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Civil Society and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

18th Nov 2018

Last week I spent a day at FACT, attending the #LabOfLabs symposium that they’d convened with Leeds University’s Cultural Institute. We explored what cultural labs are, what they could be, and how we might better connect them (and those of us involved with things-a-bit-like-a-lab).

As part of the proceedings some of us gave Ignite-style presentations (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide) responding to the brief of “my lab is special because…”

I tried to capture the essence of DoES Liverpool’s cross-section-of-society where we have professionals and hobbyists, learners and experts, techies and makers and neither-techies-nor-makers; our enthusiasm-tempered-with-critical-thinking for new technologies; and our space run by and for the community, and paid for by the community.

However, I’m not sure I did the best job at it, although it did result in this ace animated gif!

A pair of DoES Liverpool mugs cycling through a series of completions of the phrase 'Do epic...' ...design, ...writing, ...3D printing, ...research, ...code, etc.

One of the points raised during the day was that we should focus less on numbers and outputs, and tell more stories about what the people in our “labs” get up to (and go on to do).

I’m all for that. At the end of the day, in the Twitter stream for the #LabOfLabs hashtag, Steve Dobson shared this tweet:

It occurred to me that my instinctive response to that—the thought that Nesta need to hang out at DoES Liverpool more—provides a perfect example of how “my lab” is special.

The “fourth industrial revolution” is predominantly robotics, the Internet of Things, AI and VR. Julian Todd and Martin Dunschen have been writing CNC software (that’s how your “robots” are controlled) for well over a decade and sold their company to Autodesk a few years back. I’ve been working in the Internet of Things since 2007, wrote a book on it in 2013 and am one of the leaders in that globally. Alex Lennon is a similarly experienced IoT veteran, and is also responsible for the fancy VR rig that anyone in the space can try out and use. Our AI game isn’t quite as strong, but we did bring it together with the CNC work when Chris Thompson and Jackie Pease wrote software to algorithmically generate poetry, trained on Wordsworth’s corpus, for a performance by our drawing robots.

Where civil society already meets technology the DoES community includes the people who made The Public Whip—Julian (again) and Francis Irving (although he’s recently been tempted down to London)—one of the first big civic tech projects alongside mySociety. Speaking of mySociety, two former members of the community are also former mySociety employees, and we still have Zarino Zappia, who still works for them. There’s also a wider interest in the community for civic tech, with initiatives like #CodeForLiverpool.

Moving beyond the tech, there have been discussions about the place of unions in these developments, sparked when Jackie and I attended the conference on 40 years since the Lucas Plan; a conversation that Ross Dalziel and I are continuing to pick at.

Just as importantly, we have members coming at it from the other side. Patrick Hurley provides business support to social enterprises, as well as being the local councillor who chairs the Council’s Employment Committee. Helen Campbell is a researcher helping charities assess their impact, and Steve Matthews works with social economy, sustainability and regeneration.

There aren’t formal connections or projects between all of these people, but they all share a space and a community, so the influences are small, frequent and unplanned.

The Nesta article talks about the need for new institutions to draw these strands together. In my more bullish moments I think that DoES Liverpool is one of those new institutions, which is mostly overlooked by people like Nesta because it doesn’t have the form of a traditional institution; that its network of interests and actors is the form that 21st Century institutions will take. We tend not to make such bold claims, however: judge us on what we do, not on what we say.

All that said, I do think that the DoES Liverpool community is a solution saturated with an increasingly wide range of ideas and expertise around technology, making, and society. It just needs the “right” people to join (or maybe it just needs time…) for that to crystallize into more projects and activity.

Nesta (or any other researchers/funders/civil-society-organisations…) could do far worse than coming to talk to some of us; or renting some desks to embed some more people into the space for them to tap into the expertise; or commissioning some projects to make some of those connections of influence explicit (and documented).

Not that we have to wait for anyone else. If you think you’d be a good add to the mix then you should definitely come join me and the rest of the community – Adrian.

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