Lily Cole on building Impossible.com, a social network for giving
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Lily Cole on building Impossible.com, a social network for giving


So what are you doing here? I came back today to where
I studied at Cambridge University. It’s the launch of Impossible,
which is trying to encourage a gift economy. We have basically turned
this tree for the day into a giving tree. So we’ve built a social network
called Impossible. This is a physical real
demonstration of what will be happening on the app, which
is essentially wishing. And then we show wishes to
other people around you– friends, neighbours, people
whose skills match– and hope that people start doing things
for each other for free. Surely people who don’t know
another person are unlikely to help them out. I think that we’re used to
that way of thinking. You have to pay somebody
to do something. But actually, I feel like
there’s so many people that are naturally generous. If you put a number on the
amount of things people currently do for free for
each other in the UK, it’s bigger than GDP. If you’ve got time and skills
to give people, it’s a good idea in terms of, obviously,
sharing and potentially getting stuff in return. What did you wish for? Somebody to teach me to dance. Well, I hope we can
make that happen. [LAUGHING] [MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, everyone. I want to reiterate,
thank you for coming on a Sunday morning. I appreciate that. So I hope that gave some
context to the idea. I thought, I’ll quickly try and
explain the premise of it and the journey I’ve had for the
last two years trying to bring into reality where
we’re at right now. And then I’ll open it
up to questions. Because I think that’s a
more interesting way of engaging with it. So 2 and 1/2, nearly 3 years
ago, when I was in my last year of university,
I had this idea. It came out of a conversation
with a friend of mine who’s now working with me on it. And essentially, we were talking
about the economy. At the time, there was
the financial crisis. And we were both just talking
about the fact that it seemed to me unintuitive when economies
paralyse or are problematic that societies
paralyse or cripple underneath that structure when everybody
has skills. Everyone has time. Quite often, we have resources, particularly in our societies. And is there another way that we
can orientate ourselves to get things done and keep things
moving, essentially. And that made us think about
the fact that societies are very complicated nowadays,
compared to old-school communities. And the average Londoner, I’ve
learned, knows one neighbour. I know a couple. But I don’t know that many. And the opportunities to do
things for one another seem to be very oblique. So we were saying, why not have
a technical platform that makes those possibilities
more self-evident? For the next six months while
I was finishing my degree, that idea just genuinely
infected me. And I kept thinking about it and
questioning why I couldn’t see this happening
already at scale. And whenever I looked
into attempts to do things similar– and I really respect there
have been attempts– they always were articulated
in ways that felt ideologically slightly
different to what I had in mind. And so when I finished
university, I started the process– just dodgy, before
I finished– of trying to build this. I very, very naively
began this. And hired a developer to build a
social network, which turned out to be a disastrous attempt
at doing that. I tried again. I tried three times, and
the third time has been the most fruitful. And we now have an
extraordinary team building it. But all through that process
the last two years– and I find this again, even this week,
while I’ve been talking in a different places
about Impossible– what I met, always, was such
an extraordinarily positive reception to the idea, and
people either wanting it to exist or wanting to help me
bring it into existence. And that’s been my motivator
for the last two years. And I’d say what we’ve managed
to do so far has been achieved through a very collaborative
effort that reflects, actually, the underlying
principle, which is that of collaboration and cooperation,
essentially. So how we’ve defined it is to
build a social network that basically allows you to post
what you can do and what you need and then shows that to
people who are most likely to be able to help, essentially. And so we take proximity
into account. We take existing social graphs
and following patterns. And also as we get more data,
we’ll start to match skills, wants, needs through
using hashtag– using the basic language
of social media as we know it now. We’ve created that architecture
and are in the process now– we’re in beta–
of we have a small number of users testing it. And not trying to make a big
fuss about it, and just trying to see what we’ve got right
and what we’ve got wrong. And inevitably, I realise that
we’re constructing a system for something that’s
very unsystematic. It’s like the idea of doing
things– the one of giving and receiving– is, I would say, so abstract
and such a natural impulse that trying to architect it
is inherently problematic, arguably contradictory. But we’ll do our best in the
attempt to try and create a structure that will
work for it. And the way we’ve been
