The technological frontier at Tyndall: the 3-minute catch-up

A slide I recently presented at a Tyndall Centre PhD Network event attempting to summarise three years’ work in a super short amount of time. I discussed three perspectives on my PhD project, focussing on empirical aspects for a very broad audience. Here’s the outline:

  • First, context counts. 1,000 MW of installed wind capacity on Irish hills are not equivalent to 1,000 MW in Germany.
  • Second, picked with the Tyndall audience in mind was the observation that uncertainty in the UK energy policy landscape has created not insignificant risk, uncertainty and opportunity in the Irish renewables sector over the past 20 years.
  • Third, more theoretically, a brief discussion on the global antecedents and constraints on local agency in a technological innovation system. In plain English, what was the ability of locals to create and shape a local wind industry? And conversely, how did aspects of the global innovation system influence the speed and direction of the nascent Irish wind sector. In short, local agency has been bounded by global constraints such as dominant players, knowledge and policy. Institutions and rules from one country, such as Germany have been translated and transformed by the European Union, and then “planted” in new locations. But the agency and technological momentum of local entrepreneurs and developers have proved powerful factors in creating a local industry, which contributes to a global knowledge pool.

Who owns Irish wind?

Some work in progress from my bigger research project.

Simple question, who owns Irish wind?* EU28 states each have their 2020 renewables targets, but somewhere down the line each nation’s big number gets contextualised into an industry with firms, policies and instruments. Here’s a look at the changing concentration of firm ownership in the Irish wind industry as its developed taking snap shots at the end of 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2013.

The growth of Irish wind since 1999

The industry started small and independent, then got bigger and more utility. That’s impressive growth. But who gains, and how will we know when we’ve reached enough? Who’s financing this and who shares the gains?

There is roughly 3,000MW of built up capacity due to be delivered in the current round of connections (Gate 3), and anywhere between 10 and 20GW queuing up behind that according to different sources, these pies are going to rise some more before the heat is turned down.

Here’s the missing detail on the first two graphs:

Irish wind generating firms at the end of 1999

Irish wind generating firms at the end of 2004

*The even simpler question of course is how come the radio spectrum was sold off to Vodafone, O2 etc. and the wind farmers get to farm the wind for free. That’s another day’s work.



When did “bankability” become a thing?
It’s a simple concept. An asset or investment is bankable if a bank will finance it without seeking equity. Bankability is all about risk and trust.

The Hollywood star system has long made casting decisions based on this characteristic. Jennifer Lawrence is bankable. Mark Hamill, 1983 to 2013, not so much.

In today’s big time renewable industry, bankability is a big deal. The investment fund manager is looking for a bankable wind or solar project. The project developer wants a a good location and a feed in tariff or locked in financial instrument so she can offer the fund manager a 15 year cash flow that beats our low-low interest rates. And the boys in the bankability department at the local bank base their lending decisions on their interpretation of… bankability.

Bankability seems like a good idea, a measure of project confidence in an industry that required big capital investments.

But wait a second. Was it not the banks who required the bail outs during the crash? What legitimacy have we given them to decide what investments, assets or capital projects are bankable or not?

And in allowing the banks make the bankability call, do we further enhance their legitimacy as gatekeepers of big decisions in society?

DOS as an institution

MS DOS Command Promt

Trevor Pinch writes nicely on DOS as an institution while highlighting neo institutionalism’s skimpy regard for technology. Here is the meat and potatoes:

The new institutionalism in sociology has surprisingly little to say about the topic of technology. Walter Powell and Paul Dimaggio’s 1991 edited collection, The New Institutionalism in Organizational Theory, despite paying lip service to the need to address the material and symbolic aspects of institutions and the occasional references en passant to technology, fails to analyze technology except in that it provides a background technical environment where organizations exist. Typical is the piece by Meyer and Rown where technology is a source of “myth binding on organizations” (Meyer and Rown, p. 45 in Powell and Dimagggio 1991). One of the few exceptions in the volume that gives more attention to technology provides a nice way into thinking about this topic in relation to institutions. Ronald Jepperson gives the example of a microcomputer’s basic operating system (DOS) that he says “appears to be a social institution relative to its word-processing program (especially to a software engineer)” (Jepperson in Powell and Dimaggio 1991: 146). This example caught my eye because it is one of the few instances where a piece of technology is explicitly described as an institution. For Jepperson and the other sociologists writing in that book, institutions are taken to be sets of rules or patterns whereby social actions ands practices are ordered. To be institutionalized, actions and practices must be reproducible.

For Jepperson, DOS provides a highly constraining set of rules—the way the software interacts with the hardware of the computer is prescribed and proscribed by DOS while a word processing program allows the user to write in many different ways. DOS is actually a nice example of a technological institution because today the possibility to run programs in DOS has all but vanished for most users. Nevertheless we are still constrained by this operating system that is now embedded within other programs like Windows. Because DOS has becomes less visible the institution is actually more powerful. The embedding or freezing of choices within scientific and technical systems, what the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard calls phenomenotechnique, makes technology actually one of the most powerful institutions in Jepperson’s sense we as social scientists face. It is because social choices appear to have vanished from technologies, or are so deeply embedded within technical structures that they become invisible to all but the technical experts, that technologies are powerful institutions.

My italics. I like this because it is an experience most pre-millenial computer users will recognise. This notion of social choices vanishing behind the user interfaces of technologies is useful to consider, particularly as we digitise our social network and commit more of our lives to the cloud. We make these choices consciously today, but how soon before the decision points are forgotten.

Reference: Pinch, T., 2008. Technology and institutions: living in a material world. Theory and Society, 37(5), pp.461–483.

The energetic society

Sometimes we need to ask simpler questions. “What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

I like Maarten Hajer’s take [pdf]. We’re part of an energetic society. The world’s spinning fast. Our politicians and legislators can’t keep up. For government it’s time for new governance philosophy.

Examples: Unworkable and meaningless internet privacy laws. Unworkable and close to meaningless proposals for media regulation. A legitimacy gap, an inability to learn and policy implementation that leaves society behind. Or rather, out in front.

At the heart of the matter is the view from government of society as a static object; problems are caused by society therefore this (passive) society requires governance.

Societies are far from passive. Contemporary society is an energetic society. We’ve got ADHD. And the net result is that we have not only given up on our political institutions, we are bored of them. Totally. The institutional actors and the architecture of the state simply cannot keep up, and we are not willing to slow down. Citizens are articulate. And can articulate at increasing speed.

So, and I mean this in as technologically non-deterministic terms as possible, this is about how the flow of information is changing the relationship between the government and the public. For good.

Three deficits of state are proposed.

A legitimacy deficit
The government want to take action, but the citizens don’t have the information. The government fails to bring the citizens along with them. See the current energy debate in the UK for an example of this.

A learning deficit
Strong government orientation means there is little room for new learning within the government. In Ireland think of the cognitive dissonance of (relatively) moderate Fine Gael TDs caught in the abortion debate cross hairs. Society has moved forward, and through decentralised communication, a collective lightbulb has gone off. The politicians meanwhile are stuck looking at old dog-eared election manifestoes, wondering why they haven’t been kept in the loop. The old linear policy cycle of issue, solution proposal, definition, implementation has broken down and our politicians can’t cope.

An implementation deficit
Finally, in a society of articulate citizens, it is increasingly difficult to force policy implementation.

The implications of these deficits have profound effects on those who would change government policy. There is an AC/DC misalignment between those who would be heard, and those who don’t know even how to listen.

So Hajer poses the question: can the government tap into the energy of the energetic state? Government has a choice. It can attempt to get the energetic society on side, or it can oppose it, either purposefully – think the UK internet privacy bill – or by ignoring the tumult all around it and carrying on with business as usual.

Perhaps the more interesting choice lies with those who seek to change society and believe that that change lies on a path which winds through the institutions of government. For this group of lobbyists, unions, NGOs and CSOs, addressing these deficits must form part of any change strategies.

Their job isn’t to proscribe the best course of action to an energetic society, but rather to capture its energy.

As a dynamo borrows the kinetic power of a wheel and lights the path ahead, there is a role for CSOs to focus the force of the energetic society. The danger is that this focusing retards, slows and tries to match the pace of government. But get it right, and the benefits are clear.

