There’s more to shops than shopping

January 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

While several retailers sit reflecting on a disappointing Christmas trading period, 2014 promises to buzz with excitement about online, mobile and social network tools to get you to buy things. We’ve heard plenty about the ‘death of the High Street’; its time to contemplate the future of the ‘big box’ out-of-town superstores in the online era. Shops are about more than shopping, their advantage remains face-to-face interaction. Retailers need to make physical stores community hubs to entice shoppers, appease a restless public, and help a stretched public sector.

New research we released today suggests that a future retail model must make the most of the physical assets of large stores and their network of human relationships. A big supermarket typically hosts 200 staff and 10,000 customers every day. Physical space offers the opportunity for services and experiences which can’t be replicated online. Most important for shops, as people live more of their lives staring at screens, is human interaction. As well as sites of consumption stores are sites of social interaction and employment with a role in combating loneliness and isolation which are increasing. Our previous research found 40% of shoppers at one large DIY store talked with other customers.

With every self-service checkout there is a missed opportunity to build a relationship between staff and shoppers.

What’s in store for the store of the future? We are already seeing shopping malls, retail parks and town centres add leisure and entertainment attractions, but participants in our research wanted to see a wider range of community services offered at large supermarkets. As well as existing cafes and pharmacies, large stores have the flexibility to use space in their car parks, staff rooms and back office. Two years ago Asda started letting community groups use space in store for free; since then they’ve been used 65,000 times. In this period of public sector austerity, we’ve seen libraries and youth services shut their doors and while need for support rises. Local residents suggested to us that they wanted to see their local Asda used for recruiting volunteers, expanded health services and hosting homework clubs, art shows and sports tournaments. Successful large stores will need to be fun destinations: there could be food markets by day and drive-in movies by night in the car park.

Shopping for Shared Value report cover

In coming to terms with the rise of online shopping, we are not rejecting the concept of physical shopping as is frequently claimed. Rather, we are using apps and websites as a new channel to browse and buy, adapting the way that we use stores. As digital platforms which make sharing product information, comparing prices and organising consumer campaigns easier, key attributes that brands desire, like trust, must be translated to new types of customer interactions.

In reconfiguring the shop floor for the mobile-connected consumer, stores will need to differentiate themselves from competition, build loyalty and secure a reputation for being a positive force in society. Realising this prize will mean creating social value for the locally-connected citizen. We call the exploration of these opportunities ‘community venturing’. Early indications from Asda’s Community Life programme – which the RSA evaluated for its report – suggest that the most socially valuable projects will be developed in partnership between charities, public sector agencies and business.

So why should a large national supermarket care about community venturing? It gives people a range of reasons to visit a big store and deepens relationships which can generate local insight: something commercially valuable to retailers. As Campbell’s Soup is finding at their headquarters in New Jersey, engaging in community work is inspiring to employees. Perhaps most importantly, it’s in the interests of a big store to grow the social economy and help local people lead fulfilling and rewarding lives.

You can’t have a thriving store in a failing place.

In 2013 national retailers faced public and political scrutiny over supply chain practices, pay conditions and tax payments. In 2014, High Streets will continue to adapt, and new retail businesses will show us products and producers in new ways. Several recent research reviews have suggested that with coordination among stores, High Streets can harness the power and reach of online channels. Vacancy rates will stabilise in most places; independent businesses have often been first to respond to the opportunities of contemporary consumer demands whether its coffee, bike repairs, or ethical products. Internet companies, both startups and established heavyweights, will increasingly try to develop a localised retail offer. It’s up to our big national chain stores to use their local presence to beat them to it and offer us something as citizens as well as consumers.

This blog was first published on Huffington Post.

Jonathan Schifferes (@jschifferes) is a Senior Researcher working with 2020 Public Services and Connected Communities

Bursting the Twitter bubble

April 17, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

Yesterday I was interviewed by a researcher from the University of Manchester who is working on a collaborative research project examining the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. The project aims to explore how people use social media in their daily lives and the extent to which people’s use of social media reflects local issues, events and concerns. It is part of the Manchester eResearch Centre which exists to explore how the recent explosion in social media and the interactive web opens up opportunities for understanding societal issues and concerns. So far so interesting…

Image via www.singleblackmale.org
Image via www.singleblackmale.org

Having already interviewed a community forum, the police, city council and local MPs, the researcher is in the process of recruiting and interviewing individuals who live in South Manchester and are ‘well-networked users of Twitter.’  She’d got in touch with me via someone she met at a networking event, who had given my name as someone who he thought would fit the bill. I was slightly surprised – I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati‘. Aside from that, I don’t use Twitter all that much to share information about or discuss local issues, so I wasn’t convinced I was quite what she was looking for.

