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holding an UnParty UnConference

Have you heard Mark Thomas’ The Manifesto? Its been on Radio 4. The set up is simple, Mark visits various parts of the country and people are invited to submit their ideas to join the Peoples Manifesto. Some are very funny, some are a bit odd and others are very interesting. Mark will do research on some of the ideas, asking experts for their opinion etc.

You might also have seen a project by James Smith (@floppy) The Open Politics Manifesto hosted over on GitHub. Using the tools developers use to record, edit and ‘discuss’ manifesto ideas.

Yes, you do need a GitHub account and know how to use it a bit, James has written notes on how to participate but it can be seen as a hurdle.

Of course, participation in the Mark Thomas project is also limited, in fact I am not sure if it is still running,

Years ago I started a site called, which was based on the code that was written by Ben Hammersley to run a site he owned called, which in turn was based on an idea by Matt Jones. The idea was simple, using trackback you could post something on your weblog and it would get reflected on the lazyweb/gov page, linking to your post.

Again it was a digital tool when, in reality the number of us online was still low. It is not totally inclusive.

So the next intervention I propose is to hold an UnParty UnConference, or a lot of them all over the country and as often as needed.


  • Find A Venue
  • Tell people about it
  • Get policy ideas recorded online for discussion
  • Someone to facilitate the meeting
  • Hold the meeting, discuss and record

The only rule should be that you need to be non-partisan. This is not ideology lead, it should be a space to discuss ideas rationally and calmly. Use the tools of deliberation, debate, research. Encourage people to go out and find and present the facts to support or not an idea, be willing to compromise.

Once your meeting is over, record and share the conversations online, update the policy ideas.

Yes, there are plenty of steps to take next, from ideas though to action. This is just a stepping stone.

Design and Protest

At Improving Reality 2013 in Brighton, during a panel session, one of the speakers, Tobias Revell briefly mentioned the ideas that design can be an antagonistic platform and the possibility that design could be a protest movement.

A flurry of tweets on the backchannel around this idea appeared and as I am involved in a college of art and design and I am interested in protest, activism and action I thought that this might be worthy of some further investigation.

An antagonistic platform is something I consider a space to investigate the tensions and conflicts between two or more actors. Through scenarios, provocations and role playing it should be possible to investigate and document the potential antagonisms and use this information, either in working towards resolution, evidence against one actor or another etc.

Something missed in the tweets that surrounded Tobias comment was a follow up for him, that this antagonistic space could be safe. This of course follows from a lot of the work that was presented on the day, these were design fictions and as such had yet to permeate into everybody’s everyday life.

Using the toolkit of design and the creation of fictions and scenarios and associated interventions you could explore certain antagonisms between actors in a safer space than ‘in the wild’

The artist and researcher Christian Nold presented a piece of work on Noise at the recent Participation In Science conference, held recently in London as a part of the Royal Geographic Societies annual conference. For the work, he has been working with local communities around Heathrow Airport, working to record the sound levels due to aircraft usage of the Airport. This is a politically charged issue, the expansion of Heathrow has a lot of investment attached to it but it would also greatly affect a large number of people who live in the area, with increased noise and the associated loss on the value of property that they own.

The work, as part of UCL’s Extreme Citizen Science research project is looking at ways of engaging the public in recording data, data that needs to be gathered to form part of a report on the proposed expansion.

Whilst developing tools and practiced to involve the community in collecting the data on their environment, Christian also developed a set of ‘interventions’, objects that use and respond to the data and provoke questions. For example, a simple receipt printer attached to a sound monitor, a receipt printed each time it recorded a sound above a preset limit. In a future could such receipts be used to clam compensation for sound pollution.

What was interesting was, at the conference, there were questions about the place of such parts of the work in the project. Science is supposed to be objective and not involved in the politics of the situation, yet these objects are imbued with the situation and political dialogue and work to provoke and question within that space, based on the underlying data collected in the ‘science part’ of the project.

