De Tilburgse Spoorzone als “Laboratorium voor de Maatschappij van de Toekomst”

De Tilburgse Spoorzone (zie ook Co-Creatie Kerngebied Spoorzone, De:WerkplaatsSpoorzone site Brabants Dagblad en de Spoorzone Facebook groep) staat in het centrum van de belangstelling. Ruim 2,5 kilometer lang met een oppervlakte van 75 hectare ligt deze voormalige NS werkplaats bijna volledig braak, maar met een geweldige potentie in deze stad van creatievelingen, makers, doeners en denkers.

Spoorzone Tilburg

Het is de bedoeling dat de Spoorzone een “Kennis Plus Profiel” gaat krijgen.  Om dit in te vullen wordt onder meer gedacht aan het realiseren van een bibliotheek van de toekomst, een leer- en kennisomgeving en een “social innovation kenniscampus”. O.a. Fontys Hogescholen, Tilburg University en TiasNimbas worden hierbij betrokken. Fontys heeft onlangs bekend gemaakt over te gaan met haar opleidingen Creative Industries en Journalistiek, op weg naar een “campus 3.0″. Maar ook cultuur ontbreekt niet in deze mix, zo is als voorhoede de Hall of Fame sinds kort in dit gebied gehuisvest en wordt het gerenoveerde Deprez-gebouw al geruime tijd gebruikt als huisvesting voor maatschappelijke organisaties en voor het organiseren van allerlei presentaties, debatten en manifestaties. Koppel hier nog allerlei toekomstige bedrijvigheid van creatieve en  andere ondernemers aan en er is sprake van een uniek gebied dat op allerlei manieren kan gaan bruisen.

Hoewel de potentie enorm is, is de verwarring dat ook. Zoveel betrokkenen, zoveel belangen, zoveel mogelijke invullingen, zoveel tekorten… Hoe zo’n enorm gebied in te richten, zodanig dat het recht doet aan de diversiteit van alle belanghebbenden, maar dat er tegelijkertijd de verbinding tussen zoveel mogelijk bewoners wordt gelegd? Wat is de “eenheid in verscheidenheid”, wat is het “grote verhaal” dat verteld kan worden over dit gebied? Een verhaal wat Tilburg op de kaart zet, niet alleen provinciaal of nationaal, maar internationaal? Een verbindend idee dat ervoor zorgt dat mensen naar Tilburg willen komen om dit gebied met eigen ogen te zien en te beleven, maar ook om mee te doen, of in de taal van vandaag de dag, de Spoorzone te helpen “co-creëren”?

Vorig jaar vond er in Noord-Brabant een bijzonder interessante exercitie plaats, georganiseerd door BrabantBrein, om zoveel mogelijk concrete ideeën te verzamelen om te komen tot een letterlijk betere samenleving. In de hele provincie werden bijeenkomsten georganiseerd, waarin door een groot aantal teams ideeën werden gegenereerd, gepresenteerd, geselecteerd en steeds verder verfijnd. Een van de geselecteerde ideëen betrof het beschouwen van Noord-Brabant als laboratorium van de “Maatschappij van de Toekomst”:

Noord-Brabant als laboratorium van de “Maatschappij van de Toekomst” waarin volop wordt geëxperimenteerd met oplossingen voor complexe, organisatie-overstijgende problemen als vergrijzing, milieuvervuiling, integratie enz. Brabant heeft hiervoor uitstekende “faciliteiten”: een groot aantal verschillende stakeholders met veel verschillende expertise, een zeer gevarieerde economie, een informele cultuur, bereidheid tot samenwerken, enz. Geleerde lessen zouden vervolgens als voorbeeld kunnen dienen voor andere provincies en regio’s in Europa.

