Hometaping : Offline and online

Sometimes you just wish you’d thought of an idea first…

In the words of the Hometaping website:

“People think that only the talented or the beautiful should be able to make music. This is bullshit. Making music is something everybody can enjoy. And everybody has something worth making a noise about.

Hometaping‘ is a big effort to help as many people as possible to record an album of their own music in one month. It is a celebration of what happens when they do.

So if you can’t sing but do anyway, you are Hometaping. If you’re crap at the guitar but it makes you happy, you are Hometaping. If your saxophone makes you smile but your neighbours wince, you are Hometaping. If you’re convinced your songs are intricate masterpieces, you are Hometaping.”

Making a s hort album and posting it online, then showing up to play at a hometaping party (whether via skype from transylvania, or live in london) should sound rather terrifying. Somehow, the hometaping ethos kinda takes the fear out of the process – and makes it well, fun, to record your own music for the first time. Its not often that online hype and offline actions marry up so perfectly, but I think the team behind hometaping have hit the right note… its easy to join in, non-scary, and not too techie – but without the online streaming and uploading then the thing wouldn’t exist.

I think that too many campaigns or initiatives that use the web end up getting bogged down in making the tech too complex or the messages too official. You can learn alot from hometaping no matter what kind of community project you’re trying to run.

In fact, I liked the whole concept so much that I bought the company! Well, no, I didn’t but I did ask Basil, one of the people who set up hometaping to tell me (and all of you) a bit more about what it is.

Alice: Hello! Thanks for agreeing to tell me a bit more about hometaping…! The first question really has to be…..what is it?

Basil: We started out with the idea that making music is basically a pretty fun thing to do, if you want to do it. But that it can also be quite scary and quite difficult, especially if you’re worried that you’re going to sound rubbish. (Which you probably won’t.) So we wanted to create an environment where a lot of people were all making music in a specific period of time, which would hopefully make you feel like you were part of this community of ‘hometapers’ and hopefully make it a bit less scary.

Alice: So, where did the idea come from?

Basil: The idea of a group of people all undertaking a similar endeavour in a month has been around for a while. NaNoWriMo is probably the grandpa, where people try to write a novel in a month. RPM Challenge and NaSoAlMo ask people to do an album in a month, too. Pete (one of the four of us working on this project, along with Charlie, Josh and me) participated in NaSoAlMo and thought that it would be fun to set up a similar project but with a slightly different emphasis. So he told us the idea over breakfast and then we set it up.

Alice: How has it been received by people?

Basil: Well we had a lot of completed albums this year. They are absolutely brilliant. So that’s the main thing. But people also blogged and tweeted and YouTubed their process throughout the month, and then, best of all, people played live at the party at the end of the month, and dialled in to play live over Skype from all over the world (including Transylvania – awesome). So we were really happy with the response.

Alice: Why do you think it has it captured people’s imagination?

Basil: I think there is something quite nice about hearing music that was not made by popstars, and instead was made by friends, or by people you imagine are a bit like you. So maybe people liked that. And I think it’s quite nice that it’s not a competition. I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask them.

Alice:  Did you have a favourite this year?

Basil: It’s all brilliant. Some of it is witty, some is incredibly well-produced, some people have amazing feats of instrumentation, some people have mind-bogglingly good voices. Pete said that the idea that there is only a small number of people who can make good music has been destroyed by the sample of music up on the Hometaping website. I think that’s true. I’m currently listening to marigold and tmcw a lot recently. But it’s all brilliant.

Alice: Do you think that there’s room for a hmtpng regular get together, or do you see it as a one-off thing only?

Basil: I think it makes it quite special doing a big party once a year. But it’s always nice to to meet up in the pub now and then. Should we do that? I’m up for it.

Alice: Lastly, do you have any tips for potential hometapers out there?

Basil: Don’t worry about being rubbish, because you won’t be. And don’t worry about what people might think. They’ll almost certainly think you’re awesome. And tell your friends about it and get them to do it too. That makes it more fun.

A green umbrella : A black eco brolly

What with all the rain we’ve been having in London lately, I needed to buy a new umbrella. My last one wrapped itself unceremoniously round my face as I was walking across Waterloo bridge on the daily grind a few weeks earlier…. with only a few working spokes left on the thing, seemed high time to pick up a replacement.