Yesterday (as i write this) the iPhone 5s was launched, complete with fingerprint scanner and thus a mechanism for the everyday normalisation of biometric collection and use was released. This is though the post Snowden moment and whilst the theatre of techno-fetishism around the launch continued, the criticism behind the agenda of such technology was more noticeable. How long will this continue?

We are now working in a much more accelerated space. What is interesting is if design, art, critique on technology and practices can get out fast, so that by the time the technology is embedding itself into our everyday infrastructure we are already more conversant in how it works, why it does what it does and way it means to us in our lives.

I do not think that design is or will be a protest movement of itself, but it is part of the landscape on how we interact with each other and our environments, that protest ideas should make use of the tools of design and that design projects should be able to present the conflicts and hi light the issues, problems and conflicts in systems, processes, ideas and technologies.

Design can make the more abstract philosophies and ideas more accessible, more tangible and therefore more questionable and prod-able. Systems and methods of agency can be examined and questioned in a more accessible way. By developing the dialogues inside the safer space of the design space we can examine and extract and develop the ideas that are positive, that do make life better whilst retaining a record on the dialogue and process that lead to that decision.

I am thinking about hosting a one day conference on this, geekyoto style, if you might be interested the please fill in this form.

notes on: The Preferable Future Research Unit

The Preferable Future Research Unit

I want to look at two terms that I have been using recently, both are just ways of framing how I am trying to think about things at the moment but they might be useful, including how I map these onto existing frameworks and ways of thinking.

These are terms that I have been thinking about to explore a grander project, to create a better world. Whilst I fear that we now run a risk of becoming numbed to the word Future we do need to peg a vision somewhere.

The terms are ‘Preferable Future/s’ and ‘Accelerated Now’. I do not think that they obfuscate what I am trying to communicate with them too much, no clever wordplay here. Lets take each one in turn.

‘Preferable Future/s’

If you have been following geekyoto for a while this will be familiar to you, it originates for me, from the geekyoto conference where Richard Sandford gave an amazing talk on how we talk about the future and our possible nihilistic obsession with the dark, pessimistic futures. If that is how we communicate our imagination to our children how will be give them the tools and the aims for thinking beyond that.

Richard Sandford at geekyoto 2008 from Mark Simpkins on Vimeo.

Richard Sandford tells us something about the Beyond Current Horizons research project that is happening at Futurelab.

Maybe it is a nostalgia. There are a generation of us on the internet now whose future was, when children, described by the visions of space colonies and exploration, Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds and the whole gamut of ‘Rescue Fiction’ where engineers, scientists and brave thinking people solved problems and saved lives. This was our future.

Cyberpunk critiqued this, whilst we were looking at the space colonies of the future the world was going through a complex neo-liberalisation that reinforced existing power structures. We were not going to get those futures we had hoped for, instead we had to return to an examination of economics and power. Instead, though, of taking the critique and mapping the positive paths through this to a better, preferable future many became seduced by the spectacle presented by the critique.

Preferable Future/s is the project to re-invigorate the critical role in examining the possible futures that we can see developing from now and map the paths through that does take us though to a preferable state in the future. If we obsess over our eventual destruction then we are more than capable of making that so. On the other hand we can focus our critical skills on the reality that we are continually creating and manipulating and pick out the preferable paths, the options and suggestions for a brighter, better world.

‘Accelerated Now’

This is simply the condition we are in now, processing the changes and developments as they happen. Science Fiction after cyberpunk did not lose its way but the critical thinking had to leap back to a previous time of accelerated change and re-imagine an industrial revolution with the communication and information density of now.

The economic collapse and the dearth of new ideological thinking has left us flailing, quickly latching onto whatever structure might just ‘float’ at the moment without a depth of critical thought or analysis. We thus possibly enable the new brokers of power almost unwittingly.

‘Accelerated Now’ is like Future Shock but possibly more manageable as we have become better able to address the densities of information that are now available. Yes, we still need more people to understand ‘how it all works’, understanding that code gives ideas agency within a computational culture is vital, being able to understand that code is useful.

The Preferable Future Research Unit

The goal of Preferable Future research is to enable critical thinking and collaboration across disciplines and to generate the tools, dialogues and objects that allow us to manage the accelerated now and move towards the future that we would prefer to see.

