Paul Miller: Weary giants and new technology

How public service start-ups could transform Britain for the better

The relationship between government and the internet has always been tense. “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel”, typed John Perry Barlow in 1996, “your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter and there is no matter here.”

His Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace spread quickly among the libertarian digerati of the time. For those who craved a space over which governments could have no influence, it was an appealing idea. They also believed that the internet age would herald an era when decentralised technology could do away with the need for government at all.

John Perry Barlow and his friends, of course, were wrong. The internet hasn’t swept away government, neither has the internet completely escaped government intervention. Every desk in Whitehall has a computer on it. Almost every service provided by government is dependent on the internet for proper management and delivery. While government has struggled with the openness and speed of information on the internet, as data has become available – sometimes intentionally, sometimes not – government is still very much with us. And in a time of recession and economic turmoil, perhaps seems more central than ever.

But we’re still just at the beginning of understanding the relationship between government and the ways that the internet can help deliver public goods – sometimes through government itself and sometimes through new lightweight public service start-ups. As we attempt to understand what might be possible, we need to replace Barlow’s black or white ‘cyberspace versus government’ with a new understanding of the way that online tools could help us to live the lives we want to lead.

An opportunity exists to support public service start-ups and unleash a new wave of social innovation. If we treat the public as both consumers and producers of services, we tap into ‘I will if you will’ awareness and solutions. Government and individuals become partners. Online collaboration and networking tools can provide us with a vision for society that runs counter to a paternal or electoral model but still one where government is vital. They point to a participative future.

The ‘Why Don’t You?’ Ethic

If you’re of the right generation, you might have grown up with a BBC children’s programme during school holidays called 'Why Don’t You?' Its full title was actually something of a mouthful: 'Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead?' It was all about things you could be doing instead of watching television.

There were games to play, places to go, things you could make. Ironically for a television programme, it was against being a telly addict. Fifteen years after the show finished, I think it has lessons for how we should use the internet and how we could use online tools to create public value.

As times have changed in the start-up world and venture capital funding has gone through something of an existential crisis, it has become apparent how reliant the last boom of investment was on online advertising projections. Now that the myth that any service can be supported by advertising has been punctured, both entrepreneurs and investors have come to realise that it’s the businesses that help people do things away from the screen that have real value. Tim O’Reilly calls this ‘Web meets World’ and perhaps the most successful example of it is Scott Heiferman, Meetup founder, says he built it to help people become organisers. His starting point was Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, which charts the decline of community across the US since the 1960s. Meetup now facilitates millions of people meeting up in their local areas across the world. A meetup creates social capital. It creates community. It helps people get work and find people to start new projects with. What’s more, it generates a profit.

What Meetup and the hundreds of other online businesses that facilitate real world activity show is that the real power of the net in the future won’t be about information or content – although that’s what we use it for mainly these days – its real power is organisation away from the computer itself. The most successful services will be those with a ‘Why Don’t You’ ethic, which encourages us away from the screen and to be active participants in the world outside.

Organise stuff that matters

Tim O’Reilly has also hit a rich seam of debate in saying that programmers should work on ‘stuff that matters’. “Is it big? Is it important? Is it going to make a difference to a lot of people?” he asks, because if not, it’s not worth doing. Commentator and economist Umair Haque goes further still in his Manifesto for 21st Century Business, calling on Silicon Valley and the wider technology community to really concentrate on solving the big problems we face:

“Organize the world’s hunger.

Organize the world’s energy.

Organize the world’s thirst.

Organize the world’s health.

Organize the world’s freedom.

Organize the world’s finance.

Organize the world’s education.”

There are a whole host of start-ups already delivering on Haque’s ideas. Whether it’s Liftshare, or Patient Opinion, Freecycle or School of Everything, the UK already has a vibrant scene of developers and entrepreneurs using technology to work on ‘stuff that matters’.

What these start-ups show is that it’s possible to use the internet to have a real world benefit.

And there are many more to come. One weekend in April last year we opened the doors of the Young Foundation in Bethnal Green for the first Social Innovation Camp funded by NESTA. Some of the best coders and designers in the UK showed up but they got a surprise because this wasn’t like their day job. We forced them together with people who understood social problems that we wanted them to try and come up with a solution for in the space of a weekend.

