Rational Parliament : Fracking

rational parliamentOn Tuesday evening I wandered down to Conway Hall in London to help run the Rational Parliament – an experimental debating forum for issues that matter to citizens, but that are very hard to find unbiased, evidence based info on. We debated the rather hot topic of shale gas extraction or ‘fracking’. You can hear more about what went on in the debate over at the Rational Parliament blog.

I was there more to look at how we structured the debate and to understand how to get different experiences of debate and understanding for those attending the session. A few experimental things were trialled including using a language expert to help people reflect on the way speakers manipulate language when making their points; a way of using cards that can be held up to visually express when they felt a speaker needed to give more evidence to be credible, and also the way in which the actual topics for discussion were sourced and voted on by the room. These experiments worked together to achieve a more collaborative experience that aimed to raise understanding in the group compared to a more traditional ‘broadcast’ style debate.

Expect further experimentation, and some more knotty topics for debate in the New Year!


Iran Election : London Protest : Social Media

Iran Vote Campaign Waterloo Bridge London

I just met this group of young Iranians and supporters on Waterloo Bridge. They’re campaigning on the recent Iranian voting scandal and will be protesting in London outside the Iranian embassy this Saturday as part of the http://www.whereismyvote.org/ global day of action on July 25th from 1-4pm.

“The Global Day of Action is not affiliated with any partisan political agenda and is aimed at securing the internationally recognized rights of the Iranian people”

Interesting to see local groups getting active and handing out flyers in such a positive and friendly way, I think it really works well. I’d say that I’m far more likely to go along to something if asked in person rather than tweeted at, emailed or facebook-messaged. Social media is great, but sometimes having a chat is what’s really the motivator.

As it is, I’m off on holiday from tomorrow so can’t be there, so went to the website to find out more about what I could do online instead. Joining a Facebook group is not as good as turning up by any means, but its a way of showing support and keeping in touch with the cause, and other opportunities to act in real life. 

Aha! So that might be what social media is for….?

—- Newsflash! —-In ‘Other Inspiring Iranians I’ve met on Waterloo Bridge’, see my Ahmad Foroughi post from the time of the Obama Election – an awesome photo, and a sweet piece of social history!

Climate Change : Local deliberation on a global issue

Last week I was in Edmonton, Canada discussing how to go about setting up a province-wide public deliberation on Climate Change. There are a number of significant challenges around taking forward a regional deliberation on climate change and this is particularly true in Alberta – a province with a thriving economy based on its rich natural resources.

In this post I want to look at just one of those challenges – a question which can be transferred to any regional or local deliberation on climate change:

How can a localised deliberation effectively address what is a shared and global issue?

Just before arriving  in Alberta I read a recently published US Government scientific report which outlines ten key findings on climate change. These findings are bold for a US focused climate change document, and with Obama at the helm, we can expect to see more where this came from;

Ten Key Findings from the recent US Global Change Research Programme report:

  1. Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.
  2. Climate changes are underway in the United States and projected to grow.
  3. Widespread climate-related impacts are occurring now and are expected to increase.
  4. Climate change will stress water resources
  5. Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged.
  6. Coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise and storm surge.
  7. Risks to human health will increase.
  8. Climate change will interact with many social and environmental stresses.
  9. Thresholds have already been crossed and have lead to large – and in some cases, irreversible – changes.
  10. Future climate change and its impacts depend on choices made today.

However, these points are not country or region-specific, and we all know that even decisive action from the mighty USofA cannot address climate change on its own. Climate change is a shared and global concern, involving and affecting all nations and citizens, particularly those from key areas of growth and vulnerability such as India, China, Africa and Brazil.

In Canada, the Albertan economy has benefited enormously from the extraction of natural resources in the North of the province, making it one of the most dramatic Canadian economic success stories of recent years. However environmentalists and sustainability experts consider the oil extraction industry in general and the Athabascan oil sands in particular to be disastrous for the environment.

Yet does now seem as if there is now a real chance for meaningful dialogue and deliberation at this point in time more than any other. A number of influential factors have recently shifted, providing a clear opportunity for progress on climate issues in Alberta for the following reasons:

  • It is becoming clear that ‘business as usual’ extraction of resources cannot continue, partly in light of the current economic climate and partly due to increasing global pressure to curb emissions
  • The USA, Canada’s most influential neighbour  is taking a strong lead on environmental issues as reflected in proposed initiatives such as Cap-and-Trade
  • The scientific evidence base connecting human action to climate change is becoming more compelling, the messaging is more mainstream, and public concern seems to be on the increase in key countries including Canada.
  • Influentials are changing their attitudes; indeed one of the authors of the Albertan economic success story, ex-premier, Peter Lougheed, is now looking to re-write the ending by slowing down development and taking a more measured approach to extraction. Although this might not be the answer that green advocacy groups such as the Pembina Institute are looking for – it is perhaps indicative of a rising sea-change in attitudes towards the environment from both political and business leaders.

