How to use the Community Power Compass

The recap

You’ve likely read the first post, introducing the context for this tool, the Community Power Compass, and how it pulls three key freedoms and controls from The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber & David Wengrow. The post then, is the practical session; how might you use each of these segments to consider the sort of community you’re looking at, joining, leaving or forming.

Community Power Compass v1.0, June 2022

1. Freedom to Disobey

When you’re part of a community, how easy is it for you to dissent, disagree, argue a case in a way in which it is properly heard? And afterwards, what you feel is the right thing to do anyway?

Graeber & Wengrow refer to this as ‘the freedom to disobey arbitrary commands‘, where no central authority has the power to make people comply with their will. Instead, you have to try and persuade people.

“This is different from the abstract or legal concept of freedom of speech: you may well be able to talk as much as you like, but if nobody’s listening then it’s not really a social freedom”

David Wengrow,
Real Review, Spring 2022

The emphasis is on examining how rich, diverse debate can be a very valuable part of the decision-making process for societies. If you raise a different perspective from the common one presented, you would hope not to be dismissed out of hand, ignored or ostracised. Instead, your perspective adds to a collective understanding.

The conversation to understand different views makes for a more powerful community. The conversation is more dialogic than dialectic – something I touched on in The Dialogic Brand work back in 2013 or so, examining where brands could evolve from being centralised and one-dimensional into being a decentralised total of many ideas.

It makes me intrigued by the rhetoric in the communities around Web3 and Crypto. If an arbitrary command is from a distributed source of power, can you still ignore it? For instance, HODL has evolved to being a communal rallying call for everyone with a given investment in a cryptocurrency (originally Bitcoin) to not sell. No matter what. Not easy today (Wednesday 15th June, as I write), and not even possible for all. And yet, I think, fairly easy to disobey… who will ever know?

The Freedom to Disobey becomes important (and complex) in realms where there are different, new ways of encoding agreement. If you don’t have that freedom, you can be increasingly part of something you’re no longer comfortable with.

Starter Questions: When I speak, am I being heard? How many different voices and viewpoints are properly recognised? What formal or informal processes are there around conversations? Where do we discuss and debate? How do we decide? How do we change our minds?

2. Freedom of Movement

Do you remember the first time you left Facebook? I actually managed to leave Facebook the month after starting Smithery, but I’ve been particularly unsuccessful in leaving other services (notably Twitter). But the lock-in of the Web 2.0 business model has always been plain to see, and keenly felt for all.

In exchange for the free service, we’ll take your data, activity, connections and graph, and make money that way. It’s meant that Web 2.0 companies have spent a lot of their time, money and energy on keeping people locked in to their services, buying others that threaten them, and generally closing down connectivity between services. It may have been your data once upon a time, but it’s locked up in a system you can’t see.

The next generation of social networks, then, are seemingly driven in part by a desire to undo this Faustian pact. This is manifesting in different ways, of course. Early examples in this Bloomberg article from last month talk of building new social networks that are decentralised and run by their members.

When you dig into it, the detail around the how is scant (for the moment). But the intention is there; imagine your social profile was yours, to move between sites and services, encounters and interactions, as you wished.

As with all Web3 things, it’s really good to ask ‘but why does that need to be on a blockchain‘ at all times. It raises interesting (and challenging) questions across social, moral and technological boundaries. Emerging initiatives like Jack Dorsey’s Web5 (more here & here) are asking those questions in different ways, and protecting more of the freedoms that Graeber & Wengrow might recognise (e.g. that initiative is open-source).

The direction feels in keeping with the idea of the Freedom to Move. Not just to ability to leave your home and surroundings, but to be able to join another just as easily. It allows people and communities to grow and evolve over time, not be trapped in a specific location because of the needs of the powerful at the centre.

Starter Questions: What constitutes my presence here? How do I sign up? What do I sign away? What do I bring or create? How much is already mine? Of that stuff, what can I leave with? Where can I go afterwards? Does this space work like other spaces?

3. Freedom to Reorganise

The third of the freedoms is really interesting; “the freedom to imagine, then practically enact, different forms of social existence” as Wengrow referred to it in a recent interview in the Real Review.

It’s also the case that the third freedom is dependent somewhat on the first two; you should have the ability to leave (en masse as an ultimate threat, of course) if you’re prevented from being able to firstly reimagine the community you’re in, and then enact that new idea to change the balance of power.

In The Dawn of Everything, the freedom to reorganise social relations covered in a wide variety of examples, from rotating leaderships to seasonal power shifts and so on. The context of the environments play a large part in how people best decide to organise themselves in certain circumstances. the ability to change how the systems works, together, allows that to happen.

There’s a fair case that this is what a good number of people in the Web3 space would say they are trying to do; reimagine the way the internet works, and ‘corrects the mistakes’ of previous generations.

The stated goals behind a lot of projects are to reimagine and enact different ways of… well everything from land ownership to brewing.

It seems a lot of DAOs (“member-owned communities without centralized leadership”) start off with a broad, expansive purpose, open debate and exploration of ideas in an online space (e.g. a Discord server). But then the end goal is to get to a state where there is action enacted by code, determined by voting using governance tokens, shares or other mechanic. (There’s a good HBR piece on some of the ins and outs of what DAOs can and can’t do).

