Evolution Path

The standard planning approach is to focus on where the endeavour is expected to go. People tend to think in a straight line so this usually follows a linear path to whatever outcome is envisaged by the planner, with the more sensible types going as far as to build in contingency for failure. Personally I think this approach has major flaws. Reality is almost never linear and rarely follows any set plan.

A better way to imagine the future is to consider three basic possibilities

  1. Project meets the expected goals

  2. Things fall apart

  3. Project achieves wild success
An endeavour is almost never going to meet its initially expected goals, in part because environmental pressures naturally evolve and in part because it is virtually impossible to visualise exactly what you want from the future from day one. In actuality it is going to end up somewhere in between the ‘falling apart’ in terms of being scaled down, or ‘wild success’ in terms of going further than expected. Projects that fail invariably define their end points early on and then stick to these uncompromisingly until it’s really all over.

So the smart approach probably involves three things
  1. Plan so that any ‘failure’ still has a win-win outcome

  2. Consider minimum, ideal and stretch targets for what you want to achieve

  3. Expect and plan for your goals to adapt and evolve as you go along
So far I’ve covered points 1 and 3 in previous posts. I’ve outlined broad goals but am fully prepared for the whole project to evolve and change as we learn more about what we’re dealing with, which covers point 3. With this blog focusing on voluntary community-based information and idea sharing, we’re creating a reusable knowledge base regardless of how far we get towards to the end goal, which means we really can’t lose and have covered both our minimum target and the win-win aspect. I’ve also outlined a basic vision of my hopeful outcomes for this project which covers the ideal target.

This finally leaves the matter of stretch targets and planning for wild success. The stretch target for me is a financially independent enterprise accruing revenue through advertising, brand merchandising and marketing to site members and beyond, with profits being fed back into inner-city youth projects; while also supporting fund raising for other local or global community projects. Planning for wild success takes us into thinking about scalability and what could happen in terms of expanding the offering to other regions or re-using the platform for other projects, and maybe handing over to an established social organisation to manage over the long-term.

In terms of project development then I see five levels of evolution, getting richer over time
  1. First steps – Learning, capturing information, planning, blogging and networking

  2. Technical development – Ideally open source and distributed, including information architecture, design, user experience, coding and testing of the basic feature set

  3. Interactivity – Membership with profiles and links to social networking sites, user articles and blogs, discussions, commenting, rating, questions and answers, and thank-you notes for volunteers

  4. Fully networked community – Voting for projects, fund raising, advertising, branding, and marketing

  5. Scaling – Expanding to other regions or countries, content in multiple languages, re-use of the platform for other projects, and being able to hand over to more rooted social organisations

Plans A and B

...for how we might be able to get this project done.

Plan A

Plan A is essentially an idealistic social experiment. However it pans out, we’ll learn something useful about how social networks really function...

To begin with, I start with my own social network to see if I can tap into the knowledge base of people I know, and hope the idea is compelling enough to convince them to pass it on to their friends and networks to find people they know who can offer knowledge or who might be up for getting involved. I listen and learn and spread responsibility with anyone who wants to be a part of this. I return the favour by making the project completely open and sharing everything I know about developing ideas and setting up enterprises. This blog is the first step.

Next I send out an email to the people I’ve already spoken to and know are open to the idea, and get their feedback. Then send out a mail to all my friends and hope they don’t mind the intrusion. I create a mailing list from the people who reply, followed by a Facebook group or cause or something similar to begin to build a Facebook network. At some point we extend this to a trial Facebook application and use it for updates and hopefully begin the first stages of understanding how the linkages could work.

Along the way we pool together our collective brain power, do the research and figure out the details. We build links and connections with real world youth organisations who would like to do something similar, but realistic can’t mobilise quickly enough and can’t easily afford the specialist skills needed. Maybe we can find some technical people to join the team and kick off the development of the site. Hopefully there are already volunteer developer networks that we can approach. We plan for social development and build the project in increments, and get the target volunteer network going. If it gets some degree of critical mass, we begin to look for revenue opportunities through advertising that helps the project become self-sustaining enough to fund its completion. Any excess could be fed back into organisations like the Bright Ideas Trust who are better set up to distribute funds to small enterprises in the community.

