Social Obamedia

Great post this morning by Emma Mulqueeny on a recent report on Obama’s social media strategy. My reaction to the Social Obamedia phenomenon has been one of contradictions: pride that the campaign’s application of key social media principles has been successful, optimism that it has generated such an avalanche of interest from the mainstream, and frustration

Perhaps my greatest frustration, to echo some of your sentiments, is that things have not advanced more rapidly here in the UK. As an American living here and devoted to the Govt Social Media realm, I can’t help but point out that for a while, the UK was further ahead . Given the size of the country, the centralised nature of its government, and the reasonably collegial nature of regional governments (so I am lead to believe), I believe that the UK has, and is, particularly well placed to innovate and scale approaches to Govt 2.0/eParticipation/etc. The eDemocracy movement has been strong here for some time. Folks like Emma and Jeremy Gould have been doing this stuff for ages and have insights aplenty. And for some time now, we have a spectacular minister at the cabinet level intensely devoted to this subject. The US has no such thing (although given the way that the West Wing operates, Macon Phillips is well positioned to play one). When I started the idea of polyWonk a year ago, I had the naive notion that I’d be able to easily arrange to get 20K out of some department to develop and run a pilot project around ‘open-sourcing policy’ (as we called it then). The government would get a tangible product and demonstration of its democratic agenda, and a strong start-up in a growing space, to boot. Alas, despite the rhetoric within government, this proved significantly harder than I had predicted, and I have had to turn to private individuals for development capital.

Let me finish on a note of optimism, however. Based upon my recent investigations across the pond, the US hasn’t cracked this nut yet. At all. As you can tell by this report, much of the discussion re: social media and govt is still focused on the political side – i.e. running campaigns, mobilising people, and communications. They still need to make the same leap to incorporating not just the tools, but the *principles* of social media into government: active collaboration and engagement, and user-contributed/generated content. The same goes for Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. There are many experiments and a growing hunger, creating great opportunity for innovation and the sharing of ideas. There are still no household names in this realm, no trade magazines for govt 2.0, no simple primer for the vast number of civil servants out there who are struggling to understand social media and their implcations. The social and commercial potential are still great. But we must act, once again allow the US to take lead in an area in which the UK has no shortage whatsoever of great ideas, and great people.

A voice for UK’s entrepreneurs

Within the past several months the government has rolled out a number of policy measures targeted at helping the nation’s small businesses: DCMS ‘Digital Britain’ initiative, BERR’s plan to guarantee up to £20bn of loans to small and medium-sized firms, and UKTI’s support of Web Missions, to name a few.  Others are still on the drawing board, such as NESTA’s proposal for a £1 billion fund to help address the increasing paucity of funding for early-stage companies.

As an occasional policy analyst focused on this space, and now as an entrepreneur, I have more than a passing interest in such interventions and discussions.  While I certainly welcome the government’s continued efforts to facilitate the development and growth of innovative early-stage firms, I occassionally wonder how much input they are getting from this very consituency which they aimsto support.

Bytes of the Roundtable

At the close of last year, I had the opportunity to discuss this, albeit very briefly, with two different government ministers.  In doing so, I made the suggestion that the government could probably make use of an “Advisory Council of Entrepreneurs” to help provide a sounding board and discussion forum for the government’s innovation and entrepreurship policies.  In those and subsequent conversations with others within government and the start-up community, I’ve become increasingly convinced of the usefulness of getting entrepreneur voices to the government table.

Now, as the head of a digital start-up (and one devoted to enabling policy and public engagement) I recognise that this suggestion of an Advisory Council is rather ‘old school’ and limited in what it could achieve.  Nonetheless, several years of operating within the policy realm taught me that frequently it is such old school approaches which are what works best to get things moving.  It is a time-tested mechanism and one which the current policy and political apparatus is familiar.  “When in Rome” and all that jazz…

What might it look like?  My gut is that it would consist of 15-20 UK innovative entrepreneurs – individuals who not only have an interest in the strength of the UK’s start-up environment, put an interest in actively engaging government to help bring it about.   It would be a roundtable, oriented at providing practical feedback to the government’s current policy proposals, as well as concrete suggestions for new policies.

While the number physically surrounding the table might be limited in a number, we could certainly apply some new media approaches (a la my own venture,  polyWonk) to engaging the larger community of innovative entrepreneurs to pool ideas, opinions, etc, and using the Roundtable to aggregate, filter, and channel these to government, in a means and format with which they are comfortable.