All the same, due to the significant economic interests that the energy industry brings to Alberta,  it will still be challenging to create a truly open and meaningful deliberative dialogue on environmental and energy issues in the province. What is more, if the shared and global nature of the  issue is not addressed adequately as part of any local deliberation there are a number of serious resultant risks in any such regional process:

1) Potential participants do not engage with the proposed citizen engagement process in the first place as they feel it cannot make a difference. The lack of acknowledgment of the global context of the climate project may leave individuals feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the issue.

2) Participants, once engaged, feel powerless to affect real change, and feel that their contributions are without significant meaning given the scale of the task in hand. Whatever initiatives or actions are proposed at a regional level at the end of an engagement process are seen to be just a ‘drop in the ocean’ compared to the true scale of the problem.

3)    Participants do not fully engage with and understand the wider context of the challenge of climate change and sustainability and end up making recommendations based solely on the regional experience (This is not to say that say, the Albertan context is not important and special, but it is not and should not be considered to be the full story.) No region can solve the problems alone.

4)    The benefits and lessons learned through an experimental  deliberative engagement project are not disseminated to benefit or inspire others. This process of communication and ‘reporting out’ could make a significant impact on the way in which climate change is addressed by citizens and decision makers across the globe, as examples of best practice are sought out increasingly by provincial leaders  unsure as to how to proceed on climate change.

How can we address these issues?

I believe that there are a number of factors to consider when planning a regional deliberation on a shared global issue such as climate change. Firstly there is a need to address the scale of the issue in a way which feels empowering, not overwhelming. Humanising climate change and encouraging connections is important to help ensure that potential participants do not feel that they are experiencing and solving the problem in geographic isolation. Connection can help to provide a sense of global perspective and of being part of a larger community.

Secondly, deliberation cannot be confined to linking concerns with discussion –  there needs to be a further connection between deliberation and action. In other words, participants should feel that they are not acting independently, but that their decisions and ideas should be coordinated or  linked in some way across regional boundaries in order to be more effective in addressing the issues.

Finally; learning from any regional deliberation is well-disseminated in order to inspire others to participate in planning their own regional or local deliberations.

Below, I have outlined just a few potential ideas to address the four risks listed above. Ideas below correspond to points above.

1) A global network of interested organisations should be grown around the project and clearly signposted so that participants and decision makers feel, and are, part of a larger more powerful international network of deliberation working to advance the issues in a productive way.

2) Participants could be enabled to connect at some point in the deliberations with citizens in other countries, whether directly over the web or asynchronously through video reports and forums. Twinning of global towns and cities based on a commitment to progress on environmental and economic issues could be facilitated to encourage global dialogue and understanding.

3)    Deliberations should necessarily have some global context and framing, and should not be concerned solely with regional issues. Information and materials provided should have an inspiring global dimension and not focus solely upon the region in which the deliberation is located.

4)    All processes should be designed with replication and transferability in mind. Materials should be produced under the creative commons license for distribution. Translation should be encouraged and made available where appropriate. Regional pilots such as the Alberta project should be seen as innovators, leading the way – but  should also acknowledge that they cannot ‘solve’ the problems alone.

In conclusion, climate change is a global problem requiring an understanding of some part of the complex systems behind the issue before a meaningful and empowering deliberation can take place. I believe that locally focused dialogue and action has a very important role to play in finding a solution, but that any meaningful deliberation relating to policy change must address the global context. Finding the balance between local-global is the key in terms of framing the issues, motivating participation, and for more informed and impactful policy input.

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.

Obama McCain : The world is watching… and participating!

Iranian Obama Campaigner

Ahmad Foroughi : Iranian Obama Campaigner


I love this picture of Ahmad Foroughi standing on Waterloo bridge. I met him a few weeks ago when I stopped to talk as I was curious to know what was motivating him to stand there, giving up his time on a windy Saturday afternoon.  He was wearing a cool T-shirt and carrying a sign that said “We’re searching for Americans! Can you help? Are YOU American?”

I assumed that he himself was a US citizen – enthused by Obama’s message of change – trying to spread the zeal and get others to vote Democrat too on November 4th. I was off the mark – he is in fact Iranian by birth- and unhappy with the US’s current foreign policy around terrorism and extremism. He himself is unable to cast a vote in the US election, so gave up his Saturday afternoon to stand on Waterloo bridge trying to find any American who hadn’t registered in the hope that it’ll help Obama win tomorrow.