There is no land on Earth its peer: Music from 2012

Some new songs from 2012, mostly.*

Lull – Howe Gelb
Lixivation – Suzanne Ciani
Terminal – Holly Herndon
We Drift Like Worried Fire – Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Sarajevo – Max Richter
No. 1 Against The Rush – Liars
Brains – Lower Dens
Hey Jane – Spiritualized
The Day the “Conductor” Died (An Xmas Song) – Scott Walker
The Hamburg Cell Was Born in Chechnya – Vatican Shadow
Reagan – Killer Mike
V2 – Carter Tutti Void
Half the World – Paul Buchanan
The One – Twin Shadow
Thrown – Kiasmos
Knee 5 – Philip Glass

*The Ciani track is from a massive compilation of her work released a few months ago. Glass gets to close out the show because of the first performance of Einstein on the Beach in London for the best part of 40 years, tenuously linked to the Cultural Olympiad. A champion performance

Participation is a form of control, and 15 other things I learned in Trondheim

Norway Curling Pants

Three days with CenSES in Trondheim, Norway.
Here are some things I learned:

  1. Who’s got the gold? Norway’s got the gold. And it’s distributed. Every monetary transaction is thick with some variety of social glue. There’s an in-your-face distribution happening five times per day per person. And once I turned off my internal currency calculator it felt okay.
  2. All of which means everybody, every day, literally buys into Society. Maybe.
  3. But they don’t talk about the oil so much.
  4. 99% of Norway’s electricity comes from hydro. That must be nice.
  5. A smart grid switch-on has been legislated for 2017 (That’s going to be tough).
  6. But nobody knows why. End users don’t want it. Energy producers don’t get it. Grid operators don’t want to pay for it. Big plays on end-use energy in this energy-rich environment make no sense. There’s a study in there somewhere on how policy motivations form, are enacted, and then completely forgotten about.
  7. “We’re Norway, we don’t need renewables.” True quote. Only slightly paraphrased.
  8. Norwegian academics are beyond hospitable. Takk!!!
  9. The locals are *very* proud of Gro Brundtland and Norway’s international climate leadership. Okay, but guys, about that oil…
  10. Turns out Norway, and not Dame Street Dublin, is the home of Spar. The “Spar roll” however is definitely an evolutionary Irish innovation.
  11. There’s a tonne of interesting research to be done criss-crossing multiple levels of governance, innovation and a (sub?)politics that is increasingly distributed. Some of this is going on at CenSES.
  12. Rohracher’s work on civil society orgs gets this. So does Raven, Smith and Kern’s [pdf] work on the protective spaces of innovation niches. Though lots of work still to be done on empowerment.
  13. I’m sceptical of Sørensen’s reiteration of Jasanoff’s (2011) call for policy makers/advisors/actors to replace ‘truth’ with ‘relevance’ when going about their evidence-based policy making business. Not sceptical of its merit, but its execution.
  14. Bruno Latour can also write brief and to the point papers. His response and de Vries’ initial challenge ($) on sub politics worth checking out. So nice to have other people set reading once in a while.
  15. A week of -10 and sunny beats +5 and wet.
  16. Participation is a form of control.

And one question for further research maybe

  • Can civil society organisations provide oppositional forms from and integrated distributed centre, do they need to remain at, or partly at the edges, or none of the above? More to follow…

An Irish wedding: The case for growth

Someone else's wedding

Someone else's wedding

Two weeks ago I returned home to Ireland for the wedding of my cousin Stephen. I’m inclined to turn down more wedding invitations than accept, but this was family. And as with Irish family weddings it was large, loud, late and full of, well, family.  The O’Donovan family tree numbers 19 branches at grandchildren level and all but one were in town to welcome Stephen’s bride to our midst. But the gathering, like all the best in life, was a fleeting affair. As  hangovers receded the morning after, we checked out of the hotel and went our  ways,  journeying back to Canada, Spain, Scotland, London, Brighton and beyond. Sometime later this year 11 of 19 will be living abroad. Some won’t ever return to live. Some simply can’t. This is Ireland, 2012.

Two weeks from now Ireland votes on the  European Fiscal Compact. And what  started as a referendum pitched locally as a debate about whether Ireland should repay  boom time lending arrears to German banks, now carries with it political ramifications that stretch across the continent and will last a generation. The Fiscal Compact is not simply about unserviced debts on loans that should never have been made. It’s about our approach to society, jobs and decent living standards for all, and ultimately the relationship we have with our governement, both local and European.

But what’s most striking in this moment, is the incredible opportunity in front of  all of us  right now. If the eurozone is serious about growth, it can have it. That was the headline of my SPRU collegue Mariana Mazzucato’s comment piece in today’s Guardian. Growth, and thus increased prosperity for all of Europe, comes not from “structural reforms”, or cuts, but from investment:

“Companies invest to make profits and grow. Evidence shows those which invest more in new technology, human capital and research and development, and are located in countries where public spending in these areas is high, are able to produce more competitive and better value products.

“Italy has not grown for the last 10 years, mainly because its public and private sector did not make key investments in factors that increase productivity. Its debt-to-GDP ratio rose because its growth rate was so much lower than the interest it paid on its debt. And Greece grew in the 90s not because it was making smart investments but because badly directed European structural funds allowed it to get away with not making them. Once those funds expired, so did the false growth.

All the cuts in the world aren’t going to bring Italy or Greece back to growth they never really had. And if Greece presses the nuclear button and exits the Eurozone entirely, as Martin Wolf puts it in today’s FT, ”the belief that countries can starve themselves back to health, in the absence of economic expansion and probably higher inflation in the core, would have to be abandoned.”

A week ago I was put in touch with a small group of people in Ireland who had had enough of this austerity dogma. Having seen the tide starting to turn following the elections in Greece and France, Ireland is in danger of committing to a treaty which was the wrong medicine for the wrong patient. As Europe starts to turn, slowly, to growth, Ireland is in danger of locking the out of date policies of radical austerity into its constitution.

And yet, other than the extreme left and even extremer right, the political establishment in Ireland follows meekly this single austerity line. The media despite some exceptions is not far behind. Yet more than one third of voter haven’t committed to either side yet. Over 40% of Labour’s supporters are planning to break their party’s line. Clearly, despite coherent leadership, the Irish people are sensing that the time for austerity is gone.

So over the past week, I’ve done what I can to help get this growth message out, building a website at (with some very talented friends) and on it  a voter declaration, where people all over Ireland can give each other the encouragement to stand up against a prevailing orthodoxy and make a responsible decision on May 31st.  Our message is simple, let’s not miss this opportunity. A ‘no’ vote puts Ireland at the centre of the movement for a better Europe.

So if you’re of voting age and Irish, I urge you to sign, and pass the message on the friends and family. If you haven’t been graced with such good fortune as to have a harp on your passport, leave a message of support on the site and on our Facebook page. For the next two weeks the people of Ireland have the opportunity to play the lead in the call for new growth policies in Europe. Together, let’s make sure we get as many as possible out of the wings and onto the stage. And here’s hoping that next time the O’Donovan cousins meet up for a wedding, we don’t all have to travel quite so far.

Ireland’s chance to lead Europe: Can you help?

On May 31st every voter in Ireland has an opportunity few Europeans have been given. Ireland goes to the polls and gets to say yes or no to a referendum on accepting the Fiscal Treaty. In other words, Irish people get to decide whether the Austerity ideology that stretches from Osborne to Merkel to the IMF continues, or whether a line in the sand gets drawn by individual European citizens.

Most progressive Irish people are against this treaty and the austerity trap it would create. After four years of job losses, emigration and negative equitiy there’s a sense of dependence on Europe. No one likes it, but it’s hard to feel responsible opposing it.

BUT, unlike their governments, the people of France and Germany have shown the way. The recent elections there are a game-changer. It’s clear that there’s deep seated opposition to Austerity throughout Europe. That it’s time to put a Growth alternative back on the agenda.
An Irish rejection of the treaty could be an essential boost to this cause and its European allies.

Unfortunately in Ireland right now there’s a huge leadership vacuum. Mainstream progressives have reservations about aligning with Sinn Féin or the United Left Alliance. But if they saw a sensible, independent place to come together to show and build opposition to the treaty, they would jump at the chance.

A new surge of mainstream, independent, domestic opposition is essential to shift the government’s calculation. And if the vote goes ahead as scheduled, a new grassroots surge is the only hope of building enough opposition to defeat it.

Over the next few weeks I will be giving what time I have to try to bring some of these people together, to create the tools and resources needed to get the message out and help hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland give each other the confidence to vote No to the Austerity treaty and help create a Growth agenda which will benefit Europeans everywhere. Can you help? We need a simple website built, some design work, the word spread on social networks and plenty of encouragement. If you have any time over the next few weeks, please, get in touch cian -at- And those not lucky enough to be born of Ireland are all the more welcome!

