Tag Archives: Egderyders

The Edgeryders team at the unMonastery: left to right, Matthias Ansorg, Nadia El-Imam, Alberto Cottica, Noemi Salantiu, Arthur Doohan, Ben Vickers. Photo: Sam Muirhead CC-BY

The business corporation as a symbiont to a community: Edgeryders crosses a watershed

Last week Edgeryders LBG, the company I co-founded, closed its first substantial deal. We are going to be working with the United Nations Development Programme, scanning the horizon in three countries (Armenia, Egypt and Georgia) in the hope to detect trends that will shape our common future as they start to unfold. We are very excited: this is exactly the kind of cutting-edge work we aspire to do, and Giulio Quaggiotto and his posse at UNDP-CIS are exactly the kind of people we aspire to work with.

This deal marks a watershed in the Edgeryders trajectory. We were a joint project of the Council of Europe and the European Commission from launch in late 2011 to sunset at the end of 2012. In January 2013 some of us, enamoured with what we had come to see as a uniquely valuable community, stepped in and spun it off onto a newly built online platform. In May 2013 we founded a non-profit social enterprise, Edgeryders LBG, to provide the infrastructure and the sense of direction we felt were needed to keep the community together.

We wanted to do this by providing work opportunities to our community on the edge (many of us are close to uncontractable for various reasons: too young and unexperienced, too old, too minority, too anti-authoritarian, too inclined towards being self-taught rather than academic achievers…). And not just any work opportunities: meaningful ones, cutting-edge, high-risk, potentially world-changing, one-step-removed-from crazy work opportunities. We want to be the skunkworks of the global society, the Foreign Legion of social innovation, the people that have little to lose, and so can afford to go to the ugliest places and take on the scariest work.

We would do this in part directly, by going out and pitching our community as a “distributed think tank” that swarms near-instantly around any interesting problem you throw at it; but the most innovative part of the model was that we would also help members of the community to provide those opportunities for themselves and each other. To secure this, we built our company so that it can serve as a vehicle for anyone in the community to use. This way, people would be able to quickly prototype their ideas without worrying about having to start a company: if they needed an incorporation they could simply use us as a “corporate shell”, an interface towards a world that understands corporations but not communities. Basically, anyone who wishes to do so (with minimal limitations) can put on an Edgeryders hat and talk to potential clients or funders as if representing the company – this makes us the first (to my knowledge) corporation without permission. On launching a successful project, we simply hire them to run them: this is a process we describe as hiring yourself. Of course, we also informally try and help people with ideas and the will to work hard, mostly by connecting with others in the community with relevant skills and experience.

We gave ourselves a year to find out whether this plan had a chance of working. We were not too worried – we had learnt our lesson from the tech industry so many of us gravitate around, and had made it really cheap to fail.

Three months to go to that deadline. Here’s where we are:

  1. On the corporate front, we have secured the UNDP contract. Two more contracts are in the pipeline, and we expect them to come through well before May.
  2. We have secured a deal with the Italian city of Matera to provide a (spectacular!) building and some seed funding for the world’s first unMonastery, a project of some visionary edgeryders led by Ben Vickers. After much preparation, unMonastery Matera went live on February 1st.
  3. We have served as a corporate shell for several community projects. Two of them succeeded in raising seed funding: these are Matthias Ansorg’s Economy App, winner of the first European Social Innovation Competition in 2013, and David Bovill’s Viral Academy, recipient of a Nominet Trust grant on digital innovation in 2014. I am confident that many more will come through, for reasons explained below. Another project just launched is Said Hamideh’s EdgeLance, a communication agency that leverages the unusual brand of creativity of many edgeryders to build cutting-edge communication services. Said, a professional freelance communicator, has chosen wrap EdgeLance into the Edgeryders LBG corporate shell. News of more initiatives are coming in daily.
  4. Meanwhile, the community has thrived despite the end of the Council of Europe’s tenure. We have been able to organize, with no funding at all, the third Living On The Edge event, that gathered over 100 edgeryders from all over the continent in the (then unfinished) unMonastery premises. Over the past year, the community has gathered 700 new members and produced about 1,000 posts, wikis and tasks and well over 3,000 comments.