I asked him why he was so passionate in wanting Obama to win – he went on to discuss his family and roots in Iran and the impact of US foreign policy in previous years and what it might be the future. He then went on to tell me in a matter of fact way: “Its time for a real change and I believe Obama can do this.”

The world is not only watching this election – they want to be part of it in whatever way they are able to, and its not just happening online, there are people like Ahmad willing to give up more than a mouseclick moment to the campaign. Inspired by politics, inspired by a politician, belief in the possibility of real change… write it off as  Obamamania if you like – but the passion and interest in participating has to be good for people’s rights and for generating the demand for real democratic process and real opportunities for people to influence power across the world.

I’d like to see this level of enthusiasm in the UK election next time around…

CauseWired : A Web 2.0 Book Review

Review In Brief: Causewired is a new book by Tom Watson which chronicles next generation social activism, or the ’causewired’ phenomenon – people connecting directly on social issues using the web to make a difference in real life. Its pretty interesting, has some good real life examples of the power of web 2.0 so you should probably go & check it out!

Review in Full: Its true that I don’t habitually get my news through the broadsheets anymore – and that when I do get the chance to spread out the newspapers and browse through them it feels like a luxury. Maybe its something to do with the amount of time and concentration it takes to rifle through and unfold the various supplements, find what I’m looking for without a search engine, and then read something with a wordcount longer than 500 in its entirety without any links to source material or comments from other readers to distract me…. ;)

Despite my lack of dexterity and slight attention dysfunction – I do still persevere with getting information in this way, albeit less often than I used to. Of course, this move away from the printed press doesn’t mean that I read any less information, or that I’m accessing it less often. In fact my information sources are far greater in number, infinitely more diverse and (too) frequently accessed by me than ever thanks to RSS, e-newsletters, blogs, Twitter, online journals, and regular Amazon deliveries of the latest books to take my fancy.

So… I’ve increased my digestion of online, interactive, peer to peer, user generated news and info alongside a scaled down consumption of the of printed stuff; but whatever printed articles and books I do choose to take the time out to read from this deluge of information – I’m reading them quite differently now.

The way I access and absorb information has become far more interactive. As I read, I am more actively re-evaluating the text than before, wondering what other people I know think of the material and (much to the irritation of certain print fanatics!) am constantly writing notes in the margin of printed articles/books and intermittently googling references as I go…wondering more than ever before ‘what does this actually mean in practice for me, for my work, friends family?’ etc.

So, bearing in mind all of the above, I hope you’ll better understand what I did when I received a copy of Tom Watson’s new book CauseWired last week and why it matters.

What I did when I received Tom Watson’s CauseWired last week … and was it worth it?

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I started reading from the beginning, marking the interesting sections in the margin (of which there were many) and then googling my favourite references and quotes in what proved to be a fascinating chronicle of the way in which social media and connectedness is changing the face of philanthropy and activism.

Tom W writes clear and interesting accounts of how regular people have used social media tools to highlight the ongoing issues they face in their community or that they care about across the globe. He disscusses the citizen-led coverage of New Orleans post Katrina, of how Darfur and cancer research centres came to be so well supported on Facebook, of how the face of political campaigning is being changed forever, and many other fascinating practical examples of social web tools in action. I googled all of this stuff, and proceeded to skip around a few chapters back and forth and skimmed some bits, went on to discuss the references with colleagues and IM’d a couple of friends about what I’d read. Then I joined the Facebook group and contacted the author on Twitter to let him know I’d be writing something up about his book on my blog.

Then I lent the book to someone else interested in online stuff – and I hope to get it back to read the bits where I left off to go googling… :) Then I watched some Obama videos on YouTube, joined a Darfur campaign group on Facebook and sent an awareness raising video to a few friends, and finally, I clicked online to donate some money to a small charity in Africa that I only heard of and keep in touch with through email/blogposts.

The book is a great resource for anybody who wants to better understand what all this web 2.0 stuff actually does, and what it means for ordinary people right across the globe when it comes to social change.

So, yes, it was worth reading; and what is more, it was worth passing on, so I wrote it up here on my blog.

Web 2.0 is changing everything we do in a whole variety of ways both online and crucially in our everyday lives -some of these shifts are more subtle than others and they even apply to a bog standard book review like this one.

So below, please find the rest of my web 2.0 book review, or in other words – check out these links for more info. What you choose to do with that info will be the interesting part… :)

Max Gladwell

Steve MacLaughlin

The Mongoose

David Bailey