Last night I witnessed an impressive example of the power of collective intelligence at work on how social media and other technologies can change people's lives and benefit local communities.
The setting was not a high-tech lab or forum of Web 2.0 developers ... it was a community centre in Bristol, and the experts combining their wisdom were local residents.
We got together to help the city council develop its bid to win the Digital Challenge, a competition among ten finalists to show the UK Government how well they are improving online services and ensuring all citizens benefit from the Net.
As part of the bid - due in January - the finalists have to include storyboards showing how the wireless networks, access centres, e-learning, e-democracy, e-commerce ... e-whatever projects will be used by different people in their area.
The difficulty in doing this exercise is combining two areas of expertise, and two groups ... those who understand the technology, and those who understand people and their everyday lives. There isn't always enough overlap.
Last night we started from the people side, and offered the local experts of Lawrence Hill, meeting at Community at Heart , some props to help them get to grips with the technical. We didn't say so at the beginning, but it was the first time that Drew Mackie and I had tried out the workshop game we've developed for the Digital Challenge project team. Here's how it worked.
Before the event, we assembled a set of over 30 cards which represented the range of projects that any Digital Challenger might consider in their bid. You can download the cards as a pdf here.
Kevin O'Malley and Steve Parry, who are working on Bristol's bid, pulled out ones that most matched their ideas. They included community access, wireless networks, mapping linked to social media, storytelling and a content aggregator.
Then after an introduction to the Digital Challenge and the purpose of the game, the locals split into two groups to work with Steve and Kevin.
We gave each group a set of cards split into the pre-determined "must haves", plus optional extras. We also provided a cast of fictional characters - download here.
The first task was to review the characters - who should benefit from the Challenge programme - and make sure there was a possible match between their needs and the ideas on the cards. Additional ideas could be added.
Then came the creative part. In smaller groups of three or four, our local experts developed storyboards showing how the character they had chosen - or invented - could use the technology. Just to liven things up - and add to the rising tide of giggles and laughter - Drew threw in a few personal crises or opportunities that might crop up for the characters ....serious illness ... offer of a college place ...
It worked really well. Not only did everyone manage to understand enough of the technical options to contribute, they were able to turn these into life-enhancing stories any of their neighbours could understand too.
The secret, of course, was conversation. People could fill in gaps of understanding for each other, and spark ideas.
We only had two hours for the whole exercise, so the stories were outlines. Given more time, perhaps on another day after time for reflection, I'm sure we could have filled them out substantially ... and the local Connecting Bristol team will continue the discussion. I asked two people how they thought the event had gone.
Local artist Jenny Sheehan (left) said she felt that the exercise helped to make a connection between technologies and people, and trigger thinking about how it could really help transform people's lives. A collaborative, community approach meant there was scope to bring costs down, to create a resource bank, and encourage skill sharing.
Kevin O'Malley (right) is one of those responsible for developing the Bristol bid, and he said that so far a lot of the bid development had, inevitably, been technical. The evening's exercise provided a way of bring this work into the realm of real people, with real issues, in a real community. Drew and I felt some satisfaction that a low-tech set of props (bits of paper) had help bridge the people-technology divide.
We'll revise the game in the light of helpful suggestions from the players - who said they didn't mind being first testers - and post it here with results from Bristol and revised instructions. In January we are running a session in Manchester.
Comments on the Bristol session on my other blog.