The thinking behind the Activate Summit event

The premise that the Internet is changing everything is only more potent now than it was when many people first considered that it might be true. Today we’re seeing how its capabilities have found their way into the hands of those who are actively changing the world.

But the key questions haven’t yet been played out enough. What does the Internet mean? How far will the changes go? Which aspects of civilization itself will become something different, perhaps even unrecognizable to us today through the pervasive effect of the network?

This is what we want to surface with The Guardian’s Activate Summit. Activate is an event about the people who are uncovering the answers to those questions.

Who are the ‘Activators’?

We’ve designed the event to get into the heads of the people driving the most important changes in politics, society, technology and the economy. Here are a few examples of the types of people and the things they are doing that we’ll see at the event…

  • There are new ways to elect our government leaders demonstrated by people like Thomas Gensemer of Blue State Digital who orchestrated Obama’s digital campaign.
  • Adam Afriyie MP is leading innovation across the public sector for David Cameron. He said in an interview about Activate:

    “I’ve started looking at cumbersome Whitehall IT and the way IT policy can be improved to strengthen society and kick-start the digital economy. [Dormant Whitehall data sets] can be re-used by the public, adding both commercial and social value to these public assets.”

  • Tom Steinberg of MySociety is forcing a new kind of transparency in our government, a perspective we now expect of the publicly funded institutions that serve us in a way that we could only hope for before the Internet existed. And William Heath of Mydex and the Open Rights Group, among other things, is surfacing some of the implications of these changes and how to protect the individual. As he stated in an interview:

    “In UK public services it’s clear to me that feedback, transparency and a stronger voice for the individual are all healthy. So I’m very optimistic, but I think we’re only half way there. In e-commerce we’ve tooled up the big organisations. Now we need to get properly tooled up ourselves.”

  • Iqbal Qadir, Charles Leadbeater and Umair Haque are demonstrating new forms of capitalism and the shape of the new economy for an age of scarcity..
  • Sugatra Mitra’s Hole in the Wall research that inspired Vikas Swarup to write Slumdog Millionaire demonstrates that education can be refactored into more self organized learning environments. Similarly, Richard Baraniuk is developing new open educational resources to revolutionize knowledge sharing.
  • Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. R.K. Pachauri is driving policy change and promoting sustainable development around the globe through his research on climate change at The Energy and Resources Institute.
  • Innovators like Arianna Huffington and Gerry Jackson are reinventing the news business. Huffington is developing a next generation distributed news organisation, and Jackson, who operates the only non-state run radio station for Zimbabweans, is finding ways to use technology as an invisible medium to bypass censors and tell the important stories on the global stage that would otherwise never be heard.
  • Researchers like Andy Baio and Jon Udell are uncovering brilliant ways people can use tools to connect with other communities near them both physically and intellectually.
  • Channel 4’s Matt Locke is empowering young people to deal with issues they face with projects like the International Digital Emmy winner Battlefront. Similarly, William Perrin of the Kings Cross Environment and Talk About Local is networking together community campaigners across the country to help people get things done more effectively.
  • There are some amazing data-driven projects that are changing the world such as Steve Coast’s OpenStreetMap, a sort of wikipedia of location information which grows richer every day by 10’s of thousands of active volunteers who are creating a collaborative view of the world. And there’s also Gavin Stark’s AMEE project which aims to measure the carbon footprint of everything on earth.
  • Dr Ian Lipkin is identifying, studying and tracking the trajectory of infectious diseases throughout the globe. And Jay Parkinson is revolutionizing healthcare by changing the way people communicate with their doctors:

    “Technology will not solve healthcare’s problems. New business models combined with today’s technology and transparent market forces will…Healthcare needs to be Amazoned, Zipcarred, Facebooked, Etsyed, Tumblred, Appled, and Zapposed.”

  • Forward thinking designers like Matt Webb are reintegrating the networked and physical worlds. And Ryan Carson is innovating on the concepts of the social web.
  • And while John Van Oudenaren is using the Internet to preserve the past, Nik Bostrom is challenging where we’re going at the Future of Humanity Institute and Oxford University.
  • Of course, the foundation services enabling these visionaries to do their work are in many cases is powered by the accomplishments of people like Werner Vogels at Amazon and Bradley Horowitz at Google who are opening the vast technological capabilities and resources of their organizations.

Crucially, though, the technology behind all these movements is a tool in a larger agenda than the technology itself.

And this is why the event matters now. We’re tying to focus heavily on the do-ers, the type of people who break things to see how they work, people who are committed to larger agendas in life, leaders with global perspectives and deep concerns for the future.

It’s about the people actively changing the world and showing us all how to do it, too, hence the name – ‘Activate’.

Why now?

Brian Eno painted the picture that I hope Activate will convey when he described his Sydney Opera House light display:

“To imply ‘Oh God, there’s a crisis, no time for imagining any more’ – it’s not true. This is the time for imagining…The human ability to imagine made people capable of surviving. By allowing ourselves to let go of the world that we have to be part of every day, and to surrender to another kind of world, we’re allowing imaginative processes to take place.”

But perhaps a more tangible answer to ‘why now’ was captured by John Heilmann who observed via twitter:

“Amazing how much important campaign 08 stuff happend in 06. More amazing how oblivious I was at the time – and I was paying attention!”

I suspect a lot of people feel the same way and wish to recalibrate their perspective of what this revolution is all about. Hopefully, Activate will be the platform for people to reset and point forward again.