My conclusion: our proof of concept is done. Edgeryders can indeed be a viable business. But we are well aware that proving a concept is not the same thing as making it work in practice. We may be fast and smart, but incumbent consulting conglomerates are big, and scary. Can we really carve a niche for ourselves, expand it and keep the McKinseys, Accentures and Gartners of the world away from it?

Time will tell. But we do have one thing we have going for us: we are not a predator, we are a mutualistic symbiont to our communityWe don’t just recruit the smartest people from the community; we hate digital sharecropping, and try very hard never to be the slightest bit exploitative. We invest in the community and serve it as best we can; we believe we can only be a viable business because we serve it. Investments in this community pay back tenfolds, because it is so smart and fast as to be almost frightening. New conventions and tools continue to be proposed: some are adopted and spread, like the community call, the “call a human” button, the Twitterstorm, the Task Manager.

Among the potentially most significant are the FormStorm and its Recycling Bin, dreamed up by Ksenia Serova and her crew: the idea is to socialize application writing, helping each other take part in contests and competitions. This was tested very successfully with the European Social Innovation Competition: the community got together (virtually) and produced 13 applications (about 1% of the total applications submitted throughout Europe). Two of them, Giacomo Neri’s Moove and Epelia’s Food Supply Unchained, were shortlisted for the semi-finals (Lois is prototyping the latter in unMonastery Matera, another sign that a whole ecosystem is emerging from what we do). More, much more is cooking.

While many edgeryders are individually very smart, we believe this kind of performance to be an emergent property of the whole community, with its tools and its values. It is, truly, collective intelligence.  And if this is what happens with fewer than two thousands registered users, we can only imagine how fast this crowd can move as that number scales  to a mere twenty thousands. We can’t wait to find out.

A phrase from Chris Anderson’s famous article about the makers movement’s next industrial revolution comes to mind. In that article, he describes his own company, DIY Drones, as a typical small, family-run business, initially run by Anderson’s garage. Then he adds:

But the difference between this kind of small business and the dry cleaners and corner shops that make up the majority of micro-enterprise in the country is that we’re global and high tech. Two-thirds of our sales come from outside the US, and our products compete at the low end with defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Although we don’t employ many people or make much money, our basic model is to lower the cost of technology by a factor of 10 (mostly by not charging for intellectual property). […] When you take an order of magnitude out of pricing in any market, you can radically reshape it, bringing in more and different customers.

This describes accurately what we are trying to do to consulting. We are tiny, barely starting to bootstrap from sweat equity, and yet we are already global – we are doing work in Armenia, Egypt, Georgia, Germany, Italy, the UK; we are negotiating deals in South Africa, Sweden, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates; we participate in conferences in places like Thailand and Montenegro (not to mention the fact that our community lives in 40 countries). We are resolutely open, both in content an in software, hence we don’t charge for intellectual property. And yes, we are cheap, and we aim to get people and orgs who do good work, but can’t afford to pay for standard consulting, to turn to us.

If you like this vision, you can help make it come true.

  • If you run a business, a public- or a third sector organization you can join UNDP as one of our “founding clients”: you will be an early adopter of  our open consulting services, and we will strive to reward your belief in us by overdelivering and sharing with you our learning journey. If you wish to find out more about how this would work, just contact me.
  • If you are building a project for a better world, or want to collaborate to one, consider joining the Edgeryders community. Be sure to contact Noemi to say hello, she’ll help you make the most of the community.

We scan the horizon for UNDP, to discern the shadow of the future. But the feeling is very strong that a warm, glowing piece of future is right here.