Unrealized potentials

Sony Walkman TPS-L2 med headset

Social change and economic impact are not things that can be extrapolated out of a piece of hardware. New technologies are unrealized potentials – building blocks whose eventual impact will depend on what is designed and constructed with them. The shape they ultimately take will be determined by our ability to visualize how they might be applied in new contexts.

From Nathan Rosenberg’s seminal 1995 McKinsey Quarterly article on Innovation’s uncertain terrain.

It’s probably the neatest summary of my attitude to technology and why without re-imagining the society that surrounds them, all the windmills, solar arrays and miracle-engineered crops won’t do the jobs our technologists and policy wonks think they will.

Professional oaths for odious professions

Hippo Portraits

Since I’ve decided to spend the next three years training to be a doctor, it’s time to read the Hippocratic Oath. Here’s the classic version:

I swear by Apollo, the healer, AsclepiusHygieia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath and agreement:

To consider dear to me, as my parents, him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; To look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art, without charging a fee;

and that by my teaching, I will impart a knowledge of this art to my own sons, and to my teacher’s sons, and to disciples bound by an indenture and oath according to the medical laws, and no others.

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.

I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.

I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.

In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or with men, be they free or slaves.

All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.

If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all men and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my lot.

Okay, so there are a few oddities in there but after 2,500 years that reads pretty good. A couple of points:

The doctor may be the oldest individualised profession we have. Taking ‘profession’ to mean any  job that requires specialist training and is bounded from the rest of society. This oath is a collections of values doctors profess before they’re allowed hit the big time. And in the act of professing their shared values, the oath forces doctors to consider their relationship with their future patients. In other words, doctors don’t get out of doctor school without at least once having to seriously think about everybody else in society and their relationship to them.

Imagine all ‘professionals’ had to stand up publicly and make this kind of empathy statement at least once in their life. Had to at least consider how their professional conduct over the next 40-50 years would impact everybody else.

Professional oaths for odious professions isn’t a new idea. But previous suggestions have missed the point. The value of the Hippocratic Oath isn’t that it lays out a set of rules (we have shared belief systems, social conventions and legislation for that) but that it forces junior doctors to empathise. And that’s a process we should all go through at least once in our lives.

10 ideal attributes of Alinsky’s activist

Typical Alinsky trainee activist
Pic (cc) Alyssa A Miller

Saul Alinsky’s list of ideal attributes of the organiser/activist

  • Curiosity
  • Irreverence
  • Imagination
  • A sense of humour
I’d look for these first four characteristics in just about anyone; campaigners, teachers, artists and especially friends. And then I’d place “sense of humour” at the top and “irreverence” absolutely at number two. That’s a healthy attitude to life. Here’s the rest of the list:
  • A bit of a blurred vision of a better world
  • An organised personality
  • A well-integrated political schizoid
  • Ego
  • A free and open mind, and political relativity
  • The ability to constantly reinvent the new from the old
Any others come to mind?

Ireland v Germany: supply and demand renewables

Time for Ireland to start selling Germans something more than pretty postcard views
Pic (cc) Final Gather

Ireland you messed up. You got greedy and now you owe big banks in Germany lots and lots and lots of money.*

Payback is tough, but maybe today’s Irish Times leader points to a solution. A post-Fukishima Germany is rethinking its energy mix. Ireland, you haven’t even fully thought out yours in the first place, but look west and you’ll see an answer both yourselves and Frau Merkel may find to your liking. What’s more, the interconnectors running energy off the island of Ireland and into mainland Europe are close to coming online which means you get to enter a market formally reserved for big boys and girls only.

Supply and demand, debt for wind. Easy no? Oh, and as an upside, you get to turn your desolate western ports into green jobs incubators. Sorta like Dong Energy is doing in Belfast. Double win, all across the Atlantic coast.

And here’s a bit of advice Ireland. Get this done quick. Because if you don’t, the smart German electricity companies are going to buy up your waters and do this anyway. Who do you think electrified Ireland in the first place?

* Let’s ignore for the sake of simplicity the complicit and profit making motives of German banks in lending money to greedy Irish developers in the first place.


Irish ministers were in London this week discussing renewable energy sales. Very neighbourly of Britain to offer to subsidise (I’m guessing) cap-ex projects. Thanks chaps.

This is what “member driven” looks like

NHS Petition Hand-in: Nick Clegg

Earlier this month I started working with 38 Degrees, the member driven campaign organisation. Friday was my first day in the field. I travelled to Sheffield to meet some of our members themselves on their way to meet their MP, Nick Clegg. I was blown away. Whatever preconception I brought into job about who a typical 38 Degrees activist was firmly put in its place. I met 30 very different people with bound by a single goal, saving our NHS.  Hopefully I can bring something to the table, the people I met last week certainly did.


One Week, One Book. Repeat x52

bookshelf spectrum, revisited
Photo (cc) chotda

A book per week for a year. Yeah maybe I’ll give that a go some time, when I have some time maybe. I had a whole bundle of excuses at the start of 2010, most of them still valid, but none of them any longer convincing. So four months into the year I’m still just about on track. Here’s the listing.

  1. News from Nowehere, William Morris (1890). What if instead of turning right during the first half of the 20th century, the UK turned left. Rid itself of the monarchy and all forms of government and ascended into a communitarian utopia. Morris puts down the scissors and safety glue and answers just that question.
  2. The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien (1940). Alice in Wonderland with whiskey, porter and bicycles. Genius.
  3. The European Union as a Leader in International Climate Change Politics, R. K. W. Wurzel and James Connelly (2011). Okay, back to reality with a bang. If the EU can be described as reality. This is a book I have wanted for the past year, the ultimate primer on what the governance institutions of the EU are doing about climate change, along with chapters on major nation state players such as Germany, the UK and France.
  4. Mao II, Don De Lillo (1991). If you’ve read nothing by De Lillo read Underworld. If you’ve read Underworld go get Mao II. Typically “Great American” in its vantage point, De Lillo takes two of that continent’s most enigmatic artists, J.D. Salinger and Andy Warhol, and uses them as inspiration for a contemplation on individualisation and the crowd at the end of the 20th century.
  5. The Story of a Hedgeschool Master. Eugene Watters (1971). Educating catholic children was illegal in 17th century Ireland. This didn’t stop the emergence an estimated 8,000 hedgeschools, which are exactly what they sound like. This is the story of such a school and its European trained teacher.
  6. How to Win Campaigns, 2nd ed, Chris Rose (2010). Chris did a lot of work with us at 10:10. You can take or leave his approach to value based campaigning, but there’s lots here of value to campaigners or indeed anyone working with public opinion.
  7. Chasing the Flame, Sergio Vieira de Mello, Samantha Power (2008). Speaking of change, Sergio was a guy who made a difference in a big way. Total hero who one suspects was not your typical UN aid worker.
  8. Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air. David McKay (2009). Solid numbers on where the UK’s energy demand is and where that demand could be met if we were to go all renewable.
  9. State of Fear, Michael Crichton (2004). A slightly less believable thriller than Jurassic Park.
  10. White Shroud. Poems 1980 – 1985. Allen Ginsberg (1986).
  11. Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1913) James Joyce. “If only we knew”, the refrain repeated across Ireland as Catholic abuses were uncovered throughout the Eighties and Nineties. Seems like Joyce was well aware of the huge amount of power
  12. Poke the Box. Seth Godin (2011). Godin sold this e-book for $1 if you bought before the release date. Great model, great value and one important lesson; your idea is nothing until it ships.
  13. The Net Delusion. How not to Liberate the World. Evgeny Morozov (2010). Morozov urges his readers away from a reductionist viewpoint that would give Twitter and Facebook credit for Arab revolutions this Spring. But in doing so he’s guilty of employing plenty of technocratic reductionist arguments himself. Which is a shame, because this is one of those books that could truly be labeled “important”.
  14. Communication Power. Castells (2009). A great follow-up to Morozov and one which illustrates just how important a role our communications systems play in shaping and aggregating power in society. To change society we need to understand it, this book’s going to help.
  15. Memoirs of a Minor Public Figure. Des Wilson (2011). Three reasons to read: 1) Wilson was one of the originators of the single issue campaign in the mid-sixties. 2) Wilson created and saw success on a huge number of campaigns over four decades. 3) Oh, and he was also a key protagonist in the SDP, Liberal Party merger. He doesn’t often admit fault but provides interesting background nevertheless.
  16. The Golden Notebook. Doris Lessing (1962) currently reading…

I’ll update this as I go through the year. And I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the books themselves. So if you have an opinion, or a suggested book, let me know.