I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati’.

Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed, not least because I was keen to hear more about the research project, and mindful of potential connections or overlaps of interest that might emerge through having the conversation. I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from anything else, it was interesting to be on the other side of the voice recorder for once – there’s a lot to learn from being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing.

Answering questions on my use of Twitter, the role it plays in my professional life, my personal life, and the connections between my use of Twitter and the community in which I live made me think about all these things in a particularly reflective way.

I was asked questions relating to how I use Twitter to provide information to other people, to organise debate and discussion, to gather support and interest and to portray sentiment in relation to various local issues, concerns and events. Like I’ve said, I don’t really think of myself as someone who really knows how to use Twitter to great effect, so it was curious for me to discover that I had at least something to say in relation to each of these lines of questioning.

On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised.

In answering the questions, I began to give examples and the discussion turned to the inclusiveness or otherwise of the Twittersphere. On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable some members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised. Aside from those members of society who do not have access to an internet enabled device, there are those for whom Twitter simply doesn’t appeal. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and why should it be?

My interviewer mentioned one member of the community forum she’d interviewed who was deeply negative, resistant, and unable to see any potential benefits of using social media to engage with the local community. We talked about  professionals such as teachers, nurses and social workers, whose day jobs are are structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to be tweeting all the time alongside doing the job.

They may also already be part of existing communication networks that they are used to and that work well for them, or they may feel that using Twitter is a quasi-work activity that they’d rather not get involved in after hours. There’s the public bodies for whom it is very difficult to use Twitter in the organic, instantaneous way that it needs to be used because of the need to adhere to policies and have all public communication formally approved and signed off. And there are people for whom Twitter is confusing, off-putting, boring or simply not their medium of choice

I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Twitter is a sort of bubble – a group of relatively similar people talking to each other about the things that matter to them. It is easy, when you’re part of that bubble, to imagine that all the important voices are being heard, that anyone who wants to be included in the debate will be. It’s also easy to feel – if you find yourself amidst a storm of retweets – as though you’re really making a difference, that the important people are listening and that you’re at the heart of the action.

But there’s also a world out there that doesn’t live itself out on Twitter. For all the unique opportunities and connections that Twitter may facilitate, there are plenty of people outside the Twitterverse who may be doing really important and valuable things without tweeting about it, or whose voices are easily overlooked. The research I took part in is due to be published this summer and it will be fascinating to find out more about the ways in which Twitter represents, enables or excludes people from participating in community life. In the meantime, I’m very happy to hear any thoughts. Use the comment function below, write me an email, post me a letter (wouldn’t that be novel?) or, if you really want to, you can even send me a tweet.

Whitley Arts – Creating a platform for budding creatives

March 20, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Fellowship 

It’s nice to be able to show others our work, especially my grand parents who live far away. Laura Warick-Student

As part of my role within the RSA I am lucky to be able to constantly see the creativity of students of our Family of Academies.  On a recent visit to Arrow Vale and Ipsley I saw some highly original and thought provoking pieces; this is of course true across many of the nation’s schools, youth centres and community spaces.  At Whitley Academy the same is true. They are especially passionate about student artwork and creative thinking.

Staff, students and parents are really proud of the original and inspiring student work.  It is great to share! Lorraine Allen-Principal

Milliner to the stars, Stephen Jones, visited the school for a day in early November of 2011 to advise pupils doing A-level Art and BTEC Art on how to design a hat. They handed in their finished designs as course work to count towards their final marks. Mr Jones designs hats for celebrities as diverse as Marilyn Manson and Beyoncé Knowles at his studio in London’s Convent Garden.