Introducing Edgeryders: the corporation without permission

While at the Council of Europe in 2011-2012 I directed a project called Edgeryders. The idea was this: use the Internet to let a policy community emerge by self-selection around an issue, then deploy that community as an engine of expert advice on the issue at the hand. We started to call this model open consulting. Its beauty is that:

  • Anyone can acquire the status of a “citizen expert” on that particular policy, simpy by signing up to a web platform and starting to collaborate. This makes it inclusive, and lends it democratic legitimacy.
  • The scalability of the mechanism (helped by technology to “harvest” the ensuing conversation) gives rise to collective intelligence dynamics. This makes expert advice delivered this way smarter, faster, cheaper and more diverse than vanilla consulting.

The approach worked. It worked so well that, at the end of the project, we decided the value to us of the community that had convened around Edgeryders was too high to waste. So, some of us invested our own personal time and money in spinning the Edgeryders website off the Council of Europe servers and into a newly developed platform. A UK-incorporated not-for-profit enterprise, Edgeryders LBG, was created to maintain the technical (the platform) and social (the community management legwork and yearly physical gathering, Living On The Edge) infrastructure necessary to support the community and keep it growing. In doing this, we created value in the public sphere right from the get go; as the Council of Europe turned off the Edgeryders server after the end of the project, we stepped in to keep that content – paid for by European taxpayers – online and accessible.

We are having some success in helping each other kickstarting cutting-edge social innovation projects, like the unMonastery and Economy App, but we are reluctant to try to monetize this peer-to-peer help for fear it will destroy the community’s ethics. On the other hand, we don’t believe in seeking public sector funding: too slow, too politically-driven, too unstable. So, we decided to seek sustainability of the Edgeryders operation by selling open consultancy on the market. Think of what we do as a big red “bring on the hackers” button: when you are dealing with wicked problems, entrenched stakeholders, cross-vetos and things look grim; or simply when you want some fresh thinking around what you do, you push the button. We will come in and help you to summon and deploy an ad-hoc network of hackers, citizen experts and radical thinkers around your problem.

We have a fighting chance where other consultants don’t, because we, as a company, are wired very differently from anyone else: we are a corporation without permission. Edgeryders LBG is a corporate shell exacty analogous to shells for computer software: an interface between the client and the collective intelligence engine of the system – which does not live in the shell, but in the community. Here’s how it works: anybody that has a project that might resonate with the Edgeryders ethos is encouraged to think of herself as being part of Edgeryders. Anyone can propose and discuss the project with others, but also look for a client for it without having to ask for permission. Anyone can claim to represent Edgeryders: people can ask for an edgeryders.eu email address and we will issue one without too many questions, provided the project is not in contrast with the community’s values. If the project does find a client (like it happened for the unMonastery) the person who leads it gets hired for the duration of the project. Edgeryders LBG provides the corporate infrastructure to deploy it: team building, technology, outreach and engagement, invoicing, banking, whatever. This is regulated by ad-hoc agreements between project leaders and the company, because every project is different. Once a contract is signed, the company’s board of directors takes on legal responsibility for delivering on it, just as with any other corporation.

This setup results in self-selection, lots of it. Each individual in Edgeryders does what she is best at and what she is most passionate about. Anyone can propose ideas and lines of work; any of these ideas can get picked up by the community and gain momentum ((but by no means all of them will). This much openness guarantees a very high rate of idea generation – and an equally high rate of idea rejection by lack of momentum. Anything that lives through this much natural selection has to be very, very good – and clients stand to benefit from it.

Extreme openness, while it brings us competitive edge, also defines Edgeryders as a social enterprise – an elegant move, and a beautiful thing to behold. Many of our citizen experts live on the edge of society: they are hackers, permaculturists, activists, artists. They are into crypto currencies, open source, sharing economy, nomadic lifestyles, new forms of learning, new familial constellations. Almost none is wealthy; many are young; many are parts of various minorities; most are struggling. You can never hire them – they would not get through your HR firewall, because your HR people don’t understand or recognize their qualifications. Even if they did get through HR, they would likely not want to work for you – many of them don’t function well in hierarchies and bureaucracy. We provide an interface for them to keep true to themselves while meeting your accountability requirements. It’s a bit like safe sex: it allows experimentation at minimum risk. Everyone wins.