So I drop into Boots – why a pharmacy is also the place to buy umbrellas I really don’t know – but anyway, I go into Boots and browse the umbrella stand in a mild state of bewilderment – after all, one umbrella is much like another. I need something small, light and a bit sturdier than the last so-called umbrella (no more face-wrapping incidents to shame me in front of my fellow rat-racers again)… and maybe something that isn’t black.

Flickr Creative Commons T J Morris

Scene of the crime; Waterloo bridge: Flickr Creative Commons T J Morris

I don’t know if you’ve been shopping for an umbrella lately, but they are for some reason mainly black. This reminds me of being a scuttling commuter, and I don’t like it; so after a brief browse,I pick up something in red that seems fairly well made, and am about to trip off to the counter with said purchase in hand.

But wait! What is that peeking out of the black brolly section? A recycling sign?! My eco-reflex springs into action and I pick up the thing to have a closer look…. apparently, ‘this umbrella is made from xyz recycled this that and the other’ – and only a few quid more. Baffled by the science, I put down the lovely red umbrella and pick up said ‘eco-brolly’ instead and make off to the checkout, clutching my new purchase.

Utterly fascinating I know- what does this have to do with public participation,or even user centred design? Well, how do we as individuals exert some kind of say over the way in which our experience of the day to day world develops? We can vote, we can take part in local decision making committees or consultations, we can run for office or campaign for decisionmakers to try and change things in our civic environment. All of these actions are very worthwhile and can lead to lasting change but can also be rather time consuming and frustrating activities that can often take a while to get results.

Another option that many of us now take is to put our money where our mouth is and try to show demand for change through purchase power, whether consciously or unconsciously.  When much of an individual’s daily life is spent being a consumer then this seems like an obvious route to take to make an impact- big manufacterers and retailers respond to their customers’ demands… but can the checkout really be a place to make a more social or political point and have it heard by someone with the power to change things for the better- in this case, the greener?

Also, where does design fit into this? I walked out of Boots with an umbrella I’m not entirely happy with – its black and a bit heavy – but the worst thing is, it has eco stuff written all over it:



I don’t really want to be a walking advert for greenness – I just want a lovely red umbrella that folds up into my bag – would be great if it was also made of recycled materials as a given. I want functional and attractive design, not just environmentally friendly design – that should be the new standard… but how do we consumers demand more eco thinking on random items like umbrellas? Is it just up to mugs like me to buy #1 eco brollies and to be happy that there’s another option available at all available from a high street retailer like Boots?

I’m not sure that lone consumers will make much of an impact in a haphazard and dissipated way. There has to be a lead from somewhere else, from buyers, manufacturers, designers, innovators everywhere – or else a group action – galvanising support on such mundane issues as umbrella reform.

Us Now: Ebbsfleet and Ed Miliband

I went to see Us Now at the RSA last night… a documentary by Ivo Gormley and Banyak film that looks at web collaboration type stuff through some real stories about online/offline communities, and a few interviews. It got me thinking:

People right across the world are connecting in all kinds of ways on the web right now without any great institution or medium to support this in a traditional top-down sense. What is more, they are then getting things done – whether that’s about big online projects that use collective wisdom like Wikipedia or Linux, or whether its facilitating personal meetings and connections like mumsnet coffee mornings or couchsurfing.

This is useful, and interaction with a larger whole means something to individuals who take part. Big-little, global-local, public-personal. This is an important landscape feature of online collaboration.

Wikipedia is now my first point of reference when I want to know something, its part of my personal web toolkit, and through it I’m tapping into the  thoughts and knowledge of people from across the world who feel confident enough and who have time to contribute to building that vast resource for free. A wise collective.

The couchsurfer‘s story in UsNow illustrated a more personal side of connectedness – for the surfer, the experience served to put a friendly face onto a blank and unknown cityscape, a way of providing a connection through shared affirmation and a sense of trust induced in part through online reputational systems. Basically, a guy he’d never met cooked him dinner and let him sleep on the couch – and this was all OK.

We know this right? But then, the film takes us to the story of Ebbsfleet football club, and into the world of Ed Miliband and this is where it gets interesting. At Ebbsfleet we see the story of players being picked online by fans, photos are dropped into position online by various enthusiastic supporters. The manager, the expert, then has to pick the team that the fans choose for him. In the film – Ebbsfleet wins the match – they’re all going to Wembley – and fans speak of being part of that victory – ‘we’ did it, ‘we’re going to Wembley etc. But Ebbsfleet don’t do this anymore – they’ve gone back to being expert-controlled with the manager, the expert, taking the decisions for the good of the team and the fans.