There is a risk of course that no one will care at all or that someone will simply steal the ideas we share, but the great thing about this approach is that it is win-win from the start because even if it all falls apart, the whole journey will have been captured and anything learnt open for reuse by other people who want to set up a social enterprise. And that in a nutshell, makes the case for Plan A.

Plan B

Any plan needs contingency and a fall-back.

If Plan A doesn’t get us far enough, we can always resort to creating a formal business plan and go looking for organisational support or funding. Plan B further validates Plan A because the process of working through it will have fleshed out the details and captured all the information needed to make the business case. There are enough revenue generating opportunities for this idea to be financially viable and I don’t imagine it will be difficult to find backing once we’ve cleared the groundwork. Plan B then involves finding and paying an organisation to code and manage the platform needed to run this project, and probably some kind out of outsourcing to keep cost down. We’re then looking at scaling, maintenance and maybe handing over to a national or global organisation that could keep the project alive well into the future.

I could spend longer on Plan B, but as a fall-back option, we only need to have covered its viability. Having done that in brief, I reckon there should be enough time to flesh out the details if it ever becomes a necessity.

Getting it done

If only I could simply click my fingers and have my imagination converted into reality. How easy would that be?! Sadly there’s no such magic, so I guess we need some kind of plan.

Over the past 10 years I’ve been involved with a range of different non-profit and social programmes including “Reading Together”, Inner-City School Community Exchange Programmes working with 12 to 15 year olds in Manchester, general community work with the CSV programmes, audit work with the Manchester crime and disorder partnership, anti-discrimination work for the Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Archive, anti-war research during the Iraq conflict, improving online services for people with visual disabilities with the CamSight Accessible Web Project, and most recently I’m about to start volunteering again at the Wandsworth Connexions Base – just waiting for the vetting clearances to come through. Alongside this I can apply a pretty decent knowledge of industry, business, technology, the internet, Web 2.0, and marketing; and host of professional and consulting skills that I use in the work I now do, covering strategy, innovation, communication, financial planning, project management, and user experience.

Sounds impressive? Well, frankly it isn’t. There’s a lot I don’t know and I’m not an expert in anything. I don’t know enough about the needs of inner-city kids. I know how complex social networking sites are but have no idea how Facebook works behind the interface. I am not technical and I can’t code anything clever. I’m not a designer and I can’t do logos or visuals. I’ve only got so much time and there’s a lot of research we need to do etc. etc. The list goes on...

The last time I set up something like this, there was just me, myself and I. There were no social networks I could tap into, and frankly I didn’t know enough people that could’ve helped even if there were.

But things are different now. I’ve learnt some useful things from previous experience. I belong to a huge professional network I can tap into and I know a lot of successful and highly skilled people who care about the world around them and are inclined to give something back.

So Plan A relies on you :) and Plan B relies on the traditional funding and corporate development exercise. I'll explore these in the next couple of posts.

How the project could work

There are two major benefits this project can offer

  • Better information and support for inner city youth
  • An open pool of volunteers for social organisations to tap into

Networking Volunteers

In both cases the dependency is a network of skilled volunteers. I’d imagine the sensible demographic for the volunteers needed is probably young ‘professionals’ in their early 20’s to early 30’s. I’d argue this is because for the most part they are financially liquid, responsibility free, looking for personal validation and socially inclined to help; particularly if it doesn’t involve significant or repetitive time commitment. By ‘professional’ I mean people in jobs requiring reasonable to high literacy, rather than simply people performing jobs traditionally described as professional like lawyers, accountants etc.

Given the number of social networks out there, setting up another one to compete for attention makes no sense. Better I think to use existing ones as a platform to make it easy for people to get involved.


Facebook is an obvious choice to focus on because of the way it is set up with groups, causes, and applications that can be added to profile pages, with standardised reusable platforms to build these on. All these are easy to push updates and information out into. It is also the sensible option because of how many of us are already on it. It has the largest audience and the right demographic for volunteers with high literacy and professional skill sets. MySpace, Bebo etc are possible options but they target and subsequently are populated by a much younger demographic, which is more likely to fall into the category that can use support rather being able to offer support.