I tend to struggle with this concept a bit. There’s a trade-off between to ability to discuss and debate together, and then enshrining decisions in code so that the entity keeps doing that thing unless enough people vote for it to stop.

Sure, it’s efficient, and doesn’t require as much organisation as traditional communities. But what happens if enough people don’t turn up to vote? Or a small cadre of people make sure they vote in an organised fashion? Or the DAO converts all the matter in the universe into paperclips when left to its own devices?

Starter Questions: Who decided how this works? Were they always involved? Are their intentions consistent? How’s it going so far?Are we getting what we signed up for? What would make it better? Can we redesign and remake it? What happens if we do?

4. Control by Influence

In Graeber & Wengrow’s work, they define this as “control through individual charisma“, and describe it as usually the most ephemeral of social controls. After the sovereignty of a state is set up (control through violence), and the bureaucracy (control through information) means it is embedded in the everyday existence of all citizens, to door is open for this personal charisma; in short, the democratic process which asks ‘who should we trust with this apparatus?’.

Here though, I’m making a direct link from that ‘personal charisma’ to a more prevalent word used in today’s online communities; Influence. Of course, being ‘an influencer’ was riding high for a while as a very desirable career path for kids, but more recent stories of influencer burnout may temper that a little. More broadly though, I wonder if there are different types of influence we can look at here.

Firstly, influence through expertise; the people creating a new way of doing things (obvious example: Vitalik Buterin), who are arguably afford sovereign status in the worlds they inhabit; they are allowed to break the rules they set, as they transform the system around them striving for new goals. I think there are likely to be identifiable pioneers in all emergent communities like this: who do these ideas start with? Then there’s influence through money; those who’re accelerating new communities through funding in exchange for equity, tokens, and so on. Hello there, VC land. Then (finally for now) there’s influence through celebrity….

If you listened to Matt Damon, you’d have lost 63%

What better way to bring the masses flocking than bringing in the movie, sports and music stars to front your idea?

This celebrity angle in particular raises a good set of questions that I think can be used for the whole ‘control of influence’ area. It is just as legitimate to ask ‘what does this person know?’ of Michael Owen as it is a VC investor or a crypto-engineer.

Starter Questions: Who is using their influence here? How much do they know? What interests do they have? What’s their track record? Are they an active part of this community? What’s their vision for this community? How realistic is it?

5. Control of Information

The Dawn of Everything has a wide range of examples of civilisations where, at some point or another, the control of sophisticated ways of tabulating and storing information becomes a major force in their development. They run from high priests and their arcane, complex rituals which are vital to this year’s crop, through the scribes and artists encoding information for future records, to the tax-collectors seeking the tribute owed from surrounding lords. Control through bureaucratic means is very much conditional about who knows what, when, and where.

We know something about this you don’t. “What do you mean, you don’t know ‘Go Johnny Go Go Go Go’..?

Perhaps the aforementioned Discord server culture surrounding Web3 is a great modern example of what we might consider control through information. If you want to learn more, you must join the server in the first place; read threads and follow previous discussions, start to get a feel for the main folk involved. Information can be controlled through access to spaces, channels, DMs, and so on.

Then you need to acclimatise to certain forms and phrases in the language which (similar to academic work) are used to display knowledge in a space, rather than to aid simplicity for the receiver. Information can be controlled through obfuscation, though, and you need to understand what you don’t understand, and why that might be.

And information is controlled by being part of the right crowd. If you to get a detailed sense of how (VCs in particular) are advancing their interests through insider knowledge, I’d recommend reading The Pivot to Web3 Is Going to Get People Hurt in Vice recently.

But simply speaking, if you know an event (e.g. a particular NFT drop) is happening before everyone else, you’re in a pretty good place.

Unless, of course, you do it in a way that gets you an insider trading charge for your trouble.

(NB Given the nature of blockchains, which mean any financial trades are visible forever, and that it appears nearly impossible to delete all your past messages and presence from a Discord server, it might mean there’s a *lot* of potential evidence lying around for prosecutors to pick through some point in the future…)

At heart of this control, you have to recognise that information can serve as the fuel for the belonging people feel when part of a community. By being a part of the collective, and accessing that information, you feel your participation is valuable to you, and valued by others.

But it has to be true for the whole community if it is real, and so the follow questions might help you decide that.

Starter Questions: Are we all party to the same information? Who knows what, and when? Is there an advantage in getting information early? Is there a cost for people being late to the party? Can we reduce any asymmetries of information?

6. Control of System

Finally, I’ve taken Graeber & Wengrow’s Domination through Control of Violence, which refers most of all sovereignty, the power to set the laws of the land (and in certain cases to be above them), and directed it into specific sense of who controls the system.

The two share, at their heart, some notion of property; what here is mine? What are my claims to access and control of what is mine, within a given territory, and what are my legal rights to keep others away from it? And if we all agree on this common understanding, who polices legal understanding for the whole community that this is mine, and I can do whatever is necessary to get you off it?

Some of this manifests itself in strange ways. There’s a strange strain of libertarianism underpinning a lot of the space, it would seem, where the same communities who’re keen to make a clean break from centralised state control when it comes to money, would quote like the help of the law in getting back their stolen NFTs.

