Cog blog

February 3, 2011 by
Filed under: The RSA 

I tend – perhaps inevitably – to get fewer comments when I blog about the RSA. But as well as wanting feedback from Fellows, I would be really interested to hear what people outside the Society think of the model I am about to describe.

The RSA to which I was appointed over four years ago had a lot going for it and much to be proud of in its recent and longer distant history.  But the Trustees and senior staff had also identified some major challenges which needed to be addressed, such as the external profile, image and impact of the RSA, and low levels of Fellowship engagement.

It is tedious and self-serving to go through the progress we have made on these fronts (and anyway I am hardly the most objective witness). But even as we have seen the RSA brand spread globally through RSA Animate or our influence grow through nationally respected research projects, conferences and engagement with senior politicians, and even as we have seen higher than ever levels of fellow engagement through channels like RSA Catalyst and our regional, local and issue based networks, I have found a big question nagging away at me: ‘There may be good progress on many fronts but where does it all end up?’.

By this I mean; ‘how do the key developments and functions in the Society cohere into a secure foundation for the RSA’s next stage of development?’  Or to put it (yet) another way; ‘we may have a new strapline – 21st century enlightenment – and many successful aspects to our work but how does that translate into a story about the organisation as a whole?’

Of course, I wouldn’t be asking the question if I didn’t think I was nearing an answer. Here it is:

The RSA impact engine

The model captures the unique (and I really think it is unique) way in which the modern RSA seeks to deliver its historic mission of innovation for the benefit of society.

The ideas and influence cog is about how we bring the most exciting ideas in the world into the RSA and how we use our brand, reputation and networks to get our ideas noticed by everyone from cabinet ministers to budding social entrepreneurs.   

The research and development cog is about how we develop, refine, test and roll out our own  ideas about how best to enhance human capability (with a particular focus on the capabilities of the least advantaged). 

The Fellowship activities cog is about how RSA Fellows are themselves a powerful source of ideas and a motor of change in both society and The Society.

Although perhaps seeming outdated in its mechanical overtones, the metaphor is intended to imply that each cog must be turning in its own right and that, as it does so, it should be helping to turn the other cogs. If I was better at PowerPoint art I would also have sparks flying out the machine which would symbolise the things the RSA helps to create which then spin out into the wider world (everything from the Great Exhibition to Tomorrow’s Company to the RSA Academy).

As I listened to some fascinating debates in our Fellowship Council yesterday I could hear many Council members describing aspects of this model.

There is further to go – much further in some areas – before all the cogs are turning as fast as we want and each is connecting as well as it could with the others. It is, for example, vital that we build swiftly on the early success of Catalyst to create a strong set of expectations about how groups of Fellows are encouraged and supported to develop their own projects. Also there are important aspects of the RSA – like 8 John Adam Street – which impact on different cogs in different ways. But this, it seems to me, is a powerful way of thinking about the RSA; what makes it special and what gives it such incredible potential for the future.



  • Elaine Michel

    Sir Ken Robinson’s ‘Changing Paradigms’ applies to this and as he indicated in his talk, using cogs seems a 19th century approach. I don’t think any of the elements work independently. I think a lava lamp would be a more accurate pictograph. Ideas, influence, research, development, fellowship activity fluidly rising and falling, joining and separating are the wax and the RSA itself is the water which helps support it all. Your events/communication are the halogen lamp that lights it up and makes us take notice. If there are low levels of fellowship engagement, what is being done to challenge that? Maybe your fellows should be set SMART objectives each year as a condition of membership?

  • Jeff De Cagna FRSA

    Thanks for sharing this with us Matthew. The thinking is extremely exciting, but the choice of a machine metaphor is problematic for me. The progressive notion of 21st century enlightenment should not be expressed using language and imagery more appropriate to the last century.

    To me, the RSA isn’t an engine, but a renewable source of world-changing energy, fueled by an infinite flow of ideas that are converted into usable power through research and development as well as real-world experimentation across the Fellowship. The learning derived from this catalytic process drives the creation of new ideas that are fed back into the cycle.