Then we see an image of Ed Miliband’s head being gently dropped onto a ‘pick your cabinet’ webpage…hmmmm. Not a great way to construct a cabinet I think… This is followed by a wicked moment of confusion captured on the film that shows a much more human side of an MP – for once, the ‘answers’ aren’t all there… but of course, this was then followed up with an official statement of ‘solution’. I’d much rather it wasn’t.*

When those with traditional expertise don’t know what to do, when a public mandate for change is required, when decisions are at stake that can be based on the real, lived experience of people who know the area, service, attitudes best – those kind of situations are crying out for a more participatory approach. This is going to happen with or without government going along with it – but it would be so much better to have radical system change happen willingly and with optimism rather than reluctantly, through backlash and disenchantment, cynicism, loss of trust in decision makers etc.

Ed’s head in hands moment of bewilderment illustrates the institutional tensions and personal, inner conflict that go to work when we start transposing user generated participatory ideas onto existing, top down ‘representative’ (failing) democratic systems. Yes, there will be leading participatory disruptors that impact on the way government takes decisions, but the question is whether it would be better to transform and decentralise current systems of governance to enable a more equitable distribution of power. I reckon that more votes were made on disgruntled feelings, hairstyle and humour in the London mayoral elections than on policy issues. There’s potential to make a bad system worse…

In Us Now Paul Miller points that there is a misconception that decision makers and those with power make – that people are thick, therefore they shouldn’t be involved in making decision on important things. This problem of perception works at a number levels – decision makers don’t give enough credit to public wisdom and intelligence, the press consistently portray the public as being respondent, passive and powerless rather than active and influential, and people themselves do not feel able to influence decisions in their communities. These three have worked together to ensure that many citizens remain as passive consumers. Now, take the mass media image out of the picture, and instead put in place a new kind of reflection of a citizen – that seen through web 2.0 collaboration and connectedness – a far more attractive and empowering form of citizenship emerges, and its one that does not fit with current outmoded democratic systems.

It is clear that there is a place for two broad based kinds of expertise in this participatory future and for Ebbsfleet as much as Parliament. One form of which taps into public wisdom, one which uses the skills of learned specialist individuals. We need to work out how the two interconnect – where the system needs to change, (pretty much everywhere, especially in terms of repersentative politics), where power ought to lie, and what people everywhere will do for themselves next.

Now, I’m not sure how that’ll all pan out – so might go and ask someone else what they think…

 *see comment below

**Update: Check out what someone else thought at confusedofcalcutta where JP Rangaswami, who chaired the event writes it up.

Designing Climate Change Deliberation – Canadian style

I told you I’d get round to writing this up… here it is!

Just over a week ago I took part in a series of workshops, discussions and deliberations at the University of Edmonton in the province of Alberta, Canada. I was one of a handful of ‘deliberation/participation people’ who were there to have input into how the diverse group of Albertans present might best set up a successful, province-wide deliberative process on climate change issues.

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

The event was participated in by an impressively varied group of individuals – representing a significant range of viewpoints including;  energy industry representatives, radical environmentalists, political activists and government officials. The thing that all parties had in common was a genuine, and strong desire to move forward on the issue of climate change in Alberta. (They even gave up their weekend and worked 12hour days for free to be part of the deliberation – so I can testify to their commitment!)

So, what were we actually doing?

We wanted to put together a basis for how a public discussion on climate change in Alberta might best work – and help to move forward from polarised debate on climate change into more useful dialogue and action across the province.

Alberta is a focal point for climate change discussion as the Canadian economy has greatly benefited from the energy industry located there, including the booming Athabascan oil sands near Fort McMurray. This industry has been strongly criticised by environmental campaigners and scientists for its impact on the environment. Alberta embodies many of the environmental and economic debates taking place globally.

A key part of how myself and others present felt that progress could be made on these tough issues was through using deliberative techniques to bring people together in a more constructive and positive way than through debate and conflict.

How did you go about it?

Two main groups were involved in the design process over about four days:

One was a smaller group of around 15 and consisted  both of Albertans and of visitors interested in assisting with the deliberation and public participation aspects. This group was present throughout the entirety of the process every day.

The second group was a larger group of around 50 Albertans who were present at key points in the design process to act as a ‘sounding board’ for the ideas that the smaller group had been discussing and formulating together during the day.