But ignoring that ‘state within state’ angle for now, just understanding more about the ‘rules’ as set out and policed within a community becomes importantly whenever you’re joining one.

I touched before on the nature of DAOs, and that central idea of writing into code the way the organisation will work for all its members. The phrase ‘code is law‘ is attributed to Lawrence Lessig’s late-nineties work, and this Forbes piece from John Quinn draws out some key lessons for today. The main thrust for me is this:

“…other than in the simplest of contracts, code cannot necessarily account for every eventuality. Drawdowns on letters of credit, for example, which are supposed to be automatic on presentation, are occasionally enjoined for nonperformance, fraud or on other grounds. It is impossible to anticipate, let alone reduce to code, all scenarios that might unfold. Contracts would have to be hundreds or thousands of pages long to address the nuances of every possible scenario.”John Quinn, Forbes

Using code to govern organisations internally seems wrought with similar problems; even in the simplest communities, with the most straightforward of aims, how would you enshrine a bit of code that ‘addresses every possible scenario‘?

It feels like, as people wrestle with this very tricky problem, online communities reply on good ol’ fashioned carbon-based bipedal regulators to manage the system. And so having sets of questions to ask about who holds these powers, and what they might use them for, becomes more vital.

An example from this week; crypto-lender Celsius froze withdrawals and transfers in order to “stabilise liquidity“. There’s a metaphorical big red switch they can throw to shut people out of their accounts. And yet… in the statement below, they claim they’re doing this in the interests of ‘their community’.

“I’m sorry, we’ve decided to stop your access to your things, but for your own good”

Now yes, this is more like a bank run than it is anything else, despite the use of the C word (and perhaps ‘investors’ or ‘customers’ is what they really mean). But it gives us a sense of what to look for; who has their hands on the metaphorical big red buttons, and what does it allow them to do?

Starter Questions: Who has admin rights? What do those rights enable them to do? What is the code of conduct? Who wrote it? When was it last updated? What happens if people break it? Who would people appeal to? What legal rights do I have?

What’s next then?

Well, this project started as a scrappy blog post over a week ago, but it’s much better for it. I’m going to test the tool when it comes to looking at various types of community over the summer, and perhaps think of three additional lenses to put over the top, if I was an individual or an organisation:

At what point is this not a community I’d want to be part of?

At what point is this not a community I’d want to create?

At what point is this not really a community at all?

I hope others out there might find some use for it too. If you use it for anything, let me know how you get on, either discreetly or publicly.

Introducing the Community Power Compass

The prologue

This started as a quick blog post a week ago, simply collecting together some field notes and some emergent ideas on how to cast a critical view across the Web3 space. Through the process of writing it up, it has has evolved into a potentially useful thing which I’ve called the Community Power Compass for now.

It’s a tool for thinking about particular communities by considering different power dynamics, informed by Graeber & Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity which I’ve been reading lately.

Rather than just deciding that all communities of a type are the same, maybe tools like this can give people a better nuanced approach when thinking about whether to join new communities, leave ones they are part of, or just observe them from the outside.

What makes communities very different underneath, even if they appear very similar on the surface? And how might having a more nuanced way of describing these differences help people and organisations join, find or create better communities?

This first post below is the context; what’s the background I’ve been working through.

The second post, here, is the practical one – if you’ve read the below and just want to get straight to that again.

May you live in interesting times

This started as an exploration I first mentioned on Twitter a while back. I was thinking about different ways of expressing what this ‘next generation’ of the web might be by looking at what people imply they want, not just what a certain kind of technology can provide. MTPW > MPTW, etc etc.

To set out my current position; I am yet to be convinced that the monotonous ‘put X on a blockchain‘ refrain of Web3™ is a good idea, but then neither am I convinced that this simplification captures the detail of what every community in the space is proposing.

There are of course plenty of sources you can read or watch on the the dangers and delusions of the space. You could easily spend your days becoming a full-time prophet of doom, and their are more and more folk out there. Indeed, part of the (subsequently useful) delay in publishing this blog post has been the endless source of new articles and examples which appear on a delay basis. Oh, and the latest cryptocurrency crash.

Disclosure time: I have never owned any cryptocurrency, bought tokens to be part of a DAO, or anything similar. Yet I’ve been fascinated by it all for a long time, since watching Dave Birch’s talk at Playful back in 2014.

The TV business is uglier than most things.  It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason

Hunter S. Thompson, San Francisco Examiner, 1985

Why? Firstly, the Web3 space seems inexorably, willingly, deliberately linked with blockchains and cryptocurrencies. It is the ‘financialisation of everything‘, and suddenly all relationships are seen through an economic lens.

Given that’s what I studied back at university – and I would argue continues to furnish me with tools and methods for thinking with – the draw of this space is compelling.

Often though, the stories of Web3 always seems to me be the economic equivalent of someone explaining that gravity works sideways rather than downwards.

That may be because it’s so fundamentally revolutionary that it changes the way everyone thinks about everything for ever. But equally, it may be because everything is not what it seems at all, and what my gut is telling me on a lot of occasions is right. Either which way, I enjoy the challenge of having to think differently about it.

Secondly, it increasingly appears that there are a lot of people are getting caught up in the excitement who can’t afford to be; things I’ve heard anecdotally, being in forums where it’s brought up, reading coverage online, and so on.