Entrepreneurs’ Guild

Of course, if there is really significant interest, then I see no reason that we couldn’t step it up a notch – forming a proper trade association.  Last week’s packed OpenSoho showed me that there is certainly no shortage of digital entrepreneurs around.  Again, while recognising that this may be a bit of an ‘old school’ type of institution, there are reasons that the western world contains thousands of them: they are useful, and broadly accepted, mechanisms for aggregating a set of organisations or individuals with a common purpose or interests, and representing those interests to government, the press, and society.  The UK has associations ranging from Pet Food Manufacturers, to Gin and Vodka producers, to a trade association of trade associations (One of my favourites back home in San Francisco was the Northern California Korean Dry Cleaners Assocation, with membership not just determined by profession, by geography and ethnicity to boot.  Talk about selective.).   In the start-up-related world, VC’s have one (BVCA).  Business angels have one (BBAA). Even one of London’s favourite entrepreneurs, Paul Walsh, directs a trade body for new media agencies.   While the FSB exists to represent all small and medium enterprises (from kabab shops to small factories), I believe that the needs, ambitions, and approaches of the UK’s innovative entrepreneurs are sufficiently unique to justify their own voice.

Whether such an entity should focus just on digital entrepreneurs, or more broadly to technology and innovative entrepreneurs writ large, I’m open.  Similarly, perhaps it also makes sense to leverage an existing activity or network, such as Amplified.  Again, I’m open.

So, anyone care to lobby with me?

Some words for NESTA Investments

In a recent TechCrunch article, Nick Halstead of wrote some observations on the government’s new debt-related support interventions for small and medium businesses.  For odd reasons, though, he concluded the article with a brief “scathing” criticism of NESTA Investments.  Amusingly, this last paragraph seems to have generated more debate than the substance of his article.  As an ex-NESTA employee, I felt obliged to join in the fray.

A few words in defense of NESTA: as a CEO of a web 2.0 start-up, I certainly sympathise with your frustration.  However, it would be arrogant of us to assume that “Technology” only includes Web 2.0 developments.  Indeed, Web 2.0 activity in the UK only comprises a fraction of technological development, and associated investment into this space.  As a technology fund, NESTA Investments actively pursues and manages a portfolio of investments in ICT (particularly high-tech hardware), biotech, and cleantech.

Additionally, as NESTA funding currently originates from the public purse (technically, from lottery proceeds) as taxpayers we should be pleased that they are investing their resources on areas in which they have solid expertise (and accordingly, can make more intelligent investments and provide meaningful support to their portfolio), rather than pouring money into whatever technology seems ‘hot’ at the moment.

Furthermore, as can be seen by the popularity of the myriad web 2.0 networking events, there are a number of other investors, both angels and institutional players, now active in the Web 2.0 space.  While there is certainly room for additional investment in this realm, it seems entirely appropriate to me that NESTA spend its limited resources on areas where there are fewer private sector players (and accordingly, a more significant equity gap).  Don’t get me wrong – I’d be overjoyed if they launched a web 2.0 fund – but I do understand their rationale for not having done so yet.

Finally, just because NESTA Investments is not active in Web 2.0 work, does not mean that NESTA is not involved in the social media space.  Indeed, they have an entire programmatic stream, called Web Connect, devoted to investigation and support of highly innovative applications of web 2.0 concepts.

Coming from a country (the US) with no real analogue to NESTA, I’m constantly amazed that people so harshly criticise having a quasi-government agency focused on technology, creativity, and entrepreneurship – or, in other words, the future.  I suppose that fact that it is the subject of growing debate could be seen as a sign of its growing significance and repuation.  I certainly have my own thoughts on how NESTA might improve and evolve into its next incarnation, but they are based upon experience and analysis of the organisation and its activities.  And despite such reservations, as a UK resident I can only consider myself luck that such an unusual and forward-thinking organisation exists.

Looking for someone to buy my Gipsy Kings Tix

Like latin music? Well, if you do, you might be in a position to do me a big favour.

This past weekend was my wife’s and my anniversary. As one of gifts, I acquired some tickets a long time ago to see the Gipsy Kings at Kew Gardens this Friday, as part of their Summer Swing series. They are one of our favourite bands from our university days. Clearly others like them as well, as it sold-out in days. Unfortunately, as her gift for us, my wife arranged for us to go to Florence this weekend. Needless to say, for this particular situation, Florence is trumping the Gipsy Kings.

Anyone out there able and interested in taking the tickets off of me? The details are as follows:

Date: Friday, 11 July
Time: Gates open 6.30pm | Music starts 7.30pm
Act: The Gipsy Kings
Event: Summer Swing at Kew Gardens
Tickets: Four (4) general admission – it’s a picnic-type affair
Cost: £37.50 per ticket
Location: Kew Gardens
Travel information…

If so, drop me a line at addingvalue <at> Thanks all.

Opening up the policy process

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. 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

Pushing the Innovation Edge?

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.

Risk-aversion or market maturity?

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.