Twestival: Lessons for Campaigners

Twestival Toolkit

That was fun. A few months of hard work, lots of new friends made all over the world and a tonne of cash raised for non-profits doing some good work. Thanks Twestival Local. But before consigning the project to the filing cabinet, let me quickly consider some of Twestival’s more interesting attributes.

Twestival may be many things, but primarily Twestival is a network, a Latourian actor network even. It is made up of people and concepts and held together astonishingly by a large number of narrow but elastic paths/relationships on Twitter. Maybe on some other lesser social networks too. Twestival displays the classic characteristics of a network; it’s distributed (simultaneously globally, locally), it is robust (knock out one city, the rest continue unaware) and it is scalable (expansion and contraction do require relatively little resource overhead).

Look, I knew all of this before working on Twestival but actually experiencing it work was pretty special. I can’t overstate the value those Twitter paths played in management and information dissemination. Of course email and Google Docs and Skype were part of the toolkit, but day-to-day when something had to be done fast, and when exciting a volunteer as well as spreading a message was crucial, then Twitter was the medium of choice. Twestival didn’t happen without it.

Where does Twestival go next? I don’t know, ask @amanda. That’s not so important as where some of these network management techniques go. I’m going to let Manuel Castells bring the party:

Networks are complex structures of communication constructed around a set of goals that simultaneously ensure unity of purpose and flexibility of execution by their adaptability to the operating environment.

Sounds just like Twestival and indeed lots of other campaigns. Maybe it’s time we conceived some of our campaigns using a paradigm of networks rather than in the classic Euclidian manner encompassing, as it does, a start point (campaign launch) and end point (win/loss), typically in two dimensions with one axis denoting the all too quick passing of time.

What do we gain from a network approach? I’ll give one benefit right now; people. For many campaigns, finding, organising and activating volunteers is a tough job. We have to spend valuable time seeking out those who are engaged, receptive to action, capable of action, willing to spread our message and so much more. Aspects of network theory as proscribed by Castells and Yochai Benkler, may help us out here. Certainly Castells would have it that in the networks, where innovation is a valuable commodity, the innovators become apparent quickly. That for me was the beauty of Twestival. Innovators coming to the fore, engaging, taking the project framework and iterating.

So two jobs now for campaign (network) organisers. 1) Be aware, you are creating networks, not a-to-b routes. 2) Figure out how to find the innovators. Both of these warrant follow up posts.



Photo (c) TwestivalTunis on Flickr

When were you last inspired by something? I mean real inspiration, not just the hazy feeling of empathy towards some distant cause or impressive endevour. The way soundtracks are “inspired by” movies and shampoo scents “inspired by” forest fragrances .

I’m writing about  the type of inspiration that makes the hairs stand up on the back of our neck. No really, I mean actually stand up. That makes us not just sit up and think, but  that changes the outcome of those yes/no decisions that slowly add up to our lifetimes.

Doesn’t happen very often does it? So we should pay attention when it comes our way. Because inspiration that is not followed by action doesn’t inspire anyone, and perhaps real inspiration is the ultimate viral message.

So when was the last time you were inspired by something, really inspired? Got it in the front of your mind, good, now, go do something amazing about it.

Controlling the Energy Discourse: Round One – Big Nuclear

Looks like the first battle in the war to control the unfolding nuclear narrative has been won by the incumbents, the nuclear lobby. If CJR is to be believed they’ve set the table from which the media is now working, in the US at least.

The term “nuclear renaissance” has been used to characterize the current state of the industry in a number of stories this week concerning U.S. policy in the wake of Japan despite this lack of construction. The suggestion of a renaissance, though, stems from the idea that loan guarantees for nuclear in the Clean Energy Act, combined with a new preference for “greener” nuclear options over greenhouse-damaging coal energy, have put a number of new nuclear reactor projects in the pipeline. Thus, the “renaissance” of this sixties/seventies favorite technology. The press is now asking if events in Japan might have changed the course of that rebirth. But they’re not necessarily questioning the nature of the rebirth itself.

What does this mean?

via Japan’s Quake and Political Fallout : CJR.

Underestimating access to each other

Clay Shirky on the Middle East. He admits over-egging the social media influence omelette but more credit to him for it. Then he gets into it. Here’s the pay-off:

“Governments have systematically overestimated access to information,” Shirky said.

“They’ve also systematically underestimated access to each other. Access to conversations among amateurs is more politically inspiring than access to information. Governments are afraid of synhronised groups, not synchronised individuals.

via SXSW 2011: Clay Shirky on social media and revolution | Technology |

Joyce and paralysis, a national condition

James Joyce
Photo (cc) Laura Appleyard.

From  today’s Guardian. Some things don’t change.

“My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.”

For Joyce, “paralysis” represents a moral failure resulting in the inability to live meaningfully. It appears on the first page of the first story, “Two Sisters”, in a sentence that offers a key to the whole book:

“Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word Simony in the Catechism.”

From A brief survey of the short story part 32: James Joyce | Books |

The bottle for the message

Twestival’s global comms centre. Photo (cc) allofoto

Do you work on a campaign, an event or maybe for a global company? How do you communicate minute to minute with your co-workers and volunteers if they aren’t in a cubicle beside you?

Tuesday’s are the fun days at Twestival. I start with a 9.30am Skype call to Twestival Australia and end about 11pm with a call into the US. In between there are Skype and GoToMeeting calls with other regions, maybe a webinar with local organisers, lots of Twitter and Facebook updates, a tonne of e-mail, and maybe a phonecall or two if absolutely necessary. I imagine that’s pretty standard for anyone organising a global event or campaign, it’s coming towards the end of International Women’s Day as I write this and I bet the organisers are still knee deep in digital communications.

The question arrises, or at least it does for me, what’s the best channel to use in different situations. And pertinently for campaigns, or volunteer led (and I mean led) events, how do we convey enthusiasim, excitement and urgency in a digital space without pissing people off who are busting their ass for our cause. In particular I’m referring to those moments when we need to communicate digitally one-on-one or one to a small group. I’ve had to think about this a lot over the last couple of months and it is safe to say Twestival is rubbing my nose in some new insights.

  • Twitter: @cian has been active for four years but Twestival has totally opened my eyes to how effective Twitter is at one-on-one active engagement. Particularly with people who want to engage more but aren’t sure how. An email is too much hassle, Skype too invasive, but sending a public @ message shows social recognition, trust and can enthuse in a big way.
  • Skype: Simply the best way of pretending your virtual coworker in in the vicinity. You can decide if that’s a good thing.
  • GoToMeeting: Want to conference call, share screens and maybe pull someone in to a call whose timezone means she’s already in the pub? Bam. Diary management overhead is high, but maybe you’re an organised type.
  • E-Mail: Ugh, want a permanent paper trail, fine, but don’t expect anyone to thank you for it, or be able to find that password you sent three hours ago.
  • Facebook: Want to start an avalanche of enthusiastic chatter? Facebook is the goto place. Check out the Twestival Local logo gallery for a prime example of an initiative which allows that 1% of creators to engage the 99% of commentators and observers.

These points are nothing you have not read before, but all too often we shove the right message down the wrong pipe and then wonder why our team of organisers or volunteers aren’t delivering on project goals. We spend a lot of time chin stroking over the right message, whilst doing that it’s vital to consider also the medium. I’d love to hear other insights from the field, tell me what you use in these situations.


Landscapes of activism: mapping engagement

Long Snake City
Photo (cc) James Bridle.

Many organisations measure engagement by their target audience in two dimensions, up and down a ladder. Example:

  1. Subscribing to a newsletter
  2. Opening a newsletter
  3. Clicking a link
  4. etc.

But here’s the thing, clicking a link is super-easy, so easy in fact, modern campaigns have bred a new breed of “slacktivists”, finger always by the mousebutton. Or so the argument runs.

Amy Sample Ward tells us we should stop beating ourselves up about this; a) slacktivism has been around a lot longer than the internet and b) it’s actually a sign we’re doing a lot of things right. We want people to click the Facebook Like button, the problem is, we’re neither ambitious or smart enough to ask them to do more than that in an effective manner.