The space feels highly predatory as a result, reminiscent of the famous Hunter S. Thompson quote on the TV business. I don’t enjoy watching bad actors take good people for a ride, or complacent actors leading others up the garden path. I clearly do like mixing metaphors, however.

As always though, the people are the interesting bit. There’s lots to learn here about how people feel, what they think, and what they do, whether as individuals or as part of communities.

Generations of the Web

‘Community’ is (once again) the concept du jour for thinking about generations of the web. I wrote a thesis on communities way back when, of course, when the promise of building open, accessible, interoperable communities online still seemed a genuine possibility. Layer the communities onto the economic aspects, and you therefore have catnip for me.

Why are people willing to (once again) entertain a community-based generation of the web? When they look at the web works today, what is letting them down? Where do they see the potential of fixing it this time around? What will stop the same thing happening again? What are they prepared to do about it?

(NB I am assuming that there are more interesting things beyond ‘get-rich-quick‘ or ‘we’re all going to make it‘ going on, because I do try to be optimistic about people generally.)

In reading and researching, it clearly appears there are things that people want which are deeper than financial gain. Nods to the distribution of power, notions of ownership, the dynamics of healthy online communities, and so on.

Much of it is then wrapped up in the philosophy of ‘decentralisation‘, as a rejecting of the centralisation of Web 2.0. “Decentralise, and all will be well.

I sketched out the below set of quadrants (going back to the Cross-Quadrant Working Group work for inspiration), thinking about centralisation of generations of the web. What do generations of the web present as to the world, and what are they actually?

For many, ‘Web 1’ would have felt centralised, accessed through The Information Superhighway for example (note the definitive article), via whoever your first internet service provider was. Yet in reality, it was decentralised in the delivery, these services simply curating links to pages and resources built and curated by a wide variety of different people and organisations.

Then ‘Web 2.0’ appears, with Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, BeBo, and all the other also-rans. They offer broader access for people to create and share things on the web, but at the cost of… well personal data just for starters (“You Are The Product” etc). From a Read only web, to a Read/Write web… as long as you used the in-house facilities, as it were.

As well as presenting as a centralised world, it really is centralised, and all the power lies at the centre. You can understand why people want to rebel.

Web3 or Web Free?

Now, there’s a notion inside Web3 that declares instead of just Read/Write, this version of the web should be Read/Write/Own. All of your contributions to any platform should be (in some way) owned by you, and even offer you a return (e.g. rewards, a share of revenue, etc). And you can take all of your valuable assets with you from place-to-place, and therefore power is redistributed amongst a broader community of use.

To me though (and I’ll explain more below), it feels like this becomes a way to present an environment as being decentralised, whilst actually what it is doing is making the centralisation more opaque.

Originally I started thinking of this quadrant as The Whaling Grounds, where actors who have a disproportionate interest in a particular thing can make sweeping decisions under the surface of a notionally decentralised world.

Currently, I wonder tying the Web3 world to blockchain and crypto is what fundamentally centralises it, rather than decentralises it. Maybe there’s also a system in the middle, it’s just a matter of trying to find one in which the Whales can’t hide their actions.

Meanwhile, other things which appear more like decentralisation are appearing here and there. For example, there’s the Fediverse, “an ensemble of federated (i.e. interconnected) servers that are used for web publishing (i.e. social networking, microblogging, blogging, or websites) and file hosting, but which, while independently hosted, can communicate with each other.” You run your own version of a platform, host a server, yet still have it connect to others which are operating off the same open principles. You could almost argue it’s an alternative reality Web 2.0 – what we could have had – and there’s some efforts to get there from here.

There are also other aspects of merging trends – no-code platforms and services might be a good example – where there’s more of a direction towards Read/Write/Publish than Read/Write/Own. How do you give people ownership of their own platforms rather than their own content? And make sure that these platforms work together?

From this perspective, you can see how decentralisation has to come hand-in-hand with interoperability. This is the hardest thing to achieve for Web3, as it fights against the financial imperatives of things like VC money fuelling current growth.

As a result, I started wondering about how you might tell whether a community which presents itself as decentralised is actually decentralised. And then, as you do, started a book on ancient civilisations, and some things started falling into place.

The Dawn of… Something

David Graeber & David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is over five hundred pages of anthropology meets archaeology. It explores how a lot of experts over the years have taken for granted that there can only be one natural progression for humans in terms of society, governance and so on. Yet the evidence, as you might expect, points to there being many different systems and social relations tried over time across the world.

Whilst the book is dense and full of lengthy examples, it also contains some basic principles which are really useful to apply in other places you might be thinking about groups of people. Like, for instance, online communities.

First of all, there are the Freedoms which people value, and help them create robust societies; the Freedom to Move Away, the Freedom to Disobey, and the Freedom to Reimagine Society.

Then there are the three elementary forms of Domination which those in positions of power will call on to keep that power; Domination through Control of Violence, Domination through Control of Information, and Domination through Personal Charisma.

These are about two sides of power; freedom and control. Given the underlying philosophies of decentralisation and interoperability within the Web3 space, they feel useful ways to understand some of the complex human dynamics at play.

As an initial experiment, I wrote out a brief passage under each broad area, and started playing with titles a bit to make them more relevant to my uses. Then I started to hone a set of questions under each title to use as an ongoing interrogation device when orientating around new communities, initiatives and more. That’s all below.

