Written by Louise Sibley, Intersticia UK Director
We arrived for the retreat a raggle-taggle bunch of Fellows, Founders & Coders, advisers, directors, siblings and partners, spread across 3-4 generations, not sure what we were going to do and (some) even why we were there, beyond being together.
Yet in the course of a short weekend – a few short hours for the online community – we allowed a strong community to emerge with a common path of travel. The purpose of this reflection is to explore how that happens.
The group in Devon was self-selected and, on the face of it, an oddball gathering with membership of the Intersticia community and being in the UK all we had in common. Covid and vital commitments meant many were absent, including the Intersticia Fellows around the world. All would have been invited to this gathering, and several of whom joined us online for a few short hours – but absence rather than presence was dominant at first. Even programme organisers Anni and Sam (Crock) were locked up on the other side of the world and nine hours away by the clock.
Often when a group of disparate people in a very loose organisational framework without shared purpose come together, the success or failure of the gathering is attributable to the organisers’ preparation, to clarity of objectives, a formal agenda (to manage expectations) and stated desired outcomes to be met or missed. In our case, preparation had indeed been done, and there was an objective – to reconnect the community – but agenda and outcomes were absent – an unusual experience for someone like me with a formal education and 40 years of corporate conditioning. Despite the absences of people and formality, value and promise emerged.
Anni and Sam organise Intersticia to connect and support potential and emerging leaders in any discipline from any country. The community is small and the members are personally chosen one at a time. The formal side is financial – an individual grant from the Foundation or a funding for programme such as Founders and Coders – but beyond the formal process there is an ethos which drives the choice of individuals and programmes. This is not about the eventual success of the beneficiaries in conventional or monetary terms. The connective tissue is ethical and an idea that people from any field, brought together and supported, can help look after each other, and so – by extension – care for the world, and act as its stewards, whichever part they find themselves in.
There is both content and process involved but Intersticia is informed by ideas that have emerged from the Tavistock Institute, specifically the Leicester Conference and group relations. At some point of personal readiness, Intersticia’s Fellows are invited to attend the Leicester Conference or one of its country spin-offs. Anyone reading this who has, will understand. It is nearly impossible to describe if you have not.
So this weekend in the lovely surroundings of the Dartington Hall Estate – itself home since the 1920s to an ‘alternative’ community of artists, musicians and ecologists – I got to see what the result of a community run along Tavistock lines can look like.
The first principle is that if you give a group the twin boundaries of a space and a time, and hold those boundaries in place, something will emerge that is unique to those people present and change (unspecified) will result. This is a matter of trust. The selection of different generations to be present is deliberate. There is no hierarchy – equal citizenship is understood – but the senior members of the group seem to ‘hold’ the space, their experience is felt in the unconscious.
Within the group, no person was called on to contribute ‘expertise’ or ‘knowledge’ (unless asked) but the different potential contributions were felt and came forward as they needed to.
Next, there is the designing of a framework (or preparation) which will allow people to explore. This seems to me to be an art form. It spans both the formal ‘time’ and the leisure time. So we had two online meetings with time for group discussion and 1/1s. Carefully expressed questions (about the Gift and the Wish for each of us) expanded into personal discussions during which we self-examined and listened. Our pairs were carefully selected so that a match between a present member and an online member were made. This was spatial design, not random. For those of us at Dartington, three meals were taken together as part of the programme (the traditional breaking of bread with others, as old as Genesis) and informal gatherings grew out of those.
Finally, allowing the random or unexpected to take on meaning. We took advantage of an opportunity that was ‘presented’ by the fact of being under the wing of Schumacher College (on the Estate). This was a group discussion with the founder of the College – Satish Kumar – about education and change, followed shortly after by a Deep Time Walk with Stephen Harding. This was a 4km walk across the Estate, where every step we took symbolised 1000 years of planetary history. Stefan – a scientist performer – has designed this walk to impart a feeling of wonder for geological time and to make the point that our human history spans scarcely a millimeter within that – yet our impact has become devastating.