In the previous six weeks we’d collected over a hundred ideas for websites that could change the world from people all over the UK and then narrowed those down to six with the help of some expert judges. Over the course of the weekend, the participants not only built prototypes of the services but also fleshed out business plans and ideas for branding and how the sites might spread. They took them from ‘idea in the pub’ to something that people – whether investors or potential users – could look at and say that it might just work. At the end of the weekend, the teams pitched against one another with a prize awarded to the idea that could show the best ‘proof of potential’.

We’ve now run Social Innovation Camp two more times in the UK (in London and Glasgow) and the idea has spread to several other countries. What makes it work is the mixture of ‘fun and fear’ – or collaboration and competition – and of course that the participants like the challenge of building something cheap and quick that could change the world.

Why start-ups? (and what they can’t do)

This model of starting small is a characteristic of start-ups that I think government needs to understand better. There are several reasons why we should look to start-ups to start providing services that perhaps we have thought could only be delivered by the public sector in the past. In time I hope a new ecology of public sector support, private investment and start-ups can start to make life easier for government. The advantages of a model where start-ups help provide public value are:

• Start-ups can take risks that the public sector cannot. It is almost impossible for government to take risks with digital technology because they generally have to start so big. Whereas start-ups can start small, experimenting with completely different models of organising services from the outside without risking the core service.

• Start-ups are cheap. It takes a few thousand pounds to prototype a digital service, a few tens of thousands to take it to the point where people can really use it and then, if it works, investment can follow. Plenty of start-ups fail along this path but overall, the capital efficiency of the model in creating innovation is unrivalled by anything in the public sector.

• Start-ups form a resilient economic ecosystem. Nobody who works for a start-up expects a job for life and the experience of working in a small entrepreneurial organisation leads many people to then go on and start their own.

However, start-ups can’t do everything. There are some things where standardisation is a good thing and some where risk is a bad idea.

There are some services that need expert judgement rather than using the crowdsourced judgement of others. I’m not suggesting that public service start-ups should replace core services, simply that they could become a much larger part of the mix.

Overall they provide a way of navigating the point where top-down meets bottom-up. Start-ups can find ways of connecting with public services by coming up with new ideas. But they are also small enough to talk directly to their users, learning how to improve their service day-by-day – something that the public sector struggles with because of the bureaucracy of change.

Start small, aim big

For me there is no question that a flurry of digital innovation could lead to both the better public outcomes and economic vibrancy we need to create new jobs and wealth. First, though, government needs to understand that digital is not about content. Thus far I think they have thought about it as a form of media, like television or the radio. It isn’t. The internet is becoming primarily a tool for organising the real world, not a new form of distribution for content. A digital strategy that focuses on content will be out-of-date the moment it is published.

The next generation of innovators may not be the usual kind of suspects but rather bored public sector graduate trainees unwilling to climb slowly up the greasy pole before they’re allowed to make a difference. And they might be the next generation of technological innovators too. The dot-com stars of this generation may come from the public sector rather than the business and engineering schools of the world because there’s massive financial value in changing the world for the better as well.

There was a time when digital technologies were about a new space, detached from the physical. The digerati took William Gibson’s word ‘cyberspace’ and made it their own. This was a place where the pioneers would be safe from governments or corporations or anybody impinging upon their freedom. It didn’t quite turn out like that. Actually, there’s no such thing as cyberspace. Cyberspace is dead. But I don’t think we should mourn it because what we should be working on is much more exciting. What we’ve realised is that the power of the internet is in changing the real world.

Paul Miller is the CEO of the School of Everything

This essay is one of a collection of viewpoints which will be published to launch NESTA’s ‘Reboot Britain’ programme. Reboot Britain will explore the role new technologies and online networks can play in driving economic growth and radically changing our public services. The programme will begin with a one day event on 6th July which will look at the challenges we face as a country and how the combination of a new digital technologies and networked 'Digital Britons' can produce innovative solutions to tackle them. For more information please visit