Then, having mulled it over a bit more, I turned it into a fleshed out tool, thinking about how those freedoms and controls might play off against each other. It’s not perfect yet, but seems potentially useful.

In Part 2 here, I’ll dig into each segment, and describe how I hope to use it.

Community Power Compass v1.0, June 2022

A bar without walls

Spotted in a barber shop last week. I won’t name names, as I’m not entirely sure how legal it would be…

During last summer, they opened up within strict COVID guidelines, as did the pub nearby. As with most pubs, the pub implemented a technology-powered table service system – just order where you are, and we’ll bring you your drink.

The folks at the pub and the barber shop know each other pretty well, and as with a lot of businesses were trying to help out friends where they could in difficult times.

So each barber chair last year was allocated a ‘table number’ from the nearby pub. You could order a drink whilst getting your hair cut, and they’d pop round with it.

They’ve stopped now, but what a lovely idea. It also reminded me of this from a recent train journey. No need to queue in the buffet carriage any more, just order at your seat and they’ll bring it to you in ten minutes.

The way we think about space and service will keep changing. Can central London bars and pubs operate differently, flexibly, more profitably, if licensing laws allowed bars to be wall-less? Could offices be less fixed, and breathe in and out based on needs, adding local rooms and desks as appropriate?

The Entropy of Insights

I was flipping through my Readwise highlights the other day, and came across this gem again. It’s the neatest wee description of entropy; moving “from rare configurations to common ones”.

Except from Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo

It started me thinking about a variety of projects from the last year, where I’ve been working with teams who benefit from taking a longer, more detailed look at information.

Side note: this has often meant building information systems in things like Airtable. I’ll no doubt wax lyrical about another day, but the short version is that:

  • My thinking around projects like these is now informed by the information as light, not liquid work from a couple of summers ago
  • No-code platforms like Airtable are beginning to give people a whole new way of seeing, without being hardcore data-viz specialists. It’s become the practical application of a theoretical philosophy

Back to the rare v common configurations.

Common insights are the ones that most people will come up with at a glance. The first three or four points that jump out to people when presented with common occurrences. Most businesses will be naturally configured to generate common insights, especially if people tend to be looking around at their own area of specialism.

Rare insights happen when combinations of information are put in front of people who don’t often see them. For instance, you give an existing team new information from a different part of the business. Or bring in a new team, give them existing information, and ask for a fresh perspective. How can we look at things differently?

I would reckon that this is a standard practice as a one-off; a business cycle inevitably has a phase where people are trying to see things in new ways.

But to the original point, entropy kicks in when that cycle ends. A business returns to a place where the insights are more likely to be common ones, rather than the rare type.

Are good (even great?) businesses more likely to be the ones continually committed to finding rare insights, acting upon the valuable ones so they become common, and all the while seeking the next rare ones?

How do these businesses fight insight entropy?

How To Resign – Three Tips From Ten Years Ago

There are very few ways in which Smithery is like The Queen.

The only one worth mentioning is that we both have two birthdays.

Ten years ago today, on May 4th 2011, I resigned from my previous job as Chief Innovation Officer at the media agency PHD in London. I was going to start… well, something. Potentially called ‘Smith & Benkler’*, definitely around innovation.

I was 33 years old, and thought there was something fitting about resigning on Star Wars day – ‘May the 4th be with you’ etc etc. There is probably a long German word to describe the mix of pride and embarrassment I have about that now.

Anyway, I though I’d write two blog posts this year, for each of the birthdays .

The second one, at the beginning of August, will probably be longer, more interesting, and cover things I’ve learned in ten years of running Smithery.

This is just a short one, about resigning.

Given the general state of everything (*waves hand towards the window*), a fair few folk are no doubt wondering about what to do next, in order to make work work for them.

Which may well entail resigning from their current job.

So here are three pieces of advice I’d give anyone thinking about doing that. Of course, it’s only based on my own particular experience, so YMMV. Oh, and there’s a bonus piece of practical guidance too at the end.

If you’re thinking about resigning, think about these three things…

1. Describe the opportunity you see

I knew what I wanted to do based on the evidence in front of me. I’d become very interested in creating and embedding ideas with clients that started internally, worked through communities, then out externally.

This was based on the IPA Excellence Diploma Thesis I’d written, The Communis Manifesto, the abstract of which goes like this…

The brand communications which evolved in the mass media era are becoming more and more ineffective at changing peoples’ perceptions of companies and brands. 

The connections people make and communities they form nowadays are increasingly where they source their information; people are influenced most by people and communities.

I believe that the future of brand communications lies in finding a way to become part of communities, and communicate with them in a way that is shared, participatory and reciprocal. 

In this way companies can affect peoples’ perceptions of them, and make all of their brand communications more effective.

The Communis Manifesto, 2008, John V Willshire

(You can find the original thesis here, or read the one with the update in Nick Kendall’s What is a 21st Century Brand? book which collected together his favourites)

Starting that sort of work even now is hard, because you naturally need to connect silos in a business (Product, Marketing, HR, IT etc etc) that often seem to know each other without ever working together.

And eventually I reached the point that I was more interested in working on innovation projects that looked like this than anything the agency did.

