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Designing collaboration - Common themes

[RSA|RSA Networks] and [socialinnovationcamp|Social Innovation Camp] are very different programmes - but both were funded by NESTA to explore collaborative innovation, so I think it is fair to drawn some comparisons. Their very difference may also offer some insights.

RSA Networks was conceived as a programme to produce social/civic innovation projects from within an organisation … and has run into difficulties because of the problems of achieving that within a traditional hierarchical structure. NESTA invested £100,000.

Social Innovation Camp was developed by social entrepreneurs who believe that social innovation may not be possible with traditional institutions - and the web enables individuals to by-pass them and use networks to create their own projects. SI Camp, while modest, has created enormous enthusiasm and some projects that continue to develop. NESTA invested £25,000

David Wilcox September 2008. Some links updated October 2016

I’ve brought together the analysis of both programmes below, using some of the collaboration terms here.
The analysis follows the summaries. Back to lessons >

Summary of the programmes

Summary of RSA Networks


In autumn 2007 Matthew Taylor, the new chief executive of the 250-year-old RSA, launched a programme called RSA Networks under which the 26,000 members (called Fellows) would become more central to the work of the organisation. They would have have greater opportunities to network among themselves, contribute to long-standing programmes of research and development, and also become an outward-facing network for civic innovation.

“Thought leadership” would no longer be confined to the high profile contributors to RSA events and publications. Action for social good would no longer be limited by staff resources and partnerships. The RSA would become a new-style think tank and incubator of social innovation.

The programme was launched through a highly-successful open space event for 250 Fellows in November 2007, and supported by an online platform for communication and collaboration. Hundreds of Fellows subsequently participated online, and generated scores of project ideas. Staff were trained as facilitators.

The programme was supported by an investment of £100,000 from the Government-backed innovation organisation NESTA. However, as an interim evaluation report subsequently showed, it proved difficult to realise a vision that required change on so many fronts at once. After one year few of the projects have any clear outcomes, discussions online have died away, and a robust version of the online system is still some way off.

While online interactions have been problematic, it was clear Fellows and some staff were keen to meet, and a range of London and regional events have been highly successful. It seems likely that these have helped build some networks, and perhaps some projects - although it is difficult to know without some better central communication system.

Whatever the direct outcomes, RSA Networks provides many lessons for programmes attempting collaborative innovation using a mix of online and offline methods, harnessing skills and commitment across different disciplines.

Staff and Fellows are meeting on how to take advantage of lessons learned for next stage development, with new senior staff appointments in place. More here >

Summary of Social Innovation Camp

A group of three social entrepreneurs, disatisfied with the ability of conventional charities to use new technologies for social innovation, secured funding from NESTA for a Social Innovation Camp over a weekend in London in April 2008. The aim was to bring together those who were working at the sharp end of social problems with web designers and developers who could help create solutions.

Their call for ideas produced 77 project proposals, which the organisation cut back to 20 for submission to an advisory group. From these six projects were chosen. Over the weekend some 80 people worked together to produce prototypes, which were presented at a Show and Tell session. One winner and one runner up were given prizes of £3000 and £2000. An additional project was developed during the weekend, and accepted as part of the process. The weekend, and the overall process, produced enormous energy and connections going beyond the two days. In September four of the seven projects were still under development. NESTA is funding a further SI Camp in December 2008. The organisers have set out their thinking about web-enabled social innovation, and put out a call for ideas. More here >

Themes and lessons

RSA Networks

There were at least three agendas in play and three different sets of potential beneficiaries in RSA Networks: 1. Civic innovation. Developing projects that could fulfill the aspirations of RSA Fellows who would lead them, and also others “outside” who would benefit. This agenda was set by Matthew Taylor. 2. Fellowship networking. Enabling Fellows to make more connections with others, for whatever purpose. Fellows would be the main direct beneficiaries. The attraction of networking among Fellows could also be used for marketing and recruitment. 3. Lessons from the programme, to share with others. NESTA’s agenda

1 might lead to 2. but probably only for a limited number of Fellows. Similarly 2. might assist 1. but would not achieve it on its own. 3. requires commitment from RSA and Fellows, and an appropriate mechanism. The additional, overarching agenda - again Matthew Taylor’s - was to re-invent the organisation through a combination of 1. and 2. This perhaps make it difficult to unravel the two and get an agreed focus

SI Camp

The goal for everyone was very clear throughout the process:
work together to develop web-enabled solutions to social problems that you have defined. The organisers were also clear about their philosophy of the way that social technology can help people create big changes from small beginnings.


