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Opening up the policy process

May 27th, 2008 by Mitch
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The UK faces some big issues: climate change, an aging population, changing demographics, global competition, etc. Increasingly, these issues are defying the conventional mechanisms we have for developing and delivering the policy to address them. Policy-making roles within government entities tend to conform to rigid structures and internal cultural norms (i.e who can speak to whom, who can say what to the public, who needs to approve new ideas, etc.). Any others who might wish to participate in the process must first learn to conform to those norms and the oft-hidden pathways into the system.

Tackling, together

These problems can’t be solved with one particular skillset or within one particular department. They require interdisciplinary skills, and the combined efforts of many people working across government, the economy, and society. Those with knowledge might be in a national government agency, or in a local council. They might be experts in a think-tank, or a practitioner with years of experience delivering a service in their community. They might live in a city, a rural town, or even another country altogether. And all of them might have a key piece to the larger puzzle. Only with all of the pieces will we see the puzzle solved.

This is where Web 2.0, or the social web, comes in. Frequently, when we think of Web 2.0, we think of blogs, wikis, and social networks — and this is certainly the case. But Web 2.0 is more than than a collection of internet tools. It is a philosophy. One of collaboration and user-involvement. The idea that through the efforts and knowledge of many, we can tackle issues which far exceed the capacity of one.

Bottom-up and Top-down

In the policy and social arena, this philosophy is being born out in grassroots activity and experiments across society. mySociety.org has been building sites for public engagement since 2003. Involve is an exceptional organisation conducting research and experiments on public participation. Social Innovation Camp 2008 brought together dozens of social media mavens, social entrepreneurs, and practitioners to explore different uses of new tools to address social challenges.

Within the government, there are also signs of change. Minister and MP blogs, ePetititions, and community fora — while perhaps not prolific — are no longer unusual. In the beginning of the year, Jeremy Gould of the Ministry of Justice convened the UK’s first UKGovWeb BarCamp, drawing an impressive array of those within government eager to explore tools for engagement and collaboration. Dominic Campbell of FutureGov has recently been appointed [what is believed to be] the first Social Media Manager for a local council. Tom Watson, the West Bromwich MP and a political blogging pioneer, has recently taken up the post of Cabinet Office minister for bringing more web 2.0 principles into government. Within the opposition, George Osborne has long spoken of the potential for ‘open-source policy’, with the Tories using wiki-like tools to facilitate the collaborative development of the party’s numerous substantive white-papers. In the Americas, a term has even been coined to refer to all of this activity: Government 2.0.

A long hill to climb

However, despite these impressive and rapid developments, much remains to be done. Within the halls of government, a long-standing perception that “information is power” stands as a serious obstacle to collaboration and sharing of information. While the tools may exist to facilitate debate and discussion between masses of people, such debate is often seen to lack meaningful deliberation and balanced participation. Even when great ideas and content do emerge, it can be difficult to present these to policy-makers in a manner which is seen as credible and usable.

To explore some of these questions, polyWonk has recently been asked to lead the Policy 2.0 strand at the upcoming 2gether08 festival. At 2gether08 we’re looking to take on these issues, and do something about them. I encourage you to head over to the 2gether08 site, and comment, propose, challenge, collaborate, and debate. The only way we’re going to get better at working together, is by working together.

Note: This entry has (in essence) been cross-posted on 2gether08.com.

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Pushing the Innovation Edge?

May 22nd, 2008 by Mitch
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After much eager anticipation, yesterday I attended Innovation Edge, NESTA’s moderately annual flagship event and exposition of all that is innovation in the UK. In a growing discussion of the event on Roland Harwood’s Connect blog, I made a few comments which seemed appropriate for reproduction here:

As a NESTA alumnus, I was extremely proud to see the extraordinary turnout on the day; a real contrast from the comparatively more muted event of 18 months earlier (which, at the time, I also found impressive). It was a testament to the evolution NESTA has gone through over the past 2 years and the positive, catalytic, impact it has had on the broader innovation community. Perhaps even greater was the event’s impressive indication of the immense hunger this nation has for exploration and debate on the variety of subjects threaded together under the ‘innovation’ moniker.

Nonetheless, given this was held by an organisation championing innovation, I can’t help but feel that the event was a missed opportunity for something significantly more innovative in its objectives, scope and structure.

This is perhaps an unfair criticism. This was the first event NESTA has held at any such scale, with an immensely diverse audience and a very broad remit. Applying a classic conference approach (i.e. plenary keynotes, medium-sized ‘breakouts’ with panels, a bit of networking) was an entirely rationale approach. It was, without a doubt, a logistical and networking success. Given such constraints, perhaps it is inappropriate for me to have expected even more than that.

Nonetheless, expect more I did.