The Principal Lorraine Allen has been considering her students exceptional artwork and felt that students work should not be kept behind Whitley Academies four walls.  She has been working with staff to create a belief that students should be working to “be the best they can be”.  From then on it became a case of how student art work was shown to a wider audience and not when.  The school worked in partnership with students and agreed that Whitley Arts would be developed as an online portal to promote and inspire current and budding artists from Whitley Academy.  There are separate pages to promote work created by students in Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 along with an e-commerce page which allows anybody to purchase works of art that students have created in a range of different medium from postcards to A2 canvas prints.

Whitley Arts will underpin learning and interest in the Creative Arts at Whitley Academy by using student artwork as a focal point, and by encouraging a culture of innovation, inspiration, and personal development. The RSA/RBS report Disrupt Inc. highlights the need to allow young entrepreneurs to develop in their own way. Hopefully Whitley Arts will help open students eyes to the possibility of creating work that is admired and coveted by the public in the future.  Through negotiations with artists and the Academy it was agreed that artists would receive 25% of the sale price of each piece sold with the remainder used to support the arts, the students, and their learning at Whitley Academy.  Please visit the site to see some of the creative work developed by students.

I am sure our students are as proud as I am, especially as it is now no longer just our community who gets to see our students talent, but also an international audience. Miss Riach-Creative Arts Teacher

The RSA’s Family of Academies are continually looking at ways to improve student learning and enhance their experiences.  If you have any ways of supporting the Academies in the arts or any other field then please feel free to contact me via email at richard.pickford@rsa.org.uk or on twitter where I’m @pickfordrich

Next month on the 18th of April we will be hosting our second Fellowship Roadshow.  RSA Academy in Tipton will be opening its doors to Fellows who feel they can support the work of staff and students.  Please contact me for more details.

Is social networking redefining identity?

January 24, 2013 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

When did you last send a tweet? What did your Facebook friends have to say about how they’re feeling this morning? How important are online networks to your sense of who you are? Chances are you’ll have something to say about at least one of these questions. For a majority of Britons, online persona and virtual networks are becoming increasingly definitional.

Monday saw the publication of a new report that looks at the impact of technology on identity, by the Government’s chief scientific advisor, Professor Sir John Beddington. The report, The Future of Identity, identifies ‘hyper-connectivity’ – near-continuous access to the Internet – as a very significant development.  Beddington argues that hyper-connectivity is likely to have a profound effect on how people regard their place in the world and define themselves.

The report suggests that the ubiquity of smartphones is changing the way we relate to others, and may lead to place-based communities becoming less cohesive. In tandem, hyper-connectivity enables greater connectivity between otherwise disparate groups, making it very easy for groups to organise themselves quickly.

The Telegraph, reporting the publication of Beddington’s report, emphasises the risk that the rise of social networking may “fuel social unrest”. The role of smartphone technology in the riots of 2011 was well documented, and it’s clear that these communication platforms offer the means to facilitate phenomena like rioting, protesting and social disturbance.

But is it really accurate to say that hyper-connectivity can in itself be a cause of social unrest? I’m not convinced that these developments in technology are responsible for bringing about the motivation or impetus for groups of young people to loot and riot across the UK’s cities. Sure, they provide the communication platform to make it easy for large groups to organise themselves, but why should the existence of such technology be a trigger?

the perpetual presence of the smartphone impacts on our patterns of attention – we’re always on ‘standby’, ready to be interrupted

Having said that, it occurs to me that there are other ways in which in hyper-connectivity is likely to impact on us, as individuals and as a society. I’m sure the perpetual presence of the smartphone impacts on our patterns of attention – we’re always on ‘standby’, ready to be interrupted. As Jonathan Rowson noted in this blog, connectivity comes at a cost, undermining deeper connections that are all too easy to take for granted. Whether or not we’re aware of it, the reality is that many of us are addicted to receiving new information – the kick we get out of receiving new emails, SMS, and reading the latest Twitter feed is unrivalled by face to face interactions. Comparing ourselves to others is an inevitable side effect of online social networking, and this can have hugely negative consequences for self-esteem and assumptions about what is ‘normal’.

All of this must be affecting our brains somehow, whether the impact is on our patterns of concentration, expectations for instant information, or ability to focus our attention deeply. What we pay attention to can have a profound effect on our overall outlook, as Nathalie Spencer discusses here. Hyper-connectivity must also impact on our inner life – how comfortable would you be to spend half an hour doing nothing, without a Smartphone to engage with? What would it mean for your sense of self if all your online presence were to be erased?