Yes, I could point to the value created for clients in doing this, but not in a way that could persuade the agency business to invest in pursuing it further; it was too far outside the core business activities. So I left to pursue that initial idea.

Being able to describe an opportunity to do things differently, who it benefits, and why you can help people get there, is key.

I’m not suggesting you need to write a thesis to get there, but have a well-worked through perspective on something. If you’ve had the opportunity to test it, even better. It would even help you differentiate yourself if you wanted to apply for freelance roles in your existing industry; you offer something different.

But remember, it’s not even the thing you need to hold onto forever…

2. This is your next leap, not your last

So you can see the shape of an opportunity there, and why it’s not being done by others, but is it yours to grab? What happens if it goes wrong?

Well, the first thing to know is that even if you’re pursuing a new idea from the perspective you’ve identified above, it doesn’t preclude other types of work. By it’s very definition, if you’re proposing new ways of working, there won’t be many ready-made client tasks waiting there for you.

Think of the opportunity as a place to get to, with explorative paths along the way. They might well lead you to where you think you’re going. Or they might take you somewhere else which is equally or even more interesting for you.

But at the end of the day, you can always get another job. I came at this from an innovation background, obviously, but as the years have past I think that doesn’t matter so much.

Trying to do something new in any field, even if you fail at it, makes you more employable and not less.

In the meantime, you need to find some willing collaborators who’ll pay you to help them experiment…

3. Have a client to get a client

This video was very popular ten years ago, as the excitement of early stage social networks took hold or everyone (and every budget)…

I was thinking about it again when writing this post. It takes a brave client to be the first person who’ll stand up and dance with the weirdo. But as soon as someone’s up, it becomes easier for anyone (and eventually everyone) to join in.

If you have a client when you start, it makes it much easier to get a second one.

Because as you talk to new prospects who get in touch, you can describe some other work you’re doing (or about to do), as a tangible demonstration of what you’re trying to do for them.

You have the strategic opportunity you’ve defined in the first instance, and proof that there’s something in this as someone else is dancing with you. So if at all possible, before you resign, get a first client to work on.

Now, ideally it shouldn’t be anyone your employer works with currently; although possible, it’s probably a whole heap of trouble you don’t need.

There may be alternatives unique to your own circumstances. For me, there was another company trying to recruit me to be their innovation lead; I asked about what job they were hiring me to solve, and whether they’d be interested in me working as an independent consultant instead.

Instead, you could think about people you’ve worked with before but have moved on, peers you respect in other places, or anyone you have a mutual connection with who might introduce you.

So there you go, three tips worth thinking about as the world around you changes. Comments are open below, if others want to offer their advice too. And I promise I’ll write that longer ‘what I’ve learned’ post when our second birthday comes around.

And as promised…

That final PRACTICAL advice…

When I resigned to start Smithery, we had one eighteen month-old child, and Helen hadn’t gone back to her previous role after maternity leave. Everything we had was to come through Smithery.

The smartest thing I think we did was to move into our first house we’d ever owned, the month before I resigned, with a five-year fixed rate mortgage.

It meant that whilst starting up your own business, there wasn’t a bank asking for three-years worth of accounts at the end of a two-year mortgage deal.

However you do it, make your monthly outgoings as predictable as possible for as long as you can.

*That, my friends, is another story. But interestingly, the featured image for the post is the last picture I have in my iCloud folders from the day before I resigned, which will give you a small hint…

Screen grab from 3rd May 2011, the day before resigning

Practical starting points for a polymath

I’ve been reading The Polymath by Peter Burke over the holidays. I make no pretence of being any sort of polymath in the sense Burke describes, but as a generalist who likes diving in and out of various disciplines the subject definitely appealed.

It didn’t disappoint, and there are some things in particular I thought I’d capture here as I think about them.

There’s a list below of 24 factors that may have helped polymaths thrive which I’ve taken from the book, but added my own questions and notes to to reframe them. First though, general observation from the book that grabbed my attention.

Collecting vs Connecting

Burke draws a useful distinction between the centrifugal and centripetal

“Another possible typology distinguishes just two varieties of polymath, the centrifugal type, accumulating knowledge without worrying about connections, and the centripetal scholar, who has a vision of the unity of knowledge and tries to fit its different parts together in a grand system… Most if not all polymaths can be located on a continuum between the two extremes.”

Peter Burke, The Polymath

It feels that the TENETS project I stated last year is very much pushing in the direction of the latter. I’ve been seeking and finding connections between the various tools and strand of thought I’ve been collecting over the years.

Yet the description of these less as extremes, and more as a continuum, helps me identify two modes perhaps of working like this. The accumulation of knowledge, and then the arrangement of it, and then back again. I think it’s also what The Gallery of the Mind essay, one of the TENETS tools, is largely about (in retrospect).

Perhaps inevitably, Isiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox comes up a lot in the book too. Here, though, it’s deployed to discuss the distinction between centripetal and centrifugal types instead of ‘specialists versus generalists’.

It’s the first time I’ve thought about the distinction in that way, and bears more mulling over; when do we act as hedgehogs, and see all the connections in one way, and when are we foxes?

Practical Starting Points

The most useful section for me is when Burke starts drawing conclusions in the final few chapters around the conditions that made it possible for those polymaths to emerge. The book profiles a lot of polymaths, so you can discover thinkers you perhaps only know from one or two different disciplines, if at all.

