up a centre in a particular village (mostly, their own village). It’s almost like a twinning program. D.Net has been able to finance over 50 centres using this method as well as funding drives within Bangladesh. They are hoping to get to 1,000.

I’d like to dig deeper on both of these examples, to find out what’s behind them and whether there is something for others to learn here. Just blogging the rough picture here as a reminder to go back and investigate further.

Business ecology 101

February 4, 2006 Comments Off on Business ecology 101

San Franciso, USA

There is nothing like an honest day of business coaching from a room full of kindred spirits, especially when that’s not what you’re expecting.


Lee Davis and Johnathan Peizer had pulled together an informal meeting of people doing hands on work at the nexus of technology + social enterprise + scaling. Grameen USA Tech Centre. Shuttleworth Foundation. TechSoup. Intel emerging markets. And, of course, telecentre.org.

We’d all imagined a fairly general conversation, rolling through case studies from the past and sketching out some general models. Instead, a common model snapped into focus almost immediately: we are all building or investing in networked social enterprises that rely on multiple players, mutual self interest and concrete value. While it probably doesn’t mean anything if you weren’t in the room, the diagram we all layered our projects on looked something like this …


Having a common framework early on made it possible spend the bulk of the day looking at the future instead of the past. Each of us presented a current challenge in our work, and the others provided tough questions and ideas. On a very specific level, this helped me to refine thinking on the services R+D fund we’re imagining in the new business plan. It also surfaced some common success factors: the right investment tools at the right time; business planning support and mentoring that comes along with any cash investments; passionate, entrepreneurial people.

While we all left with more questions than we started with, it felt like we’d moved an important conversation forward. It’s a conversation we all plan to continue.

Banking on social innovation

February 4, 2006 Comments Off on Banking on social innovation

San Francisco , USA

Scaling anything (e.g. telecentres) is about passion, good ideas and hard work. That’s for sure. But, like it or not, it’s also about money. Not just having it, but also structuring it in the right way. This was the main topic for the ‘innovative funding practices’ panel at the Innovation Funders event.


As Lee Davis from NESsT pointed out, the financing options available to non-profits and social enterprises are both slim and rigid. The commercial world has access to a diversity of financing tools: venture funding for risky yet promising start-ups, equity to bring in cash for scaling, debt to handle cash flow, and so on. Most social enterprises, non-profit or for-profit, just have access to grants (unless they’re so big that commercial banks trust them). One financial instrument, but clearly a diversity of needs.

This is surely a problem we face in the telecentre space. Whether it has come from governments, donor agencies or corporate philanthropists, almost all of the money in telecentres has come in the form of grants. This is good for some things: building out purely pre-market infrastructure; developing foundational materials and services; creating a sense of movement. However grants actually can’t be the whole picture if we are truly interested in scaling the number of telecentres and creating a rich palette of well packaged, replicable services to offer through telecentres. You see this especially when you look at microfranchise networks like Drishtee, TaraHaat and Nlogue, with great ideas but the need for resources that take things to the next level.


The (many) million dollar question: what does diverse financing in the telecentre space look like? Certainly, one thing we need is a small, nimble mechanism to finance service research and development. It’s pretty likely we can create this within telecentre.org. In addition, there is probably a need for microcredit plus (larger than a phone loan), patient debt or low return equity aimed at scaling. One day, commercial financing might play a role, too. But that’s a long way off.

Interesting and important stuff, and something I’ve been background processing for a while. I am grateful to Lee and others at the Innovation Funders event for helping me to dig a bit deeper.

Social enterprise goes viral …

December 29, 2005 Comments Off on Social enterprise goes viral …

Somewhere around Smith Falls, Ontario

Looking out the snowy train window, I realize that there was another thing that impressed me at last week’s village computing event … something that snuck up on me so quietly that I forgot to blog it.


At the event, there was an unassuming book placed at each seat around the table — the Grameen USA Village Phone Replication Manual. Based on Grameen USA’s experience transporting the village phone model from Bangladesh to Uganda and Rawanda, this book is literally a detailed how-to guide on setting up a self-sustaining-grassroots-technology-spreading-social-enterprise. The guide shows the network of partners, the technology, the supply chain, the ‘what’s in it for who’ money flows. 150+ pages of gruelling social / tech / business strategy detail.


As a man on a bender for replicable grassroots technology models, I was super impressed by this effort. Here is a group (Grameen USA) who not only had the smarts and gumption to bring the village phone from Asia to Africa, but they also had the courage to write down and share their experience. And, they did it in the spirit of growing, spreading and evolving the model. The book download site says:

Check here to acknowledge that you agree to the following terms for downloading this publication: This information is shared in the spirit of international cooperation and is in the public domain. We ask that all users of this manual similarly share any modifications, variants, and/or lessons learned from experience so new information can be incorporated into the broader learning of the global Village Phone movement. Thank you.

Stepping up to the plate with an attitude like this takes alot of vision — one of the key ingredients needed to make the grassroots technology revolution real. Of course, there is also a need for more Sicily + business + service models with the simplicity and power of the village phone … and more people with the courage to help them spread like wildfire.

Anyways, kudos to Grameen USA for this publication. They are clearly doing good work.

The care and feeding of living curriculum

December 18, 2005 Comments Off on The care and feeding of living curriculum

Redmond WA, USA

Curriculum is a big deal for telecentre.org. Curriculum on basic IT skills. Entrepreneurship and management. Community development and grassroots marketing. Curriculum for people who come into telecentres, and curriculum to train people who run telecentres. These are all things that telecentre.org needs to either develop or distribute.

The problem with curriculum in areas like these is that it gets stale fast. Big training guidebooks like the Telecentre Cookbook are great when they are written, but new practices and technologies quickly emerge that make them outdated. More importantly, trainers immediately start to adapt and innovate on top of these materials as soon as they get them – yet these innovations rarely make it back into the original guidebook.


This problem is, of course, also a huge opportunity. What if telecentre trainers had way to easily share their adaptations? What if there was a good way to integrate those adaptations back into the ‘big guidebook? What if we had a way to encourage the care and feeding of living curriculum? The result would certainly be something richer and more useful than what we have now.

I had a fun meeting at Microsoft yesterday where we dug into these questions. The meeting was with a number of people involved in managing the Microsoft Unlimited Potential Curriculum, which is one of many curriculum collections that will be available on the telecentre.org web site. The Microsoft folks are asking the same questions I am: how do we capture and share the innovation that happens on top of this curriculum? It’s not clear what they want to do yet on this front (nor is it clear what telecentre.org will do). However, there was enough energy in our spirited conversation that we’ve agreed to dig deeper into this ‘care and feeding’ question.

I should say, there are a number of people I’ve been talking to recently about this issue – people working on both telecentres and schools. It may be time to convene a small meeting to talk about concrete ways we could experiment with some sort of training commons.

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