    I hope this feedback is helpful to you. Again, thanks for sharing. I look forward to more posts on this important topic.

  • Hywel Lloyd

    Matthew, you rightly mentioned the meaningfulness (accidental or otherwise of ‘but’ when you attended the Green Alliance conference earlier this week, a But or two may have slipped into this post . . .

    On the cog model i’d agree that mechanical models are a bit old fashioned as metaphor, if I was being techie you could readily argue that an engine only has one cog that is moving of its own accord, and that drives all the others – moving in proportion to it, not at their own rate.

    Happy to throw about metaphor ideas – the RSA as a volcanic from which the lava flow of ideas and innovations flow; perhaps the Fellows as a herd or flock . . . . is the RSA the shepherd . . or something fermenting, perhaps there is a beer metaphor in here somewhere

  • lilly

    Are you suggesting that the notion of – group does research, finds ideas and seeks to implement them, is new? enlightening? or innovative?

    I assume not.

    HOW it is done and WHETHER it is done properly is the BIG question.

    I would suggest that the RSA’s internal and general ‘engagement’ is very poor just now. You didn’t even consult properly over a strap line!! Instead of listening to members and developing ideas you pay high paid consultants to decide for us and then spend months trying to sell or explain it. From poor engagement comes poor ideas comes poor buy-in. Sound familiar?

    You need to get the basics right but if you think this is the ‘new way’ I’m not surprised you are still at the basics. Saying that I’m all for proper engagement and ideas development ~ and the RSA recommends?

  • Matthew Taylor

    Thanks for all these comments. When it comes to metaphors it looks like machines are out!

    As for lilly’s comment (perhaps you should share your identity so it isn’t just you and me who know it !): For the record, the brand consultant (a Fellow) who developed the strap line with us did consult Fellows, staff and stakeholders. We publicised the idea of 21CE in this blog, the Journal, my annual lecture, the Fellows’ newsletter etc. and generally is has had a very good reception both inside and outside the Society (including 415,000 worldwide views so far of my interpretation of 21CE on YouTube). The Trustees didn’t call a vote or try to ask every Fellow because (a) I’m not sure busy Fellows want to be asked to make a judgement on every major operational decision the RSA takes and (b) because that’s why we have Trustees who are empowered to provide strategic oversight for the organisation.

  • Indy Neogy

    I like the idea, although the diagram offends my engineering sensibilities as it’s difficult for the cogs to run at different speeds.

    As a relatively new fellow, my perception is that the diagram highlights one problem and obscures another area of potential improvement:

    1) There’s no direct link between Fellows and “Ideas and Influence” – I suspect, from a short period of observation, the diagram reflects the reality – and I feel it’s a lost opportunity.

    The advantage of the research route is that it establishes consensus and provides evidence – and potentially new ideas. The disadvantage is that the RSA has a limited budget for research and so it sacrifices many areas of possible influence.

    It’s also worth noting in the other direction that the RSA presentation of ideas, lecture style, is good for RSA Animate but could be improved in terms of influencing Fellows. (And it seems to me this is an underestimated avenue of engagement.)

    2) The diagram obscures the challenges at the interface between “Research and Development” and the Fellows. Here my observation is that there’s still work to do – and it’s not just about Catalyst, as valuable as that is. There’s something else missing – and perhaps it’s as much about connecting the Fellows up to each other as any action on the R&D side, but it seems to me it’s much easier to find out about things that have already happened than things that are in action – but you lose involvement when people don’t hear about new projects…

  • Harvey Summers

    I think the cogs model is fine as far as it goes, but what is needed is to add levers and show how the levers can overcome resistance to result in a better world. The gears represent activity – but the model does not show goals or impact and is therefore not compelling outside of RSA.

    I would also point out that your approach fails to capture the energy and innovation outside the scope of your fellowship. As a person with much to contribute but without the means to become a fellow, like most, our energy is spent watching and not contributing. One of your levers should be to harness and focus that energy.

    This would make this model more relevant as it would put me in a relationship to a goal.