communicating it so far has been mostly through
universities, some talks like this– I spoke at the science museum
earlier this week– and inviting any audience that’s
receptive to the idea to use the platform and become
part of the process of, if they want the idea to work,
defining what it looks like, what it feels like, et cetera. I think one thing, probably,
it’s important to say is that the economic idea behind it is
the gift economy, which I had actually had very little
understanding of a few years ago. And I’m probably still fairly
naive on, but I’ve read a lot around and is quite distinct
from exchange paradigm. So people often think when I
mention this idea that it’s trading or barter. And actually, barter, you could
arguably compare in the same space to money and other
exchange mechanisms, where I’m doing something for A, because
A is doing something for me. This relies on a much more
abstract understanding of trading, in a way, where I’ll do
something for A, A will do something for B, B will do
something for C, and maybe one day, D will do something
for me back. But there’s no guarantee within
the system, but you’re just trusting in a sense of
generalised reciprocity. And your motivation for being
part of that is not for the direct return but rather for
A, the trust in the bigger network that there will be a
return, and B, maybe because you actually might enjoy doing
something for somebody else. You might see a need
for somebody else that you want to meet. And that’s where, for me, it
becomes very, very inspiring, the possibilities here. Because the gift economy has
shown to have worked in different societies,
precapitalist societies, particularly. It’s understood to be part
of our ecosystem now. Jimmy Wales works
with us on this. And Wikipedia’s probably one of
the most famous examples at scale of the gift economy
working in a specific way, arguably. Academic circles rely
on the gift economy. And as I mentioned in that
video, it’s believed that if you were to put a monetary
figure on everything done already in the UK today for free
for other people, it’s bigger than GDP. So it’s arguably a big part
of our ecosystem already. And when somebody does something
in that context, it’s understood that there’s a
subtle relationship created between the two parties. And I’ve experienced
that in life. And that’s where my belief
system comes through on this. And I’m sure everyone here has
a friend helps you– somebody helps you or vice versa– and
a relationship is created. However subtle, however deep,
there is a connection there. And if you imagine that at
scale, that becomes, arguably, social cohesion. It becomes community. Also, Marcel Mauss, the
anthropologist, called it positive psychological
debt to return. So if I’m to do something for
one of you here, potentially, there’s a sense– you can
understand it as gratitude; you could understand
it in those terms– to return to me or to another. And that triggers, potentially,
cycles of reciprocity. And me, the giver– or whoever
the initial giver is– also releases chemicals– oxytocin and dopamine– that make you happy
when you give. So all around, if you don’t
believe in a experiential abstract way, I like to have
both as a logical, scientific framework to put it into that
makes it seem like a positive thing to do. That’s the basic premise and
belief system of it. I’d love to open the
floor to questions. I’m here today because also
Nesta have been very helpful and helped fund the first
year of development. I’m funding it, and one of my
partners is funding it. It’s structured as a
social business. So all profit stays within
this mission, of sorts. Yeah, over to you. OK. There’s a microphone roving
round the hall. So if you put your hands up for
questions for Lily, that would be really helpful. OK, Lily, you want
to choose, Lily? Hi, Lily. Hey. You had one example there in
your video of the process. Have you got any other examples
that you’ve done? Yeah, it’s incredibly
early days. There’s been very little
action on the platform. But in my personal examples,
the day that we did that event, we just opened
it to Cambridge University students, initially. So we invited them out through
the email database a day and a half before we went off and did
that tree installation. And the night before we were
going to go and do that, I looked at the weather report and
saw that it was going to be absolutely freezing and
quickly was trying to organise with the people helping me– and the woman who was producing
this film– how we could make it more
comfortable for the team. Because we were going
to be under that tree for like 10 hours. And I was trying to
get blankets and couldn’t late at night. And so I thought, I’m just
going to test Impossible. It had been on the platform
for like a day and a half. And so I wished out, I’d love
to borrow blankets tomorrow, and immediately had
two guys respond. We got into a dialogue about
meeting the next morning. They came the next day at 10
o’clock and lent us the blankets for the day. I gave them back. And interestingly– and this is what I
would expect– inevitably, because of that
exchange, they hung out for a few hours. We met again the next day. And it created a very
social, rather than transactional, space. So that’s an example
of my first wish being met on the platform. I’ve been doing advice,
actually, quite a bit on it already. So it’s quite easy. I mean, obviously, some things