Ooit stond het “Huis van de Toekomst” in Rosmalen. Tilburg ligt in het hart van Midden-Brabant. De Spoorzone ligt in het centrum van Tilburg. Wat nu als we de Spoorzone (als “hart van het Hart van Brabant”) maken tot het provinciale “laboratorium voor de Maatschappij van de Toekomst”? Het betreft hier een speciaal soort laboratorium: een “living lab”. Een living lab is een ecosysteem van de private en de publieke sector, waarin het leggen van verbindingen en het aanjagen van innovatie centraal staat. Zo’n living lab gedachte sluit ook uitstekend aan op “social innovation” als het centrale thema van de regio Midden-Brabant, zoals deze reeds uitvoerig gestalte krijgt in het samenwerkingsverband Midpoint Brabant.

Vanuit deze gedachte bezien wordt de Spoorzone een enorm spannend ecosysteem van innovaties waar bedrijfsleven, overheid, onderwijs, culturele instellingen, creatieve ondernemers en burgers samen laten zien hoe onze maatschappij er over zoveel jaar uit zou kunnen en moeten zien. Technische en sociale innovaties, nieuwe kunst-, cultuur-, onderwijs- en onderzoeksconcepten, maatschappelijke scenario’s, een uitdijend web van steeds veranderende  en met elkaar verbonden ideëen waarmee de maatschappij van de toekomst wordt vormgegeven. Allerlei kruisbestuivingen van goede ideëen die plaatsvinden in gebouwen en installaties maar vooral ook door middel van nieuwe media, presentaties en debatten, workshops en conferenties, onderzoeksprojecten,  samenwerkingsverbanden tussen de meest onwaarschijnlijke partners, netwerken van overlappende communities…

Enkele voorbeelden van hoe die kruisbestuivingen eruit zouden kunnen zien:

  • Grote zorginstellingen als De Wever laten (samen met grote verzekeraars als Interpolis of CZ) in een tentoonstellingszaal zien hoe mantelzorgers en professionals om zouden kunnen gaan met mensen met dementie in de Dementie Experience. Ernaast wordt een congres voor verzekeraars en zorgverleners uit heel Europa gehouden in de Koepelhal over hoe deze innovatieve aanpakken een bijdrage zouden kunnen leveren aan het verbeteren van de levenskwaliteit en het terugdringen van de zorgkosten.
  • Studenten Journalistiek van Fontys werken samen met uitgeverijen als Zwijsen o.a. op basis van toekomstscenario’s van het Tilburg Social Innovation Lab aan het vertellen van het “Maatschappij van de Toekomst” verhaal in een digital storytelling project. In dit project worden allerlei crossmediale vormen uitgewerkt, o.a. bestaande uit een groot aantal installaties verspreid over het hele Spoorzone terrein, maar ook met digitale koppelingen naar gerelateerde projecten en discussiefora over de hele wereld. De “buzz” die daardoor ontstaat trekt weer allerlei bezoekers van heinde en verre naar het gebied.
  • Het Science Centre werkt samen met de Bibliotheek van de Toekomst en het Wetenschapsknooppunt Tilburg aan het ontwikkelen van digitale en fysieke leerlijnen om kinderen van de basisschoolleeftijd al te enthousiasmeren voor de wetenschap. Via een online “kinderkennisbank” bereiden kinderen uit de hele regio en zelfs de rest van het land zich voor op een lesthema om dan met het openbaar vervoer af te reizen naar de Spoorzone. Hier zien ze een hele dag wetenschap & techniek in actie in een “Exploratorium“-achtige setting in verschillende gebouwen in de Spoorzone.
  • Een consortium van bedrijven, kennisinstellingen en overheden, omgeven door een web van culturele instellingen en creatieve ZZP-ers gaan met elkaar een langdurig samenwerkingsverband aan om te komen tot een nationaal Master Plan om de vergrijzing in 2040 het hoofd te bieden. Het Master plan bestaat uit creatieve interpretaties van wat de effecten van vergrijzing op het dagelijks leven zullen zijn, maar ook ideëen voor heel praktische zorgproducten, voorstellen voor nieuwe zorgprocessen en innovatieve financieringsmodellen. Elk van deze partijen heeft een “ambassade” in de Spoorzone, variërend van een heel gebouw voor de grote organisaties tot een kamer in een verzamelgebouw voor een “community van senioren” die als ervaringsdeskundigen mee willen denken over wat er nodig is. Een vleugel van een van de (functioneel gerenoveerde) karakteristieke NS-gebouwen wordt door Seats2Meet ingericht als permanente “kruisbestuivingsruimte” waarin prototypes worden getoond, vergaderingen en presentaties worden gehouden en de vertegenwoordigers van alle betrokken partijen elkaar voortdurend op allerlei verrassende, inspirerende en informele wijze tegenkomen.