  • Tessy Britton

    I like the sort of machine/factory metaphor – because it creates the impression of productivity. I think you could describe the current situation as two production lines – one operated by Fellows and one by RSA itself. Occasionally the operators throw something at each other – sometimes it gets caught and sometimes it doesn’t. There are some enthusiastic people who try and run between the two production lines giving messages – occasionally getting run over.

  • mas

    PowerPoint Art is an oxymoron.

    Tessy sums up how I view the RSA.

    The idea of fellowship activity incubating ideas that are then picked up, researched and developed further before ultimately being used for greater influence is good.

    However as things stand I struggle to see how that can be. I remember commenting over a year ago on a similar theme to make the point that the RSA ‘projects’ seem separate and detached. I don’t see how I contribute to them, despite that at least two are areas I’m very interested in.

    So to make the method illustrated work I think there has to be a move away from the model of two separate areas of activity linked together by some (very good) active people running between the two.

    Maybe an alternative picture would have the middle section not as a cog but as some sort of weaver helping link together relevant strands of activity, interest, resources, support etc. in order to better help towards that upper aim of influence.

  • Lilly Evans

    A very brief point.

    With RSA strap line referring to 21st century why is the graphic representation so firmly rooted in pre-20th century cogs/ wheels?

    Surely it is possible to come up with a graphic that reflects the aesthetic and thinking tools of the iPad and Android generations.

  • Matthew Kalman

    Hi Matthew,

    I think the other diagram you really need to add to your website asap is something like a set of timelines covering each one of the RSA’s projects showing their name, what broad stage they are at – from idea stage through to output stage (plus links to who the contacts are, links to any blog posts/web pages/discussion forums about them).

    This would enable Fellows like me to instantly see the extent of the RSA’s project activity, how close each project is to completion, who to get in touch with to help a project etc etc.

    I think it will be *far* more effective than the pages of PDFs that seem to be how to find out about them all currently.

    A downloadable, or embedded, PDF does not make for the most usable or effective webpage, I don’t think.

    Just think how great it would be to have a single web page to link to when you say to people “Here are the projects the RSA is doing…”! :-)

    I’m not thinking that the timeline for each project should be a fully-blown Gannt chart – but something simpler and cuter, with just enough granularity to show progress.

    It you want to do this but are not sure quite how, I could try asking David McCandless for some pointers – he’s the Information is Beautiful guy… I bet plenty of Fellows would have ideas though. Maybe you could run a little RSA competition for the cutest way to display project timeliness and related info? Maybe it can just be done with (free?) software like ‘Many Eyes’…?


    Matthew K

    PS I’m not too concerned about how postmodern the metaphor in an image is. Maybe you could swap it for some kind of waterfall of flowing energy, or something… With tiny bodies of lots of Fellows flowing through… ;-)

  • Livy

    Maybe you could swap it for some kind of waterfall of flowing energy, or something… With tiny bodies of lots of Fellows flowing through…

    Matt dude, you just reminded me of something I saw last night in a Chinese restaurant… ;)

  • lilly

    Matthew, you think full name identity over content? Ok, what level of identity do all those posting comments need to make here to be accepted as points of view??

    Perhaps we don’t all have an agenda beyond an honest opinion.

    I note again you don’t go into detail about how you will consult members or plan to.

    Oh and reel in the ego……Cognitive Media did a great job with animates, don’t assume its just your talking thats got everyone streaming to youtube. Try your next speech without an animate, put in on YouTube, explaining Enlightenment in Action.

    A short speech and few viewers I suspect.

  • Duncan Lawie

    I really like Matthew’s suggestion of a “Gantt-let” for the projects page.

    And I’m rather concerned that we are more worried about the shape of the blobs in the diagram than their labels, which look about right to me, and the need for them to interact properly, which I think is an appropriate aim for the RSA.

    — Though seeing three, I was trying to work out the Cultural Theory take (or has the Fatalist has already wandered off?)