are about trying to bring us back into the real world. And I think that hopefully will
be a great outcome of it. But a lot of it can be done
quite frictionless at first through just giving
advice and tips. And that’s been happening this
week, actually, quite a lot as we’ve opened the platform
a bit wider. I’ve offered clothes, makeup,
things I’m getting rid of on the platform. And we’ll arrange a time
to give it over. And it’s really been
so lovely watching. Somebody wished for film. Somebody gave them film. It’s sometimes hard
to see exactly what people are giving. You’ll see thanks come
through, because thanking is the only– I call it an abundant
currency. It’s valueless but reflects
what’s happening. And so you’re seeing people
doing things for one another. Sometimes you don’t know
exactly what the story is behind it. But you just kind
of get a sense. Any more questions? Want to choose? Yeah, sorry. Hi, Lily. Hey. You mentioned that you got
funding from Nesta and that you’ve funded it with
your partner. And at what revenue do you see
coming into the site so that you can maintain it
in the future? I don’t have any
figures on it. And I’m loath to try
and create them. Because I think it’d be silly. But we’ve got a couple of
different ideas we’re exploding right now for the
business model of it. And it’s important to me that it
is a business if we can do that in a way that’s
philosophically and ethically sound with what we’re
trying to do. Because I just think it’s a
more, as you just said in your question, sustainable
structure to create. And then, as I said, the macro
is Professor Eunice’s idea of social business– a unisocial
business, whereby you run a business with a social
mission. And then 100% of profits are
invested back into that social mission or funding other
social businesses. Good luck. Thank you. We have one more question,
perhaps? Way at the back there. You can shout if you want. Hi. I think it’s an excellent
idea. But I wonder if you– Where are you? I can’t see you. Sorry. I’m here at the back. I wondered if you had thought
about the risk of potentially isolating people who aren’t
technology minded– older people, or people who
don’t have access to a web-based initiative– and whether you have addressed
that risk, in how you plan to resolve that problem, if it
is, indeed, a problem. Yeah. Well, I think that by not doing
it for that reason, you’d be excluding everyone. So trying to be inclusive as
possible and realising that, for the reasons you just
mentioned, there are certain barriers we have to overcome in
that process is important. We launched it, initially, or
soft-launched it on an Apple app but also on the web. And doing the web platform was
really important to me so that people who don’t have Apple
iPhones can also immediately have access to the network. This week, I was doing a talk at
Cambridge University again, and there was an old lady who
actually addressed this issue. And she said, what about
the dinosaurs? And then she said, can I be a
guinea pig, which I thought was quite funny for a dinosaur
to want to be a guinea pig. And so in Cambridge, the woman
I was there with from Cambridge University was saying
they actually have a department that looks
specifically at trying to design technology in a way
that’s very user-friendly for older generations. So we’ve tried to make it
as simple as possible. But inevitably, we can
keep improving that. And that will be a process. In terms of people who don’t
have internet access, again, I think it’s a big enough job as
it is trying to focus in the Western world, at first. But if it’s successful, we’re
already talking about whether you could do it by SMS, or
do similar things in developing-world countries. But we’re not at a stage where
we could deal with that now. But the whole premise of it is
inclusivity to everyone. So however you can realise
that– but we’ll see. And interestingly, one other
thing– it’s a side note, but it’s attached to it. You could see the use of
technology as potentially problematic, ultimately, in the
sense that it’s actually very carbon-heavy. It’s a little known fact that I
think the internet right now contributes as much carbon to
the environment as aviation. And so we do our hosting in
Iceland with a company called Green Cloud who use geothermal
energy to do all their hosting. So inevitably, there’s always
going to be imperfections. But we’re just trying to look at
these different issues and come up with the best
solutions we can find one at a time. Lily, before– That was one woman, there. I feel bad that– We’re going to have to
draw it to a close. OK. Sorry. But listen– You can ask me afterwards. –Other than joining Impossible,
is there an obvious way for people in the
room who are motivated by what you’re talking about to get in
touch with you to engage with your community? Yeah, good point. Well, as I said, the whole
process for the last two years has been incredibly
collaborative. And I’ve got an extraordinary
group of people and advisers who are helping. And it’s still a process. So if any of you want to
be part of inspired, [email protected]– I-N-F-O @impossible.com. And join in. Can we thank Lily for a very
inspiring presentation. [APPLAUSE] Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.

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