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The RSA has a new partnership with Apolitical, a network for policy makers and global government innovation. Alexander Starritt, Director of Media at Apolitical explores the overlap between the RSA and Apolitical, and how a combined approach to innovation and social change that harnesses the power of networks has the ability to create a better shared future.

This isn’t a good moment for networks. The biggest and most famous of them all, Facebook, stands accused of preying on its members’ personal information.

And there’s a growing perception that online networks, in particular, get people hooked with pictures and games, then destroy their ability to concentrate with push notifications and use their preferences to sell them things.

Yet the RSA has a network. Apolitical, which I helped set up, is a network for policymakers and government innovation around the world. Why do we think networks are something worth spending time and money on building? And are there any lessons for the Facebooks of this world?

It’s certainly not because we think it’s easy. The internet – which never forgets – is littered with groups and forums and communities that no one ever used. Networks are only useful when they have lots of other people in them; how do you convince person one to join?

I don’t want to speak for the RSA, but at Apolitical we think the effort is worth it because networks can be extraordinarily powerful if they’re actually for something.

When organised around a purpose, they can serve to organise the best of our energies and skills, and create an effect many times greater than the sum of its parts.

The RSA’s network is instrumental in achieving its mission of creating positive social change and impacting the lives of people and communities across the world. At Apolitical, the purpose of our network is to help people in governments be more effective in their work. For the rest of us, that means everything from better schools and cleaner air to less congestion and more equal societies.  

The most basic way a network can help them do that is by stopping them reinventing the wheel. Policymakers in many countries are trying to tackle closely comparable problems in closely comparable ways. Instead of a thousand individuals each trying to come up with an answer, a network of a thousand people becomes a supermind, with everyone exchanging and sparking insights off one another.

For example, some of our Australian public servants who are working to reduce suicide rates among indigenous communities connected with colleagues in Canada who deal with many of the same issues.

Or we have dozens of innovation labs in different countries – Colombia, Egypt, Israel, Moldova – swapping ideas and talking each other through knotty problems like how to measure the impact of their work.

The RSA, at the risk of stating the obvious, carries out cutting-edge research, and looks toward harnessing the power of networks, empowering people to have a transformational positive impact on society. Its network offers Fellows a collaborative space to share ideas, offer individual expertise and enable project support.

This principle of the supermind is now being enthusiastically applied to many aspects of our lives. If you go on Amazon, you can see what other people think of books; on TripAdvisor, you can find out how lumpy the mattresses are in a beach hut on the other side of the world.

What’s crazy is that there’s no easy way for an individual to find out about the lumps in a particular solution they want to try. That’s what both Apolitical and the RSA are trying to fix, creating a unique overlap between our networks.

Can this principle be applied to networks like Facebook? It’s not as utopian as it sounds. Up till now, Facebook and Twitter have been at their best when helping people work on something together.

During the Arab Spring, protesters used Facebook and Twitter to exchange information, to organise and to encourage one another. It’s a dramatic equivalent of what happens every day on Facebook, when people post things like ‘Does anyone know how to cook boeuf bourguignon?’ or ‘Does anyone know a good plumber?’

You could ask Google those questions, but by asking a network you get information that you can trust more, because it comes from people you know. And the answers you get are likely to be much more specific to you and the things you really need.

A network without a purpose like this is just the equivalent of a bunch of people sitting in a room telling jokes and showing each other pictures. Which is fun, but it makes you wonder who’s paying for the room.  A network with a purpose is the most sophisticated cognitive engine the human race has ever encountered: a supermind.

The ability to connect with these networks means unleashing creativity and collectively coming up with solutions for contemporary problems – both in government and wider society. You can learn more about the Apolitical network here, and if you’re not yet a Fellow of the RSA, get in touch with Kavya Menon at kavya.menon@rsa.org.uk to find out more about the RSA Fellowship and the offer to Apolitical members!

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