RSA Networks

Collaboration is only possible where the key participants - stakeholders - have some equality of power.

It may be important that they shape the overall process, rather than participating in a framework set by one power-holder. This is difficult for any hierarchical organisation. RSA faced a double challenge on this front.

First, they needed to involve Fellows in the design of the programme if it were to be - as they hoped “their” community and market place.

Secondly, staff beyond RSA Networks staff needed to see Fellows as equals in any work they did together. While there were a lot of early statements about co-design and co-creation, RSA senior staff resisted any attempts to formalise these in clear arrangements for shared control. This reflects a classic problem in many engagement processes - failing to define stance explicity on the spectrum from tell, sell, consult through to co-design or co-create. The rhetoric was at the co-design and co-create end … but the practice was around sell and occasionally consult.

SI Camp

While the SI Camp organisers created a strong framework and process, they left people to organise themselves into teams, and were prepared to allow an additional project to develop during the weekend. They planned carefully, then left things open and flexible.


RSA Networks

Ownership is clearly related to control. Whose programme is this? The help file on the latest version of the RSA Networks site says: “This is your community and we are hoping that it becomes a self-governing site” However, all decisions about the site are taken by RSA staff, usually without consultation.

SI Camp

There was no attempt by organisers to claim ownership of ideas or the model. After the event they encouraged people to take the SI Camp model and apply it elsewhere.
The ethos of the event generated by the organisers encouraged everyone to share their ideas.


RSA Networks

Collaboration only works if participants want to join in. At the RSA Fellows did, but from the interim evaluation it sounds as if many of the staff outside the RSA Networks team were, perhaps understandably, less keen. Fellows had nothing to lose, but staff would be taking a risk in moving out of established ways of doing things. This would be difficult unless they were given strong assurances and support from the top.

SI Camp

Everyone turned up with a shared expectation of collaboration, and the format of the event reinforced that. Sociability helped.


RSA Networks

There was no consistent communication of plans and decisions to Fellows. Staff resisted requests for a central forum for discussion of the programme (again a control issue). A group of Fellows committed to the vision of RSA Networks, but sceptical about implementation, set up OpenRSA to provide a complementary convening place online and off. This was accepted by RSA, but the group lost motivation during the programme. In retrospect, this was probably partly due to the lack of responsiveness of staff, the difficulty of maintaining volunteer input, and ambiguity about control and leadership of the programme.

SI Camp

The blog kept people up date before, at and after the event, and participants were able to communicate through Twitter and a Backnetwork online system (inivitation only). This worked well because most people were confident online - and also meeting face-to-face.


RSA Networks

Collaboration requires facilitative leadership and consistent guidance through the process. Matthew Taylor provided a powerful vision at the start, but according to the interim report, could not subsequently spend much time on the programme. The initial programme leader had to do the work in addition to her normal duties as director of marketing and communications. There were no clear reporting and decision-making procedures for staff working on the programme. New senior staff appointments now offer the chance for a fresh start, and a clear statement of what stance the RSA staff will take to staff: consultees or co-creators.

SI Camp

The SI Camp organisers created the vision, raised funding, set the terms of engagement, and the process to select projects. They then moved into a more facilitative mode of working and created the self-organising space within which people could develop their projects.


RSA Networks

Programmes powered by volunteers - as RSA Networks is meant to be - will only work if the volunteers continue to feel motivated. This generally involves feeling valued, knowing what is going on, having some say in what is planned, having fun. One problem for RSA Networks is that RSA traditionally has not managed volunteers, and isn’t quite sure what “Fellows” are.

SI Camp

While the prizes were small - £3000 and £2000 for winner and runner-up - people appeared motivated by the chance to work collaboratively in a friendly, fun atmosphere to create some innovative projects.

Online system

RSA Networks

From the outset the programme relied on an online system as the main forum for interaction. This system also provided the way to evolve and model the type of exchanges and processes that would, it was hoped, lead to civic innovation projects. However, against all conventional wisdom, no-one with experience of online systems was appointed to manage the system, or to mentor and support Fellows and staff.

Very few people within RSA had any experience in depth of online systems and social media. This meant that not only did the RSA not know what it was doing, it didn’t know what it didn’t know. The external consultants appointed to develop the system were very active, but could not, from their position, embed learning within the organisation. They also left part way through the programme as the RSA decided to re-establish the online system using different consultants and software, within a complete rebuild of the RSA website. This was substantially delayed, and the new RSA Networks site is still not in operation.