Working on projects that create projects and methods that allow us to sharpen our decisions towards preferable goals, working with those that are examining possible futures and helping gauge the best routes though them. The PFRU should be as much a path finding mission, explorers in the space of possibilities, developing the new maps for these territories.

The PFRU should be cross discipline and cross institutional. It’s home is in the network, with the nodes that can make an surface within the projects, models and thinking of the creators and explorers working now to pull us all through to a better world.

elegance and seams

The thing with a well made, elegant suit or dress is that, when you look you can see how the parts go together, the workmanship in making it, the adding of resilience to the components that see the most wear and tear.

And a well made suit should stay with you for a very long time, because it is well made and strong in a lot of places, but can also be repaired or modified as you change.

The seams may not be obvious but they are certainly not invisible.

Introducing the researchAgenda

I want to research how being more public and open about the subjects that you wish to research affects that research, does it make for a richer outcome? Does it mean that you start competing with others to get your results out sooner once you know that you and twenty others are working on similar topics? Or do you collaborate, maybe publish more, your own work plus work written together?

I sat down and hit the paralysis that I wrote about before, I want to change the world in these ways and right now I have no idea how to take the next step. Which idea is worth spending time on? which one not?

Of course, rather than just pick one work out the plan for it, then if it failed quickly move onto the next I decided to create another idea to address the problem.

researchAgenda is a simple site, simple because part of it is really me practicing my coding again after too many years just managing projects.

Using twitter, you sign in, and create a simple post, a title and a small block of text. Describe quickly what you are thinking of researching.

This can then be tweeted to your followers, who can, if they are interested visit the site, give you a positive vote if you think the idea is worth looking at, maybe leave a comment or maybe they know a reference you should be aware of, a paper on the web, or in a journal or another project by someone.

Each idea has its own view, so you can see all the comments, the suggested references and if it was your idea, you can press a button to start the project. What does this do? It clones a standard, default project in GitHub, creates a set of folders for data, documentation, references etc and a readme and contributor list that is based on the people who have added comments and references to your idea on researchAgenda.

Think of it as similar to HelpMeWrite for research.

At the moment there is nothing about the institution, nothing about how the project is reviewed or funded, or even a necessity to document what the outcome would be. It is currently just a space to write down the fact that you are interested in investigating further X. Maybe after feedback you get to refine what it is, maybe its a short project, you are going to spend a week just using a new technology and your outcome will be a blog post on what you found, good learning references etc.

Maybe though the outcome is more going to be more substantial. Can you take the input and form it into a proposal to go before one of the research councils, are you attached to an Institution that can manage the funding from such?

Of course, longer term this is, in itself a stake in the ground about creating a more public discourse about research, knowledge acquisition, generation and dissemination. Can you shape a research proposal an perform the primary work without being attached to a usual Institution? How are the outcomes of your work reviewed and published and how can the current models of academia bend to accept such work? Can they?

This does also tie into my previous posts, one on how to affect change, having a simple way to put a message ‘I want to do X’ that you can point to and ask for feedback is nice. Yes you can write a blogpost, or a facebook post or any number of other places but there is also something about the idea of a communal space, this is creating an simple ‘UnAcademia’ (ok, I’m not sure that is really the term to use, I could be quickly using up my valid excuses to use the Un- prefix). The other the Arts UnCouncil on alternative funding for arts and cultural activity.

I think as this stands, it would work for ideas around the arts and humanities, as well as for people who already operate outside the usual academic institutions. They can use the interest in a proposed research problem to help support trying to get funding for doing the work, for example. Would the idea work in other areas of research? Would bioscientists use such a platform to start staking out what they were interested in and maybe finding interest / collaborators outside their usual field/lab of interest?

There is nothing to say that you have to use the GitHub project, or you have to keep it open, maybe it can integrate into other online tools, maybe you can use this to help start parts of a research project that involve crowd sourcing of participation for microtasks?

researchAgenda will launch shortly in alpha, it is just a sketch in code but if you are interested in trying it out drop me a line and I’ll make sure you know when its live.