Beddington’s report suggests that in the future, it is very likely that someone with no online persona will be regarded as unusual or even suspicious. This seems to indicate that the blurring of the boundary between online and offline identity is set to intensify. All of this makes me think that we may need to force ourselves to disconnect, unplug, and make space to notice and appreciate our offline selves.

But, do we have the willpower? Are we prepared or able to face up to the possibility that hyper-connectivity might be damaging, and whose responsibility is it to put preventative or protective measures in place? Which public or private bodies would fund research to find out whether and how smartphone usage is harmful to our wellbeing? Are we already in some sort of collective denial about the damaging impact of hyper-connectivity and might this mean sleep walking, in a hyper-connected way, into future problems?

 

 

Embracing Facebook a decade late

September 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

When my boss told me that I needed to raise my profile on social media, I was somewhat lost. After all, life as a part of the Fellowship Services team rarely seems to throw up the need to use Facebook, Twitter or what have you. We’re the stagehands of the RSA Fellowship; we keep the production going, pulling ropes, adjusting lights, making sure the scene is as it should be. And who, I thought, wants to hear about how the mise en scène is arranged?

But last week, I embraced Facebook. Five years after joining the site and four years and 362 days since I last looked at it, last week I finally had reason to sign in again. I’d only signed up in the first place to see my friends’ photos of my engagement party, and quickly became tired of the in-depth intellectual discussions that seemed to me to be the core of the Facebook experience – “I can’t decide whether to have a Rich Tea or a Hobnob!”, one friend would declare in frustration. “Have you considered the Bourbon?”, someone would reply. I couldn’t understand how anyone has the time or the patience to read all of this, let alone what the point of writing it in the first place was. Just pick a biscuit! Have one of each! Don’t tell the world!

I embraced Facebook, for I was imbued with purpose. I’m off to the Singapore Grand Prix this month, the trip of a lifetime, and there was a competition where I could win upgrades on my tickets and enjoy the “Ultimate Fan Experience”. All I had to do was dress up as the ‘Ultimate F1 Fan’ and submit the picture to the Singapore GP website. If I’d read the terms and conditions, I’d have realised that my picture would then be put on Facebook, where other F1 fans could vote on it. I didn’t read the terms and conditions. 

Quickly acclimatising myself with Facebook after so long away – it’s amazing how much you can learn quickly when there’s a need and you have fire in your belly…

I’m not sure my boss had this Ferrari nightmare in mind!

Read more

Is Twitter turning us into addicts? Research suggests it can

April 28, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Due to excessive consumption of internet, video gaming and pornography boys are increasingly developing arousal addictions, according to research. They are becoming so used to constant stimulation provided by IT that their attention spans are withering away. Analog teachers in classrooms pose no serious competition to digital Facebook in the marketplace for children’s attention. This is particularly relevant to boys who tend to be keener on video games and pornography (which I have never watched myself).

In this short and entertaining speech acclaimed psychologist Philip Zimbardo shares that:

  • An average boy watches 50 porn clips a week
  • By the time a man is 21, he has spent 10,000 hours playing video games
  • Boys are 5 times more likely to have ADHD than girls
  • Boys’ brains are being rewired for change, novelty, excitement and constant arousal. They are totally out of sync with traditional classes at school and in romantic relationships

This time I will spare you from discussing my own romantic relationships but I can share that I can totally relate to the addictions bit. When I surf the web for my own pleasure, I notice that I don’t have much patience for anything. Almost always there is this nagging feeling that there is something more interesting out there. Something more interesting than what I am reading now. More interesting than this clumsy blog, perhaps. And I click, and I click, and I click… This never ending craving for novelty… In fact, internet, and especially checking my email, can be so addictive to me, that I had to set rules for myself. I have rules for when I allow myself to check my mail and when I can surf the web. Otherwise, before I know it, I get sucked into this black hole with ever intensifying gravitational pull. And even when I know I am being sucked in there I keep telling myself “one more article” or “well, this will be the last one”. And it rarely is the last one. In the same way I have also struggled with quite serious video gaming addictions when I was in my teens.

I consider myself to be a recovered IT addict. I am clean now. Hopefully I will stay that way a bit longer. As much as I love the freedom provided by IT, I am convinced that any pleasurable freedom can turn into a prison if not handled carefully. Thanks for checking this blog and by all means please enjoy your next Twitter read.