In ons recent verschenen artikel  “De openbare bibliotheek als stadslab” schetsen Emmeken van der Heijden en ikzelf een scenario voor hoe de bibliotheek van de toekomst eruit zou kunnen zien door het leggen van allerlei slimme verbindingen tussen de fysieke en online wereld. Cruciaal hierbij is dat in eerste instantie gekeken moet worden naar gewenste functies, verbindingen en interacties tussen allerlei (on)mogelijke partijen, samen met die partijen, voordat er geïnvesteerd wordt in fysieke infrastructuur. Voor de Spoorzone als geheel geldt dat zo mogelijk nog meer. Keuzes die nu gemaakt worden bepalen het innovatieve DNA van het gebied voor vele toekomstige generaties. Wordt de Spoorzone een gebied als zoveel andere kwakkelende stedelijke zones, met veel schitterende (en dure) gebouwen, maar veel te weinig leven en “vibe”? Of durven we echt hier met zijn allen samen iets neer te zetten wat Tilburg op de kaart zet bij de provincie, het land en Europa?

Natuurlijk moeten de enorme investeringen gedaan in de aankoop van de Spoorzone worden terugverdiend, zeker gezien de zware financiële tijden die de stad nu doormaakt. Het een hoeft het ander echter niet uit te sluiten. Een simpele voetgangerstunnel onder het station moet als “deur naar het gebied” zo spoedig mogelijk en tegen geringe kosten kunnen worden aangelegd. Veel bestaande gebouwen kunnen op sobere wijze worden gerenoveerd, zodat deze voldoen aan minimale functionele en veiligheidseisen.  Als ze zich nieuwbouw (nog) niet kunnen veroorloven, kunnen speciale contractvormen mogelijke bewoners (van ZZP-ers tot grote organisaties) aantrekken om in die gebouwen een tijdelijke “innovatie-ambassade” te openen. Op deze manier begint ongebruikt terrein al op korte termijn inkomsten te genereren voor de gemeente en kunnen de pioniers per direct beginnen het living lab ecosysteem te ontwikkelen. Tevens wordt zo tijd gewonnen om tot goed afgewogen plannen te komen in een transparent proces van consultatie, samen met huidige en toekomstige belanghebbenden en bewoners van het gebied, met projectontwikkelaars en gemeente, met mee- en tegendenkers, offline en online.

Tilburg heeft zichzelf al vele malen opnieuw uitgevonden. We hebben nu nog de  kans om iets groots te realiseren. Laten we die kans grijpen.

PS: Oorspronkelijk heette deze blog “De Tilburgse Spoorzone als “Living Lab voor de Maatschappij van de Toekomst”. “Living lab” is echter jargon dat gebruikt kan (en moet) worden in beleidsstukken, omdat het een specifiek soort (sociaal-maatschappelijk i.p.v. een technisch) laboratorium betreft. Om het idee duidelijk te maken aan de gemiddelde leek, is het naar mijn mening beter om gewoon de term “laboratorium” te gebruiken. Zo kan het verhaal beter verteld worden en blijven hangen.

Research consultancy: taking the plunge?

research_consultantOn February 18, SIKS, the Netherlands Research School for Information and Knowledge Systems, organized a career day for Ph.D. students, with the goal of making Ph.D. students think about what are the career opportunities after they finish. It was a very inspiring day, with many interesting presentations and interactions.

I was asked to present my perspective on how to set up and survive as a small (i.e. one-man) research consultancy company. In this post, a quick summary of the points I made in my talk.

