“Evolution. What’s it like?” The three lives of the front-facing camera

“Evolution. What’s it like? So one day you’re a single-celled amoeba and then, whoosh! A fish, a frog, a lizard, a monkey, and, before you know it, an actress.
[On-screen caption: “Service limitations apply. See three.co.uk”]
I mean, look at phones. One, you had your wires. Two, mobile phones. And three, Three video mobile.
Now I can see who I’m talking to. I can now be where I want, when I want, even when I’m not. I can laugh, I can cry, I can look at life in a completely different way.
I don’t want to be a frog again. Do you?”

— Anna Friel, 3 UK launch advert, 2003

Today, in 2016, that ad feels so right, and yet so wrong. Of course phones have changed massively in the intervening decade-and-a-bit — just not how the telecoms marketeers of the early Noughties fantasised. In this post I want to trace what evolution of technology might really be like. I’ll do it by following the unstable twists and turns around one small element of the construct we now call a smartphone.

Something was missing from the Anna Friel commercial. All the way through, the director was at pains to avoid even the tiniest glimpse of something the audience was eager to see. You know, a phone. At the time I worked for Three’s competitor Orange whose brand rules also forbade the appearance of devices in marketing. The coyness was partly aesthetic: mobiles in those days were pig-ugly. Moreover, the operators had just paid £4 billion each for the right to run 3G networks in the UK. They wanted consumers to think of the phone as a means to an end, a mere conduit for telecommunications service, delivered over licensed spectrum.

To see a device in all its glory, we must turn to the manufacturer’s literature. Observe the product manual of the NEC e606, one of three models offered by Three at its launch on 3 March 2003:

NEC e606 product manual

Notice where a little starburst has been Photoshopped onto the otherwise strictly functional product shot? That’s the only tangible hint of the phone’s central feature, the thing that makes it worth buying despite being pricier and weightier than all the other matte grey clamshells on the market. By this point, loads of phones have digital cameras built in, but they are always on the back, facing away so the holder can use the tiny colour screen as a viewfinder. This is something different: a front-facing camera. It exists so that Anna Friel can see who she is talking to.

Let’s map* this network.


Loosely, the vertical axis answers the question “how much do users care about this thing?” The nearer the top, the more salient the concept. The horizontal concerns stability of the concept – the further to the right, the less controversial. But at this point the choice of nodes and the connections between them matters more to me than their precise placement. This forms an actor-network – a set of concepts that belong together, in at least one contested interpretation.

  • Phone calls are over on the top right, a very stable concept. Users understand what phone calls are for, know how to access them, and accept that they cost money.
  • If the operators can persuade users to add pictures, to see who they’re talking to, they have a reason to sell not just plain old telephony service but 3G, that thing they’ve just committed billions of pounds to building. Cue the front-facing camera.
  • Video calling and 3G cellular networks rely on each other, but both are challenged. Do users really need them? Will they work reliably enough to be a main selling point for the device? Whisper it softly, “service limitations apply”.
  • Because of this weakness, the assemblage is bolstered by a less glamorous but more stable concept – asynchronous video messaging. This at least can be delivered by the more reliable and widespread 2.5G cellular. Users don’t care much about this, but it’s an important distinction to our network.

What then remains for the telco executive of 2003 to do? Maybe just wait for the technology to “evolve”?

  • More 3G base stations will be built and the bandwidth will increase
  • Cameras and screens will improve in resolution
  • People will take to the idea of seeing who they’re talking to, if not on every call, then at least on ones that really matter.

All these things have come to pass. But could I draw the same network 10 years later with everything just a bit further over to the right? No, because networks come apart.

Nokia’s first 3G phone, the 6630 had no front-facing camera. Operators used their market muscle and subsidies to push phones capable of video calling. Yet many of the hit devices of the next few years didn’t bother with them. The first two versions of the Apple iPhone likewise. Even the iPhone 3G was missing a front facing camera. Finally in 2010, the operators had to swallow their pride and market an iPhone 4 with Apple’s exclusive Facetime video calling service that ran only over unlicensed spectrum wifi.

