Archive for July, 2011

Things I’m working on this summer

I don’t often explain what I’m actually working on. Maybe I should do that a bit more often. So here goes – this is what I’m up to between now and September:

Akvo strategy

I’m working with Jeroen, Peter and Thomas at Akvo to set some communications priorities for the next twelve months. We’ve just closed another round of funding for Akvo so there’s a bank of green lights all on and waiting to be pressed. For the first time I’ll also be getting involved in Akvo planning with its board of directors, at a meeting in mid August in Sweden. I’m working too with Jo Pratt here in London to create new online and print materials that help people use the Akvo Really Simple Reporting system. I think we should also submit Akvo for some awards – I know it’s probably obvious to everyone else, but I’ve only just realised that the people who win awards tend to be the ones who enter them.


Akvo is moving into a new shared space in, wait for it, the historic Dutch West Indian Company former headquarters in Amsterdam. It’s a really interesting arrangement – we’re sharing with startups all focused on international development and poverty reduction, with a landlord who’s excited to have us around. I’m going to help organise our new space and work with the other tenants to build a brand around our combined presence. Eventually I’d like us to be running entrepreneurship and mentoring competitions, too, if I can gather enough support. You can follow some of my thinking about how this space could work starting with this piece here.

Stockholm World WaterCube

I’m leading the fourth iteration of, an event-based video concept in late August at Stockholm World Water Week. This is an international event for people working to tackle the water and sanitation issues facing the world’s poorest people. WaterCube is all about really simple video interviews, edited very quickly and brought online right away. I’m hoping that during this event we’ll cross the 500+ video interview mark – we have 300 already online. I’ve got stuff to coordinate beforehand with SIWI, the event organisers, IRC and my own gang at Akvo. And I’ll be working full time for 3 days on the Cube in late August as a reporter, too. This is our second Cube this year – after a really wonderful event in Cape Town we did in March, backed by UN Habitat.

Civic Futures – Wolverhampton

I’m working with the office of the chief executive at Wolverhampton City Council to develop a fundable proposal that will explore the future of Wolverhampton, a city in the English Midlands. The goal is to get under the skin of the city’s heritage and issues, organise a local event that attracts global and local creative talent and kick start a bunch of projects focused on mobility, smarter use of space, energy systems and better local services.

World Bank Water Hackathon

I’m advising the team at the World Bank who are organising the global Water Hackathon event series this October. I’m hoping to help them work out how to reach computer geeks who want to get involved in solving problems related to water and sanitation infrastructure and funding problems (or “challenges” as the Americans would say), especially in poorer parts of the world. This is also going to involve some other very exciting people who make me look shy and reserved.


I’m helping to launch a radical new water filtration enterprise in Bangladesh, now entering a test phase in the field. Led by Dutch social entrepreneur Frederik Claasen and backed by a consortium including Unilever Ventures, it uses photo-voltaic technology called Cap-DI to remove arsenic from the groundwater, which in Bangladesh is almost all dangerously contaminated. In May we settled on the name Sujol and this summer I’m helping get the test projects online (here), the project messaging straight and help the partners start using Akvo RSR to do project updates.

Future Perfect

I’m going to a 3 day event in Karlstad in Sweden at the end of July, to listen to ideas about the future of life, the universe and everything. The event is called Future Perfect, “The Scandinavian Festival of New Sustainable Living”. Who knows, eh?

If you want to find out more or get involved with any of these projects, ping me me via Twitter.


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Five kinds of space

A key reason why workspaces need to be designed completely differently today is that they now represent public workspace. In an era where successful organisations embrace Discoverable Communications (more on that one elsewhere), the modern workspace needs to make it easy for people to watch from outside, or come inside.

Doing this without intrusive technology isn’t as hard as we think. The first good principle is to establish a culture where meetings are held in the main workspace itself, rather than in ante-rooms. This allows everyone to listen in and be stimulated, and introduced where relevant.

You might argue that this is distracting, but computers and the web themselves are a far greater distraction. The only way to avoid people being distracted at work by Facebook, Twitter and a zillion websites about holidays or celeb gossip is to distract them with interesting workey things. Facebook and Twitter then become the mechanism by which staff document and propagate the impact of those events and ideas, creating a self-documenting activity process. Remember the company intranet? Well forget it – it’s over. Facebook and Twitter have replaced it.

Anyone who thinks hot-desking is the future has got it all wrong. They are confusing flexible work space with homelessness. Almost everyone needs a home for their work – somewhere they can switch into a productive or creative channel – in some cases, somewhere where the technology just works (many people struggle to make things like computers and networks work, and that’s ok). For many it’s really a place to nest, so that’s what I’ll call it – the Nest. But people should only have one nest – and they should be honest about this both to themselves and others. This is important and something I’ll come back to.


For many people in our modern world, the favoured work nest is at home in a private study – somehow I think this is connected to the experiences many have had with college education where they spent hours studying alone – usually at weird times of day and night. Most people aspire to recreate that environment at home, so if that’s the case it makes no sense to duplicate it. On that assumption, the best solution for a shared workspace is to create a Library room, where people can mimic more public but solitary university or college study.

Something more complex is the need for people to interact over video and audio, potentially where the conversation is published online afterwards, or even streamed at the time. In my view, this is best done from the shared workspace, although it should be easy, too, to move to a quieter audio-visual space, which we’ll call for now the Cube.

The fifth element is a much more public space. Part exhibition area, part public lobby, part town hall, it’s a constantly changing, reconfigurable space that can be used for anything related to the people involved. For example, exhibitions are cool, but it must be possible to use 60% of the space for anything else while they’re on. People have to book their exhibitions and they can only last, say, two weeks.

Ideally the space should be open and welcoming to the wider public – in this sense I refer to collaborators and followers, as well as customers, who should feel able to come and visit, rather as people can visit a vineyard or a Venetian glassblower. This public space is, perhaps, best described as the Showroom.

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Going to work

For those of us working in “knowledge” industries, the most important attribute of any workspace is that it’s more interesting and appealing than staying at home. It should also provide reliable, easy access to better technology than if you stayed behind your own front door.

Anyone who wants their workspace to be quiet needs to realise that they are usually responsible for killing organisations stone dead. It’s like trying to find a restaurant with a group of eight other people – nothing too spicy, not too noisy, not too quirky, needs to have empty tables. Anything more expensive is rejected, too. So the group dines to the lowest standards, experiences and expectations of the group, rather than to those of its finest individuals. It pulls the whole gig down.

Designing and running a great workspace in 2011 needs bolder solutions than it did even five years ago. Akvo’s about to move into a new “space” in Amsterdam (which I haven’t seen yet) so I thought I’d write now about what I think is important.

Unfortunately most people have only worked in places that were designed around assumptions that are at least ten, and often decades, old. Groups of desks are structured around “teams”, yet the individuals in those teams are working with lots of other people elsewhere. Many people are present only 20 per cent of the time, because they’re out at meetings or on site, or travelling or on holiday or at home. Yet they command a desk – and an empty space – that is both costly and leaves a workplace feeling empty. Yet they’ll come back and if someone’s taken over their space it’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Hiring consultants to design you a space is fine, but really it needs to come from within. I think the best way to create great workspace is to find out what the best are that others you’ll share with have inhabited to date, and ask those with the best to replicate those as a mix – and see what happens.

I’m going to write about this in a bunch of chapters, and see how things go. I hope you enjoy it and do chip in. This has been written based on the opportunities that come along when you run an open source foundation, so if you’ve always worked in places full of secret talk, it may seem a bit different (hopefully refreshing).

Next I’ll talk about five kinds of space.

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