As an (academic) research consultant, you are a linking pin between science and society. On the one hand, you translate academic ideas into concrete applications, such as projects, tools, systems, and procedures. However, just as important, you should feed back real-world insights into the scientific process. This way, combining rigor with relevance, you can help build bridges between the two worlds which, unfortunately, are often still so parallel instead of connected.

Pros and Cons

Some of the pros of being an independent research consultant instead of working at an academic institution include:

+ More freedom & control Being your own boss you are, well, your own boss. You have much more freedom and control about who you work for, when you work, and how you work (and even why you work). Of course, bills still need to be paid, boring tasks still need to be done, and annoying people cannot always be avoided, but in general, you can be much more selective. This sense of purpose, control, and fulfillment (and, sometimes, even a free weekend) is exhilirating and nourishing, especially for those who have been under many years of intense Ph.D., tenure track, or postdoc pressure.

+ More relevant research One of the curses of the academic system is the publish-or-perish culture. The pressure is enormous to focus on top journal publications, at the expense of research relevant to, say, society. In my own field, community informatics. hands-on testing of ideas through lots of trial and error is inevitable for getting meaningful results (and, I strongly believe, in the end good science). However, in academia spending too much time on this messy practice is discouraged, as it distracts from the Holy Grail of “The A Publication”. Having been relieved of the publication burden, you have more freedom as an independent researcher to focus on empirical, more relevant research.

+ More own research agenda Rather than having to adhere to an institutional research agenda, you can set and follow your own, personal research agenda, which you pursue in the context of your total portfolio of self-selected projects. This allows you to focus, for as long as you want and in many different settings, on the main research questions that fascinate you. In my case, one overarching question is the activation of online collaborative communities.

+ More diversity Being an advisor to many different organizations, networks, and communities on a very wide range of topics makes you grow, both intellectually and personally. You need to quickly analyze a rich set of practical problems, all somehow related to your expertise. It is very rewarding to try and see the patterns in initially seemingly very different real-world contexts and to formulate and apply lessons learnt. This theoretical sanity check sometimes leads to profound changes in your thinking, which can be most stimulating.

+ More satisfaction Your company is your baby. You still have to work very hard, and inevitably experience frustrating situations, but all of the above  can give a deep feeling of satisfaction when you see the ideas, connections, and impact of your work grow.

Of course, like everything in life, there are cons to being on your own as well:

- More risk Working by and for yourself exposes you to many more risks. You are no longer protected by an organization. No contracts means no income. Being in bed with the flu means no income. And, of course, there is nobody else in the organization to blame for errors and underperformance but yourself.

- Less (rigorous) research As your attention is scattered among more, shorter-term projects, and since you focus more on relevance instead of rigor, the research you do tends to be more case-based instead of methodologically deep. Also, in the general busi-ness associated with running your own company, it is easy to postpone doing and reflecting on your research. On the other hand, this situation is not really so different from the average  academic position where meetings, supervising, teaching, and travel also causes most serious research work to be postponed to evenings, weekends, and holidays…

- More goodbyes One of the nice aspects of working in an academic group for many years is that a real “sense of community” between its members develops. When being a consultant, you are literally “all over the place” and working more on a short-term contract basis. This often means that by the time you start to really like (some of) your colleagues, you have to move on again.

- Less beaches Probably the best perk of academia is the ability to go, and often stay and work for longer periods of time, in really amazing places. My academic life has taken me to many corners of the globe, resulting in many unforgettable impressions and experiences.

Do’s and Don’ts

So, how to go about starting your own one-(wo)man show? Following are some of my own lessons learnt.

- Be ready: PhD + postdoc is ideal It may seem that I discount the value of academia. Far from it, I think it’s the world’s greatest connector in terms of people and ideas (and largest travel agency!) Despite all its downsides, I have had a marvellous time, and it has shaped me professionally and personally in so many ways. So, I would not advise recent graduates to immediately start their own research consultancy. Ideally, you would have a PhD and at least a few years of postdoc experience. During your PhD, you learn the ropes, define your main ideas, and create your initial network. A postdoc is invaluable, as you learn project managament skills and (hopefully) how to descend a bit from the Ivory Tower. A postdoc forces you to learn the all-important skills of translating your Great Ideas that Will Change the World (but that, I know it hurts, nobody outside a tiny part of academia is interested in) into a more practical form that at least some members of the rest of the human race might be willing to pay for.