This is the social construction of technology in action. Maybe evolution is a helpful metaphor, maybe not. Whatever we call it, this is the story of how, over the course of a decade, by their choices what to buy and what to do, users taught the technology sector what phones were for. Hint: it wasn’t video calling.

Just when we think the front-facing camera is out of the frame, it makes a surprising comeback. This time it’s not shackled to either video calls or mobile messaging. Instead it emerges as a tool of self-presentation in social media.

Some rights reserved – Ashraf Siddiqui

“Are you sick of reading about selfies?” asks an article in The Atlantic, announcing that selfies are now boring and thus finally interesting. “Are you tired of hearing about how those pictures you took of yourself on vacation last month are evidence of narcissism, but also maybe of empowerment, but also probably of the click-by-click erosion of Culture at Large?” Indeed, for all its usage, the term — and more so the practice(s) — remain fundamentally ambiguous, fraught, and caught in a stubborn and morally loaded hype cycle.”

‘What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon’, Theresa M. Selft and Nancy K. Baym

Time for another map.


  • By 2013, 3G (now also 4G) cellular mobile is no longer in doubt, but its salience to users is diminished. It is a bearer of last resort when wifi is not an option for accessing the Internet.
  • The lynchpin at the top right is not the phone call but social media, with its appetite for videos and photos. In their service, we find the front-facing camera, now though rarely used for calling.
  • Only a fraction of selfies even leave the phone. Many of them are shared in person, in the moment, on the bright, HD screen. They are accumulated and enhanced with storage and processing powers that barely figured on the phones of 2003.

Call it evolution if you like, this total dissolution and reassembly of concepts.

We’re not done yet. Here’s another commercial for your consideration. One for the Samsung Galaxy S4 mapped above. Can you spot the third incarnation of the front-facing camera?

Man 1: “Hey, sorry I was just checking out your phone. That’s the Galaxy S4, right?”
Man 2: “Yeah, I just got it.”
Woman: “Did your video just pause on its own?”
Man 2: “Yeah it does it every time you look away from the screen.”
Man 1: “And that’s a big screen too.”
Man 2: “Yeah, HD.”
Man 3: “Is that the phone you answer by waving your hand over it?”
Man 2: “Yeah.”
Man 1: [waves hand over Man 2’s phone] “Am I doing it right?”
Man 2: “Someone has to call you first…”

Samsung Galaxy S4 TV advert, 2013

See how far a once-secure concept has fallen? The guy needs reminding (in jest at least) how phone calls work! Compared to the 3G launch video, this scene is more quotidian; the phone itself is present as an actor.

And what is the front-facing camera up to now? Playing stooge in the S4’s new party trick: the one where the processor decides for itself when to pause videos and answer calls. If the user never makes another video call or takes another selfie, it’ll still be there as the enabler of gesture control. Better add that to my map:


We used to think the phone had a front-facing camera so we could see each other. Then it became a mirror in which we could see ourselves. Now, it turns out, our phones will use it so they can observe us.

Maybe that’s what evolution is like.

* These maps are not Wardley value chain maps though I see much value in that technique. More on that in a later post.

The quick and the dead, or 6 things that change when your service goes live

Some of the organisations I work with are just starting out on this digital transformation thing. More and more of them, however, have been at it for quite some time. After 2, 3, even 4 years, a delivery process of discovery, alpha and beta is well embedded, in parts of the organisation at least.

Now I’m seeing more of the next struggle. I think it feels hard because, while alpha and beta can be treated as phases of service development, being live affects the whole organisation. This post is a first go at answering an existential challenge for digital specialists: what does it mean to go live?

1. It’s… alive!

No metaphor is wholly adequate. But it’s fair to say that accounts of organisational life have shifted over the last decades from the mechanical analogies of Taylorism to natural and biological ones. There’s less talk of levers and gears, more of evolution and growth.

What these analogies capture, and the machine-age ones miss, is the sense of aliveness. “Going live”, like Frankenstein’s monster, means crossing a threshold from being a well-assembled collection of parts to a sensing, thinking, adapting being in its environment.

