In which I put my faith in humans

This is the write of up of the session I ran with Davy Jones at CityCamp Brighton in which we asked 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?

These questions form the basis of a research project that a few of us are interested in kicking off over the next couple of months – how do you network the networks? Given the time constraints we didn’t get past question three but the other are important context setting for the debate because  I think these are critical questions for anyone interested in civic participation or community engagement and arguably for politicians as well – if we are living in a more networked society then how do we ensure that this is strengthening the civic fabric of our communities?

The main reason for these question is that I have become increasingly aware over the course of my research of the fragility of the digital civic space. While something like CityCamp Brighton reaffirms my belief in the ability of the social web to connect and organise like minded people to change the places where they live for the better the facts show clearly that digital civic activists are in the minority.

Dig a little deeper however and you can, I believe, illustrate that though not active many more people – the majority of people – are civically connected. We are connected through sports clubs, schools, clubs and networks and in dozens of other ways. There are many ways in which we connect to civic society and we increasingly use technology to make that connection easier even if that connection is weak. Each of those civic networks could have within it people who are connected to other networks – the bridges or weak ties of network theory – and these people are vital to the fabric of the overall network of the place – the network of networks. Those connectors have the potential to be a vital element of a more connected society.

There are so many brilliant websites and networks out there – my question is how do you connect them together so that they can collaborate more effectively?

Underlying this question is the assumption that these networks want to or ‘should’ collaborate. For the purposes of this work I am assuming collaboration to be at a minimum information sharing and dissemination and I am also assuming that even if the networks do not collaborate better connectivity will not result in excessive competition. These are fairly big assumptions but I am going to park them for now and come back to them at a later date if we manage to get question 1 off the ground.

We used the CityCamp session to kick around these questions with a group of people who were in the main part connectors themselves. In general terms the group formed three different positions:

  1. People who believed that this would all sort itself out – we just need to be more aware of the need to make networks open
  2. People who wanted some kind of external solution – a directory or role responsible for connecting things together
  3. People who felt that some kind of intervention was needed but that it needed to be sustainable with an emphasis on behaviour change rather than external input

Given a lot of consensus was reached around the benefits of connecting different networks together we spent some time discussing what stops it happening. Some of the ideas put forward included:

  • Time – connecting networks involves participating in more than one network and that takes time
  • Visibility – finding other networks is not always easy and even with good intentions we can miss connections
  • Laziness – how often do we cut and paste an invite rather than actually asking someone to attend an event?

We also asked whether or not it was something that people were aware of and it was generally acknowledged that organisers need to be consciously focused on widening reach in order to connect to other networks. This brought us to a different articulation of connectors as gatekeepers and the need to ensure that connectivity is with the whole network and not limited to or throttled by the connecting individual.

The aim of the project will be, as a starting point, to experiment with some techniques and approaches to ‘network the networks. The ideas discussed to do this included creating visible networks in the form of notice boards and community space or common branding or exploring how we could create a citywide hashtag – something like a connecting bat signal.

The idea that we spent most time on was the suggestion that we creating a network of people and not rely on technology to create these connects. The discussion the turned to whether this was something that could be curated – control of such a network being considered to be out of the question.  This turned into a discussion of the potential of a ‘City curators network’ which would connect both physical and digital networks. The curators would be charged with ensuring that participation is widening access and would be asked to curate not filter of censor. They would also be charged with ensuring that the network remains open to new participants.

This seemed like a lovely construct but we saw considerable issues with consciously constructing such a network. Even if we could envisage how to make it self-sustaining there were substantive questions about how we might build trust in these people as well as concerns about the risks of creating a new gatekeeping elite and whether this group should also be responsible for the representativeness.

At this point we were some distance from the lean ambition of finding the simplest way of connecting the connectors together.

In the end the discussion polarised around two ideas; either we need to encourage behaviour change or we need provide better support. In the end the lean ambition dominated and the discussion became one about behaviour change and in effect how we could ‘nudge’ people towards tending towards openness and connection.

One of the final points in the discussion was around the need to create a sense of personal responsibility – should we not want to make networks open and connected? So much of this statement is I believe related to the inherently pro-social and active stance that you are going to find in a gathering such as CityCamp but there is also something here about the online participatory culture with its affordances of openness and connectivity ‘infecting’ the way in which offline networks function. If this is the case then this once again becomes all about people and not technology and we will be taking this thought forward as we experiment with some of the ideas discussed in the session.

If you would like to be involved then please get in touch.


  1. Peckham Vision

    March 31, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    yes I’d like to be involved. How do we connect to this?

    • curiouscatherine

      April 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

      excellent – we will be sorting a brighton meet up at some point but I think I will also be doing a short questionnaire and blogging some more of the discussion – happy for virtual or real life connections so just state your preference

  2. Valerie pearce

    April 1, 2013 at 8:37 am

    Happy to be involved if I can add value

    • curiouscatherine

      April 1, 2013 at 8:59 am

      Always! will be sorting out a meet up I think so will keep you posted

  3. Phil Jewitt

    April 1, 2013 at 10:05 am

    Great post Catherine.

    The other week I built a snow dragon ‘thing’. It became the catalyst for some wonderful conversations in my street. I didn’t intend those conversations to happen, but they did and there was something powerful in that.