These two powerful interventions could easily not have found a place in our agenda but they were offered and wisely we took them up – an example of coherence that can come from discovering what is present, when you do not really know. In the short feedback of the following day, several members of the group said they would continue to think about the challenge thrown down by Satish and Stephen ‘ what can Intersticia do to look after our world?’ . The full-on rain of the next day (part of the weather system which brought floods to the UK and German over the Monday and Tuesday) seemed designed to underline the point.
Next morning, before leaving, and still in full processing mode, I coined to myself the term ‘The Intersticia Effect’. It is difficult to pin down or fully account for the value of a retreat, often, and this one is no different. But connections and relationships are the supreme agency of change , and so taking really good people, setting them down in a safe container for mind, body and spirit, while giving them time to explore beyond the normal boundaries, is going to lead somewhere.
It would have been so easy to cancel this gathering – already delayed by a year – with Anni unable to travel, and so much doubt as to whether it could actually happen. I am absolutely grateful we went ahead. We have reconnected the community for another year, and we have been given a lot to think about for its future meaning. That is quite enough for now.
We have just beamed out our latest Brave Conversations event as a part of the 2021 ACM Web Science Conference which has the theme Globalisation, Inclusion and the Web in the Context of COVID.
This is our 16th Brave Conversations event, but the first we have deliberately crafted to be truly global in both it’s reach and it’s intention. We were joined by a group of people from around the world but particularly the Global South, many who have joined us before, and refreshingly some very welcome new faces and ideas.
The times of Covid
One topic that consistently emerges in all the conversations that I’ve been having is that of how different countries/regions/cities are dealing with the virus, with an example being the emergence of Vaccine Nationalism and Vaccine Envy – politics is never far away from a crisis. What we are seeing is an overt display of how cultural values manifest even within countries based on local agendae and geographies – a look at how Australia’s two largest cities have responded gives just one example of stark differences.
This Covid Pandemic has brought rich opportunities to learn, especially about how different jurisdictions interact with their citizens via online technologies, and how the influence of Social Media in spreading fear and fueling suspicion are having very real consequences on the management of public health. Here in Australia the appallingly mishandled rollout of Covid Vaccines accompanied by the power play between State and Federal Governments has led to the country squandering its initial advantage in handling the Virus which has resulted in a repetitive cycle of shutdowns leaving people confused and increasingly running out of trust.
Of all the elements one needs in a crisis Trust is at the top of the list and Governments around the world have sought to harness digital tools all in the name of “keeping the public safe”. We now take it for granted that we have to check in to cafes and restaurants via a Government approved App, that CCTV cameras will be used to spot fleeting interactions between people in shopping centres and travel of all kinds is being monitored.
The free world doesn’t seem quite so free any more and perhaps what Covid is beginning to teach us is that we should all become far more conscious and aware of the mindsets which we hold and how they help or hinder us as we all collectively begin to co-construct the post-Covid world.
These mindsets are at the core of how we are build our technologies but more importantly how they are being used.
The Web of the West meets the Web of the East
East is East, and West is West and never the twain shall meet. (Rudyard Kipling)
The West and East are meeting rather a lot these days, and increasingly so.
At our last Brave Conversations Bangalore our guest former Infosys Founder and CEO Kris Gopalakrishnan commented that
The most significant impact will be in Asia which has over 50% of the world’s population and is less developed economically so there will be big shifts in this area. This will result in a shift to more Eastern values based on harmony, peace, and a more multi-cultural heterogenous perspective.
Co-host of Brave Conversations Ibrahim El Badawi and I have been reflecting on this and the more we talk the more we keep referring to the work of Joseph Henrich and his concept of WEIRD – people who are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. As someone brought up in a non-WEIRD culture but who has moved to live in a WEIRD one Ibrahim is a perfect commentator on what he sees as the contrasts drawing on Gert Hofstede’s 6D Model of Culture as one way of framing things.