Here’s the interesting part, until we start comprehending the landscape of engagement better, we have little chance of creating better real world interventions. So ditch the ladder and go get yourself a map:

First, the ladder of engagement (refer to the slides if you want to have a visual on the steps here). Let’s take for example the fact that the American Red Cross raised $34 million dollars from the text to donate campaign after the earthquakes last year in Haiti. I want to point out two aspects of the way the engagement ladder doesn’t necessarily work as one step to the next:

  • On one side, that’s a lot of people that went from bystanders to donors. But how many of them are being encouraged to continue moving up and how many of them were even bystanders of ARC vs the news of the earthquake?
  • On the other, how many people in this room are aware of ARC? You don’t have to respond but consider how many of you may have donated. It isn’t about whether you gave money or not, because I imagine you may have instead retweeted or shared a link or post on facebook.

I think that the engagement ladder needs to change to not show a raising level of engagement but instead operate more as a map, showing where someone may have entered from and where they can go next. They might start out as a creator but still have low engagement (not something that really matches our traditional engagement ladder view) and never get to the donation stage, for example.

We know we have the tools to do this, the question is, do campaigns have the smarts and the willingness to invest in management overhead to step back and spend time on the analysis to go with them. If not there’s very little point in stepping down off that ladder.

World Bank: Time to Forget the Fossils

100509-DC147a World Bank
Between email lists, several columns in Tweetdeck and a constantly moving Facebook news feed I probably have anywhere between 25 and 50 campaigns fly by me on a given day. Keeping up to speed is as good it gets, it’s next to impossible to engage in any meaningful way. Here’s one of those occasions where it’s worth taking a timeout and wading in; the continued investment by the World Bank in large scale fossil energy projects.

There is great background on the South African Eskom deal here, exhibit A when it comes to investigating the misdemeanours of the World Bank. The bottom line:

  • Promotion of fossil fuels: Despite its pro-poor, pro-climate rhetoric, the World Bank’s fossil fuel lending has increased 400% since 20060% of these projects were funded specifically to provide energy access to the poor.
  • The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that continuing to pursue centralised coal powered electricity will only lower the un-electrified population from 1.4 billion today to 1.2 billion in 2030.
  • The IEA’s 2010 World Energy Outlook states that in order to achieve universal energy access 70% of today’s un-electrified population will rely on decentralized renewable energy systems.

It’s time for the World Bank to update it’s energy policies. To incorporate strategies that will have much greater impact in fighting poverty, reducing global warming, and environmental impacts.

The public campaign calling for that update starts today. The Sierra Club (remember them) and World Development Movement lead the charge. Bring it on.

Ireland’s Pepsi Challenge Election

Pepsi or Coca-Cola

Coke or Pepsi? Both will rot your teeth, the real choice of course is to choose another game, a point subtlety missed by the Irish electorate this week. Yes the Fianna Fáil incumbency has been well and truly kicked to the curb, but replaced by a solidly right of centre led coalition. The Pepsi challenge moment for the Irish electorate was presented thus; rightwing, homophobic neo-liberalists (Fine Gael) versus the post-Marxist political wing of an alleged terrorist cum-smuggling operation (Sinn Féin). Go on, you choose.  Yes there is an Irish Labour party and they did make gains. Yes there are plenty of independents from all sides. But Ireland has gone with the high fructose corn syrup option when she should have walked right out of the store. In changing one civil war party for another the country is left with a dominant political coalition that now very much resembles the one embodied by Cameron and Clegg on the Downing Street lawn almost a year ago. We may not like to admit it but there is a right wing to Irish politics and it is now in power.

So what next? Sticking out a tongue and taking the Fine Gael / IMF dispensed medicine is the easy option. Not a particularly rosy one, but it is the safe bet. Above all else the Irish are a nation of safe people. But some time over the next 18 months, it’s going to dawn on the population, particularly those on the margins already, that this government can not and is not going to be all things to all voters.  Option two, tougher, involving as it does a little more graft, guile and imagination, three qualities very absent from this election. On the ground Irish society is going to have to stop bemoaning a corrupt government (they’re gone) and start holding the current government to account. This Fine Gael government cannot be allowed make worse Fianna Fáil’s mistakes through either a) ideology or b) stupidity. With a government likely to form by the end of next week and a busy EU schedule over the next month, Ireland better be ready to move fast.

Protest movements don’t come naturally to the Irish, but two recent examples from the UK are worth noting and would seem to be shrink wrapped and ready for an Irish voice-over. UK Uncut’s ingenious creativity and the incredible speed and inclusivity of the Save our Forests campaign. UK Uncut’s triumph is its creative engagement of people who don’t normally do protest. And in Vodafone and the banks, they have picked targets beyond sympathy. SoF exemplified the power of the network, and how massively important it is to put together a coalition of common interest, even if membership is open to those with usually opposed views. And the story was bulletproof, there is nothing more noble than fighting for English heritage.

What are the Irish equivalents? What are the narratives that will spark conversations on Facebook, Twitter and and maybe ignite some action offline. As the bubble moment of ending 80 years of Fianna Fáil dominance implodes and Irish voters are reminded that they’re in negative equity and it’s still raining outside, it’s time for those who have not been listened to in the last month, and will be utterly sidelined by their new government to start a new dialogue. I’d love to hear some ideas how this can be done.

David Hulme and The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article

“Nothing appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”

Love this quote from David Hulme used in Jay Rosen’s piece on what he calls the generic Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators article. Factors and causes. It shouldn’t be this hard to differentiate.

via The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article » Pressthink.

Twestival’s Org Structure Profiled on Mashable

Zachary Sniderman writes a colour piece profiling aspects of Twestival’s global organisational structure on Mashable today. Check it out, saves me detailing it here ;-).

With hundreds of events in 125+ countries, Rose can’t possibly monitor every dollar and every event taking place. Even the regional managers can be spread thin with the volume of events and local charities they need to manage. “When you put that trust out, that’s almost the payment, that’s the ‘salary’ that people are making on this,” said Cian O’Donovan, Twestival’s digital communications manager based in Ireland [the UK – my edit]. “I guess what I’m saying is, trust is [Twestival’s] currency.”

The Good Apple in a Rotten Barrel: Michael D. Higgins

Michael D. true European that he is, pops up in Brittany
Michael D. true European that he is, pops up in Brittany (cc) The Irish Labour Party

Today the 3oth Dáil Éireann was disolved, TDs will be elected to the 31st Dáil on February 25th. This Dáil has lasted since May of 2007. It is unlikely in this time that it has ever borne witness to as fine a speech as that delivered by Michael D. Higgens during the second reading of the Finance Bill last week. In fact, if anyone can point me to a better speech in the past 50 years I will be very grateful. Higgins is not seeking re-election as TD, he will however run for president later in the year, if the Labour Party do the right thing and make him their candidate. He has departed daily politics with one of the very few political speeches that I agree with entirely, he has rekindled my own faith in Irish politics, and has surely contributed 20 minutes of mandatory viewing for future students of politics in Ireland and beyond.

Higgins takes in the wide view. He traces Ireland’s current failings as a sovereign state to institutional and administrative failings of historic magnitude, from the founding of Saorstát Éireann in 1922 to the present international monetary fuck-up. And in this I think there are some important lessons at home and abroad.

Both proponents and opponents of David Cameron’s Big Society project would do well to study the history of a country in which legislation and society are ultimately divorced by an administration that either is not there or does not work. For this to me seems a central weakness of Cameron’s project, a proposition that would devolve power of legsislative carry-through from the polity to civil society. That this has occurred in Ireland is the  result of a century of localism and small-time political ambition. Cameron’s project is surely much more intellectually rigorous in its own way, but possibly all the more dangerous for that. Higgins’ view on this is as considered as it is straight-forward:

People imagined that when we had got the equality legislation we had arrived at a particular point, but the political science would have indicated that that political power was useless without administrative power. It was only when the equality legislation was followed through with the Equality Authority and Combat Poverty Agency that it was possible to administer the benefit that had been won politically. That is the meaning of administrative power and is why we lost Combat Poverty Agency and the Equality Agency to the right and had all the cuts. That is what citizens in a republic want; they want more political power and want administrative power. They want to communicate their vulnerability and want to be able to respond to each other’s independency. The very last thing they want is more of that terrible saying that has brought us to this point now. That is why I am proud to be president of the Labour Party. If we have failed from time to time, what was never in doubt is that we were speaking about a real republic that has yet to be built in this State.