- Have (and keep!) a financial buffer (>1 yr) Continuing this point, one of the hardest things to do when starting your own research consultancy, is to prove that you have something practically valuable to offer. It is no use to advertise in the Yellow Pages and it may take a long time before you have enough paying contracts to break even. So, before you start, make sure to have enough savings for at least a year. This means you will not have to accept unacceptable offers and allows you to negotiate your contracts from a position of strength, not panic. Also, once you are finallly in business, make sure to refill the buffer as quickly as possible. Contracts never come at regular intervals, and you must be able to weather the next storm.

- Logo, website, blog Before you go public, make sure to have a professional logo and a well-designed and informative website. First impressions matter and the very first thing potential clients will do is to check out your site. The way you shape, structure and fill it with content says a lot about what you expertise is all about, so make sure to invest in this at the very beginning. Also, if you can, try to keep a blog. It doesn’t have to be a daily chore, but post at least once in a while so that potential clients can get a better idea about who you are and how you think and work.

- Network, network (and network!) Contrary to what many outsiders think, research is all about meeting people: fellow researchers, problem owners, potential clients, and just interesting fellow human beings. Networking is all-important, especially in our line of business. Go to anything that may seem remotely interesting: conferences and seminars, of course, but also meetings of the Chamber of Commerce, public lectures, etc. Also, start meeting up with contacts you haven’t seen in a long time and tell them about your ideas. A warning: don’t network and expect something to come out of it immediately. Don’t try to pressure people into giving you a contract, it won’t work. Just try to go and genuinely meet people for the fun of it. In fact, I find this one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of my work. Everybody has a story or two to tell. Listen and learn!

- Be pro-active Gone are the days that there was a professor or supervisor to tell you what to do (if those days were ever there). When running your own company, NOTHING happens by itself. You are your own boss, employee and secretary. Scan your environment for opportunities and go for them. Don’t wait for the world to come to you. It won’t.

- Don’t underestimate acquisition Acquiring a contract is hard work and can (and will) generally take a much longer time than you expect. Try to not put your research darlings first but represent the interest of your clients. What is their problem they want to have solved? Make a list of ten words that capture the key concepts and techniques of your research approach. Now can you formulate a solution without using any of these terms in the first 5 minutes of your presentation? If so, you may have a chance of landing a contract!  This advice is exaggerated, of course, but only just. Try to think and talk in terms of the client’s language, at home and in your publications you can wallow in all the scientific jargon that you want. Besides being able to frame the problem and solution in the client’s terms, be patient. Acquisition can sometimes take a very long time from the very first conversation to the actual signing of the contract. As stated above, you must have the financial capacity to afford the wait.

- Don’t set rates too low Coming straight out of academia, hourly consultancy rates seem sky-high. Clients know this, and may try to take advantage of it. However, don’t set your rates too low. Being a research consultant, you have many more unbillable hours than others as you have to invest in your research: the time to read the literature, scan the Web, attend conferences, travel, etc. Then there are the hours other freelancers also can’t charge: doing the administration, acquisition, travel to and from clients,  set up your office, and so on. There’s the investments: office, equipment, travel expenses, and so on. You have the full taxes and social insurance to cover, pension to take care of, risks to take. Taking all that into account, your average income may actually be less than what you earned before, definitely in the beginning. So, don’t set your rates too low initially. You may offer an introduction rate for a limited amount of time, but make sure to know and show your worth.

- Plan and track time Even more so than in academia, there is an overwhelming amount of short-term and long-term things-to-be-done. Establishing and running your company, keeping track of numerous projects and clients, and, oh yes, do some research reflection once in a while, forces you to be systematic. Your calendar and to do-list become your best friends. Also, meticulously keep track of time, assigned to specific activities. This is not only useful for billing purposes, but also for getting a feeling of where your time goes, and how to improve your ways of working. There are many different systems. I prefer them Web-based, using Google Calendar as my calendar, Remember The Milk for my to do-s (using Getting Things Done as the organizing methodology), and SlimTimer for keeping track of my time.

