Last Thursday I raced up to Camden on my bike just in time to give the closing presentation at Open Everything London. I whisked through the historical relationship between technological innovation and social/organisational structure, outlined the hypothesis for emergent democracy and ended with a description of the Themis Project and an invitation for contributors. There were lots of interesting questions afterwards. I wish I could have been there for the entire day. Eli Gothill has posted a review of the event which gives a flavour for anyone who wasn’t there. Jonathan Gray organised it with the Young and Shuttleworth Foundations.

On Friday evening I pedaled down to the Unicorn Theatre for “Who Wants to Be”, along with James and Emma. Ever since Saul Albert’s presentation about the format at the recent Emergent Democracy workshop I’ve been dying to see it in action. My intention was to sit quietly, observe the crowd and make notes charting the changing dynamics through the evening. However I couldn’t help getting swept up in the hurly burly and I think I suggested something rather unconstructive about chain-saws at one point.

The production was extremely polished. A small support team at the edge of the stage controlled projections on a screen in response to what was happening. As people put forward ideas their words appeared almost immediately on a projection screen, often accompanied by images. There was a pleasing sharpness to how this was done, sometimes subtly mocking a proposal, other times encapsulating it more elegantly than the proposer had done. Thus the support team functioned somewhat as a chorus in Greek drama, commenting on the proceedings as well as reporting them. Mikey Weinkove did an impressive job as MC, holding everything together and sustaining a sense of direction.

What struck me most during the evening was how inexorably a consensus formed around a sensible, safe decision. Initially there was strong peer encouragement for people to propose ideas that were entertaining and outrageous but as the group turned to deciding what the money should actually be spent on the dynamic shifted and frivolous options were progressively whittled away. In the end we decided to buy a park bench and put our names on it. The previous audience decided to buy a piece of woodland. It’s striking that these are both popular choices for memorials, which made me think a lot about the choices we middle classes make.

I suspect the dynamic would be somewhat different if the event were held in an established community who actually had something significant at stake in the decisions being made. You would see factions mobilising and forming alliances. You would see much more heat in the interactions, rather than pure play. And there would be a lot more pressure to reach a consensus within the allotted time. I would be fascinated to observe an event running in such a situation.

Hats off to Saul and the team at the People Speak for coming up with such an intriguing format and executing it with such panache.