  • Matthew Taylor

    Thanks for all these comments folks. I too like Matthew K’s idea and have already spoken to the projects and web team about it. The truth is that we have much higher levels of Fellow engagement than ever before. At last count between 200 and 300 Fellows were very actively involved in one project or another (on steering groups, participating in research etc.). But I want us to go further. The trick is to integrate FRSA engagement as an intrinsic and valuable part of the project not see it as an add on or another responsibility for already multi-tasked research staff.

    I have to respond to ‘lilly’ (he is after all a very active Fellow). Of course I am aware that it is Animate which has helped the 21CE lecture spread. But the reason I am pleased is not for my ego (at least not primarily!) it is that getting on for half a million people have watched a film which raises the profile and awareness of the RSA.

  • Tessy Britton

    Could I add Matthew {particularly after my colourful comment yesterday :)} that I think that what Thomas Neumark et al are doing creating a network around the Connected Communities project (not just a steering group which can feel a bit elite) is exemplary practice. Using the Fellowship website to make sure it is transparent and open I feel is working really well and also maximises on the RSA’s convening powers – drawing people together to connect with others interested in that area, as well as the RSA project itself. Well done!

  • Matthew Kalman

    Hi Matthew and Duncan,

    Good to hear that you think the ‘Gantt-let’ timelines idea could be useful.

    I feel like it could well boost the impact/visibility of all this project work and also helpfully double-up as a really useful networking/organising tool.

    Also, it’s not static – it’s a snapshot of a very active organisation, its ideas, its outputs, its Fellows….

    Though, of course, it’s extra work for someone to design a page that offers this – and for people to remember to add in when their project hits a milestone.

    It might be fun to invite Fellows (and others) to send in designs for such a webpage – then you don’t get left having to do all the work in-house. Pick the best bits from what comes in? There could be a prize for the best design: perhaps a meal with the RSA Chief Executive; runner-up, two meals with Chief Exec ;-)

    It’s not exactly timelines, but if you want to see how good you are at turning data into clear charts, have a go at this fun little Graph Design IQ test:

    Come to think of it, there’s at least one really good free online timelines-making tool – but I’ve forgotten its name right now. The resulting timelines from this tool are probably a bit big to able to put, say, a whole year’s timelines all one page, but you never know. They do look really good, you can embed relevant documents, photos etc. (Though this visual complexity wouldn’t necessarily make it as easy to see that project A is at step 1, but project B is on step 4 and is completed).

    I hope this is a good/doable idea, and some time soon anyone will be able to look at the RSA website and say “Wow, look at all that project activity!”.


    Matthew K

  • Stephen Feber

    In the old old days of what we called revolutionary socialism (though as far as I can work out there were only ever about 15,000 of us and that included the IMG) we talked a lot about theory and practice. Though as I recall it was all one way – Marxist theory and revolutionary practice. And we, in retrospect, were embarrassingly triumphant about very small things. However, that aside – the idea of theory or thinking informing practice and vice versa should be at the heart of what Matthew is writing about. And I do think that this is starting to happen – Connected Communities – the project I’m most involved in is exactly this – social network theory being tested out. So too the Academy and Peterborough and other projects. It’s great that there’s so much more engagement space – but I would challenge Matthew and the RSA about the thinking space – it’s much much too constrained right now. Other projects I am involved in have much more flexibility and flow. We need small colloquia – small conferences with subjects but no fixed agendas. Facilitated discussion more than ‘expert’ presentation. There’s much more ‘social brain’ expertise in the audience very often – collective thinking power – than on the platform. And the fluidity of thought informing practice and the power of reflection and connection are really not well described but gearing metaphors – it’s much more an organism. Biology not engineering.

  • JamieC

    Interesting responses, it does show that visualisation is very important for people! I can understand where some folk are coming from with the last century feel to cogs, however it is a nice reflection on our history as a Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

    I think that what is exciting about the concept you are outlining, regardless of the specific imagery used, is an international society of experts, thought leaders and downright incredible people, working together with the expertise of the RSA’s Project, Fellowship and other teams to deliver real social change. If we can truly harness the power of the different strands of the RSA in working together rather than in isolated silos then we will really be able to live up to the ideals and challenges we set ourselves.