Higgins echoes thoughts expressed here a few months ago on Ireland having never been sovereign. But Higgins is not content to moan about our lot, he takes the point to a level few Irish politicians have the ability to climb to, beyond parochialism into a vision that places Ireland in a European, even global context.

People wonder why poverty has to reproduce itself in the same family from one generation to another or from one area to another and wonder why there is a difference between the quality of schools in one place and the quality of those in another. God did not make it like that. Nature did not make it like that. The people in the so-called Irish republic made it like that and they maintained it like that…

…I hope the new Government realises that the model which is broken should not be repaired and that there is a discourse now which is wider and which is not only in Ireland but in Europe, where citizens are wondering what institutions might best express that which we wish to share with each other, where the concept of interdependency is accepted and where it would be regarded as obscene to state that radical individualism is what is important and what must drive us. All that radical individualism with its privileged view of professions and its side of the mouth politics with regard to benefit and privilege is what must be rejected….

…This has a practical expression in Europe. If we create here a radical inclusive republic we will place it in a social Europe which accepts the interdependency of peoples rather than the aspirations of the elite property owning classes and individual countries. We would then be able to be a region in the global sense that offered guarantees about labour, security and peace. It would be a powerful moral voice in the world with regard to having alternatives to war and allowing people their own paths to development which would be very attractive.

Intelligent political discourse in the Dáil, if it can happen once it can happen again. Life affirming stuff.

Žižek to New Green Chinese in Five Links

Good start to the year, lots of doing but not so much reading. Here are a few articles that I have just cleared out of my Instapaper.

No better man than Slavoj Žižek to connect the dots between Wikileaks, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and the gentlemanly manners of the left. Really. Super essay from the London Review of Books.

From Gotham to Gotham. A little insight into one of Wall Street’s good guys (in his words – and it is Wall Street so I’m assuming masculinity), via John Cassidy’s New Yorker article.

Playing games for good, a Mashable round-up of video games for social good.

Writing of social, here is the big one. The Pew Internet report on The Social Side of the Internet. Hefty stuff and invaluable numbers for activists, campaigners and just about anyone running building community and interacting with groups online. Some standout numbers:

  • 48% of those who are active in groups say that those groups have a page on a social networking site like Facebook
  • 42% of those who are active in groups say those groups use text messaging
  • 30% of those who are active in groups say those groups have their own blog
  • 16% of those who are active in groups say the groups communicate with members through Twitter

Finally, I commented on the return of the food crisis recently and how the new hungry are recent migrants to cities. Some good news to prop up against that from Grist, China’s cities are breeding a new more environmentally aware generation, who are looking at the urban landscape surrounding them and not liking what they see. Let’s hope that’s a good thing.

Net Activism: Some Self Critique Required

This really is an incredibly impressive essay from Cory Doctorow. The best defence of online activism I think I’ve read. I’ve pasted the four closing paragraphs below. They are worth considering for a couple of reasons. First off, Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion may be wide of the mark overall, but it is still worth pausing and reflecting that even in 2011, a tweet is unlikely to change the world, by itself. Though as I mentioned previously, tweets can of course lead to amazing things.

Second factor, if activists want to preserve open systems and net neutrality, we’re going to have to go out and fight for it. Doctorow points to mobile gateways which rather than opening the walled gardens of early century providers, seem to be stacking the razor-wire higher. The Mac App store will be followed quickly by content lock-ins if the newspaper industry can get their act together. And there lies the path of danger.

The world needs more people seriously engaged with improving the lot of activists who make use of the net (that is, all activists). We need to have a serious debate about tactics such as the Distributed Denial of Service – flooding computers with bogus requests so that they can’t be reached – which some have compared to sit-in demonstrations. As someone who’s been arrested at sit-ins, I think this is just wrong. A sit-in derives its efficacy not from merely blocking the door to some objectionable place, but from the public willingness to stand before your neighbours and risk arrest and bodily harm in service of a moral cause, which is itself a force for moral suasion. As a tactic, DDoS has more in common with filling a business’s locks with super glue, or cutting its phone lines – risky, to be sure, but closer to vandalism and thus less apt to convince your neighbours to look sympathetically on your cause.

We need to fix the mobile internet, which – thanks to closed networks and devices – is more amenable to surveillance and control than the fixed-line variety. We need to fight the move – driven by entertainment companies and IT giants such as Apple and Microsoft – to design devices to work covertly and without the consent of their owners in the name of protecting copyright.

We need to pay heed to Jonathan Zittrain (another scholar whom Morozov both dismisses and then later inadvertently agrees vigorously with), whose The Future of the Internet warns that the increase in crime, sleaze and fraud on the net will cause user fatigue and make people more willing to accept locked-down devices and networks that can be used to control, as well as protect them.

We need all of this, and a serious critique and roadmap for the future of net activism, because the world’s oppressive regimes (including supposedly free governments in the west) are availing themselves of new technology at speed, and the only way for activism to be effective in that environment is to use the same tools.

Twestival Local: Community Building, Globally

If scholars of the industrial revolution are to be believed, around about 1800, for the first time, humanity probably had in its grasp all it needed to work a 20 hour week and kick back, relax the rest of the time. We had machines, automation and specialisation. Obviously things have not progressed quite like that these past 200 years, though some content we should now re-examine that concept and give it a proper going over. Either way, ever increasing (socio)technological advancements over the past couple of centuries have led to Clay Shirky’s elegantly monikered ‘cognitive surplus’. That surplus is the time left over after we are finished butchering, baking and candlestick making. From the 1950s until the turn of the millenium we put that suplus into TV. Now we have the internet. Wikipedia, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. William Gibson’s unevenly distributed future, today; some of us have more of that time than others, but most of us in the western world have a considerable chunk of time to spend. And despite the neigh-sayers dismissing clicktivists, maybe Twitter and the tools of tomorrow really are finding a role in making the world a better place.

That’s the thing about Twitter, it helps distribute the future. But one has to want that future. Of course many come online and stay in their cultural ghettos, hanging off the words of Wossy or Kanye and broadcasting their meal choice, inebriation level or the football score, whatever, I’m not interested in being condescending here. My point is this, millions more Twitters are putting that cognitive surplus to an altogether more ghetto busting use. Exhibit A: belated happy tenth birthday Wikipedia and your 15,000 strong army of English language regular editors. Exhibit B: #UKUncut, sniping the parts other campaigns can’t reach and yes, I am about to make my point any moment now, exhibit C: Twestival, the likes of which was simply not possible ten years ago. @amanda tells the story better than I could, it’s her story to tell after all, I have just a couple of observations below.

For me, Twestival is not simply a fundraiser, but a platform, a methodology for doing what so many of us in the world of online campaigning find so hard, turning online activity, sentiment and intention, into real world relationships, action and okay yes, raising some funds. And the legacy of Twestival Local 2011 I hope will be long term sustainable connections in communities all over the planet.

Can we change the world on the web? I don’t know, but I do know we can meet and introduce fellow world changers online, switch off the power button once in a while and then go to it. Right now Twestival is organising, or more to the point, facilitating the organising, of hundreds of events around the world on March 24th. Thousand of  people who live in the neighbourhoods (online and off) that have never made eye contact are planning parties, bbqs and get-togethers because that cognitive surplus has overflowed into one glorious pot. Twestival. And I am am unbelieveably excited to be part of the the global management team. What’s more, I’d love to hear your ideas on how we continue building on Twestival’s great work and make March 24th 2011 the ultimate day of online / offline local community building, in whatever shape that looks like where you’re at.

Who says the European Parliament is dull?

Looks like José Manuel Barroso was getting it from both sides yesterday. These quotes are great.

Speaking in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Mr Higgins attacked the deal as a mechanism to turn Irish taxpayers into “vassals” for European banks.

“It is a mechanism to make working-class people throughout Europe pay for the crisis of a broken financial system and a crisis-ridden European capitalism.”

Barroso wasn’t going to take that lying down:

“To the distinguished member of this parliament that comes from Ireland, who asked a question suggesting that the problems of Ireland were created by Europe, let me tell you: the problems of Ireland were created by the irresponsible financial behaviour of some Irish institutions and by the lack of supervision in the Irish market,” he said.

“Europe is now part of the solution; it is trying to support Ireland. But it was not Europe that created this fiscally irresponsible situation and this financially irresponsible behaviour. Europe is trying to support Ireland. It is important to know where the responsibility lies. And this is why it is important that those of us, and this is clearly the majority, who believe in European ideals, that we are able as much as possible to have a common response.”