Let’s think about this. NESTA had well over *1000* people passionate about innovation together in one place. There was a Prime Minister, Ministers of State, policy-makers across fields and regions, leading venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, social media mavens, entertainers, architects, designers, scientists, educators, and practitioners from across sectors — all under one roof. What incredible expertise. What a collection of ideas. What massive potential.

Just imagine what could have been tackled by such an accumulation of interdisciplinary acumen, political authority, and financial capacity, if we had but tried to harness it all towards something more specific: a major social issue perhaps; new forms of interaction or public engagement; maybe even the future of UK itself (a la the impressive event recently mounted in Australia).

Would that have been difficult? No doubt. Would there have been a significant chance for failure or media criticism? Absolutely.

But such is the price for innovation, and I can’t imagine any other organisation better suited to pay such a price, take such a risk, and launch such an adventure.

I eagerly look forward to Innovation Edge ’09.

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Risk-aversion or market maturity?

March 22nd, 2008 by Mitch
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In a recent Tech Crunch UK article, Mike Butcher reported on a brief, but enlightening, blog posting of The Accelerator Group‘s Robin Klein. The key quote from the article, and the TAG blog, was Robin’s assertion that “funding business plans from first time entrepreneurs just won’t happen anymore.” Robin listed his criteria for new deals to include:

  1. Founded by 2nd and 3rd time tech entrepreneurs
  2. Aspiring to build global businesses with scale
  3. With genuinely original ideas which are game changing or a significant advance on current state of play
  4. Where the founder(s) have built prototypes or are already demonstrating momentum in customer/consumer adoption
  5. Where founders have shown an ability to considerably ‘bootstrap’ the business with very little or no external cash (outside of friends and family).

On its face, this could be interpreted as yet another UK VC following the worrying trend towards more conservative investment strategies and later-stage investment. But is it truly another example of the classic perception of the UK as a risk-averse nation? Or instead, is it an indicator of a growing maturity in the UK start-up and venture capital communities?

The answer to this lies in the growing supply of good ideas, rather than [the traditional explanation] of a falling supply in risk capital. TAG, perhaps due to its position as one of the few remaining institutional investors in seed-stage enterprises) is witnessing a healthy increase in the quality of deals crossing their desk. Accordingly, this has allowed Robin and his partners to be even more selective, cherry-picking those deals demonstrating quality across the continuum – from concept to management team to market to proof-of-concept.

In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing, as long as there are other investors willing to provide capital for the good ideas which don’t reach Robin’s (and the other institutional VC’s) strict criteria. In other words, who will fund the ideas from first-time entrepreneurs for whom bootstrapping is not a viable option?

Bootstrapping a technology-based business is great if you’re a programmer or technologist with access to all of the tools of your trade. However, it is not as easy to achieve if an entrepreneur originates from the ‘commercial’ side — perhaps with detailed knowledge of a market and a potential area of need. Such an individual is less able to build a prototype him or herself, and will need funding to recruit the technical talent to do so. Is this commercial entrepreneur less valuable than the technical entrepreneur? Is his knowledge of a market less valuable than a technologist’s knowledge of the engineering? Is his start-up idea inherently less valuable than the technical entrepreneur? Robin’s statement — or at least his criteria — would seem to imply so, but I would disagree.

So if Robin and his ilk aren’t willing to kick in the initial seed money, where will it come from? In Silicon Valley (where I spent much of my career), this space is filled by the ample number of business angels – frequently ex-entrepreneurs who have made some money and are interested in staying in the game as an investor. The robustness of the Valley networks enables a smooth flow of information between would-be entrepreneurs and the informal investor community, such that quality ideas are able to find willing investment (and vice versa) even in those circumstances where all of Robin’s criteria are not met. Furthermore, the abundance of risk-tolerant technologists sniffing out their own chance at start-up stardom makes it much easier (and cheaper) for a Valley entrepreneur to recruit technical talent with the hope of success (read: equity) rather than hard currency, enabling him or her to bootstrap the operation or stretch their angel dollars that much further.

But here in the UK, despite recent developments, such a fluid network of investors, entrepreneurs, and risk-tolerant technical talent does not yet seem to exist. Robin’s statement and Mike’s analysis seem to imply that this vacuum should be met by friends and family. But if the start-up ecosystem relies on such, it limits itself to those start-up ideas coming from people wealthy enough, or with friends and family who are wealthy enough (and I’d guess that there is a strong overlap between these two groups) to provide seed funding. But does this community represent 90% of the good start-up ideas? Or 20%? If the latter, then the UK clearly needs some facility to fill the capital vacuum left by the institutional investors. Otherwise some great UK ideas, and great potential UK start-ups, are going to fall through the cracks. And the US, with its wealth of angel investment and support, will continue to dominate the space.

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