The Arts UnCouncil – The Provocations

To further the discussion on The Arts UnCouncil I want to come up with a series of provocations, statements, notes and ideas that are coming up when talking about this. These are just starting points for the discussion, a few small entries on the great grid that is the UnCouncil.

Provocation 1

‘I already pay my taxes, haven’t I already funded this kind of activity?’

Provocation 2

‘In doing this are we showing that there is an appetite for arts and cultural activity with the public?’

‘Is this a way of showing that funding by central government and local government need to, or are at least justified in spending money on this and the cuts that have been made should be re-assessed?’

Provocation 3

‘By doing this we show that funding by central government is unnecessary, as we are funding the activity that we want, so they can make further cuts?’

Provocation 4

‘But what actually is art, what counts as cultural activity, where are the lines drawn, if we draw them at all and who decides?’

‘I want to …’

[you can discsuss this on twitter #iwantto]

Sometimes you wake up and realise that you want to change the world.

It might be that three o’clock in the morning and the fears and ideas that have plagued your mind for the last week coalesce into something you want to do. You have an idea. You write it down.

The next step is always one of the hardest, what to do next, how do you go about changing the world?

Taking the first step

The first step is always the hardest, in all things. The only way to approach anything is at a step at a time. You may create a grand vision, but what you act upon that always has to be managable. You have to be able to make the steps to reach towards your goal.

Now this starts to sound a bit like AA, the steps to moving away from addiction but that is because as a method of achieving something this works. There is a goal, ‘stop drinking’ or ‘cure cancer’. You can only ever step towards that goal and each step has to be one that you can take. It may be a hard step, it may take effort, it may cost you personnally but you have to be able to take the steps.

The goal may never be reached, but each step does change things. It alters to world to varying degrees.

A while back I was sat in a Le Pain Quotidien with Mark Stevenson and John-Paul Flintoff. Mark had recently finished his book ‘An Optimists Tour of The Future’ and John-Paul was researching how people affect change.

How To Change The World by @jpflintoff

We were discussing the idea around the League of Pragmatic Optimists, how this idea of people meeting regularly, sharing ideas about changing the world might work. How we could actually get action, not just a talking shop. John-Paul put forward that the key is to be able to examine the problem properly, be able to define what it is that you are trying to achieve and then, create the steps necessary to get there.

I think I reduced that down to ‘ToDo Lists’ for people attending LOPO meetings. Not quite the same thing.

The point, I think, is that we are very much in an age where we very quickly hit a point of impasse, what do we do next, how do we move forwards. It’s not just ‘us’ though. Politicians hit the same thing, everyone does.

Stop, reflect, regroup and replan

Being able to assess what it is that you actually want to achieve is a skill, one that can be taught and learnt.

One of the simplest ways though is to talk to people, other people can often look at a problem and help you see what you need to do next. Not everybody i’ll admit but on the whole they can.

Lots of people already do this. It is not new. In 2008 Clay Shirky wrote ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ which was about “what happens when people are given the tools to do things together, without needing traditional organizational structures”.

PledgeBank, a site from MySociety is explicitly a site to help people get things done.

I have recently helped to launch a site and app Impossible. In this you add your wishes and gifts, there is no exchange but you can connect to people and help them to do something.

These are not the only tools out there either, the trick now is working out which step, which tool is the right one to take.

And this is where I think the gap is right now, I read an article on some grand disaster that is happening somewhere in the world and instinctively I want to do ‘something’ but what?

I wake up with and idea that will change the world, probably in small way but what are the next steps.

How to I add a wish to impossible that, in terms of effort from someone else, is grantable? How to I scope my gifts so that I know that when someone asks I can do it, without, at the back of my mind wishing I hadn’t posted that?

When do I create a pledge? When do I contact my MP? When do I take to the streets?

In a way we can approach this using a funnel model, we start with something possibly big, at least big in terms of the fact that you don’t quite know which direction its going to take. You examine it and start to break it down, possibly into steps that involve all of the above and more, steps that you can give to friends and contacts which are at the right scale that they can do them without too much thought.