There’s a quiet focus that comes from seeing serious numbers of people accessing your service right now. Digital teams make user activity visible. They fight hard to stay together for their service after crossing into live.

As Kit Collingwood-Richardson puts it, going live is like having a baby, with a whole future of parenting stretching ahead. “Go live is the start”.

2. Time in reverse

In big organisations, agile development teams and service operations teams can sometimes feel like they’re on different planets. But I reckon they have something important in common: a healthy focus on the here-and-now. As Mat Wall says, agile is basically: “What do you want by Friday? And how can we make it better than last week?” Both those questions would be familiar in any high-performing front line service team. In a live organisation this common focus for development and operations becomes a powerful unity of purpose.

Agile development and operations both occupy what the sociologist Anthony Giddens describes as the temporal existence of “durée” – performing routinely, but with the possibility of change in every repetition. To Giddens, this is only the first of three sorts of time:

  • durée of day-to-day experience
  • life span of the individual
  • longue durée of institutions

The middle layer – the life span of the individual – is “irreversible time”. Its arrow goes in only one direction, and I have the grey hairs to prove it. This is where we find dedicated change management, the top-left to bottom-right sweep of the Gantt chart.

In contrast, the day-to-day and institutional time – a commitment stretching out indefinitely – are “reversible”. They always have the possibility to do over, to do differently, to do better.

To go live is to adopt a different attitude to time. We’re no longer burning down towards a deadline. We have embraced changefulness as a daily habit, supported by a long-term structure. We are committed to be here every day, as long as it takes, as long as there are people to be served. Any service that lacks this habit and structure isn’t live, it’s dead already.

3. Discovery is a culture, not a phase

Service lifecycle – Government Service Design Manual

Despite the recycling symbols, the service lifecycle drawn left-to-right can look a bit, well, waterfall-y. Discovery leads to alpha, as alpha leads to beta, and beta leads to live in resolutely irreversible time.

In particular, the distance between discovery and live seems to me wholly misleading. After all, live, running service affords all sorts of discovery possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

I know I’m not the only one who has tried redrawing this picture. I’ve tried drawing it as a stacked bar chart, as a circle, as a Möbius strip, and I’ve ended up with this…

dabl dna.png

In a sufficiently advanced organisation, discovery is a culture, not a phase. Intertwined live service and discovery continually fulfil and refine the purpose of the organisation.

  • Curious about something that’s showing up in the web analytics? Go and do some user research!
  • Hearing something new from customers in research? Go and see for yourself what is happening on the front line!

The odd ones out in this picture are alphas and beta – the phases where early-stage digital transformation organisations probably spend most of their time and attention.

Don’t think of (capital “D”) Discovery as something we do to prepare for the (definite article) Alpha Phase, think of an alpha version as one potential response to a new discovery. Alphas and betas are just tactical things we can make to bridge discoveries back into live service.

4. The strategy is (continuous) delivery

The discovery|live duality respects no boundaries between strategy, “change” and operations. Instead of clumsily executing planned but discontinuous change, the live organisation is always sensing and responding, making work visible, and reflecting frequently on how to do better.

Going live demands, in the words of David Marquet, that we move the authority to where the information is:

  • Policy advisors, strategists and designers can accomplish their work more effectively and at greater pace because they have very frequent contact with the realities of everyday service delivery
  • Everyone who delivers service has the power to make better decisions, multiple times per day; they must be trusted to take decisions that are aligned to the organisation’s purpose and priorities
  • Process changes are no longer pushed to workers on the front line; instead they frequently pull in change based on the demands they experience in contact with customers
  • Colleagues, suppliers and customers work together in a spirit of productive informality
  • Everyone becomes – to a greater or lesser degree – a service designer.

This is what I meant when I said learning by doing was the last target operating model you’d ever need.

5. All users become co-creators

Going live is often seen as only affecting the people inside an organisation. After all, users shouldn’t have to care what labels we use internally. Nevertheless, it should feel different to be a user of a live organisation.

Sure, your digital team may be highly user-centric already. You frequently engage users in defined, intentional activities – research visits, usability studies, private beta versions and so on. But to the majority of users, big organisations still appear unfeeling, inert and unresponsive.