    On reflection, the time it took to create this ‘thing’ created the most satisfying hours I’ve had in a while. Not because I created some[thing], but because of what building it did. The full story is here

    And when all the people had gone about their day and I’d gone in and sat down I thought that if I’d built the thing in my back garden and not in the street then none of that conversation would have happened. So public space is crucial, whether virtual or physical.

    People have their own networks. And obviously where these networks merge in ‘public’ space gives people a chance to interact. If you give the networks a chance to overlap rather than creating new ones or ‘pigeon holing’ folk then people seem to gel and get enthused about being part of something without it appearing to be something else. As there is no perceived threat to their network, they will move between networks without necessarily being defensive or protective of their own network or clan or tribe.

    Not entirely sure where I’m going with this but I’m sure you are aware of the commission on the future of local government which was set up to reassess the role of local government in the 21st century and put forward practical actions to revitalise local democracy and public service.

    A key task of the commission was to take the concept of ‘Civic Enterprise’ and test its practical application across a broad range of services to identify genuine opportunities for new ways of working between the public, private and third sectors. That has a big link with what you are suggesting.

    So I’m interested in being involved.

    • curiouscatherine

      April 1, 2013 at 11:02 am

      I loved your post on the snowdragon! And yes – I think public space is a big part of this (have got my eye on big screens for example). And would love to link up with your civic enterprise stuff – will be in touch when I have this a bit more sketched out



  4. Mark Braggins

    April 1, 2013 at 10:53 am

    Network the networks? Yes, I’m up for that. Signposting to, and sharing with, others is part of what our ‘Hampshire Hub’ project is seeking to do. There’s some stuff about that at:
    ‘Network the networks’ would be a great initiative and could draw together lots of local projects, events and sector-specific stuff. I’m in.

    • curiouscatherine

      April 1, 2013 at 11:01 am

      I have no idea why this proved tricky to post – will look into it (or in fact get my tech support AKA beloved husband to examine)

      And brilliant – will look at the Hampshire hub stuff and include you in the list of co-conspirators – will be trying to pull this together over the next few weeks


  5. Mark Braggins

    April 1, 2013 at 11:12 am

    Thanks Catherine. I tried commenting several ways: email, Twitter and WordPress.
    Any advice, suggestions etc re Hampshire Hub very welcome!

  6. jonathanflowers

    April 2, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    A thought fragment in lieu of cogency:

    There’s something here about encouraging people to be, er…, curious. “Seek and ye shall find”.

    There’s a maxim which I’ve deployed ever since we did an accidentally very effective early knowledge management system in NatWest Consultancy in 1995. The system was fairly clunky to search but it was supremely easy to add info to it. This worked because it aligned the work with those who have an incentive, ie I want to find something out, rather than those for whom the benefit of providing information was much less obvious, and potentially just a time drain. So the maxim becomes “align the hard work with those those who benefit”.

    Are networks push things or pull things? There is a tendency to want to create ways of pushing connections or networks at people. If we’re approaching this from a minimalist direction then perhaps it is our job to make it supremely easy for people to proactively _find_ networks when they realise a network can help them?

    If so the question for those who want to make it easy to be found is “where would people look for me?”, and make sure you are represented there. This feels like a minimalist approach, which puts the majority of the work with the beneficiary of making the connection.

    “It is not your job to find everybody who might benefit from knowing you, it is your job to be easy to find”?

    • curiouscatherine

      April 2, 2013 at 5:53 pm

      I think networks are neither push nor pull but people make them so….

      Completely agree with the align work with benefit but I think there is also a group of people who are more likely to behave in this way and need less of an incentive than others. In answer to your question you could see this as setting up a social norm of openness – and defining that as being open to being found…mmm….

  7. tomsprints

    April 3, 2013 at 4:03 pm


    Happy to be involved too.

    I’m not convinced about the comment that one needs to be involved in more than one network to connect them. There seem to me to be many that connect in a passive way, through simple links on web pages, common interest that leads to citing the experiences of others on your own network etc.

    However, there are also a lot of quite difficult networks to connect with because, rather like an amphibian reacting to sunshine, they only come to life when there are particular stimuli, and it isn’t always clear what those stimuli are – sometimes it isn’t always clear even when you’re a member of the network. That’s been my experience working with, say, older person’s networks.


  8. ianchisnall

    April 13, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Hi Catherine
    I am also very interested in participating if I can help in any way. I certainly think we could achieve more if we could crack the issue of connecting some of the existing networks to punch far further than our weight might otherwise allow.

    • curiouscatherine

      April 18, 2013 at 5:57 pm

      great – will be in touch!!!

  9. David Wilcox

    April 16, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Hi Catherine – really interested in this. It ties in with work I’m doing on how to use social tech, network thinking etc to support local community enablers.

    • curiouscatherine

      April 18, 2013 at 5:57 pm

      great – will be in touch with the next steps then

  10. Robert Hardy

    April 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Hi Catherine, now that I’m a B&H resident at long last, I’d like to get more involved in CityCamp and related meet-ups

    • curiouscatherine

      April 18, 2013 at 5:57 pm

      Brilliant! Will email some details but if by the bizarre chance you are free this evening there is a meetup at 19:30 at Hove Kitchen – really looking forward to catching up

      • Robert Hardy

        April 19, 2013 at 5:02 pm

        Sorry I missed it Catherine, I was at the opening of a friend’s new shop on Portland Rd (when did shops start having ‘openings’?). Look forward to catching up and getting involved

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