The above quote comes from Howard Rheingold’s 2002 book Smart Mobs and its sets a suitably grand tone for this post that I‘ve been chewing over for a while. I’ve always been interested in new way of connecting & networking & relationship building and recently have been spurred on to write this post by 3 unrelated events, described briefly below:
In each case many people were very excited by the events themselves (myself included) and the opportunities that the events and networks presented. However in each case there was also a significant minority asking the valid question ‘well what was the point of that?’. To be more precise, what I think they meant by this was ‘what real transactions occurred on the day?’ or ‘what commercial/social value was created?’. However I think this is possibly the right question at the wrong time, and misses the immediate value of networking.
There is a sequence of activities that occur in networks that can seldom be bypassed. Namely you start with lots of conversations, some of which will lead to a smaller number of some kind of relationships. Eventually, and almost certainly long after the first time people met, some transactions may follow that create value, be it commercial or social.
Therefore to judge an event by the number of transactions on the day misses the point. I think you can only observe the conversations and relationships that were created. Over the longer term you may be able to analyse the transactions that followed but this is still very hard.
I kick started proceedings at Amplified (see qik video here – apologies for the terrible audio) setting the following big hairy audacious goal:
“to make Britain the most connected country on the planet”
Now I know how difficult that is and had my doubts about saying it out loud (it’s not very British to be so bold is it but then again I’m not very British – I’m happy to explain my gene pool separately to anyone who is interested). However I am certain of the value that it would create for Britain. If we could achieve this goal, or even get anywhere close. I actually think that Britain is already something of a hub in the global economy culturally, economically, geographically and financially, and so it is realistic.
However, the value of networks is, by definition, highly distributed, and therefore it is seldom in any one person or organisations interest to support them. This is where public institutions like Nesta may have a role to play in connecting the dots, people and networks for the wider societal and economic good.
The theme at Davos this year, I’m reliably informed, is ‘Connecting the dots’ which is interesting but who know what those clever and influential people will talk about. But allow me to start with some simple maths that might help. Here are 47 dots connected in 3 different ways.
There are lots of different ways in which they could be connected but there appear to be 3 main different ways as follows:
In fact, this chart comes from this classic paper, that was very influential in determining how the internet infrastructure should be distributed to maximise safety.
Anyway, looking at these 3 different ways of connecting, and thinking much more widely than just internet technology, I think we’ve got too much a) and b) and not enough c). The problem is, c) has lots of supposedly random links that are often considered redundant and costly.
ion to flourish in a country or a place, requires the contribution of many actors, from universities, to corporates, to small companies, to public sector institutions etc. However looking at the supposed innovation ecosystem in most countries, there is a at best a multihub network where universities, governments and corporates have undue power.
I would argue that good ideas come from anywhere and we need a much more distributed (along the lines of picture c above) economic and social landscape to allow these to flourish. This has numerous implications for intellectual property regimes and other structures which are more than enough for another blog post so I won’ t go into that here.
We have seen the cost and speed of accessing information plummet over recent years, decades, centuries. I believe that in the not to distant future we can essentially assume that access to all information will be freely available to all (who have internet access – I‘m well aware of the 5bn who don‘t). And I do mean all.
Now much of this information will be classed as misinformation and much of it will infringe all kinds of peoples intellectual property so I’m not suggesting this is a universally good thing. However I think that if this happens, then it will require a major shift in the way individuals and organisations perceive themselves and create value.
Currently we identify ourselves (as individuals or members of organisations and institutions) based on our knowledge. It’s just what we do. However if access to all information is freely available then it is never more so a question of ’who you know, not what you know’. And by this I really don’t mean some kind of closed old boy network. In fact is quite the opposite. It’s very much an open and global network.
In future we will create value not on the basis of our knowledge, but on the basis of how we can leverage our relationships or social networks to capitalise on the information that we all have access to. This will not be easy but I would argue that those unable to make the shift will be left behind.
To try to assess the value of networks or events such as Amplified, V-Jam or Learning Dreams based on the transactions that occurred on a particular day is to miss the point and value of networking. There are a variety of ways we can connect the dot, people and networks and I would argue that we must strive to maintain diversity and distribution in the networks we create, and foster, so as not to further entrench existing silos.
I’ve heard somebody say recently, and I can’t remember who I’m afraid, that 20 years ago companies couldn’t quantify the value of their brand, which they now can through a variety of methods. It’s called ‘Brand Value’ and it tends to be the biggest number on the balance sheet for companies like Coke. What needs to happen now is a similar shift from knowing that networks are important, to being able to quantify the value of our networks – our ‘Network Value’. There have been fledgling attempts at this over the years e.g. the net promoter score but I’m aware of some of the concerns with this and needless to say our understanding of how to calculate ‘Network Value’ this needs to get much more sophisticated.
I’m not sure quite how to summarise all of the above but needless to say it’s important to me, and the work we do at Nesta Connect. As always I’d be really interested in the thoughts or feedback of others.
Needless to say I think networks are increasingly crucial and we should set ourselves as big hairy audacious goal to make the UK the most connected place on the planet (whilst being aware and welcoming that other countries will have, or may already have, the same objective).
So as connectivity continues to grow exponentially, it up to us to understand what this means socially, economically and politically; to continue to build networked organisational models that better share risk and reward, and to share what we are learning.