RSA Catalyst Project: Network of Networks

It is now some time since we got the RSA catalyst award and this post is an attempt to kickstart this work. Its also preparation for a project meeting we have later today so its just in time blogging. The project is seeking to address three questions:

  1. What is the simplest thing we can do to connect all the many excellent civic networks we can find in Brighton?
  2. How can we give that network of networks a stronger voice?
  3. Is the process of connecting these networks repeatable in other places – what can we learn about the underlying mechanism and process?

I have written elsewhere about the underlying model we are working on here but the basic idea is to look specifically at the connectors who bring networks together and as a result provide vital information flow between different groups. There is lots on Social Network Analysis about the ‘strength of weak ties’ and the aim here is to look at whether you can target these in order to create a stronger networked space around a locality. We do not intend this to be an online only experiment but clearly the digital space does this well and we want to look at how the online/offline can best compliment each other.

There are many reasons for want to do this which at some point I will draw out specifically but the practical list is:

  • Ideas and information travel faster and more efficiently
  • Both needs and capacity could be self-managed more effectively
  • Strengthening networks contributes to building social capital and community resilience

I see this network of networks as the social layer of smart city/place and a counter balance to the more data driven view of digital place.

However we also have two more value laden reasons:

  • By strengthening the network (and understanding its nature) it can be create better (yes – needs defining) citizen voice and action
  • A stronger network could tend towards co-productive behaviours and hence provide upwards pressure to shift the citizen/state relationship

So, as an action research project we need to first set up our research parameters and explore these with our first group of participants. I am suggesting two forms of data to be captured:

I intend writing an action research diary this via this blog to capture our experiences – though I will also be trying to get other people to do this same so its not too biased to my view of the world.   We will also be tracking the network effect of some of the experiments in Brighton and providing this as a model that people could try elsewhere (please!).  The set up for the project is fairly simple:

  • Update the network map of civic creators in Brighton based on the We Live Here and other research – make this visible and available
  • Convene a meeting of the connector group in order to discuss the project, get feedback and agree some of the experiments

My intention is to use Citizenscape as one of the ways in which we examine the network as I need to get some hands on experience of using the software myself and this is just the kind of project we are designing it to manage. However I also expect much of the activity to be happening outside of this environment so I will also be creating a network map that can be shared.

The real meat of this is of course in the experiments we will be trying after this first meeting. Now, the detailed nature of these will depend on the channels that the connectors use. There is no point in designing something which is ‘twitter native’ for a group that are actually more connected face to face or on another platform. However the scope of the experiments should be generic and the first 3 I want to propose will be:

  1. Can we connect the connectors? I would hope that one of the positive byproducts of the initial meeting would be to connect this group but this needs testing
  2. How fast can a message travel through the network of networks? Once connected, it should be relatively simple to track a message between the connectors. It will also be important to track a message from within on of the connected networks to another network – i.e. the flow through the connectors as well as the flow to
  3. How much maintenance does the network need? We will stimulate it at the start of the project and then measure interactions over a time period. We will create regular contact from ourselves and from within the network and look at what has the best effect on flow

Much of the devil of this will be in the nature of different connectors communication preferences – the theory is relatively simple but we will almost be certainly be asking people to change their information seeking/sharing behaviour and any behaviour change can be tricky!

Once we have a sense that the network of networks exists then the next stage would be to try and stimulate it to do something specific – to address a particular need or question. Rather than creating these artificially we would want to identify questions/needs which already exist within the space and then seek to use the network to amplify these – or observe where the network effect is not working.

There are three issues buried in here:

  • is it possible to influence the networks in an area as described?
  • is it possible to make the network of networks visible and dynamically available?
  • is it possible to actively ‘use’ that network or is it inherently spontaneously?

I am intrigued as to whether this is all a question of a simple ‘nudge’ which asks connectors to simply be more open and active in their connected behaviour or if there are more complex issues beneath this which relate to the role of the connector and their authority/influence. I am also of course interested in how we use the tech to make these networks more visible and as a result more accessible – this can’t all be about the connectors.

We will be discussing these ideas later today and I will update from there but the next steps will be to get comments and to put more detail into things like ‘map the current networks’ etc etc…





  1. tomsprints

    July 24, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Catherine, Having been part of several over time, I’m not personally persuaded that all ideas do travel “faster” in networks of networks simply because of increased connectivity. Some might, but what I think tends to happen is that ideas get exposed to a much more “360 degree view” when the pass through such networked networks. For starters, this can be very valuable as insurance against groupthink within, say, the sector or agency whose network originally came up with the idea.

    I also think networks of networks act like this on some issues to prevent excessive speed of action. It takes a while for an idea properly to do the rounds. Sometimes exposure to that passage of time can be healthy, of course.


    • curiouscatherine

      July 24, 2013 at 10:21 am

      Its a really good point Tom – faster and more effective and definitely not the same thing and so we should examine these separately as you say. I am interested in the different channels and the different pace of those channels – I think we risk thinking that twitter is the speed standard and actually this is an edge case in terms of how information travels and other speeds are not a bad thing.

      I suppose there is a big difference between the need for a network of network to have a shared moment and the need for more reflective consideration and doing the rounds – I wonder how we can look at both these things?


  2. ianchisnall

    July 24, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    On the issue of transferability clearly there are local distinctions at play in both within the networks and at the bridging points. The principles of the idea may transfer but creating standard route maps may be a great deal harder.

  3. Robert Hardy

    July 24, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    One of the interesting things to think about in relation to the behaviour change/behaviour shift that might be needed, is incentives. If the idea s to strengthen and deeper the weaker or shallower connectors then how do you incentivise such change? Is altruism enough? What other incentives are feasible? Is there a measurable social ‘reward’ for those who change? etc. etc.

  4. ianchisnall

    July 24, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    And who gets to choose the level of social rewards?

  5. David Wilcox

    July 24, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Hi Catherine – what an interesting and important project, from so many angles. It sounds as if you may be intending to do this … but just to confirm, my suggestion would be to involve the core connectors in co-designing the network building process. As you indicate there are lots of online and offline methods, but I find the key issues are some shared purpose, benefits that work for different interests, and trust.
    My hunch would be that it may take a number of face-to-face events to develop these. But I guess I’m just restating the obvious here.
    Having said that, Drew Mackie and I have found that creating a base network map and making development of both links and resource nodes part of the first event works well. Glad to share past experience if useful.


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