I’ve stolen Burke’s subheadings from these chapters in the list below. But rather than repeat his conclusions, I’ve set out my own notes on how these factors might apply for my own work, and when thinking about working inside organisations.

Burke sets out two key chapters in his conclusion. The first about the general characteristics of polymaths, which he calls the Group Portrait. I think these are more applicable to considering individual practice. I’ve split these into two sections below, Character and Application.


Curiosity is often represented as an appetite for new knowledge (insatiable, hunger, thirst…). What new knowledge do you genuinely crave? How does it fit with your existing diet? How broad are your tastes?

Your concentration exists at different levels; not just the momentary ability to focus on something completely, but the unconscious grip you maintain on ideas that you are working on more slowly. Where do you keep track of all of these things?

Memory is hailed as a feature of great polymaths over times, but nowadays we have more aids not just to support memory, but an overall change in how we manage knowledge; search can be more important than recall. How do you train yourself to be better at it?

The speed with which polymaths could pick up new information is largely, perhaps, about learning to learn. For instance, once you’ve learned four disciplines, the fifth is easier still. But be mindful you don’t look at everything with the sane lenses, perhaps?

A vivid imagination, daydreaming, the ‘linking of facts’ (Darwin), the ‘perception of the similarity in dissimilars’ (Aristotle)… all feature heavily in the polymath’s makeup. Familiarity with many different domains makes it easier, though analogy and metaphor, to frame and explain possibilities in ways previously unthought of.


Often noted is the energy that polymaths have for their work; it is not simply enough to have the abilities as listed, but the attitude to apply yourself to them too. Understanding how to focus that energy best, across multiple projects, or when engaging others, should perhaps be a key consideration?

Restlessness seems best characterised by wandering and wondering into the next field along. It’s not about searching for an end destination, a place in which to settle, but learning more about what’s out there. How do you open yourself to these new fields?

There’s also a predisposition for hard work drawn out in the profiles; long days, late nights, almost fanatical work patterns. Though this is not universal, and I surely shouldn’t be seen as a major requirement? Maybe when new enquiry is a passion, it feels less like work, and more like a hobby, or exercise for the mind?

Measuring time is perhaps a function of how much there is to explore, and how little time to do it in. Hence a driving force in how polymaths apply themselves to the world. How do you make sure you’re getting the right stuff done, though?

Competition is noted as a way to drive polymaths on, though naturally those rivalries perhaps fall into specific disciplines and tasks. How do you harness competitive nature to best effect where it exists? Where might it be counterproductive?

Finally for this section, there’s the play element. A good proportion of the polymaths listed explicitly refer to their work as a game or sorts, a puzzle to solve, a riddle to untangle. Does viewing problems as a game to play help you apply yourself differently to it?


Then the second chapter is on Habitats, the structures which polymaths through the ages tended to live and operate within (and between). These are useful in thinking about how you connect with others, but perhaps more relevant for me currently in thinking how organisations can replicate some of these to break down silos. Again, I’ve broken this list down again into two sections; Culture and Connections.


First, there are two background religious perspectives. The work ethic refers to places where Puritan Protestants held sway, and whose ethics of hard work and frugality set a context for enquiring minds. The Veblen question refers to an essay by Thorstein Veblen in 1919, exploring the disproportionately great impact Jewish polymaths had on modern science and scholarship. Burke points to the ways in which Jews have often straddled two worlds; for example, between the highly traditional and the quest for new learning, or between a homeland and a ‘hostland’ (all the Jewish polymaths Burke identifies are either exiles or the children of exiles).

Taking both together offers interesting questions for organisations. How might you codify the ‘religion’ of an organisation in this sense? What commandments are followed, which behaviours are prized or punished? How do you see the best of this in the talent coming through your ranks? Then, how do you invite in people from other cultures to see things in different ways?

Education was always going to make the list, but it is non-conformist education that Burke suggests make a difference. Home-schooled polymaths seem to have less respect for the enforced boundaries of traditional schools, and benefit from that as a result. Where can you find people shaped by different educational experiences?

Independence, and considerations of enforced leisure, are both presented as ways that free the polymath, by replacing their need to make a living for themselves, or providing space to operate within. How can you build enough independence for people, when so many roles are burdened with responsibilities and tasks?


Families are important for polymaths; you spend a lot of time growing together. The proxy here is perhaps the team; how do you make sure a team’s habits are a positive, ongoing influence on each other?

The networks that polymaths formed were highly important. Salons, correspondence and the like are replaced in the modern age by meet-ups, podcasts, blogs and more. How might you use these methods to curate networks inside organisations?

Courts and patronage offered polymaths a forum in which to demonstrate their knowledge, and the support that encouraged them to go further. Mentoring and innovation programmes seem a useful proxy here; what are the value exchanges we can identify and leverage?

As well as the space and resources to work, schools and universities offered polymaths connections to others; shared spaces for enquiry without immediate pressures (of, for instance, commercialisation). Where does shared opportunity to think and teach like this happen in organisations?

Certain disciplines seem to offer routes to polymathy more than others (philosophy, for instance). Equally true seems to be that new, emergent disciplines could only be taught and led by polymaths; there are no specialists in an emergent field. How do you identify where generalists come from, and where they should be leading?

