Network effect for social innovation

Robert Metcalfe coined the term ‘network effect’ to mean the phenomenon whereby a service becomes more valuable as more people use it, thereby encouraging ever-increasing numbers of adopters. He was referring to networked computers but the term has increasingly gained wide spread use.

One of the most interesting applications is around network effects for social change, and last Thursday saw the beginning of an interesting experiment in this space. The Royal Society of Arts is seeking to transform the diverse fellowship into a network to create positive social change. Mick Fealty describes the event as follows (here):

James Surowieki notes in his Wisdom Of Crowds’ critique that diversity of opinion and experience is a prerequiste for a crowd to be smart. Next is independence, ie people who are not likely to be swayed by people around them. Then decentralisation, where "power does not fully reside in one central location, and many of the important decisions are made by individuals based on their own local and specific knowledge rather than by an omniscient or farseeing planner."

Finally aggregation, some means of determining the group’s answer to the question, in this case: what might RSA Networks do and how might they deliver?

This last should begin to be determined through a number of outputs from the day, but the Open Space technology is a good match for Surowieki’s first three determining factors. RSA Fellows, or at least this bunch here today, are indeed a ‘smart crowd’.

Of course this is just the start of something and it is too early to say whether this will reach the all important ‘critical mass’ but we are watching it progress with interest (see here for exactly how we are observing and participating). However, it’s been a while since I attended an event with such a buzz and determination, so I strongly believe that the right conditions are there for successful collaborations to flourish.


  1. Roland – I agree with you about the RSA Networks event: really inspiring, and certainly a validation of NESTA’s investment in the process. The question, of course, is how to turn the buzz of conversation into projects with maximum benefit of network effect, and connection with other initiatives. As you know, a group of RSA Fellows has been making a contribution to the process through a blog and wiki
    So we now have your blog, the RSA Networks blog (if it continues)
    and the new passworded site for projects
    I think there’s a danger that the buzz will die away unless there is an explicit effort to make this an open collaborative innovation process, with some joining up of the spaces and links to NESTA’s expertise in this field.
    Would NESTA host a small get-together with Fellows, RSA and anyone else relevant to see how we can bring the lessons you have learned about open innovation into the process? As I wrote here a few years back. I don’t believe civic innovation will work behind a login

  2. David – I’m certainly happy to consider convening a small get-together if that would be helpful. This would link with the evaluation we are doing with Eleanor Ford. When do you think is the right time to do this? I agree that for this to reach critical mass then it needs to ultimately take on a life of it’s own, and openness is key here. Roland

  3. Thanks Roland – really helpful to have your support on this. I’m sure the RSA team are reviewing things this week, so perhaps we could check in with them early next to see if it is worth doing anything before Christmas. I’ll also mention on the OpenRSA, where I’ve raised the issue too.

  4. Thanks Roland for the great suggestion of a get together. So nice that NESTA involved with this and the more connections we can all make the better. The personal warmth and sense of excitement that spread through the event last week shows so much promise, just as you have suggested. I can’t see that diminishing, and expect lots of activity after Christmas.

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