Lots of things are happening in Edgeryders. Many of us have a hard time keeping track of everything. This is a general update on where we are; what we learned; what we expect to be doing next; and how you can be involved in it. Warning: it’s quite long, about 2,600 words. Expect about 10 minutes reading time. Here we go!
What we have done
Let’s set the start of the latest work cycle at November 1st 2014. During the previous summer we had concluded the Spot the Future project. In October the Italian city of Matera, home of the first unMonastery and one of our key partners, was crowned European Capital of Culture 2019. In late October we returned to Matera for Living On The Edge 4. We allowed ourselves a small celebration and started looking around for what was next. And that turned out to be:
- Developing a presence in the European Capitals Of Culture scene. It just made sense. Edgeryders had made a big, acknowledged contribution to the Matera success story. Some people in the community are artists, and many more care about culture. By being global, we are well positioned to help candidate cities to position their bids on the European scene. There are two or three ECOC competitions every year. And the most compelling argument of all: in this space, we could work with Robert "Bob" Palmer. Bob is Europe's most senior cultural policy expert. We all stand to learn much from him. So we built something we are calling the Edgeryders Culture Team. Its first post-Matera success was getting hired by another candidate city, Bucharest. The city's bid earned it the inclusion in the shortlist of candidate ECOCs still in the race for 2021.
- Getting better at helping smart, resilient civic processes to grow. We set up shop in Kathmandu, Nepal, and joined in the grassroots relief effort after the 2015 earthquake. Matthias and Natalia, who led the effort, ended up working side by side with incredible grassroots groups. Many of these reach deep into rural Nepal, where neither government, nor established NGOs, nor media would go. Smart, committed, resilient, these groups might be the backbone of Nepal's emergent alternative leadership. Later in the year, we worked with the United Nations Development Programme and United Nations Volunteers to develop a new, radical program of community-driven, bottom up urban planning. With the help of our global community, we discovered and reached out to civic innovators in Armenia, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Morocco and Ukraine. As often before, this work left us in awe of just how good people are at self-organizing, even in difficult circumstances.
- Adding capacity for analysis to the Edgeryders platform. With the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, we developed and tested Open Ethnographer, a Drupal module for in-platform ethnographic coding. It works. We also collaborated with a European Commission-funded research project called CATALYST. CATALYST's mission was to develop software, that would extract collective intelligence from online conversations. We did some testing for them, and ended up adopting two of their applications. This makes us better at delivering collective intelligence outcomes from the Edgeryders conversation.
- Engaging in a sales push. As we felt we had delivered – even overdelivered – on our first batch of projects, we tried to get more of them. The idea was to provide more meaningful, paid work for members of the Edgeryders community to take on. Get paid to be radical, do adventurous stuff and attack big problems: that's what most of us aspire to. But that did not go so well. We spent a lot of time negotiating and writing proposals. Sometimes we were successful, like in the examples above. But often, too often we just wasted valuable time in unsuccessful bids. We lost two procurement competitions in Italy, one in the UAE, and one in Belgium. We partecipated in five proposals for European research projects, losing three of them and getting kicked out of another one. We did win the one where we had invested the most, though.
What we have learned
- Open online conversations can be an engine of collective intelligence. For me, this is the single most important lesson I have learned in Edgeryders. Every single time we convene around an interesting question and are enabled to act upon it, we make progress. The conversation acts as a sort of artificial intelligence. It discovers new allies, even on unfavourable terrain; processes scenarios in parallel; reveals rough consensus. It is hard to get it started, but when it gets going it really is powerful.
- Text is data. Collective intelligence in Edgeryders is a human thing. Its engine is human conversation, and it is humans interpreting its results. But technology helps in various ways. The most important one is this: with technology, we can understand conversations at a larger scale than without it. This opens up exciting possibilities. It also means we are, in our own way, a data company. I have been saying this since 2013, but the past year has made this intuition more concrete.