We drew on this for our Global Brave Conversations and it proved to be rich territory for conversations which compared and contrasted different socio-technical challenges which are emerging. The inter-relationship between the Web and the World was thrown open and we were thrilled at how open, honest and vulnerable were how prepared everyone was to explore new opportunities and ways of seeing the world around them.
For me this provided a perfect introduction to the 2021 Web Science conference.
The 2021 Web Science Conference sought to do what Web Science does best: to reveal, interrogate and explore how the Web and Societies globally interact. Themes such as algorithmic bias, surveillance and The Future of Web were held, sometimes in dual languages such as Jennifer Zhu Scott’s keynote on Global Digital Infrastructure.
But the theme that I believe was most important is that which focuses on how Governments and systems of Governance are evolving as the Covid catalyst is speeding up the development of the Metaverse, that collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.
According to a number of sources (see Mary Meeker and World Internet) there are now over 50% of humans connected and whereas
the previous 50% of humanity has shaped the Metaverse of today, it is the next 50% of humanity that is shaping the Metaverse of tomorrow.
This is where the work of Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Dr Kieron O’Hara (see article) is coming in to its own as they describe the Metaverse of Governance which is evolving in to the Four Internets: Data, Geopolitics and the Governance of Cyberspace. (book coming out shortly). Having bombarded Wendy and Kieron with articles for the past few years it was a real treat to have the opportunity to explore these ideas in conversation during the Meet the Authors Panel last Wednesday as part of the Conference.
In his introduction to the Four Internets book Internet pioneer Vint Cerf comments that predicting the future is never easy but this is precisely the challenge that is at the heart of Web Science. Since its inception the Web Science community has sought to research the evolution of online spaces (merging with the physical to become the Metaverse) through the dual lenses of both technical and social disciplines in order to understand their development, and, yes, as much as possible, try to predict what might happen next. As we increasingly rely on these digitally mediated systems which are becoming the connective tissue with which we run our lives we need Web Science more than ever.
For those of us in the WEIRD world who are already connected our very survival depends on how we study, nurture, maintain and steward the Web and all it defines in to the 21st Century. Which means that we owe it to everyone else to ensure the systems we’re building are inclusive, fair and beneficial to all mankind.
My thanks to Ibrahim El Badawi and Leanne Fry as my consistent colleagues in this venture, and to all in the Web Science community who are doing this important work.
The Future is being written in lines of Code. (Kathryn ParsonsKathryn Parsons)
In a recent interview former UK Bank of England Governor Mark Carney stresses the need for diversity in all sectors of the economy. It is important not only because it provides opportunity to a greater number of people but, quite simply, because it makes economic sense. In addition, given that digital technologies are now underpinning virtually every aspect of everybody’s lives, there is a moral imperative to ensure that the decisions we allow our technologies to make are not framed through the lens of one dominant perspective. The technology sector is still overwhelmingly white and male (as two iconic female tech innovators,Dame Stephanie Shirley and Professor Dame Wendy Hall, recently discussed in this delightful conversation) and this needs to change as a matter of urgency.
Intersticia is driven by the mission of providing the support and resources for a Fellowship of individuals, who share the common vision of caring for our Worldand all who live in it. Over the past eight years we have carefully crafted a community of people who come from all walks of life and share this vision. A big partof this is in promoting public education, through activities such as Brave Conversations and our Digital Gymnasia, but it is through our partnership with Founders and Coders (FAC) that we have been able to support individuals to become better equipped to help lead humanity in the digital age by themselves becomingbetter technologists.