This format worked well in that ownership of the process and its aims began to be built from the outset amongst a very varied group of individuals, and the rapid response and interaction between the smaller and larger group helped to refine ideas very quickly over a short period of time.

By the end of the five days we worked together to uncover the bare bones of a process that could work for Albertans, wandered across a suprising amount of common ground and found several leverage points for instigating action. As we walked out of the room on the final day, an interim steering group had been set in place and action points had been established for moving forward… so watch this space.

The experience made me feel very positive about what can be acheived through using more deliberative approach to difficult issues like action on climate change – not a form of consensus building, but rather a way of better understanding one another and identifying areas for beneficial progress.

Society, Designers, Environment, Us

I’m just back from the Royal Designers for Industry Summer school. Over the course of the event we were asked to think about and express a response to ‘society, designers, the environment, and us.’ A lively discussion ensued… :)

I’ve had a night’s sleep now during which the ideas discussed have settled, and distilled into the following:


Too often we talk about the problems that society faces – to the extent where these cumulative and highly complex problems feel completely overwhelming. This is not very productive, it makes us feel powerless; the way I see it in terms of the four words in question is that:

  1. There is an opportunity.
  2. The way we live is changing very rapidly.
  3. There is a need for us to better understand where these rapid changes may have a negative impact on society and our environment, and where such changes may be positive.
  4. Design itself is an optimistic act.
  5. Designers seek to understand, to improve, to reach forward and create something new or better; something that is fit for purpose both in form and in function.
  6. Design thinking is a powerful tool for change and communication.
  7. There is an opportunity for designers to radically transform the way we live in response to the changes that society faces, and to change the kind of future we will all experience together.

So, what does this mean for me?

There is an opportunity here, but designers cannot make the most of it on their own. We do not yet fully understand how those involved in policy making on societal and environmental issues can best use design thinking, and to collaborate with designers and with the public in order  to better adapt to changes that are taking place, or to make something completely new.

This work has begun in certain areas, notably with organisations like thinkpublic and others who are working in the service design arena. But how do we develop this, and what opportunities exist outside service design as a first point of common ground between designer, citizen and policy maker?

We should explore this further, and those working in different sectors should make steps towards understanding one another’s position more fully, and in turn to better understand the public.

This will require a more lateral-thinking approach to policy problems, and a pushing out of our individual bubbles of ‘profession’ or ‘policy area’ that can prevent understanding across different sectors and personal perspectives.

This is a beginning, and we need to work together in order to make the best choices possible within our society. Design won’t simply ‘solve problems’ on its own, but it can improve things.

Social Innovation Summer School : Vocab Test

I went to the SIX Summer School organised by the Young Foundation in partnership with Mondragon (mik) last week. It was a gathering of people with a fantastically varied set of experiences and skills who descended on sunny San Sebastian from all over the place – but all of whom had one thing in common – an involvement in social innovation. (Whether they really knew it or not!)

What exactly social innovation IS seemed to be less clear to me as the days went by… and in a way seemed less important than the fact that ‘something’ is happening in the way society arranges itself. (Plus there was a rigorous social programme which meant that many things seemed less clear as the days went by…)

However, Charlie Leadbeter had a good go at summing things up at school’s close – saying that it’s all about doing things ‘with’ people, rather than ‘to’ or ‘for’ them.

Whether that’s a good summary of ‘social innovation’, I am truly unqualified to say! ;)

However I do think that its a good vocabulary for talking about much of the change we’re now seeing in terms of government, power structures and commerce – and of course, quite clearly, on the web.

We often stop ourselves from seeing through to the core of a system by building up vocabularies and terminologies which are quite restrictive and precise to define that system or driver. Of course there’s a valid purpose for this drive to tightly define our meaning – but sometimes we say ‘participative process’, when we just mean ‘with people’.

Anyway – it was three days very well spent – lots of room for thinking, new ideas, and most importantly meeting people from all over the world who are active in this field of social innovation – doing an astonishing variety of different things.

Here are just a few examples for you. There were many other very interesting projects too which I will be linking to in later posts :

Aussie-based young people’s org: Act Now

Brazil-based Sitawi : providing capital for social enterprises

MindLab – innovation in public administration- based in Denmark

Kennisland/Knowledgeland – Dutch thinktank that runs digital pioneers programme

The Hope Institute in S.Korea – making citizens’ small ideas for change make bigger impact