When service is genuinely live, every interaction with users is an opportunity for new learning. Because the organisation is alive, it can sense people’s needs and adapt itself to meet them. Users become everyday co-creators of service. They learn to be more demanding, and to expect frequent change.

That’s when the fun really starts: when users realise that service can adapt to fit them. They begin to bring more than just their needs. They bring their unique capabilities to be combined with emergent competencies of the organisation. The “so that” line in the user story template comes into its own. We lift our sights from a deficit-based view of user needs to an asset-based vision of human potential. In live service, customer relationships are an endless source of ideas and innovation.

6. The new high score

Arbitrary double standards between capital and operational spending can easily bend organisational priorities out of shape. Agile abhors upfront spending divorced in time from actual customer value. Yet this is precisely what common accounting conventions reward. We need to change the high score.

Ironically the knowledge organisation’s most valuable assets are often its least visible. The conscious competence learning model presents “unconscious competence” as the apex of a pyramid of skill. Having begun in blissful ignorance, learners first become conscious of their own incompetence. They must go through a stage of consciously improving their competence until it comes so naturally that they can do it without noticing. But if we don’t notice the stuff we’re best at, there’s a risk we’ll undervalue it.

So the live organisation needs a new kind of balance sheet, one that deprecates unnecessary inventory and investments. Instead it recognises its most valuable asset: the growing skills, knowledge, networks and confidence of customers, workers and suppliers alike.

Live is when real digital transformation begins. It marks a radically different way of managing everyday work, and a new culture of continuous discovery. It will flatten decision-making structures, and transform passive users into active co-creators. The ways we measure and account for success will be different. But the potential payoffs are huge.

Go live. I dare you.


And yet it moves! Digital and self-organising teams with a little help from Galileo



This summer, after a lovely 2 week holiday in Tuscany, I returned to Leeds and straight into a classroom full of government senior leaders discussing agile and user-centred design. Their challenges set me thinking once more about the relationship between technology and social relations in the world of work. One well-known story from the Italy of 400 years ago is helping me make sense of it all.

Galileo’s sketches of the moon

1. Magnification

Galileo Galileo did not invent the telescope but he greatly improved it, reaching more than 20x magnification and pointing it for the first time at the seemingly smooth, celestial bodies of the night sky. In March 1610, he published drawings of the universe as never seen before. What seemed to the naked eye a handful of constellations appeared through Galileo’s telescope as thousands of teeming stars. He showed the moon pocked with craters, mountain ranges and plains. He used his observations and calculations of the planets to confirm a long held but never proven conjecture that the earth and other planets travel elliptically around the sun.

With its twin, the microscope, the telescope was a transformative technology of Galileo’s age, affording new ways of seeing things that people thought they already knew well. Our tools are the smartphone and the web. They too change how we see the world in many ways. Most of all they shed new light upon, and throw into relief, the detail of the social. Minutiae of conversations and interactions that used to occur fleetingly in private before disappearing into thin air can now be shared, stored and searched in previously unimaginable ways.

So let’s focus our gaze upon the world of work. (I am not the first to draw this parallel. Steve Denning write eloquently about what he calls the “Copernican Revolution In Management“.) In a pre-digital era, organisations appeared to be made of smooth, reporting lines, opaque meeting agendas and crisp minutes. Now the wrinkles and pits of communication and interaction are exposed in detail for all to see – every email, every message, every line of code.

Digital communications facilitate, magnify and expose people’s timeless habits of co-operation. These social phenomena are not new. It’s just that, until recently, indicators of productive informality were hidden from view. In the absence of evidence, we focused more attention, and founded our theories of management, on things that were immediately obvious: explicit hierarchies and formal plans.

up close.jpg

Now by observing the details, we can confirm a long-held theory: that self-organisation is rife in the workplace. The new communications tools reveal…

  • the human voices of individuals and interactions in Slack groups, wikis and code repositories
  • the depth of customer collaboration in Twitter replies and support forums
  • the endless resourcefulness of teams responding to change in Trello boards and live product roadmaps.