- Sustainability is hard, but achievable. At the core of Edgeryders there is a symbiotic relationship between an online community and a small social enterprise. The community contains the skills, the drive, the experience. The company transforms online debate into expert advice, powered by collective intelligence. Expert advice can be packaged and sold. The Edgeryders company styles itself a mutant boutique consultancy company; it makes the sales. It then gives back to the community, in the form of work opportunities that are meaningful and paid (in financial year 2014-2015 we have paid out hard cash to about 40 edgeryders, not counting company directors). This is the theory. In practice, selling is hard. Clients think we are interesting and innovative, but would rather not be the first ones to adopt. We have to be honest, and tell them this is new and experimental. It may fail. Worse: collective intelligence does not take orders; if online debate sees an inconvenient truth, it will throw it in your face. So, we tell them: if you are not prepared to face hard truths, don't hire us. Many clients feel this is too scary. A few do take the plunge. So far they seem to be happy, and come back for more business. So it's working, kind of. People in the company are putting in a lot of unpaid work. We may fail due to mistakes or bad luck, but sustainability is certainly possible in principle.
- Deploy. International consultants jet over to foreign capitals; stay at four-star hotels with English-speaking staff; have meetings with government officials; jet back; write the report. Edgeryders rents homes and moves in for months at a time. We hang out in the local hackerspaces, venture out to remote villages, build trust, spend time. It's necessary to gain trust and learn to see with the eyes of the local changemakers. It's also more fun. It just feels right: we may have a different role, but the people we meet in our missions are exactly people like us. They could be Edgeryders. Some have become Edgeryders, in fact. So we treat them as peers, learn from each other, refuse to think of them as passive "beneficiaries" of what our clients are trying to do. There are people in Edgeryders who value adventure, and will only do work if they can do it this way. This gives us an edge: we can do stuff that vanilla consultants can't. We have a lever for reinventing international consultancy!
- Community is powerful. Collective intelligence is what happens when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Collective smarts need not only smart individuals, but also a smart way for individuals to interact. The great lesson we learned from monasticism: human-to-human rules for interaction are important. We have found a name for a coherent collection of such rules designed to encourage the emergence of collective intelligence: Protocol. I believe good Protocol is the single most important ingredient of an online community. I also find Edgeryders has, in general, good Protocol. Sniping, name-calling and rhetorical smoke curtains are almost unheard of. At the same time, people are outspoken, if respectful, in their expressions of disagreement. When Edgeryders is at its best, people argue hard enough to discourage wishful thinking and unsubstantiated claims, but not so hard as to demoralize each other. Action carries more prestige than talk, and no one has veto power over anyone else. Rapid progress ensues. A sign that this is working well: it produced "blanket endorsement", with some of us willing to support financially complete strangers to take part in an Edgeryders event. This conveys a powerful message: "If you are Edgeryders, I trust you, whoever you are."
- Community is fragile. One or two defectors with good rhetorical skills can break Protocol and upset a whole community. We had some episodes of this in Edgeryders. While unimportant in themselves, they were upsetting and time-consuming. We have learned never to take Protocol for granted, and to defend it at all costs. This means having low tolerance for trolling. If people do not feel completely at ease with Protocol, they should feel free to leave in friendship. This happened last year with some of the people involved in Matera's prototype unMonastery. Bickering about consensus decision making versus do-ocracy was improductive and frustrating. So they created their own organization, and now we have two variants of the unMonastery, one committed to consensus, the other to do-ocracy. Great! We can experiment with two alternative models, and learn from both.
- Dyson sphere. There's plenty of skilled people in the Edgeryders community. Together, we can supply a wide range of products and services. Whenever the Edgeryders the company needs to hire, or buy a service, we try to buy it from the community. We try to recirculate every euro that we get from clients, so that it helps some community project stay up. We think of this as building a Dyson sphere around the primary client; together, we can catch and reuse most of its economic energy. Example: we hired @gandhiano to do work on our platform, and are planning to move its hosting over to the Ecobytes collective. This helps us, because we get a better platform and better services. It also helps Ecobytes' cash flow. Double win!