- Stay connected to research community One of the joys of academia is the continuous meeting of minds, the sharing of ideas, passions, and good times with kindred spirits. From a more down-to-earth point of view, being an active member of one or more research communities is essential for keeping on top of the state-of-the-art, of growing your ideas and building your reputation. Being a research consultant does not mean you should sever these all-important ties. Keep in touch, remain active in the field by visiting colleagues, attending seminars and conferences, participating on mailing lists, reviewing papers, and publishing.

- Invest in research time and places Set aside a minimum number of hours a week, and the occassional longer period of time for writing a paper or fundamental reflection. Don’t just do this from home, but travel as well, to meet up with research colleagues and friends. If possible, try to get invited as a speaker, which lets them take care of travel and accommodation and reconfirms your reputation as an active member of the field.

- Enjoy it! Last but not least, enjoy it! Setting up your own company, besides being hard work and somewhat risky, should be fun. It can provide you with a priceless sense of freedom, direction, and self-realization, getting yourself very high on Maslow’s pyramid…

Dutch Innovation Seminar 2008

On October 9, a beautiful autumn day, I went to the De Baak estate, in the wooded centre of the country to attend the Dutch Innovation Seminar 2008. De Baak is a well-known training institute, established by the largest employers’ organization in the Netherlands. As their site states, it “is the place for leaders, business people and professionals in search of inspiration, motivation, knowledge and insight”. Well, inspiration abounded, plentifully.

The seminar comprised a couple of keynote addresses, as well as a number of workshops, and lots of opportunity to network in a very pleasant atmosphere. The theme of the event was “Pulverizing Borders”, about how the Internet allows all kinds of borders to disappear, borders between people, organizations, supply and demand, and so on.

Interesting to observe were the different foci of innovation approaches of large-scale, corporate organizations like Shell and DSM, and new kids on the block like Nabuur and SellaBand. Shell and DSM are mainly interested in involving the “wisdom of the crowds” as idea generators, but themselves want to keep  close control over their often very complex, long term, and expensive product innovation processes.

Nabuur and SellaBand, on the other hand, act much more as facilitators, delegating substantial control to the users of their site. Nabuur, the “Global Neighbour Network” is an NGO that mediates between villages in developing countries having concrete requests for development assistance, and volunteers, from both North and South, who are able to help address these requests, leading to long-term collaboration and relationship networks. SellaBand facilitates between beginning bands looking for investment capital to produce an album and music lovers who are willing to invest small amounts of money. Once enough money has been raised, each music lover receives a limited edition copy of the album.

An interesting question is whether the “control paradigm” is really necessary for large scale product development, because of, for example, the need to protect intellectual property rights. Or could the new business models being developed by the likes of Nabuur and SellaBand in the longer term be adopted/adapted by their larger, more bureaucratic peers? Innovation of innovation…

Pitching social enterprises at The Hub

Having finished my portal project, I am in Berlin now. As it’s been a very intense project, I really felt the need to “reset my brain” and decided to have a creative breather in Berlin. It’s a great city to visit for such a purpose, and to get inspiration for new R&D ideas. At the end of the week, I will be attending Barcamp Berlin 3.0, more about that later.

To warm up, I attended a nice event organized by Self Hub Berlin yesterday. Such hubs are increasingly being established in cities all over the world as creative places for social entrepreneurs. I already visited The Hub Rotterdam, and was curious to find out how things are done in their Berlin counterpart.

Yesterday’s event was dubbed “Pitching for Inspiration” and allowed a number of new social entrepreneurs to present their visions and solicit feedback from fellow entrepreneurs and other interested members of the audience. Afterwards, there was space and time for informal discussion. There was quite a variety of themes. To give you an idea, presentations included proposals for an institute for intergenerational learning, an academy for developing and realizing visions, a network of experienced entrepreneurs helping new ones, a theatre of young people performing for primary and high school kids showing them how to better deal with conflicts, an organization  that aims to apply “wisdom of the crowds” by allowing many persons to vote on competing project proposals after a bidding period in which the proposers develop and defend their project ideas using blogs, an initiative to use web mashups to show wheelchair-barrier free locations in first Berlin, then Germany, then the world. There was also a presentation of an already established annual contest in which students can develop communications campaigns for non-profit organizations.