We should be careful not to over-claim for this shift. As a student of history and the social sciences, I am instinctively suspicious of any narrative which has human nature suddenly change its spots. I come to bury mumbo-jumbo, not to praise it. I reject the teal-coloured fantasy of Frederick Laloux’s “next stage of human consciousness.” More likely the behaviours Laloux identifies have always been with us, only hidden from view. Future generations may judge that we are living through a paradigm shift, but such things can only be confirmed after the fact.

2. Empiricism

The day after Galileo’s publication, the stars and planets carried on doing their thing, much as they had for the billions of days before. After all, heliocentrism was not even an original idea. Aristarchus of Samos had proposed it in the 3rd Century BC; Islamic scholars discussed it on and off throughout the middle ages; and Nicolaus Copernicus himself had revived it more than 20 years before Galileo was born. In one way, nothing had changed. In another, everything had changed. As with another famous experiment – dropping different objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to test the speed of falling bodies – Galileo was all about empiricism. He did not ask whether a proposition was more elegant to the mind’s eye or more convenient to the powerful. He designed tests to see whether it was true.

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development is itself an empirical text, founded in the real-world experiences of its authors. It begins (my emphasis): “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.” The authors set out four pairs of value statements in the form “this over that“, stressing “that while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more”.

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

These were the values of 17 balding and bearded early Noughties software professionals who gathered at the Snowbird ski resort in Utah. It would be easy to mistake the manifesto for a creed – a set of assertions that true followers must accept as gospel. But they’re not that at all. This is not a religion. Empiricism says we have the power to see for ourselves.

In scores of learning and development sessions over the past couple of years, my associates and I have conducted a little experiment of our own. This is the method:

  • Without sharing the text of the manifesto, we hand out eight randomly ordered cards each showing a different value statement – “contract negotiation”, “working software”, “following a plan” and so on.
  • Then we ask participants to rank them in the order that they would value when delivering a service.
  • There are no right or wrong answers. We jut want to understand what they value.

The result: 90% of the time the items on the left bubble to the top of the list – regardless of participants’ roles and experiences. Of course many project managers say they value “following a plan”, but most of them value “responding to change” more highly. I had a couple of contract managers on one course. They ranked the “contract negotiation” card pretty high up their list. But they put “customer collaboration” at the top.

When people recall their best experiences at work, the things they describe are invariably the things on the left. For the ones who have been around big organisations for 20 years or more, they often speak in terms of “that’s how we used to do things” – before the so-called professionalisation of “information technology” tried to replace trust and teamwork with contracts and stage gates. For others there are more recent stories of emergencies and turnarounds when everyone pulled together around a common cause and just got stuff done in an amazingly productive, naturally iterative rhythm.

3. Reaction

From the time of Copernicus in the 1540s until Galileo’s work in the 1610s, Catholic Church leaders were mostly comfortable with heliocentricity. While Copernicus’ propositions remained “just a theory” they were interesting but unthreatening. But Galileo’s evidence, his assertion of empiricism over the authority of Aristotelian ideas, provoked a backlash. They accused him of heresy and threatened him with torture until he solemnly recanted his view that the earth moved round the sun. This he did, though allegedly muttered under his breath, “And yet it moves.”

That’s the thing about this set of propositions we call “agile”, or “lean”, or “post-agile” or whatever. Often we contrast these with something called “waterfall” as if these were equally valid, alternative ways of getting things done. I think that’s a mistake. They’re not things we pick and choose, any more than Galileo chose to make the earth travel round the sun. Agile and waterfall are alternative theories of how things get done – how things have always got done.

Digging a little into the history, it turns out that “waterfall” was never meant to be taken literally:

“Dr Winston Royce, the man who is often but mistakenly called the “father of waterfall” and the author of the seminal 1970 paper Managing the Development of Large Software Systems, apparently never intended for the waterfall caricature of his model to be anything but part of his paper’s academic discussion leading to another, more iterative version.” – Parallel Worlds: Agile and Waterfall Differences and Similarities

But when people feel threatened by new ideas, there’s a risk, as happened with astronomy, that they back further into their corner and end up espousing more extreme views than they would have held if left unchallenged.

