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: Charles Armstrong, Custodian :

Over the past few months I’ve been sounding out various people about what the most useful focus for CIRCUS would be in this next stage of its life. It needed to be something to do with the relationship between technology and social change, since that’s part of its DNA. Also it had to be something practically focused, concerned with a big issue and different from what others were pursuing. Beyond that I had a completely open mind.

When I asked people about this I got a lot of different answers. However several people observed that whilst there’s a reasonable consensus about the way we need to be living in twenty years’ time (less energy usage, less greenhouse gas emission, more local patterns of consumption, etc), there’s very little clarity about how we get from here to there. That appealed to me enormously as a mission. It’s hard to imagine a more important question to confront. The Bridges to the Post Industrial Planet project was designed as a way to gather ideas for exploration.

In July I was at Tim O’Reilly’s Foo Camp in Sebastopol so I took the opportunity to ask a variety of technology luminaries their thoughts about what most difficult transitions were likely to be and how we could overcome them. One of the people I spoke to, the investor and thinker Joi Ito, highlighted the role of decision-making systems. A long conversation about the potential for Emergent Democracy ensued. This is a long-standing interest of mine. Indeed I wrote a couple experimental constitutions on these principles back in 2000 when I was with Michael Young. This seemed like a useful and narrower focus, hence was born the Themis project.

Meanwhile I’d met Ed Murfitt whilst serving as a mentor at Social Innovation Camp and discovered we had a lot in common in our outlook. In July Ed became a Fellow of the foundation and is currently in California pursuing his Mass Collaboration in Design project with Menka Parekh.

None of these things are definitive answers to what the foundation should do or how it should work, but it is fitting that instead of pondering the question until the answer is clear, we are going out and doing something.

I’m Charles Armstrong, custodian of CIRCUS foundation. This blog post is my first action in CIRCUS in exactly five years.

CIRCUS foundation was founded in response to the recognition that many promising social change initiatives were hampered by inadequate access to digital expertise. This gap seemed to require an efficient mechanism to connected talented digital-sector professionals from the commercial sector with the best non-profit initiatives. Thus the foundation’s initial design was a kind of managed brokerage. There were three elements to it. First, building a network of people with relevant skills (technology consultants, web designers, software engineers, film makers, etc) who were willing to contribute a few hours a week to pro bono or low cost work on social projects. Second, picking out high-impact initiatives that could benefit significantly from such skills. Finally, project managing the interaction between the experts and the initiatives so people’s time was used effectively and generated desired outcomes.

The foundation opened its doors (virtually) in the spring of 1997. Its very first job was a short project to provide consultancy, photography and web design skills for a small metalworking collective working with reclaimed materials. The second project was considerably more ambitious, helping Lord Young’s newly-formed School for Social Entrepreneurs provide a learning and communication platform for its network of 200 students spread around the UK, some of them with very low computer literacy.

Over the next six years CIRCUS evolved. The network of digital-sector professionals continued to grow, but increasingly the focus was on experimental projects initiated by the foundation itself. The Scillonia Digital Workshop, in the Isles of Scilly, tested a model for accelerating the development of digital economic opportunities in remote rural communities, fitting modern trades and skills within the patterns of a crofting community economy. “Dispersed Apprenticeships” explored decentralised models for production-based learning connecting experts in urban centres with learners in small communities. The Tamale Digital Workshop, in the Northern Region of Ghana, sought to provide a model for developing societies to grow a small pool of high-level digital skills (such as desktop publishing, system maintenance and web design) within a broader platform of basic computer literacy. At the same time “Digital Storytelling” put sound recorders and cameras in the hands of Ghanaian school-children enabling them to share their life experiences and interview those in power in their communities. Bushlink was a research initiative aiming to provide a toolkit that could provide a basic communications mesh for the developing world using solar energy, cheap WiFi equipment, Pringles cans and hand-me-down laptops.

Some of the experiments were successful, others weren’t. But a pattern emerged in the foundation’s work in which digital technologies were applied in developmental and economic models that challenged the assumptions of urban industrial society.

All the while work with the School for Social Entrepreneurs continued. The original consulting project led to a realisation that conventional platforms imposed significant barriers to peer learning and entrepreneurial development. As a result the foundation proposed concepts for a different kind of platform, codenamed “Trampoline”. This was based on more fluid sharing of information, with an even balance between formal and informal structure, in an environment where it was easy for any user to create new parts of the system or manage how information was delivered to them. A prototype system was developed through 2001-02. Today it would probably be called a social networking platform (though it also incorporated a fully functioning email system) but no such thing existed in 2001.

By the end of 2002 investors in San Francisco, London and Tokyo were taking an interest in Trampoline and it became clear the project was in tune with changing demands on organisational information systems. In mid 2003 the decision was made to spin off Trampoline Systems as a separate commercial venture. I became its CEO, imagining I could recruit a team within a year to take the business forward and I’d be able to turn my focus back to CIRCUS.

That was five years ago and I remain fully committed as Trampoline’s CEO. In retrospect my assumptions about how long the business would need me seem amusingly naive. Trampoline’s gone from strength to strength, establishing a worldwide reputation as a pioneer of human-centred information systems and working with some of the world’s brightest corporations. In the process I’ve learned more than I could have imagined.

But the moment has come to breathe new life into CIRCUS foundation. I’ve been discussing different possibilities for a couple of months and starting to gather the necessary forces. The foundation’s spirit and direction will remain the same but its specific objectives and modus operandi will be substantially different. Over the next few weeks I look forward to introducing new projects and ideas.

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