Six reasons why the internet loves a list.

April 26, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Google Analytics reveals that one of our most popular blogs over the last few weeks was Top ten surprising psychological ideas which was basically a link to another site, prompted by somebody else’s tweet, with just a tiny bit of commentary from me.

Our Head of Media, Luke Robinson, was quick to explain the reason for this blog’s particular success:

1)It’s lists.

2) The internet loves a list.

3)Fact.

 

But why?

1) Lists generate suspense.

Once you know the number of things on the list, there is a ‘gap’ in your mind to find out what is on them.

2) Lists are relatively easy to read.

More precisely, they are easy to skim- you get your ‘meaning fix’ without effort.

3) Lists give you a sense of control.

You know where you are with a list- you are not getting to get lost in dense prose and end up in a different subject. There are rarely nasty surprises.

4) Lists give a nice sense of completion.

They make you feel like you have learned a certain number of things.

5) Lists are tidy

We prefer things that look organised, especially when somebody else has done the organising for us.

6) Lists are shareable

Because everybody loves a list…

This time I thought for myself before surfing for content to link to, but for those who are hungry for more please read: 10 reasons why list-based posts work so well online! Just don’t get get carried away, or before you know it we’ll all have pinaciphobia, and I’m sure there are at least seven reasons why you would want to avoid that.

What is the Big Society Equivalent of Gandalf the White?

January 12, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

The internet sometimes feels like one big cavern of promiscuous information where intellectual swingers throw around their ideas in search of fertile ground. It has been called an ’echo chamber‘ and is fuelled by the urge to link, forward, quote, repeat, retweet and so forth with a gradually vanishing care for provenance or accuracy. What ‘works’ online is mostly a function of ‘forwardability’. The chamber thus abounds with misinformation laundered through a thousand servers, while the good, the true and the beautiful gradually lose their bearings.

That wasn’t meant to sound so negative…and of course I live with, through and sometimes even for the internet. I just wanted to give some context for an echo of my own, in which I  repost something I have already written, simply because I like it, and because it might otherwise be forever overlooked.

In a previous post, announcing the launch of our recent report on the Big Society, I made a passing reference to the connection between a character in Lord of the Rings, Gandalf, and the Big Society:

“I have already used a Lord of the Rings reference on the Big Society, describing the emphasis on community at a time of austerity as an attempt to build the Shire in Mordor. At the moment it feels more like Downing Street are carefully planning a resurrection that has to be the same thing, but different. In this case the next iteration of the Big Society looks more like Gandalf the Grey reeling from his battle with the Balorog of Morgoth, when he “strayed out of thought and time”, “but it was not the end…” and Gandalf the White was “sent back, until my task is done”.

(sourced via Wikipedia)

The character is part of popular culture, but the analogy might be somewhat obscure for those unfamiliar with the Gandalf’s character, and his role in the epic. I read very little growing up(too busy playing chess) so my first encounter with the works of JRR Tolkien was Peter Jackson’s triopic, which I have in extended DVD versions, and have watched far too many times. These films led me to chase down the Tolkien Canon, and I had to promise my wife Siva that I would never attend a conference on Tolkien’s work. I now feel a healthy distance from middle earth, but I still find that most issues in life have some parallel in the character and stories there.

I don’t want this to become a Lord of the Rings love fest, but I am curious to know what readers think of such parallels, and whether they have any value. I promise not to take this as a license to generate more of them!

 

 

Networked facts are the new black

January 4, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Facts are so last century. In the Internet-dominated world, networked facts have pretty much taken over. The old-fashioned view of the fact is that it is an irreducible atom of knowledge. The way information is organised on the Web means that everything is connected and it is only as a result of the links between elements of information that facts come into being.

The way information is organised on the Web means that everything is connected and it is only as a result of the links between elements of information that facts come into being.  