    And in regards to the 21st Century Enlightenment drive of the RSA, I think as a Society we should be celebrating the contribution that this is making to debate and discussion. The Animate series are proving incredibly popular of course, and should be celebrated for the access they provide to RSA material. However it is not simply the visual presentation which is drawing viewers, it is the intellectual content which attracts and stimulates across the world.

  • lilly

    I’m not quite sure how to take your personal attack Matthew. I’m not sure it matters if I’m male/ female, black.white or active/ inactive RSA member. You imply my view isn’t valid because we both know my full identity and passport number?!?

    Anyway, to clarify. You say consultation was primarily used to establish the 21CE tag-line. But this isn’t true and you’ve said so yourself in this blog. You go on to say that members are far to busy to be concerned with providing feedback on a tag-line or branding of their organisation and anyway that is the role of the democratic trustees to decide on our behalf. You expect members to engage in projects, continue to support via membership fee’s, events and networking but we can’t be bothered apparently to feedback into the vision, future and public identity of our organisation? Showing yourself in the model of your ex-boss when it comes to listening and control.

    Bursting the youtube bubble…Did it ever cross your mind that with nearly 500000 views only 2000 likes isn’t great. Perhaps many people expected a bit more or something a little different from the confusing tag line. Its also worth noting its one of the least viewed of all the animates series. I know you’re more a PR man but sometimes just having attention isn’t good sometimes its the right type of attention.

    To conclude I’d be more than interested to see some factual evidence of membership consultation and RSA democracy? Some factual evidence that the 21CE is really having a global impact on the perception of the RSA? or is even understood and supported across members? Or some clarity as to how these engines actually work – nice words but once again short on delivery.

  • Stephen Feber

    lilly – Interesting of course to compare the RSA with TED. TED’s certainly not democratic and it’s run in a slightly curious evangelical style by Chris Anderson. But it certainly has reach and influence – not sure about how much power it has but it’s definitely a strong connector of people and propagator of ideas. And since it’s out on the Web post Chris buying it – its influence has blossomed.

  • Matthew Kalman

    Hi Matthew,

    The impact and perception of the RSA is mentioned in Lilly’s latest comment.

    One of the best – free, easy, quick! – ways to both keep tabs on the impact and perception of the RSA and simultaneously help increase the impact of the RSA would be to create a Netvibes online dashboard page of RSA-related activity on the web.

    Such a dashboard would enable all RSA members – and the rest of the world – to see in real-time such things as:

    – Tweets from RSA accounts, or using RSA-related hash tags
    – Blogs from or about the RSA (eg MT blog, projects blog etc)
    – Videos from the RSA
    – Webpage mentions of the RSA etc.
    – A Google calendar of RSA events (which others can then embed in their websites too)

    Basically any website or service that offers a public RSS feed can quickly be added to a Netvibes web dashboard. So can most search results pages.

    If you want people to see that the RSA is an active organisation, with lots of active Fellows, this must be about the quickest way to do it (and it’s free, as I said).

    You can keep the dashboard private and in-house for a bit, to see if you like it, before making it public. And just turn it off if you don’t like it.

    (One slightly more complex thing – but really valuable – is adding a Delicious/social bookmarking widget to the dashboard, so that we all could have access to a growing resource of RSA-relevant webpages, tagged with their topics. There’s a bit of a questionmark over Delicious right now, and I’m not sure if a good widget which shows the tags is currently available).

    BTW, a Netvibes dashboard is much easier to set up than the ‘Gantt-let’ timelines for RSA projects that I suggested on Friday.

    Though I certainly think timelines could be a great way to bring alive RSA project activity for all to see, and help people find the outputs, contacts etc. (Did the RSA web team or projects team offer any feedback on the idea, when you spoke to them?)

    (Though maybe these timelines could be done using – the tool I couldn’t remember the name of. As I said before, though, it might be impossible to get a year’s worth of timelines on a page, using big, pretty Dipity timelines. I think it’s important – for full impact – to get lots on a page at once, in a grid – or whatever.)