This is also a novel thing for me personally. After almost ten years of working in or for the public sector, I have decided to take a step into social entrepreneurship. Partly, I do it because I have become convinced that civil service innovators and reformers don’t stand a chance if they don’t have help and legitimacy from outside, bringing agility, out-of-the-box thinking and, yes, outspokenness to the table. But mostly I do it because I like and trust the Edgeryders community and feel supported by it; and because I admire my business partners in Edgeryders LBG and don’t want to pass on the opportunity to work with them. Let me do an introduction here (though you can see them and hear their voices in the video above): ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

  • Matthias Ansorg, CTO: rock-solid German open source hacker. I have seen him do stuff with tech that borders on witchcraft to us Muggles. He is reconverting a 1968 firetruck to be his mobile home. Need I say more?
  • Arthur Doohan, CFO: an Irish apostate investment banker (“I was sick of being a professional gambler with other people’s money”) from an engineering background. He is the founder of the Irish Pirate Party.
  • Noemi Salantiu, Head of Community, a young social scientist from Romania with a knack for nurturing social dynamics conducive to collective intelligence.
  • I left the most special person for last: our Glorious Leader Nadia El-Imam, CEO, Sudanese- Swedish interaction designer, activist and changemaker, and one of the people with the most integrity I have ever met.

Ok, world. You are always complaining that you want more innovation, more diversity, more openness and more young leaders. Edgeryders scores exceptionally well on all four accounts (three of the five partners are under 35, with a 32-years old female CEO), has proven ability to deliver and is open for business. Let’s see if you put your money where your mouth is, or if, when it’s time to hire a consultant, you’ll go for the usual suspects after all. You can find us on Linkedin (more legible, client-facing) and on our own workspace (more creative, apparently more chaotic, community-facing).

Is evaluation overrated?

Policy wonks everywhere insist on hard, quantitative evaluation as an accountability device. The European Commission is spearheading the effort to drive the adoption of quantitative evaluation in traditionally “soft” areas, like social cohesion or social innovation. The message is quite simple: these are tough times for public budgets. You want something funded, you’d better make a strong case for it. It makes sense. How could it be wrong?

And yet, I wonder. Evaluation is theoretically rock-solid when it measures output in the same units as its input. The gold standard of that would be the famed Return on Investment (ROI): invest dollars. Reap dollars. Compute a ratio. Easy. When you invest dollars to reap, say, an increase in the heron population, or in the expected reduction in lung cancer incidence, things start to get blurred. And if you are comparing an increase in the heron population with an expected reduction in lung cancer incidence, they get really blurred.

I should know. I am a veteran of a similar battle.

In the 1980s, led by influential thinkers like the late David Pearce, Mrs. Thatcher’s environmental advisor, environmental economists tried to quantify the economic value to environmental goods. Their goal was to teach humanity to abandon the idea that the environment was there for free, and to start treating it as a scarce resource. This scene had its stronghold at University College London, where Pearce directed a research center and an M.Sc. program. I joined the latter in 1992. Our main tool was an augmentation of cost-benefit analysis, that old evaluation workhorse of the New Deal era. We had all kind of clever hacks to translate environmental benefits into dollars or pounds: hedonic pricing, contingent valuation, travel costs analysis. Once something is measured in money, it can be compared against anything else. Hard-nosed, quantitative evaluation ensued. Or did it?