Some who attribute their successes to top-down command-and-control management may fear they have a lot to lose from the growing evidence base for self-organisation. We need to find unthreatening ways to talk to the small group of people – in my experience less than 10% – for whom the values of the left-hand side do not spring naturally to the top of the list.

Coexistence is possible. Equivalence is not. Many religious believers, for example, manage to square their faith in a divine creator with the iterative circle of Darwinian evolution. What’s not credible though is a like-for-like, pick-and-mix approach to agile and waterfall. Nobody argues for evolution of the flea and creation of the elephant. Because one of these is an account that is based on empiricism, the other on an appeal to authority.

4. Conclusion

It took more than a century for the Catholic Church to overcome its aversion to heliocentrism. Meanwhile scientists in the Protestant world continued to circulate and build on Galileo’s findings. Remember Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The last books by Copernicus and Galileo were finally removed from the Church’s banned list in 1835.

If the last few years of domestic and international affairs have taught us anything, it should be that the arrow of progress can go backwards as well as forwards. Rightness and rationality can easily lose out to conflicting interests. If we believe there’s a better way, then it’s down to every one of us to model that better way, in how we work, and how we talk about our work. We can do this by:

  • working out loud to make our collaboration visible and legible
  • collecting and sharing evidence of self-organisation in action
  • resisting mumbo jumbo with simple, factual accounts of how we get stuff done
  • accepting coexistence with other theories but never false equivalence.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled. But plans to put a statue of the astronomer in the grounds of the Vatican proven controversial, and were scrapped in 2009.

#DearestEngland, some signals so far

Screenshot 2016-06-26 23.23.34

For the last three days I’ve been running an experiment – a minimal, digital-only intervention, just to test the waters and see if it’s worth investing further time and effort.

It was planned whichever way the Referendum went, but the fact that the call for contributions went live around the time England awoke to the results has given Dearest England extra poignancy.

Having seen an underwhelming response to last year’s appeal for Dearest England letters, I wanted to test some hypotheses:

  1. That this time around, people would be ready to talk about the future of England
  2. That, as it has in Scotland, this open, independent initiative could provide a valuable space for personal reflections and collaborative creations.

It’s early days, but these are my reflections so far…

We have plenty to say.

Regardless of the #DearestEngland hashtag, my Twitter feed would have been full of conversation and reaction to the Referendum result. Richard Pope’s exceptional “Dear England” post stands out as the kind of call to action I hope to see more of:

a shared patriotic, progressive mission building something new, to redesign how we run our democracy for the 21st century.

To build a better nation, we’ll need more than 140 characters.

Twitter today is stuffed full of screenshots – images of Facebook posts, blog comment threads, newspaper articles, phone screens. Accessibility nightmare they may be, but they speak of a need to say more than can fit in a single tweet. Usually I love the character limit, the Orwellian clarity and brevity it enforces. But clarity and brevity are built on shared norms and frames of reference, both of which suddenly seem to be in shorter supply than we thought just a few days ago. The format of the letter seems apt: long enough to say what you mean, short enough to be digestible at scale.

We need to talk about the future – but maybe we’re not ready for that just yet.

People are still digesting what just happened, adjusting to the realisation of a deeply divided country. Dearest England needs to be there for the next phase, when more of us are ready to write explicitly to the future. That phase needs to come soon. We don’t have much time to shape what happens next.

We need to talk about England – but that won’t be easy either.

Dearest Scotland and Dearest India both proudly go by the tagline “Nation | Vision | Voice”. That didn’t feel right for an entity as elusive as England. It is surely telling that, mid-Euro 2016, “Dearest England” could be so easily construed as addressing a football team. But it feels to me that England is a conversation we have to have, and that having it will not in any way diminish other, overlapping identities.

 We need to talk about our place in the World.

There’s a strong feeling that conversations about England’s future should not be insular. Physical geography may make Great Britain an island, but the social construct of England exists only in relation to others peoples and states. We have to draw in the voices of the many other individuals and nations with whom we interact. Indeed it is those with a dual identity, one foot in England, another in Europe and the World, who feel that present threat most keenly.