- Take responsibility for the boring admin stuff. At the onset of the Edgeryders company, a member on the board of directors took on responsibility for all things legal and financial. That was a bad idea. The person made sure he was the only one with access to the bank account. This resulted in a complete lack of transparency about Edgeryders legals and financials. The rest of us in the board underperformed, too. We let him get away with this behaviour for a long time, because we were conflict-averse. When we finally applied pressure to set up transparent accounting, he resigned. He refused to release records, so we had to report it and him to the British tax authority and rebuild them. As we did so, we discovered unpaid bills, unrecorded income, unjustified payments (including to himself), out-of-date legal records and other pleasantries. This is not one person's failure, though we did pick a bad apple. The whole board has legal responsibility. It was our mess, and we had to clean it up. We decentralized accounting and finances, and increased transparency. We redid the company website disclosing relevant information, recruited advisors from the community with oversight capacity and are now taking turns running the accounting software. Accounting and finance are boring, but we have to take responsibility for them. Dumping it on a "money guy" (or woman) is irresponsible.
What's next and how you can be part of it
- Platform overhaul. As Edgeryders evolves, the edgeryders.eu platform must evolve too. We have started a major overhaul. The look and feel will change, and many tedious bugs will die. We estimate that the next incarnation of edgeryders.eu will go live some time in March 2016, and serve us until the end of 2017. After that, though, we might have to switch to a completely different core tech. Drupal 7 won't be here forever. In about one year we will start discussing out long term option. You can be part of the current effort helping @gandhiano test his development site. Follow updates and take on tasks on the Edgeryders Development Group.
- LOTE5. Fail/unFail, the 5th episode of Living On The Edge is coming soon to Brussels. We have partnered up with Antiheroes, part of the community since 2014, to build an event centered on failure. @KiraVde and @ireinga, the Antiheroes ladies, are bringing to LOTE some much-needed light-heartedness and sense of fun. I'm so looking forward to this! As always, plenty of ways for you to take part.
- OpenCare. This was our one successful European research proposal. It's big: 1.6 million euro, of which a bit under 300K administered directly by Edgeryders. It's also exciting. Look it up, stay in touch, let us know if and how you want to collaborate. As always, we'll advertise any opening positions on the Edgeryders platform.
- Flagship projects. We want to build "flagship projects": big, bold, sustainable stuff, proposed by the community. If the idea is right, we might be able to build support and momentum around it. OpenCare is an example of a flagship project; the unMonastery is another one. There is space for a few more; get in touch and let's talk. But remember: if it's your project, you have to lead.
- Incubator/accelerator. So far Edgeryders-the-company has been emergent, with almost no strategy. We don't take debt. We don't seek investors. We don't seek core funding. We have no business plan. We take on paid work, trying to blend it in the community's interests as we go. We refused to do all the usual social startup stuff of investor pitching and spreadsheet compiling. That freed up time and energy to develop our product and test its viability. We now have a product: collective-intelligence powered expert advice, hacker style. We tested it, it's viable. Now what? We'd like to try and do more of it, faster. We are hackers (Matt, Vinay), researchers (Noemi, Asta, myself), designers (Nadia), organisation experts (Patrick, John). We need to boost our business skills and contacts if we are to run a "real" company. But we are educable, so we are considering incubators/accelerators around the world. If you work in one, or are a mentor or coach, and you would like to work with us, get in touch. We accept that some pitching and spreadsheets might ensue. Hey, the revolution is no gala dinner.
- Develop a success indicator (and trust it). Is Edgeryders successful? No one knows. On the one hand, we are not moving serious amounts of money. On the other hand, we do seem to have some access to power players and some recognition as trailblazers. I would like to combine monetary (contracts signed?) and non monetary (access to high-level people?) into a sort of "life force index" for Edgeryders. And then, make decisions on the basis of how the index moves. If you like this, let me know and we'll take it from there.
- More sales. We are working hard to get new contracts and new clients. We'll be announcing deals as we close them. Do you know of someone that might be interested in hiring Edgeryders as consultants? Hire yourself into the company, we'll help you seal the deal.
Edgeryders is so new and strange that I can’t tell whether it’s headed for stardom or disaster. Both, maybe. Either way, it’s an interesting journey, and I look forward to finding out where it ends.