This lively two-way was then finished off by a somewhat bizzarre intervention from reknowned UK Euro-sceptic Nigel Farage:

At the conclusion of a debate in which Mr Farage said “I hope and pray the markets break you”, Mr Barroso said he was amazed at the tenor of some of the remarks made to him.

“To those who made those comments . . . against European solidarity . . . I ask them – where were you when Europe was financing your farmers after the war to feed your own people?”

Okay, these are fun and games, but this may (or may not) mark a significant change in attitude of the Irish to the EU and its institutions. A relationship that has since Ireland’s entry into the common market in 1973 been nothing but love. Watch this space.

Local Organising, National Change: Irish Rural Electrification

"I'm telling yis, the electric's in here somewhere"
Pic from

The Shannon scheme of the 1920s was Ireland’s great leap forward. With its completion, the lights went on up and down the country. Or at least in the cities and bigger towns they did. But by the end of the second world war fully two thirds of a 3 million population were still without power to the home, the reason, good clean country living.

Rural electrification was very much down the list of political priorities. Significant forces opposed electrification, and even supporters of the scheme often had motives that were less than inclusive. A number of forces were at play here

  • The Catholic Social Movement (rural fundamentalists)
  • The Gaelic League (cultural fundamentalists)
  • De Velera’s discourse legacy of self-sufficiency (never, ever realised IMO)
  • Catholic fear of socialism and individualism (a fear not confined to the shores of Ireland).

Many of these forces, certainly during the first half of the 20th century, presented cities in Ireland as being of “foreign” culture, a local Other to be shunned. Yet despite these interests, despite a country with less than zero budget following WWII, despite the requirement of one million wooden poles (surely more wood than there were trees in the country), the job of the Rural Electrification Scheme (RES) got the go-ahead. To study how is a fascinating examination of social, technical and cultural change. Ultimately 1.75m people were served by the scheme, 2% in towns and villages, the rest in open country, illustrating just how scattered the population at the time was.

The Structure of Change

Let’s examine the organisational and geographical makeup of the the Rural Electrification Organisation (REO). Significant from the start is the fact that the REO was almost a totally independent organisation from the national electrical utility (the ESB), which itself was a semi-state profit making (in theory) enterprise. The toughest initial hurdle to overcome was the granting of subsidy from central government, but once achieved, the REO was at the races. And because it was hived off from its parent, it could make big ambitious decisions quickly. The first of these was to decentralise as much of the design and implementation process as possible. There was some central procurement, such as wood from Finland, and knowledge sharing, but little else.

Ireland was broken into ten regional hubs.

  • Athlone
  • Cork (rural)
  • Dublin (rural)
  • Dundalk
  • Galway
  • Limerick
  • Portlaoise
  • Sligo
  • Tralee
  • Waterford

Each of the district REO offices had three divisions, materials, technical and development The latter was essentially a consumer outreach/care department, which was to play a hugely important role on the ground. Located in each district REO office was a Rural Organisation Engineer (ROE) who supervised three to five crews. The crews were the teams of skilled workers, linesmen, engineers and between forty and one hundred hyper local casual labourers, the men who got their hands dirty. At its peak the scheme had ongoing simultaneous operations in up to fifty locations around the country.

The parish was the granular unit of geography each crew worked on, typically 25-30 square miles, containing 300-500 premises. A crew would move into a parish to start the electrification work, opening a local office, bringing with it 40 REO staff, and hiring 40-100 locals. This movement of labour, knowledge and culture for Ireland at the time was unprecedented. Not only did the crews bring with them light, heat and the ability for shops to sell ice-cream for the first time, they brought employment, an influx of men from around the country (with obvious consequences) and a power structure that up until now had centred around the local parish priest.

Typically it would take six months to wire up a parish, or at least those who had opted in. Prior to a crew moving in, advance survey work would be done to ascertain which premises in the parish wanted to be connected. Parishes with a large number of potential customers were connected first, or at least that was how it was meant to work, petty local and national corruption had a part to play too. Séan Lemass for example pushed many Gaelteacht (Irish speaking) areas to the head of the queue. And even with favours, local parish refusniks could hold up work for years creating pockets of darkness in an ever increasing quilt of light over Ireland’s landscape.

Culture and impacts

I hope to see the day that when a girl gets a proposal from a farmer, she will enquire not so much about the number of cows but rather concerning the electrical appliances she will require before she gives her consent including not merely electric light, but a water heater, an electric clothes boiler, a vacuum cleaner and even a refrigerator.

Seán Lemass, Dáil debate, March 7th 1945.

Rural Ireland was not a cash society. Farmers didn’t have bills to pay, for anything. They didn’t make money, they didn’t spend it. Electricity was the cultural intervention that was to change that forever, for the first time, farmers were being asked to make a regular payment for something initially they thought they did not need. Perhaps this shift, more than any other single impact, drew rural and urban Ireland closer together, the socio-technical co-prodution of society plain to see.

But the biggest impact overall was probably on Mná na hÉireann, the women of Ireland. No longer did they have the drudgery of fetching dozens of buckets of water from the well (Ireland at the time was renowned for its small bucket size), electricity allowed for the widespread introduction of motor powered pumps, thus water straight to the kitchen. Which meant of course that all of a sudden, women had some free time on their hands. To listen to the wireless and even, in the 60s, to watch TV.

The BBC and RTÉ broadcast their first radio services within four years during the 1920s. The BBC was churning out television by the mid thirties, yet it was not until after the bulk of the RES’s work was done, 1961, that Ireland’s first TV service was launched. And anyone who has spent time watching RTÉ’s subsequent output will admit that the state broadcaster is still someway behind its Anglo Saxon neighbour.

In 1951 73% of Ireland’s 200,000 male farmers were over 45. A quarter of these were unmarried and less than 5% had attended secondary school. There were no socio-economic development agencies for these people and outward rural migration was huge. It was these people, generally subsistence farmers who didn’t make money, but similarly had next to no outgoing costs, that the folk from the RES had to convince. And it was the bringing into the electrical fold of these farmers that was to allow Ireland enter the EEC in 1973, and finally, by the 1980s, start questioning societies power structures, that had for so long kept Ireland a small, dank, inward looking place.

Lesson 1: Organising for a new modernity

Some lessons. In my piece on capital projects at a time of empty treasuries I sought to make the point that big ambitious projects . Classic New Deal territory. I think the lessons of Irish rural electrification are slightly more subtle, but perhaps more important, certainly for campaigners. The organisation and execution of the REO was at this 66 year juncture, simply phenomenal.

  1. Follow a vision, and you can affect real societal change.
  2. Local counts. Change does not have to come from the centre. It can and often does come from the dispersed bottom. The REO harnessed this in hundreds of Irish communities, it showed off a better tomorrow individually at local level and millions bought in. There was no nationwide advertising campaign, or celebrity endorsements. The work was done on the ground, parish by parish.
  3. Be incessant, go where change is actually wanted first, then return to the neigh-sayers.
  4. This future probably exists somewhere right now. Find it, bring it home.
  5. This is going to take a while. So what. Arguments at the time that this would be a 70-80 year project. These weren’t actually ridiculous, the final offshore island to be turned on finally got the electrics only as recently as 2002. But the majority of the work was done in a 15 time scale. But 15 years seems like an eternity in the lifecycle of a campaign, but if we’re to think big, we’re going to have to start thinking long.
  6. Values, beliefs and getting the job done. If someone has some MSc or PhD time to spare maybe they could go find out whether it was Common Cause type belief interventions or Maslovian needs selling that did it for the REO. The rest of us can just get on with getting the job done.

Lesson 2: The history of cities

Maybe its time we looked again at distributed dwelling patterns in rural communities. This deserves a full post but here’s the quick overview. The telling of the story of the flight to the city is for the most part painted as a straight forward march of progress. Since the industrial revolution all roads have led to the metropolis. That billions have walked this road is presented as a fait acompli. It’s not. Three articles over the last month give some insight.

So maybe, the lessons of rural electrification need to be retold, maybe this race to urbanity that we are running is treadmill going nowhere. It certainly cannot be any harm in exploring the alternatives, which may well begin with a new form of electrification.

Netroots UK 2011: Moving Online Offline

Root User
Photo cc jaxxon

Just back. Big improvement from 2010 if still a few too many dyed-in-the-wool tribal Labour flag wavers for my liking. But at least they had something to wave about this year. Amazing what a few months in opposition and cuts to services will do to raise morale.