This is one of the points that David Weinberger puts across in his new book, Too Big to Know, launched yesterday in the US (not out in the UK til 19th January). Weinberger calls these configurations of linked data, in which two ideas are connected by a relationship, ‘triples’. In an interview given to Thomas Rogers for Salon, Weinberger elaborates:

OK, so, if the triple is “Edmonton is in Canada,” ideally each of those should link to some other spot on the Web that explains exactly which Edmonton, because there’s probably more than one, along with which Canada (though there’s probably only one). And “is in” is a very ambiguous statement, so you would point to some vocabulary that defines it for geography. Each of these little facts is designed not only to be linked up by computers, but in itself consists of links. It’s a very different idea than that facts are bricks that lay a firm foundation. The old metaphor for knowledge was architectural and archaeological: foundations, bricks. Now we have clouds.

Now, I think I get this, and when we think about the ubiquity of the hyperlink, it’s pretty clear that Weinberger is absolutely right. But, even before the Internet, information was still linked, and it was still necessary to reference one idea in order to construct a basis for another. Aristotle, Darwin and Newton all did it. It was just a slower process. You had to have located and read the relevant source, be it a book, paper or article and access to these things was far more restricted than it is now. But, the basic principle was the same. I think it’s reasonable to say that Weinberger’s point about metaphors rings true not because of a fundamental shift in what facts are, but rather that the Internet age has speeded everything up and made access to data (almost) universally accessible.

Of course, I may be missing the point, particularly given that I’ve not read Weinberger’s book, but am instead responding to some bits and pieces I’ve read about it online.

Our burgeoning taste for punchy, sound-bitten data is obvious – if you can’t express an important idea in 140 characters, you’ll struggle to be listened to in some circles.

The title of the book, Too Big To Know, implies that the volume of information we now have access to could be leading to a kind of overload, and there is a genuinely important (and unanswered) question about the impact of this on our brains. Are we getting cleverer or stupider as a result? Our burgeoning taste for punchy, sound-bitten data is obvious – if you can’t express an important idea in 140 characters, you’ll struggle to be listened to in some circles. Indeed, this review of Weinberger’s book on Inc.com is designed to give you the top line messages in about the time it takes to write a tweet. And, this very blog post indicates that I’m clearly as much as sucker for this as anyone.

Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that Weinberger expresses some important ideas, not least that it isn’t individual cleverness that really matters, but the collective cleverness of the networks in which we operate. In his interview for Salon he says:

With the new medium of knowledge — the Internet — knowledge not only takes on properties of that medium but also lives at the level of the network. So rather than simply trying to cultivate smart people, we also need to be looking above the level of the individual to the network in which he or she is embedded to see where knowledge lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alpha Ingenuity

May 12, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Enterprise 

If there was ever a field in need of a little resourcefulness, it’s public sector IT. In the past the UK’s government has had the dubious honour of awarding some of the largest IT contracts in the world. Some of these have been simply too big to manage, and have failed at significant cost to the public.

On Monday, the Cabinet Office launched alpha.gov.uk. In response to digital champion Martha Lane Fox’s recommendation, this is a prototype of a single domain for all government information and interactions with the public. The parallel is with the BBC’s single domain website (ie bbc.co.uk), on which you can find everything from the latest table tennis results to instructions on how to roast a chicken. The result looks something like a Google for government.

But what’s more notable than the idea of a one-stop-shop for digital delivery of public services (having had Directgov, and Gordon Brown’s MyGov idea etc.) is the process behind its creation. An alpha site is usually a pre-release version (ie. bits of it might break), but the team behind this one have taken the unusual step of releasing it to the public to gather feedback. This is particularly unusual for the public sector, which has often been described as a bit ‘1.0’ when it comes to the internet.

The team have written about the ethos behind the project that have guided the site’s development. The ‘agile’ approach they have taken emphasises a much faster and iterative approach (as well as being people-centred), in stark contrast to large IT programmes which become too big to fail, soaking up ever more money.

There are similarities between their approach, and a paper we recently published on ‘ingenuity’, which defined ingenuity as a sort of creativity on a budget. In this paper we defined ingenuity as the ability to solve problems by combining few resources in a surprising way.

So is alpha.gov.uk ingenious?

Well, it’s been developed in three months on the fairly minimal resources of 261k (not at all a fair comparison, but Directgov’s design and build costs came in at over 6 million). It may (time and the results of their feedback will tell) solve the problem of how to help people interact with government more successfully and cost-effectively. I’m less sure whether it uses its resources in unexpected ways, but seems to have at least used off-the-shelf rather than expensive custom technology.

Verdict? Too early to tell, but promising…

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