With the trend towards the importance of social responsibility, there is a lot of social kudos to be gained from voluntary work, particularly in helping vulnerable young people. A Facebook application could provide volunteers with this by maybe incrementing points for time, help or content contributions, while also keeping them updated of help wanted and projects to get involved in. It could similarly highlight to profile visitors where they could get involved; and to the project it would be a way of pulling people into the site, and finding the skills and support needed to evolve and keep things running. For the more self-effacing, there could easily be private vs public options that lets them choose how much they want their friends to know about what they’re giving back to their communities.

Finally as suggested by a friend of mine (Vik) maybe there’s a way of improving career opportunities for people who volunteer for and through this project, by formalising the points into some kind of national recognition or awards scheme run through the Government or Prince’s Trust. This should be scalable across industry too. I’ll run this past the Prince’s Trust when I speak with them. Watch this space : )

Very simplistically, the application would link back into the urban survival project website which would hopefully populate basic information straight out of Facebook to save user effort, and then extend the information linked to it in terms of the work the volunteer has done, content they’ve contributed or articles they’ve written. The website itself may or may not function as a social networking site, but probably more of a portal to link volunteers and those who need help instead.

Supporting young people and organisations who need help

In terms of social networking and personal profiles, I can see why an individual would get personal value from volunteering if it could be made easier for them, and probably also from being able to tell the world and their friends about the good work they’re doing, but there probably isn’t a high likelihood that someone would want to flag on their social friend space profile that they’re struggling and need help.

Using that as a basis, I’m not expecting the project to interact with people looking for help via a social networking site, or similarly for volunteers to communicate with young people through their profile applications. If nothing else it increases the interaction risks that we’ll need to worry about. Rather I’m expecting to create a website where people who need help can search for the information they need, or log-on and request support. It is only the volunteer group that I think we can build and motivate through sites like Facebook.

In the long term, the same would apply to non-profit organisations that need volunteers. We could have a section for them to create profiles and update the help and skills they need on a running basis. This content could then flag up in volunteers’ Facebook profile applications as open for help.

Visioning the future

As Donald Trump says “As long as you are going to think anyway—you might as well think BIG!”

So here’s my initial vision for the Urban Survival Project...

Imagine a facebook style but non-profit social-networking website for volunteers who want to help inner city kids, and which populates straight out of facebook. All an invidual would have to do is add an application to participate and get involved.

"An open-source online portal of condensed information and personal support for young people struggling to get through education or work; achieved by linking them together with a socially networked pool of young professionals over the web who can not only help provide the support and bring this information together, but also become an easy to access volunteer resource for social organisations in general."

Urban Survival Project Goals:

  • Harness the power of social networks to make a difference
  • Build a portal of helpful information for inner city youth
  • Make it easy for young professionals to help young non-professionals get where they want to go
  • Be self sustaining, transferable and scalable

Facing Challenges

I guess this is the point where I stop and take stock of what I’m facing. I really do feel this is something worth doing and a project that can be done. But there are realities that need to be considered.

  1. We’re essentially talking a about social networking website that feeds out of Facebook, while simultaneously functioning as an information portal and connecting up with offline youth organisations. Getting this to reality is not going to be easy. I clearly can’t do this by myself. Even if I had a matrix style download of every skill available I just wouldn’t have the time to achieve something on this scale! So there’s a plan A and a plan B and I’ll discuss them further in a future post. Plan A is based on me exploring my social network and their connections to gather together volunteers and friends, and plan B is the formal fall back of funding and outsourcing the development.

  2. There’s a lot I don’t know about the groups we’re focusing on and the only way to achieve that is by immersing myself in the offline world of youth support organisations, and hopefully learn from others who are already part of that world. I’ve recently started working with Connexions in Tooting so am in the process of updating my understanding of life as an inner city youngster. I’m also hoping to find people in my network that already volunteer and who could talk me through the gaps and issues they see.

  3. There are plenty of other websites out there, both for young people and volunteers separately. Once I’ve got this blog up and running I’ll start researching them to validate the gaps I believe there are, and also to chuck together a simple SWOT analysis. Any help with this research, even if just listing the sites out there, would be awesome!

  4. Any project like this needs longevity and sustainability if it is to survive. There are day to day development and maintenance costs; it needs critical mass to make an impact; and unless I’m looking to maintain this for life, it needs to be transferable to an organisation that can take it forward when we’re done with it. These are all considerations that will need to feed into what we focus on in setting up this project. I’ll come back to this in a later post too.

