When I stood up to deliver my first chairman’s lecture to the RSA 23 years ago, I said that its greatest asset was its 20,000-strong army of Fellows. It is [sic] true then and it is true today, when the army is even bigger. As I was soon to discover, however, it is one thing to have an army but quite another to engage it in action, particularly if it is a volunteer army.
Social networks are important; understanding and using them can make a significant contribution to tapping into civic capacity and meeting public policy goals. Social networks are complex and the way they operate unpredictable.
Networks are only the skeleton of complexity, the highways for the various processes that make our world hum. To describe society, we must dress the links of the social network with actual dynamical interactions between people.
Although most organisations at the time could at least gather working groups together to share key messages - something that would have been impossible for a network as extended as the RSA - we were not unusual in failing to have much upward or sideways communication. What no one seemed to realise at the time was that a one-channel system of communications inevitably led to a centralised and hierarchical organisation.
Wise organisations lapped this up, although some clung to the old ways and merely speeded up the existing one-channel system, keeping the power where they felt it properly belonged. The latter soon discovered that the status quo could no longer be the way forward, because they lost out in the chase for new ideas.
I have always thought of the RSA as a testing ground of ideas for a future society, as the ‘home of unreason’, after George Bernard Shaw. Shaw distinguished between the reasonable person who followed the trends and the unreasonable one who sought to shape the trends by thinking the unlikely and doing the impossible. The future, he concluded, belonged to the unreasonable ones. Frightened organisations expel unreasonable ideas but courageous ones foster them, understanding that not all of them will necessarily work. If Number 8 John Adam Street became known as the House of Unreason, I personally would be delighted.
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