Quality of the speakers was up considerably, couple of good contributions from Blue State Digital who have a mountain to climb over the next 22 months in the US one would think. Though they did have the good grace to admit as much. Sharing success, sharing setbacks and honest, intelligent, if very pointed, communication with one’s audience was the not exactly earth-shattering central message coming from them, but that’s okay. We need to be reminded sometimes.

Ari Rabin-Havt of was the clear standout presentation of the day, particular in light of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting which happened in the time it took me to get from central London, home (by way of an outrageously good potato and panzone pizza in Pizza East). MediaMatters was set up six of seven years ago to start righting the wrongs broadcast by Fox News. Big job. Rabin-Havt was on a mission to make sure we knew what we were in for if we let the Dirty Digger turn Sky News into Fox News East. He accused Glenn Beck and company of having blood on their hands already and insisted more was likely. Scary. And a good point well made.

Final thought, remarkable by its absense from a 600 person conference of online activist types was the coupling of the words ‘climate’ and ‘change’. I heard it said only once from the lectern, and then merely as part of a list which included health cuts, education cuts and lots more. These are pressing, and the time to strike against them is now, but let’s hope that debate on climate change action, not to mind action itself has not become taboo as the likes of Netroots and the new left blogosphere in the UK find their voice.

Electricity and the Building of Irish Modernity

Ardnacrusha: The 1920's biggest Irish tourist attraction

The country can’t afford it, it will take too long and what is more, there simply is not the demand. All excuses used to knock back, initially, Ireland’s first national power generation scheme, Ardnacrusha, in the 1920s and then the Rural Electrification Scheme in the forties.

Ardnacrusha was a monument to modernity, a huge concrete hydro plant built on Ireland’s largest waterway, the Shannon. And this in a country that had barely emerged from the fogs of Victorian colonialism. In fact, even that seems far too grand a concept for Saorstát Éireann in 1925, a newly forged country run by “young men standing amongst the ruins of one administration with the foundations of another not yet laid and with wild men screaming through the key-hole” to re-hash Kevin O’Higgins famous description of early government.

Ireland was a country with zero industry, zero money and outside of Dublin, zero electricity. And yet with the help of some vorsprung durch Siemens, it had the imagination and the willpower to sign off a nation changing capital project. The cost, £5m, 20% of the government’s annual budget at the time. What’s more, the project came in on time and went over-budget by a mere £150,000.

With memories of Ardnacrusha still alive, the Rural Electrification Scheme was conceived in 1945 to bring light to the majority of Ireland’s two million rural dwellers. Again, the scheme was described as madness. It took already 2,000 miles of line to supply Ireland’s towns and cities, it would take a further 75,000 miles to reach the parts other electricity schemes could not. 1,200 transformers existed in the country in 1945. Another 100,000 would be required to finish the job. And roughly one million wooden poles would have to be found somewhere (Finland!). Ireland was still an agrarian nation, the war had destroyed trade with its only market, the UK, and as in the 20s, it had not a pot to piss in. Yet 15 years later the scheme was nearly done, Ireland’s dispersed population had at last running water in their kitchens, lightbulbs in their hallways and the ability to serve Guinness Extra Cold in the local.

I recall all of this for two reasons, the first, I’ve spend the week reading the history of electricity in Ireland. It makes for a tidy case study of local and national identity, technology and politics. But more than that, it illustrates how the identity of Ireland was produced (indeed reflexively co-produced) in the mix of nationalism, ambition, engineering feat and civic pride that went into these crazy big projects. And maybe that pot needs to be stirred again.

The second reason, the week begun with a pair of regressive statements from leading members of Ireland’s commentariat, Myers and O’Toole. Myers produced an unusually il-informed libertarian monolgoue on the foolishness of investment in wind energy in light of this harshest of winters. O’Toole meanwhile would be the Hugo Chavez of Western Europe, bemoaning foreign ownership and low extraction taxes of hydrocarbons beneath Irish waters. Nationalise them all he didn’t quite say but was certainly well on the road. But in that he missed the big point, as did Myers. Ireland is in a position not entirely dissimilar to that of the 1920s. A tired old administration hasn’t even bothered ordering 2011 diaries, its work is done. The new government is going to be faced with some big choices, propping up banks, endorsing the EU-IMF deal, and as O’Toole alludes to, the hegemonic kowtowing to Big Oil engaged by their predecessors.

They will likely claim, as will governments elsewhere in Europe, that big capital projects are off the table for now. The rules of our new austerity prevent such dreaming. But that’s the thing about dreams, they’re usually the events of our histories re-imagined. And as oil heads back to $100 per barrel, if we were to bring out our pencil and squared paper, what would an energy-secure Ireland (or UK for that matter) look like now I wonder. Maybe, if their number can be found, it’s time to call back those nice men from Siemens.

4 Links: Cheerios, mad scientists and the new local socialism

Cheerio Maps (c) Stamen Design
Pic: Cheerio Maps (c) Stamen Design

Fun things and not so fun things from the past few days.


Cheerio Maps. Let’s start with breakfast. Real estate in the San Francisco Bay area generally doesn’t do it for me, but pretty map overlays do. Some amazing data mapping here from Stamen Design. My friend Tomás does pretty things with circles. I bet he’d like this. Real estate is boring but there are lots of useful applications for this approach I bet.


Cancún wrap: IPCC scientists still stuck in the same dumb groove. This is super frustrating. Mildly optimistic reports came out of COP16. That’s fine, well done all. Kate Sheppard wraps up the fortnight with an interview with IPCC vice-chair Jean-Pascal van Ypersele who displays a sense of naivete not seen since the Milky Bar kid last rode into town.

[KS]: What is the role of scientists in pushing back against this skepticism and the ongoing anti-science campaign?
JV: The results of all the scientific analysis are almost all going in the same direction. I think if scientists remain calm, stick with science, and explain, and re-explain, if needed, the basis for their conclusions, at some point their honesty will go through any cloud of other arguments that some are trying to put in between them and the public. (my italics)

Seriously. W! T! F! If scientists keeps explaining the truth to all of those not so bright sceptics they’ll see the light and change their minds? Yeah, and X-Factor is a meritocratic talent show where if you try hard enough, dreams really do come true. Van Ypersele is the vice-chair of an organisation which has been put through the cheese grater over the last year by a well funded and extremely well strategised campaign to protect Big Energy and other interests. And right now those interests are presenting a far more palatable truth than the IPCC can muster. Let’s hope 2011 is wakey-wakey year and the IPCC gets a clue.


Localism and renewables – opportunities and challenges. Speaking of 2011, the localism bill was released this week with a promise to cede more power to (ostensibly local) people. I suspect people in the main do not want power, they want schools, libraries and services that just work, but I’ll save the next chapter of my social contract lecture for another day. One area the bill will impact is the UK’s slowly growing renewables and community energy sector. So check out the link above for a very brief rundown of where the issue may emerge.


Finally, a thought piece from a man who since sometime before the last election all of a sudden became the UK’s smartest political commentator, John Harris, writing with Neal Lawson. It’s from a few weeks ago but I forgot to mention it. So, who’s up for a New Socialism, and is it any different from the last one.

Consuming Life: The Consumption of Consumers

Brazil Banner Poster
Pic (cc) JesseYounger1.

Reading Zygmunt Bauman at the moment. In Consuming Life he lifts this great quote from Mary DouglasIn the Active Voice:

Unless we know why people need luxuries (that is, goods in excess of survival needs) and how they use them, we are nowhere near tackling the problems of inequality seriously.

I like that Bauman is ignoring the standard Maslovian psychological approach to consumerism (which seems to my over addled and under educated mind so self-serving and self perpetuating, a form of back slapping almost from marketing types) and bringing the whole discourse out into a much broader societal and sociological space. Because, the consumers’ wants not only affect them, but their relationship to the objects/subjects they are consuming, and the rest of society. Bauman this time:

In the society of consumers, no one can become a subject without first turning into a commodity, and no one can keep his or her subjectiveness secure without perpetually resuscitating, resurrecting and replenishing the capacities expected and required of a sellable commodity.

Bauman gives some great examples of how in our networked age, technology is allowing the consumer to be (reflexively?) turned into the commodity. Exhibit A: The call centre software which filters high spending shoppers straight to the head of the queue whilst low-spenders are doomed to spend eternity in the great touch-tone void; “For instructions on how to fix the lump of plastic technology you are paying us £45 per month on an 18 month contract please press ‘1’, for all over services, please press ‘0’…”