We can start the conversation online – but it has to spread beyond the cyber bubble.

Much of the soul-searching in my Twitter feed related to how few opposing voices we heard on social media channels. How could it be that our Facebook and Twitter friends were so unanimous when the country as a whole was so split-down-the-middle? There is something here about algorithms and filter bubbles. We need to make more transparent the relationship between divergent opinions, spam control and monetisation strategies in the social networks we use. That won’t be straightforward.

But maybe digital is one big bubble? This weekend, out of urgency and convenience, I’ve made Dearest England an online only affair. But Dearest Scotland and Dearest India have been much more tangible than that. A truly open and inclusive conversation needs to take place in physical spaces as well as cyber ones. Let there be workshops, pens and paper, physical prototypes, acting-it-out! Partly that’s because not everyone is online. But, more than that, even for those of us who seem glued to our devices, not everything we are is online.

The experiment continues. I would love to see your letters.

  • Start your letter “Dearest England,”
  • Take a photo of it
  • Post it with hashtag
  • There are no other rules

What will you write to the future of England?

dearest england on the day.png

In 2014 the lovely people at Snook issued a simple, open invitation to the people of Scotland: write to the country’s future. In the words of the Dearest Scotland About page:

Regardless of which way the referendum result went, we’ve been encouraging visions that focus down the line. What might Scotland look like in the future? What do we actually think about our nation?  What might our landscape, education system and high streets look like in five, ten, twenty years’ time.

The idea caught fire. Hundreds of people wrote letters – many of them proper letters, on bits of paper with pens and everything. There was a Kickstarter campaign, a visit to the Scottish Parliament, a book that you can buy. Oh and they inspired Dearest India too.

A bit over a year ago, Lauren and Chris tried something similar for Dearest England. Maybe it was the timing, but let’s say the response was less than impressive. Which I think is a shame, England, because we have a lot to write about.

Like this…



And basically everything on this hashtag.

I asked Lauren if we could give Dearest England another push – some kind of minimal, digital-only intervention, just to test the waters and see if it’s worth investing further time and effort. Kindly, she said yes.

So today’s the day. This Friday, or if you can’t manage that, over the weekend, write a letter to the future of England.

  • Start your letter “Dearest England,”
  • Take a photo of it
  • Post it online with the hashtag #DearestEngland

That’s all there is to it. There are no other rules.

Please share! Please write! If we get lots of letters we’ll be looking for volunteers to take it further. If not, I’ll know it was not to be.

And just like that, against my better judgement, I have another side-project to fill a GGovJam-shaped hole.

10 things I learned on the Global GovJam HQ team

My colleague Kathryn Grace and I were surprised and honoured when Natasche, Adam and Markus asked us to be part of their HQ team for the Global GovJam 2016. 100 days later, I’m looking back on a wonderful experience. The jamming movement across the public sector has massive potential, and I have learned loads about making something happen on a shoestring at a global scale. Here are few things while they are still fresh in my mind…

1. Be dispensable

The first thing we needed to be sure of before agreeing to be part of the HQ team was that Leeds GovJam would still happen as well. We had such a great time at the 2014 and 2015 jams and we didn’t want to see that disappear because we were tied up supporting other cities. Looking back, we needn’t have worried. Sharon, Liz and Lisa did a fantastic job hosting the Leeds event this time around, and it was great to see what they added to the established formula. Lisa has written a great blog post about her experience.

Leeds GovJam 2016 team Sharon, Liz and Lisa

2. Jam hosts are amazing people

We tried to make it as easy as possible to host a jam. It could be a polished event for hundreds of people or a simple meeting of a few folks around a kitchen table. And there’s no need to be an expert: many hosts are already familiar with service design and design thinking, but that’s not essential. Nevertheless, hosts around the World continue to amaze with their dedication and creativity. Even more encouraging from a GGovJam point of view is the fact that many of the hosts are already working within the public sector. Maybe your organisation employs a jam host? Be nice to that person. Reward them. Ask them how they can use those skills for your organisation the rest of the year round.