Polymaths through the ages often worked in libraries and museums, the material to hand allowing and encouraging them in their research. Additionally, the encyclopaedias and journals to which polymaths were considerable contributors were also broad sources from which to learn. How might you create and update similar repositories within an organisation?

Finally, collaboration was no doubt born of many of these supporting connective networks above. Working together with others, polymaths could push boundaries they found hard to do on their own. Can you forge these partnerships on purpose?

Conclusions and opportunities

“the explosion of knowledge has made it impossible for all but a few energetic and dedicated individuals to keep up with what is happening in even a few disciplines. Hence the many collective attempts to solve the problem, at the level of general education as well as that of problem-oriented research.”

Peter Burke, The Polymath

Burke concludes that complexity means interdisciplinary groups are a much more practical and plausible way of making significant breakthroughs.

I think there’s a way to use the factors above to help set out an infrastructure for cross-divisional teams; an organisational polymathy, as it were, a common set of principles managed by the group themselves. Within that structure though, I think there are still lessons for individual practice and reflection.

I am less pessimistic about Burke’s contention that we may have seen the last individual polymath, however. Through the centuries detailed in the book, there is frequent mention of ‘the last renaissance man’ or some similar phrase. It is often used when there is an explosion of information and it seems unlikely that someone could ‘understand everything’.

It feels that advances in supported knowledge, from the centaur approach to AI, to building second brains, means that if anything, we might be in for a resurgence in those we will consider polymaths in the future as they skip gleefully through a hundred fields or more.

Assemblage Space for Service Blueprints

Yesterday I gave a talk on how some of the futures thinking from TENETS, specifically the Assemblage Space tool, might help teams move from current state to future state blueprints for Service Design. It was the talk I’d written yesterday’s Visual Fields post for.

It was hosted by the fantastic SDN Dallas Team (thanks guys), and the good news is that they recorded the whole shebang, including the Q&A at the end.

So grab a flask of coffee and dive in.

In addition, I’ve made the Miro board I used public access, so you can follow along there whilst listening to augment the experience. I’d be interested to hear from you if you do that, just to understand if it helps in communicating the ideas.

Finally, some folks asked about the FUTREP and How To Future cards at the end (and the forthcoming dice) – as always, the physical thinking tools side of things are over at

Visual Fields

I’m giving an online talk shortly. In an hour and half from now, to be precise.

As always, as I get closer to a talk the more ideas come to light, as the particles of information collide with each other, shedding new light on things. Sometimes, when giving talks to a room of folk, you might manage to get something in, a new slide, or a just a quick aside. You don’t want to break the linear narrative.

In these interesting times however, I’ve been experimenting with using a Miro board instead of a slide deck, and exploring ideas and thinking as more of a wander with wonders; offering some paths to turn down, some places to stop and look at, or some directions that male it clear that this path is not for today.

A wander, with some wonders.

It means that I’ve managed to get one of those wonders in talk, but I’ve taken to here to quickly write about it first to see what I actually I think about it.

It’s about the similarities and differences between the disciplines of innovation, design and futures.

(The talk itself is on the subject of futures, to a service design network audience, so finding connections between these areas seemed important)

It’s a topic I’ve been wondering about for a while, perhaps more from a craft perspective than any other. Why do these disciplines often feel so blurry at the edges, and fall into each other (for better or worse)?

There’s definitely something about the tools and materials, and the way practitioners collect, connect and create from external information in order to achieve their goals.

The central idea which is reflected through the TENETS project I’ve been working on (Information is light, not liquid) helps support this.

Think of individual pieces of information as pixels or particles which come together to form an image, but can be reordered into a large number of alternatives views too. The information you collect, the way you recombine and order, and finally the way you show the results, is something that exists in different ways in innovation, design and futures work.

I was trying to find a suitable label, and perhaps metaphor, for those three disciplines. I’ve settled on Visual Fields.

Innovation, Design, Futures: Visual Fields

That first image, with the overlapping areas, was by Harry Moss Traquair in 1938. It shows you different spatial arrays which can be seen by the eye when it is fixed in one position. What you can see clearly in front of you, and what’s still ‘visible’ but perhaps unknown as it sits to the edge. It feels fitting to think of the messy overlaps between three disciplines.

Then I was talking this through with Scott Smith earlier, and he mentioned spiders eyes. So I went looking online again, and found this…

Spiders usually have eight eyes: two very large front eyes to get a clear, colour image and judge distance, and extra side eyes to detect when something is moving.”

Again, a nice juxtaposition for different disciplines; sometimes you’re very focussed on the thing in front of you, sometimes you want to get a sense of what’s moving in the wider environment around you.

Finally, the camera array on a modern smartphone comes with a range of different lens and sensors; here represented by Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro, with it’s telephoto, wide, ultra wide lenses and LIDAR scanner.

Rather than having one sensor to force all reality through, a sensing array of different disciplines should act as a complementary set of capabilities.

These three Visual Fields (and there are more, perhaps) represent ways of seeing the world, collecting the information from it, processing it, and creating the stimulus for certain actions.

What needs further thought in this encapsulation is what happens when you try and cross the inputs of one discipline into the outputs of another.

That’s for another day though, when I’m not half and hour away from giving a talk. Wish me luck.