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).