3. There are a lot of amazing people in the World

In the end, 32 cities on 5 continents took part in the Global GovJam 2016. I understand that’s a record for GGovJam, even if it is still dwarfed by the 100+ events that take place simultaneously during the annual Global Service Jam. What you can’t see on that list are the 20 or so other cities where someone at some point volunteered to host a jam but didn’t quite make it. Those people are heroes too, and though it didn’t work out this time around, I hope they come back and try again in 2017.

4. A little structure goes a long way

Adam, Markus and Natasche in the GovJam HQ space at ODI-Leeds

The genius of the format that Adam, Markus and Natasche have created and nurtured for the jams is the “tight-loose” structure – tight control where it matters, loose where people need autonomy. There are very few things you have to do to host a jam – be open, use the same Secret Theme, stick to the deadlines – but each of them is there for a reason. We tried to capture the most important things in a one-page guide for hosts. It ended up being a page of A3, but even so, that’s all there is to it!

5. Availability is a function of motivation

Nobody makes a profit from the jams, and everyone, including the HQ team, is giving their time for free. At first, this made it tricky to ask for help. How much was reasonable to expect of a volunteer? When would two busy people with very different schedules both be available to work on something? But as the jam approached, the reality sank in: people would Skype chat at midnight, and pass up paid work to be involved in something as amazing as the Global GovJam… but only if they were motivated and empowered to do so. I reckon there’s a missing manual about the human factors in working with a massive volunteer team. If you know of such a thing, please tell me in the comments below!

6. Cookie licking

I learned that it’s all too easy to inadvertently disempower a volunteer by prematurely taking something over, or by becoming a bottleneck to direct communication between two other parties. With the best of intentions, someone would jump in to try to move a task forward, only to find that the others were now waiting for them to make the next move. At Microsoft, apparently, this behavioural anti-pattern was known as cookie licking, and often deployed deliberately for internal political reasons. Resist the temptation! No one wants to eat a cookie that someone else has licked.

7. Warnock’s Dilemma

Working across multiple timezones with busy jam hosts and other members of the HQ team made me acutely aware of the niceties of digital collaboration. In particular, when things went silent, I came to appreciate the dilemma first documented by Bryan Warnock in 2000:

The problem with no response is that there are five possible interpretations:

  1. The post is correct, well-written information that needs no follow-up commentary. There’s nothing more to say except “Yeah, what he said.”
  2. The post is complete and utter nonsense, and no one wants to waste the energy or bandwidth to even point this out.
  3. No one read the post, for whatever reason.
  4. No one understood the post, but won’t ask for clarification, for whatever reason.
  5. No one cares about the post, for whatever reason.

By the end of the jam, generous quantities of Basecamp “applause” had more or less eliminated interpretation number 1 among the HQ team. For the others, I’m still at a loss, and determined to find a solution.

8. Basecamp 3 is actually quite good

Screenshot 2016-06-11 16.30.05
Host Community Basecamp GGovJam 2016

I know from my work with teams in central government that getting the right tools is pretty much a precondition for successful distributed working. Before the jam, I sounded out some fellow hosts and we all agreed that Basecamp sucked as a collaboration platform. But it was too late to change and we had to make the best of a bad job. Actually it turns out that Basecamp 3 is a massive improvement on the previous releases. The Company Formerly Known As 37Signals seems to have raided the best bits of my usual tools of choice, Trello and Slack, to make what could be a powerful, controllable platform. In retrospect, I’m sure we could have used it better.

9. autoCrat Add-on for Google Forms

Need to make nice things out of spreadsheet data? This little gem of a Google Apps add-on made quick work of a personalised timetable for every city, and the Kanban cards we used to track their status during the jam. Thank you, CloudLab!

10. This time next year!

I know it’s the quality of GGovJam that matters, not just the quantity. And yet:

  • cities in the world with >100,000 people living in them: 4,037
  • cities  on the GovJam 2016 map: 32
  • cities with no GovJam: 4,005!

How might we… ???

Pascal surveys the Globe

See also: GGovJam 2016 Thank you post on Facebook

We made a Global GovJam!


All the action, the Jams and the projects are on govjam.org.

By now you’re probably thinking, like, what is this, Storify or something?

More follows.