    Matthew K

    PS I think the new-ish book ‘The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change’ might be good pointer to the kind of approach the RSA should take online – a very transparent and empowering approach. You might be doing much of this already. I’ll try to read the book, once it emerges from whichever box it’s in. (I just moved house).

  • Matthew Kalman

    re TED.

    I’ve never quite had to time to follow the TED stuff properly.

    But I did recently notice something called TEDx – sort of semi-unofficial TED-style events blossoming, I think….?

    This sounds like a potentially fruitful approach.

    Oh, here’s their website:

    And blurb:
    “TEDx was created in the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading.” The program is designed to give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level.

    At TEDx events, a screening of TEDTalks videos — or a combination of live presenters and TEDTalks videos — sparks deep conversation and connections. TEDx events are fully planned and coordinated independently, on a community-by-community basis.”

    Yep, definitely sounds great to me…


  • stephen feber

    Matt – TED is great – I’m going in a few weeks – I’m a bit of an addict in fact. TEDx – yes they’ve started to run worldwide – they are way below the TED standard in some ways but they’re a great forum. Very easy to meet people and talk to them. RSA can feel really frozen up in comparison. TED has its detractors but if you take Ken Robinson for example – his TED talks have had a great impact. But we need spaces and places that facilitate exchange – that’s starting to happen more I think. The RSA already feels so different to when I was first approached to be a Fellow some years back.

  • lilly

    Yes Stephen perhaps an interesting comparison with RSA and TED’s style.

    Personally I’m a little more unmoved than I should be by what should be great concept but is simply quite good to flick through (and a little expensive and exclusive to attend or partake!).

    I see Sarah Silverman has had a recent run-in with Chris Anderson’s censorship – calling TED an ‘unsafe haven and barnacle of mediocrity on Bill Gates asshole’. Also criticised by Nassem Tallib (Black Swan) as a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.” His gripe like mine is when agenda, politics and power-based agendas undermine potential through style over substance and dumbed down options.

  • stephen feber

    Sure – not perfect and there have been some low moments – especially a strange Anderson diversion into world religion – he’s the son of missionaries – however the polemical responses to TED are just that. It’s the side conversations and connections that are the main power source – the platform is a catalyst. As for the show stuff – people take speaking there very seriously and it shows – the quality is generally high as result. There are things to learn. At the other end of the spectrum is the Long Now Foundation – Californian without the slight cult air of TED – very laid back and powerful in a different way. The RSA feels controlled, too tight – but the networks are opening the conversations – which is the key thing. However I am quite unsure about the RSA’s centre of gravity intellectually – it has to have debated, argued for long term vision – your point I think from previous posts? There’s no proper theory to practice debate afoot.

  • Matthew Taylor

    Last night I attended a packed London networks meeting in a wine bar in Smithfield. It was organised and hosted by Fellows but drew on our excellent network manager team. The three project presentations were from Fellows. They weren’t as polished as TED (or even TEDx) but neither were they censored by the RSA or any other controlling figure. There was no bureaucracy, no moaning about John Adam Street just a group of people excited to be meeting and committed to exploring how to make an impact on the world. We have to work hard with Fellows to find out which formats work best and to achieve better integration between different RSA activities (events. projects, Fellows networks) but this is surely the future of the RSA.

  • stephen feber

    Personally I’m not moaning – I’m involved – the organisation is much more open now. I’m increasingly meeting Fellows outside of John Adam Street – in different parts of the Uk on my travels – it’s working in a more fluid way. People are curious about the RSA – I’m asked more about it. TED’s just a comparator and far from perfect as you know. It’s right though to debate direction and right to look to the long term framework of thought. Which is why I mentioned the Long Now Foundation. Some of the areas of thinking that Gresham College are involved in too – long term financing produce fruitful overlap. Someone described it (the RSA) to me recently as the ‘best think tank’ out there – which I find depressing – never having got into a tank to do any thinking…..

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