Stuff happens: could company operating systems for uncertain futures provide insights into what’s needed for civil society?

Lisa Gill headlines her excellent report from a two-day business forum with a quote from speaker Gary Hamel: “The future is surprisingly indifferent to our preferences” … which might by summarised as “stuff happens”.

That’s as true for communities as it is for companies. Unfortunately communities have even less control over their futures. For example, the Local Trust reported recently on continuing challenges of poverty, transience, fragmentation, isolation and democracy. David Robinson explains why currently technology isn’t helping, and we need a new approach to Connecting Well.

Highlights from Lisa’s report will resonate with anyone involved in local social action to address these challenges: support bottom-up rather than top-down change, humanity over technology, go for small experiments over big change initiatives.

Lisa adds some helpful nuances: think edge not just top and bottom; develop human capabilities to partner with technology; re-imagine leadership with revolutionary intent but evolutionary practice.

Lisa ends with a call to people to get in touch with her and colleagues at The Ready … saying “let’s explore how we can help you upgrade your OS!”

I’m taking OS to mean Operating System (see below), which nudges me to return to thinking about why we need civic operating systems to manage the social fabric for healthy communities … and how we can share learning for the future between companies, communities and networks.

The idea of civic operating systems was promoted by Dan Gregory in an essay for the Local Trust, where he argued that we are losing local social infrastructure like community centres, libraries, shops and pubs … and without these it is more difficult to socialise and organise for a better future.

I argued that to address the challenge we need to map these assets, develop a set of tools (a social app store for the Operating System), and support a network of practitioners and activists learning new ways of operating. Those are Lisa’s edge people, adopting revolutionary/evolutionary tactics.

I’m exploring what an operating system for communities and networks might look like with Drew Mackie and Barbara Brayshay. We are working in several places and networks, on how to combine these elements:

Maps of local assets, groups and organisations. These can show profiles, interests, requests for help, offers of resources, as well as connections for cooperation and collaboration. Maps can act both as an interactive directory and system for network building. More here on how to build them.

Interfaces into map data that respect people’s preferences . Some people love visual representations of networks … others prefer dots on a map, or searchable directory listings. We are working on how to use underlying spreadsheets to feed lists, collaboration maps and geographic maps, including Google’s My Maps.

Stories about what’s happening, for inspiration and learning. These days people can use their phones to share images and movies, texts long and short. Curators and storytellers can link those to the maps.

A Social App Store of tools for communication and organising. Here’s an example from June Holley of what’s needed in a network communication ecosystem.

Methods for self organising. If change is to develop bottom up – and from the edge – we need to blend traditional methods for managing groups and organisations with more fluid approaches. One such collection is Liberating Structures. There is even an app for those.

A community of practice or network for for learning, as we’ve proposed here. That will be the home for edge people.

Living Labs to try out some of these ideas, through workshops and games. Some examples here.

Business consultants and commentators like Lisa explain the challenges that companies face in adopting new approaches. There are additional challenges in communities, small groups and charities as a whole. We’ve charted some of these in our Networked City exploration over the past two years, and contributed ideas to the recently-formed London Plus Resource Hub.

One of the key roles at London Plus is that of Networks Partner, with responsibilities including:

  • To offer support to civil society groups through the development and coordination of networks and forums, and by supporting existing networks (i.e. CVS Directors and Volunteer Centre networks) with a focus on co-production
  • To harness the use of technology and develop new online forums and networks where civil society groups and partners can network and communicate
  • To support on the development of new alliances where a need is identified

I hope that the idea of civic operating systems may be useful.

One of the biggest challenges in developing and adopting a civil society operating system will be to “harness the use of technology” when skill levels and confidence may not be up to using the systems. Or put it another way, how do we develop systems that work for people with different preferences and capabilities, and build on what they may be using on their phones.

One good place to start – as reported here – will be to map who is already working on that, and begin to form some of the new alliances needed. I hope London Plus may join others who are already offering to help.

I’ll be working my way through The OS Canvas, developed by Aaron Dignan and colleagues at The Ready, and pondering whether something designed for the relatively bounded ecosystem of a company might provide ideas for a Community Operating System Canvas and a Network Operating System Canvas.

And/or should we look to Platform Cooperatives and the Platform Design Toolkit for inspiration?

Either way, we certainly need new models for thinking about civil society, and ways to organise.

We are experimenting with linking this blog to a forum for discussion – as as you can see here – and hope that might be an initial home for a community of practice.

If you would like an invite, please get in touch

This post is now here on the forum