Social innovator an agent for change

Occupy activist sets sights on online world

NIKKI MACDONALD
Last updated 05:00 20/01/2013
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MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ
BEN KNIGHT: "I use the internet to augment real life rather than supplanting it."

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From teaching chimps to use touch screens to an online collective decision-making tool - via volunteer sustainability education in the Czech Republic and investigating human impact on Stewart Island muttonbird populations; Ben Knight's boyish looks belie the diverse experiences he has packed into 29 years.

But there's a common thread: social responsibility.

Don't be fooled, though - this is no dole-bludging, rent-an-activist. Armed with a masters degree in cognitive neuroscience, Knight and his techie talent team are giving up their time to make a practical difference.

His latest project, Loomio, is an online tool that transforms electronically-assisted group decision-making from a tangle of email discussion with no clear outcome, to a simple process incorporating discussion, making proposals every member can vote on and explain their position, and guiding groups toward a decision.

Barely a year into its development, Loomio has three fulltime software developers, several thousand trial users - ranging from disability charity IHC to international open-source software project Diaspora - and a waiting list of organisations from across the globe.

Loomio grew out of Knight's involvement with the global Occupy movement.

On October 15, 2011, he joined the camp on the square of lawn at Wellington's City to Sea bridge. One of the movement's trademarks was the general assemblies for consensus decision-making. To Knight, the process was a revelation. When it worked - such as when a pre-schooler suggested a Labour Day parade instead of a traditional angry protest - he found it "a really empowering experience".

"When it doesn't work well, it can be the most painful, soul-destroying experience of your life, when you're in a meeting for five hours and there's one person dominating the conversation and most people's voices are shut out. You end up having an accidental dictatorship."

Thinking about ways of capturing the best of the process, while avoiding the pitfalls, Knight figured "it's much harder to dominate discussion online than in person".

So Knight, along with several fellow Occupiers, asked social enterprise network Enspiral to build an online equivalent of the general assembly. The response: "We need that, too - you build it, we'll give you a desk and mentoring."

So they did. That was last January. In the past year the team has built a working, cloud-based tool. It's still under development (using Loomio to make collaborative development decisions, of course) and Knight hopes to scale up later this year, when the entire process - from sign-on to payment - has been automated.

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Loomio is already bringing in some money - it's free for cash-strapped organisations, but companies with a budget make a contribution based on user numbers. But the team's time is donated. Knight survives on writing and editing work for Japanese and Chinese neuroscientists - a throwback to his initial career path.

Knight was brought up in Dunedin. Interested in how both individuals and societies function, he studied psychology and anthropology, then cognitive neuroscience, before taking up a Commonwealth scholarship to undertake a PhD in evolutionary psychology at Scotland's St Andrews University.

He did field work in Texas, where he taught chimps to use touch screens, to investigate to what extent they could learn and pass on new skills. But returning home every evening to more dire global news, Knight became disillusioned by the slow pace of academia.

"It seemed like the rate of academic knowledge being translated into solutions to those problems was so slow it felt like it was almost irresponsible to continue."

He returned to New Zealand, studying muttonbird populations with Otago University's applied ecology research group, before moving to Wellington in 2009 (via volunteering with a Czech sustainability NGO), mostly for its community of musicians. Knight plays drums for band The All Seeing Hand.

Despite his focus now being online, he doesn't see digital tools as an alternative to real-world communication.

"I use the internet to augment real life, rather than supplanting it. And actually, that's a big part of what Loomio is about - augmenting face-to-face interaction, rather than replacing it."

- The Dominion Post

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