As we moved on from our London classrooms to practice, we found out things were not nearly that simple. First, we had a very big theoretical issue: we were trying to emulate markets in order to value environmental goods, because, according to standard economic theory, well-behaved markets assign to goods exactly those prices that maximize collective well-being. However, the mathematical conditions for that to hold are very peculiar, such that they are rarely, if ever, observed in real life. Joseph Stiglitz, one of my favorite economists, was awarded a Nobel prize for showing that, removing just one of those conditions (perfect and symmetric information), the properties of the model go down in a big way. But even if you were prepared to take a leap of faith in the underpinning theory, man, getting to those values was hard. Very. Data are usually not available and impossibly expensive to generate, so people resorted a lot to surveys (“contingent evaluation” as we called them – it sounds more scientific). Bad move: that just got us entangled in cognitive psychology paradoxes explored in detail by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who showed conclusively that humans simply do not value as (theoretical) markets do – and earned another Nobel.

Then there was very unfortunate politics. Just about the only people prepared to fund generously environmental evaluation were the biggest, baddest polluters. A whole body of literature sprang up as a consequence of the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill, as Exxon fought in court to avoid having to pay for damages to the Arctic environment: we studied those papers in London. Their authors had the means to do a real evaluation exercise, but the people footing their bill had very strong preferences over its outcome. Not an easy situation.

We certainly succeeded in advancing the cause of evaluation as a requirement. Environmental impact assessment, used in America since the late 1960s, was made a requirement for many public projects by European regulation with a 1985 directive. Money was spent. A lot of consultants took some random course and started offering environmental impact evaluation as a service. But as to bringing about objective, evidence-backed evaluation, I am not so sure. Even now, 25 years later, environmentalists and general contractors are fighting court battles, each wielding their own environmental impact assessment, or simply claiming that the other side has intentionally commissioned a partial EIA to rig the debate (this is happening around the planned high speed rail link from Turin to Lyon). That does not mean EIA is not being useful: it does mean, however, it is not objective. The promise of “hard-nosed evidence” was delusional. I suspect this is fundamental, not only contingent: evalutation implies, you know, values. The ROI embeds a set of values, too: namely, it implies that all the information that matters is embedded in price signals, so you are making money you must be advancing social well-being.

I am curious to try an alternative path to evaluation: the emergence of a community that participates in a project, volunteers time, offers gifts. For example: in the course of a project I manage at the Council of Europe, called Edgeryders, I created a short introductory video in English. A member of our community loaded it onto Universal Subtitles, transcribed the audio into English subtitles and created a first translation into Spanish. Two weeks later, the video had been translated into nine languages, just as a gift. That does not happen every day: it made our lonely bunch of Eurocrats very happy, and – alongside a veritable stream of Twitter kudos, engagement on our online platform and other community initiatives like the map of citizen engagement – we took it as a sign we were doing something right. That’s evaluation: a vote, expressed in man-hours, commitment, good thinking. Such an evaluation is not an add-on activity performed by an evaluator, but rather an emergent property of the project itself; as such, quite likely, very fast, relatively cheap, and merciless in exposing failures to convince citizens of the value the project is bringing to the table.

Granted, online community projects like Edgeryders or Kublai lend themselves particularly well to being assessed this way – they contain thousands of hours of citizen-donated high quality human labor, a quite natural accounting unit for evaluation. But this criterion might be more generalizable than we think, or became so relatively soon. Recently a friend – the CEO of a software development company – astonished me with the following remark:

In the present day and age, half of a programmer’s work is nurturing a community on Github.

So it’s not just me: in more and more areas of human activity, complexity has become unmanageable unless you tackle it by collective “swarm” intelligence. In other words, more and more problems can – and maybe have to – be framed in terms of growing an online community around them. If that is true, that community can be used as a basis for evaluation activities. It should be a no brainer: I have never met an ecologist or a social worker who think that assessing an environmental or social cohesion impact with ROI makes the slightest sense. If we can figure out a theoretically sound and practically feasible path to evaluation we can and should get rid of ROI for nonprofit activities altogether. And good riddance.