So what happens now?

We talk. I don’t have one of my usual ideas, collapsing two words and thinking about creating something new. We probably don’t have to. The tools are already out there and there are plenty of people who have managed and are now affecting change.

Maybe if we just find it easier to find out these examples and maybe if we can just say, sometimes:

‘I want to change X in the world’

and people, anyone can come back with:

‘Look at Y’, ‘Start by contacting Z’, ‘I’ll help email me at …’

We can help each other look at the grand goals and help create the steps so that we can move towards them.

We can then use the tools out there, post our wishes and gifts on impossible, create the pledge on pledgebank that affects the next level of change.

This is not about creating a platform to ‘help you make change’, to try and own processes and tools, its a discussion about taking part in the community that can make change happen, that can point to and help with the tools out there, can possibly help make the new tools necessary.

Make a difference.

[you can discsuss this on twitter #iwantto]

The Arts UnCouncil

The board in front of you is empty, a grid. Rooms and times around the edges. How are you going to create something from this?

We have had unconferences for a while now, take the existing format and then blow it apart, allow the participants to create the content, to share, discuss and learn. It does work and once most people get past the initial shock of that schedule grid being blank to start with they soon learn that its there for them.

We need to find new ways to fund arts and culture. We can not rely on what has been there before, institutions do crumble over time, things do change and whilst I, personally do not agree with a policy being discussed or enacted by the current government and that we should fight, question and argue each and every one of them, I also believe that this is an opportunity to try other things.

Crowdfunding is a way to go, in fact on the, now many, crowdfunding sites you can find a number of art projects, short films, gallery shows etc. WeDidThis is dedicated to crowdfunding art.

Before I have proposed ideas around how we could look at funding journalism if we wanted to avoid the possible agendas of media moguls. Now, lets think about the cultural space around us.

We are already crowdfunding art works:

In Oxford, the city council have started running Create, a project where, once a month artists submit proposals, from which 6 are selected to pitch at an event. The event is open to the public, attendees are asked for a suggested donation of £10 (a minimum of £5) which goes into the event pot. The council match the donations in the pot.
At the event, the artists pitch and everyone votes for who gets the money.

The People Speak also run a similar event called Who Wants to Be…?, the audience created a fund and then spent the event deciding what to do with the money. Designed as much around a game show and audience participation event, this is also a performance in itself.

The Oxford model has been run twice now and seems to be working, and is something that could be used elsewhere.

You could also use the model similar to the one I suggested for the news foundation, ‘I agree to pay X amount once a month into a fund.’ As a contributor to the foundation I get to vote for the board that will be in charge of the dispersal of grants from the fund. In this model I would have less say over what specific art, events etc. would get funded, instead I devolve that to a curatorial board.

This could be seen as similar to the Awesome Foundation.

Now the Arts UnCouncil, we look at the board showing the balance available to fund the arts and at first glance it is bare.

Then we notice in the corner Oxford City Council’s Create is there. Other projects, such as the Nesta backed National Funding Scheme are currently on trial (disclosure: there is some of my code and technical architecture in the NFS project) also fall into our field of view but there are still a lot of blank spaces.

These are the spaces that we can fill, The Arts UnCouncil is the collective effort of us all to take part in the cultural landscape of our society. It is not a replacement for the Arts Council but as well as. We are not looking to close the funding gap but to participate in the creation of culture and art.

Very quickly the spaces on the grid fill up. You read some of the titles, some really catch your interest, others you glance over but thats ok. An idea springs into your mind, how you want to talk about something that has been on your mind for a while, an idea or project you have been working on over time recently. You want to share and listen. So you grab a pen and fill in one of the spaces.

This is just a note to ask us to start talking about how we might all actively contribute to our cultural landscape, how we might allow for challenging work to be developed and produced, how we can feel a part of the landscape.

The Arts Uncouncil might become a thing, run in trust for us all or maybe it is just an idea around which we can think and talk and do.

Help start the discussion.

The Arts Uncouncil.