Most proposals were still in quite a premature stage, but it was nice to see the variety and enthusiasm with which they were presented. These hubs are all about developing relations, connecting ideas, and releasing energy, and there was plenty of all that around.

It is interesting to see how these hubs are very much place, i.e. city-based, yet at the same time they are part of a growing worldwide network, a “meta Hub”, as one of the participants called it. They remind me very much of Saskia Sassen’s work on the global and the local being necessarily very much intertwined when trying to understand what globalization really means.  In particular, these hubs seem to be a key example of thinking communities, for which providing a good communications infrastructure and location, as well as resolving a wide range of social, professional, and financial constraints is essential for their success.

Meeting The Hub

It’s been a busy time with my projects, too busy to keep up my blog. Of course, that is no excuse as very useful finally-get-into-and-stick-to-that-writing-habit sites  like Write to Done try to tell us all the time. Well, us lesser mortals will have to keep practicing to get more disciplined, I guess.

On August 11, I attended a very inspiring lunch meeting at The Hub Rotterdam. Guest speaker was Maria Glauser, a host and co-director of The Hub London.  We all shared stories about what we do and aspire as the “social entrepreneurs” of the present or near future.  In their own words:

The Hub’s business is social innovation. Our core product is flexible membership of inspirational and highly resourced habitats in the world’s major cities for social innovators to work, meet, learn, connect and realise progressive ideas. The Hub is currently located in London, Bristol, Johannesburg, Berlin, Cairo, Sao Paulo and Rotterdam. Hubs are being started in Amsterdam, Brussels, Halifax, Madrid, Mumbai and Tel Aviv/Jaffa

I particularly like the summary of their essence, as described on The Hub’s main site:

People who see and do things differently

Places for working, meeting, innovating, learning and relaxing

Ideas that might just change the world a little

The Hub is pioneering concepts, methods, and techniques for enlightened social entrepreneurship. They should be watched as a creative catalyst, linking the worlds of high ideals with practical business. Although small in size, their ideas could and should influence more traditional innovation initiatives and networks, so their impact can spread more rapidly. It will therefore be interesting to find out how all these initiatives best connect with and mutually benefit one another.

Second Life: Beyond the Hype

The hype is over. Whereas only a year ago, Second Life was everywhere in the mainstream media, the mad rush seems over. Then, every major organization seemed to try to establish a presence “in world”, and the virtual sky seemed the limit. Now, the number of active users seems to have stabilized, and many initially over-enthusiasts are disappointed, because their unrealistic expectations have not been met.

However, the dot com bust around the turn of the century did not kill the development of worthwhile applications of the Internet, on the contrary. Similarly, the current stage in the evolution of Second Life from mere vision to serious business, educational, and many other applications is a natural one. Consolidation and reflection on where to go from here is healthy and necessary. Issues to be worked on include tool systems and (workflow) process models.

For a nice glimpse into already existing “useful” applications of Second Life, check out Wagner James Au’s list in his “Second Life: Hype vs. Anti-Hype vs. Anti-Anti Hype” post:

He’d see applications in, for example, retail shopping (as here), online gaming and entertainment (as here and here), data visualization (as here), national security (as here), international relations (as here), non-profit fundraising (as here), architecture (as here), scientific simulation (as here), education (as here and here), and therapy (as here); just ten industries worth billions of dollars, which could potentially impact hundreds of millions of Internet users, quickly culled from my bookmark cache– and that’s not even mentioning the as-yet-unproven applications which have already gained traction, like in-world celebrity appearances (as here), political activism (as here and here), and marketing/brand promotion (as here.)

One particularly interesting use I have experienced myself is as a venue for cyberconferencing.