  5. Finally and most crucially there are some serious safety risks to consider in terms of working with vulnerable young people, which may mean that any direct online or project-based adult volunteer and young person interaction is just not feasible. For now I’m looking into building relationships with offline youth support organisations to whom we might hopefully be able direct volunteers and thus the responsibility for managing those risks, but need to work a bit more on what it means for this project.
These are the 5 key ones I’ve thought of so far. I’ll keep adding to them as I go along. If you can think of any others, please add your comments!

Exploring the themes

Having figured out the basics of what to focus on, the next step involved validating what they could mean for this project. I figured the simplest way to capture what was floating around my head was to brainstorm my thoughts into some kind of mind map as below. This really is first draft and early stage, so it would really help if you add your thoughts into the mix, but go easy on the criticism - there's more to come and it’s still very blue sky :)

Surviving Education

From the perspective of a young person, this to me is about getting help, tips and advice on getting past the hassles of studying, and help with moving on to Further Education or training when options are limited. We can probably safely assume the group we’re focusing on isn’t hugely academic or they probably wouldn’t need the support in the first place. Maybe we could even provide help and tips on essays, and some capability to ask academic questions and get them answered.

Experience of working as a tutor with kids in inner city schools suggests that the primary reasons behind academic apathy among this group is a combination of lack of support and poor understanding of how education can fit into a viable career path. Maybe we could find a way to produce some simple visuals around this. Maybe share posts on some of our own personal experiences. Volunteers could get involved as writers, helpers, tutors and mentors. All they’d need is a reasonable degree of higher education, and most of the young professional target group should already have this.

Surviving Jobs and Careers

Getting into jobs when you’ve left school with limited or sub standard education is always tricky. Options are limited and work on offer isn’t necessarily exciting. We’re possibly looking at apprenticeships and vocations, but there must be ways to help open up more options and raise awareness of the multitude of options out there.

There are plenty of services around CV writing, cover letters etc. but conversely there are challenges in wading through the information on offer alongside gaps in the quality of advice within that information. As a volunteer network we could do a lot more to distil out key points of note, draft tailored CVs for different types of jobs written in a language representative of the applying demographic, help proof cover letters and applications, run mock interviews, advise on employee rights, and highlight success factors. Most crucially though we could use our own working experiences to help motivate readers and outline progression paths, even if only to demonstrate how non-linear they often are.

Surviving Small Business

If exciting or fulfilling job options are limited when you’ve struggled through education, then entrepreneurial options open up a host of more interesting and challenging opportunities, but of course with significantly greater risk. There is a host of help and information available for people looking to set up their own enterprise, along with funding support from organisations including the excellent
Bright Ideas Trust, but the information available is generally aimed at high literacy audiences and funding needs applying for. I think there is a gap we can fill in between the stage where someone has an idea or dream and applies to make a go of it.

Essentially I’m envisaging providing free ‘consulting’ services in the form of advice and idea exploration. We could also provide information on how to manage ideas and creativity, plan and strategise so that the business doesn’t simply replace a job but instead grows into some scalable and profitable, basic accounting and IT, and articles on professionalism and key factors in making a success of things. Volunteers could make a difference through writing about their experiences or articles on some of these areas, provide help with exploring ideas, and develop funding applications and business plans. This area of support is probably going to need volunteers with fairly specific business skill-sets, but there are a lot of us out there who do this for a living, and the fundamental areas of helping with motivation and encouragement and creativity are open to anyone who’s willing to get involved.

Surviving Life

From a volunteer perspective this would probably require people with specialist skills or experience of social work. So realistically I see this area as being more of an information portal discussing and providing links to support available. Maybe some help with applying for available support or housing. There must be any number of people out there who’ve achieved against the odds and might be willing to share their experience as blogs or articles. This area needs work, so if you have any thoughts please help!!

Fig. - Brainstorm around Themes (click the picture to view it full size)

Themes Mind Map v0.2

Figuring out the basics

Eureka moment over, the obvious next step was to explore the areas this project could and should impact. With a spotlight on inner-city kids, help around surviving school and education seems the obvious place to start, followed by the next step in this stereotypical life cycle which I guess is some way of making a success of things.