It could be said that RSA fell into the classic technology trap - believing technology would produce innovation and collaboration, while not blending in other collaborative approaches. If the technology is delayed, or does not work well, it becomes the scapegoat for other failings.

SI Camp

There was no purpose-built online system: the organisers used Wordpress, Backnetwork and Twitter. This meant that costs were low and there was no substantial lead-in time.

Project development.

RSA Networks

One aim of RSA Networks was to produce innovative projects for external, social benefit. However, there was no clear process for mentoring or otherwise supporting project, or choosing those which might get some resources. The expectation appeared to be that Fellows would work this out for themselves. This was unrealistic when those involved were all volunteers, generally with busy personal and professional lives to lead.

SI Camp

The process for gathering ideas, choosing and then developing projects during the weekend succeeded in producing seven strong projects. However, the critieria by which projects were chosen were not particularly clear, and there was relatively little support after the Camp for projects. It may be that the second phase of development from October 2008 - with monthly meetups around the December event - provides the opportunity to build networks of support and generally keep the buzz going.

Networks and teams

RSA Networks

The twin agendas of innovative project development, and internal networking, led to a confusion of terminology and model. Much emphasis was placed on the development of “Fellow networks” - which are fine for social and other networking. However, innovative projects require project teams, and where people have never worked together, come from different disciplines, and are volunteers, a good deal of team development and support is needed. This did not appear to be recognised.

SI Camp

SI Camp has the potential to develop networks of people interested in web-enabled social innovation, while recognising the need for more tightly-formed teams to develop projects.


RSA Networks

While online interaction has been problematic, one of the most successful elements of the programme has been events: first the initial open space event on November 22 2007, then the events to evolve the online system, followed by further networking and project development exchanges. There are now regional facilitators, and they are making great efforts to promote more local networking. In London, one of the frequently heard requests from Fellows was more space at RSA headquarters to meet informally with others. This is currently limited to the bar.

SI Camp

The next phase of SI Camp development recogises the need for people to continue to meet to maintain momentum. While the projects are web-enabled, the process is substantially face-to-face.


RSA Networks

One of the great strengths of RSA is the diverse nature of its membership, and the wide range of programmes and events. RSA Networks has the potential to realise the inherent collective intelligence of the Fellows, particularly if this were linked to the highly successful events progamme that attracts an even wider range of non-members. Some of the potential became evident at the November 22 event, and through early activity on the online system. However, because people are making new connections outside their normal networks, facilitation becomes particularly important, and this hasn’t been evident in later stages of RSA Networks.

SI Camp

While there was a fair spread of interests at SI Camp, most of those attending were young, tech-savvy people. The next phase offers the opportunity to recruit more widely - but will this make it more difficult to get the rapid bonding of interests? Is a wider spread of interests and backgrounds important if the SI Camp model is to make a major impact on social problems?


RSA Networks

It is generally recognised that collaboration requires development of trust between collaborators. With good, trusting relationships there is a lot of give and take if things go wrong. It has been difficult to establish trust between staff and Fellows in such an uncertain situation.

SI Camp

The open, participative nature of the process appeared to create the conditions within which people were prepared readily to share their ideas.

Overall collaboration model

RSA Networks

Because there were so many different agendas and potential beneficiaries, with no clear process to agree outcomes, it is difficult to discern any specific model. One metaphor used was marketplace of ideas - but that only works if there is some currency of exchange or motivation. In retrospect is easy to say there should have been a clearer agreed purpose, process and criteria for evaluation. However, it might be useful to reflect how realistic it is to expect to develop collaboration models for social benefit, that are as clear cut as business models (see for example Business Models on the Web). In a business context, everyone knows they are there to get some financial return on investment, and there are clear contractual protocols. Where the aim is a social/civic project, with contributions from different sources working to different motivations, there are far more parameters, and it is more difficult to evolve a model.

SI Camp

The Big Idea behind Social Innovation Camp is that web technologies enable people to develop innovative projects outside traditional institutions. They can build networks with others and “this allows an individual to affect change by themselves on a scale that previously would have been difficult to achieve.” SI Camp piloted an accelerated face-to-face demonstration of how this can produce a lot of ideas and some developed projects. The monthly meetups and a further camp may begin to show how far the approach can scale up, particularly if others take up the invitation to “steal” the idea and run their own camps.

collaboration/common_themes.txt · Last modified: 2017/12/04 14:33 by 26u8s