Founders and Coders is guided by its values of cooperation, inclusion and social impact. FAC began investing in Palestinian coders in 2017 by providingcurriculum, mentors and course facilitators through both Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG) and the Israeli Not for Profit Kav Mashve(now Web Ahead) which promotesequal employment opportunities for Arab university graduates within the Israeli business sector. Intersticia began supporting this work by funding the FAC’s Tech for Better Founders Programme which brought graduates from the London-based Code Academy together with graduates from the GSG Code Academy to work on Tech for Better projects.
Our original vision was to provide the opportunity for graduate coders to gain experience working on real, needs based client projects, whilst simultaneouslyencouraging and developing diversity in codingthrough focusing not only on the coding itself, but on entrepreneurship and community building.
We supported three cohorts (First Founders Cohort, Second Founders Cohort and Third Founders Cohort) and from this the Yalla Co-Operative emerged whichoperates from London, Berlin and Gaza and seeks to harness the power of technology to solve societal challenges, spread knowledge and transcend borders.
Yalla is unique in its cross-border ownership and deep social focus and it is the courage of its Founders that provides an ongoing opportunity to experiment withnew ways of growing a diversely based tech start-up whilst providing support for people in areas of conflict and instability.
We have now taken the next step with FAC and Yalla with the commencement of the Yalla Apprenticeship Programme which is designed to take this one stepfurther by combining a mix of practical experience with tailored learning for the Code Academy graduates whilst simultaneously supporting the growth of Yalla itself.
We began in January 2021 by engaging FAC Founder and Intersticia Fellow Kristina Jaggard as the Programme Co-Ordinator and complemented this by engaging Ahmed Elqattawi, whom I met when I visited Gaza in January 2019 and is also now an Intersticia Fellow, to work with us on the ground in Gaza (for more on thisand the objectives of the programme see this previous post).
The Apprenticeship opportunity was advertised through Gaza Sky Geeks to both current and recently graduated Coders, and we held an Information Session on2nd March which was followed up by a formal application process which attracted fourteen applications. From these eight Coders were selected and asked toprovide a short video telling us a little about themselves, and this was followed by a twenty-minute online interview. A short-list of our applicants then undertooka technical test with some pair-coding together with interviews with the core Yalla team. After much deliberation – because all of the candidates were impressiveand more than capable – Israa Ahmad Al-Jamal and Adham Haisami, were awarded the first Yalla Apprenticeships.
We had originally envisaged beginning the programme in early May 2021 but by 10th May the conflict between Israel and Palestine had escalated to the pointwhere this became untenable. Following on from the Ceasefire on 21st May, 2021 we determined that, if Israa and Adham were ready, we were keen to get themstarted as soon as possible in order to begin to rebuild their lives and gain some hope and confidence in a more positive future.
If you see a better world you are morally obligated to go and make it. (Genevieve Bell)
Much of the conflict that happens within humanity comes from a lack of understanding of other people and their cultures, a dominance of short term self-interest, and an unwillingness to compromise. Intersticia, Founders and Coders and Yalla are committed to working against all of these by deliberately crossingborders and tirelessly working towards creating a better shared future for us all.
We are thrilled to have Israa and Adham join our community and look forward to seeing how they grasp this opportunity and make it their own.
Israa Ahmad Al-Jamal
Israa Ahmad Al-Jamal is a graduate in Computer Engineering from the Islamic University in Gaza who then worked in Web Development and recently graduatedfrom Gaza Sky Geeks Code Academy as a Full Stack Developer. Israa comes to Yalla with an array of organisational skills (particularly juggling a young family,study and work) together with an interest in design and embroidery to complement her fascination with technology. Above all what stood our for us is Israa’sfocus on the importance of teamwork and co-operation. As she said in her interview video:
“Shared joy is double joy; shared sorrow is half sorrow.”
Adham Haisami studied Software Engineering and is passionate about learning and trying new things. He loves traveling for what it can teach us about differentcultures and ways of thinking and has an innate curiosity to view and consider things differently. What stood out for us is Adham’s sense of empathy and desire to help people, which he encapsulated with the phrase:
“We all are the same, we all are humans.”