Thinking of volunteers in the young professional age group, and using myself as an initial model, I guess the area that most of us could realistically add value in terms of knowledge transfer or support is the transition from education into life opportunities, particularly for young people who are struggling to use education as a stepping stone or who simply want to do something different.

It therefore might make sense to narrow things down to the 13/14 yr old upto early adult age group for the target area that this project should focus on providing support for. Much younger and we’re getting into the need for more specialist teaching or behavioural skills; our offered knowledge and experience begins to appear less relevant; audience vulnerability increases and the interaction risks become significantly higher. Odds are also that parents and teachers play a bigger role in the child’s interaction with the internet, and there are a large number of support services and sites already out there for young children.

At 14 however, teenagers step into the final GCSE stretch and the whole idea of further education, life skills and career progression really begins to take on relevance; and as a mostly successful and young professional social network we are still close enough to the experience to have something valuable to offer. 13 is worth considering too as it is the age at which a lot of children begin to get sorted into sets that determine their likely outcomes at GCSE, and maybe there’s something we can do to help improve their chances of achieving better outcomes. The young adult age group really begins to take us into the space we can help most - through experience, and support with further education, job applications, career paths, venture scoping, setting up small businesses and mentoring.

This then sort of wraps up into a target age group of 13/14 upto early 20’s... obviously needs more thought, but is a good enough place to start; along with an offering around support with education, jobs and small businesses. As a holistic view though, we're missing a major area for vulnerable young people that is often the underlying factor behind their struggles with education and opportunity, and this is generally surviving the pressures of life itself.

At an initial glance, we again seem to be getting into specialist support areas, and I’m not entirely sure quite how our imaginary volunteer network could directly help, but that doesn’t mean the project can’t dedicate a section that functions as an information portal that links into more personal support services. I need to spend a bit of time talking to people working in social and care services, and maybe we’ll find some way of helping more proactively. Meantime ‘surviving life’ then makes up the fourth theme for this project.

Approach angle regardless, I think this gives us a nice circle of ‘themes’ to start fleshing out, and the idea is beginning to take on life!

Urban Survival Project Themes:

  • Surviving Education
  • Surviving Jobs
  • Surviving Business
  • Surviving Life

Themes Outline

How it all started

Picture winter and a Saturday morning. In this case the 10th of November 2007...

...It’s nearly mid day and I’m at loose ends but its too cold to go out. So on goes the laptop and one thing leads to another until I end up scrolling through some photographs posted on Flickr by a friend of mine (Meriem). In the background the TV flickers away too; except instead of pictures it’s Ray Mears surviving some new adventure in a desert somewhere warm. Back to the photos and I’m stunned by how amazing they are. These aren’t just photographs... these are ‘M&S' photographs! Rich art and serious talent. The pictures make me wonder why she does a desk job instead of living a life less ordinary. I can't think of a good answer but it makes me stop and think about what I’m doing with my life instead. About what I'm good at. And what I'm passionate about.

After a brief and misguided afternoon's attempt to go back and revive drawing skills that helped me survive dreary days at school, I give up and think again. I realise that the only thing that still means anything is the social stuff I’ve done. It’s depressing to note that I can’t really answer why I’ve done nothing useful since setting up the CamSight Accessible Web Project, except that maybe I’ve just been busy... or lazy if I dispense with the excuses. My thought process spirals over to the work I recently started with Connexions and I start thinking about the challenges that young people in urban areas face just to survive their journey through life and break the cycles of limitation they're in.

In the background Ray is back on and busy outlining some ancient survival technique of tribesfolk in a hugely inhospitable terrain somewhere unrecognisable. I randomly wonder if surviving urban life is really that much easier for anyone who doesn’t know what they're doing, or hasn't started out with access to the right knowledge or support. Experience of the gaps in services and information available for vulnerable young people makes it a pretty straightforward answer. It probably is just as hard.

But with Facebook and Bebo and MySpace, there exists a whole social network of young professionals with the inclination and knowledge and skills that could help inner city youth not just survive but successfully exploit life in the urban jungle, if only there was an easy way to link the two together... and there you have it – the base rationale for The Urban Survival Project!


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