Simon Grant's application to be a Rowntree Visionary

How ethical information can transform people's lives

Early in 2005 I applied to be one of the Visionaries for the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. See http://www.jrct-visionaries.org.uk/. My application was not successful. Most of the relevant parts of the form (much the most interesting application form I have ever filled in) are reproduced here, very slightly edited. I don't think the evaluators really understood my idea, so it's waiting here, ready to serve as the seed for something perhaps even bigger than the other successful applicants. If you think this is more interesting than the successful six, please get in touch!

Readers may also find a later paper, written by me and my wife Anna, interesting as it takes up some closely related issues, particularly the issue of personal identity. The paper is called Ethical Portfolios: Supporting identities and values.

Section 1 — About the Vision

1 Please describe your vision to shape a better world in no more than 100 words

How much more could be done towards global justice and peace if a wider range of people were motivated to recognise their own values, develop them, and join with others to share in what might count as ethical action? I envisage building an ethical information infrastructure, including standardised descriptions of values. This will enable stakeholders to develop many relevant ICT-based applications and services that work in synergy and interoperate. These will include tools for personal ethical reflection and development; for finding people holding similar values; and for making economic choices that advance personally-held ethical values.

2 Please tell us more about the idea. Where did this idea originate ? How did it develop ?

Many varied experiences as parent, teacher, tutor, counsellor, and therapist have raised a concern in me for personal development. From 1997, this concern was focused on a web-based tool in the design of LUSID — (Liverpool University Student Interactive Database) — which is a personal development planning tool. In parallel, I was also developing prototype technology of matching people ("choice-matching"), based on ideas I had in 1994, as a way of helping people to find others for any of a number of reasons, including employment. Putting the two ideas together, I recognised that one of the things that was missing in the labour market was (pre-interview) matching the values of individual prospective employees with the corporate culture, which is vital in effective "head-hunting". It was a short step to broadening out the vision to facilitating all kinds of values-based social and economic relationships.

3 Why do you believe the idea is crucial ? Please give your reasons.

The majority of people make few conscious value-based choices, reflecting little if at all on the ethical values they have. This may be partly due to an education system that does not sufficiently promote reflection on values and their development. There is increasing visibility and support for ethical products and investments, but this is not universal. To develop awareness of values in the majority, a new approach is needed. There has been widespread take-up of web-based services such as recruitment and dating, which suggests that if something is easily accessed and motivating it may gain quick acceptance. The prospect of meeting people who are well-matched to oneself in terms of values may prove to be very attractive — think for example of young adults wanting to share living accommodation with others who they are more likely to get on with. If given better opportunities to discover and develop their own values in the company of congenial others, people are then likely to find their own values reinforced and developed. There is a potential risk of people with negative values also clustering together. However, in our open and pluralist society there is little option but to be transparent, and to trust that when all is made clear, the best ethics will increasingly be adopted. There is more hope for this when other people are available for support and fellowship, either in person, or through their presence being made more immediate through the tools of communications technology.

4 How will you set about achieving your vision ?

A central means of achieving the vision will be the development and management of services on websites which give people a range of key facilities: for reflecting on and developing their values; for communicating about values; and for finding people, products, services and jobs compatible with their values. These services may best be offered free of charge to individuals. Where profit-making businesses are involved, and where there is a tradition of paying for such services (such as for recruitment), opportunities will be sought to obtain revenue, which can then be fed back into financing and extending the technical infrastructure and range of services. Careful market research and experimentation will find which services will be popular, effective, and also suitable for a visionary contribution, in terms of their unique distinctive and sustainable character. Friendship and employment services are well-known on the web, and the challenge will be to integrate values into them effectively. Sites giving information about the ethics of goods and services are not so well-developed, and work is required here to turn these into useful services. Web-based systems for personal development are now reaching maturity, and here I will use my close contacts at the forefront of the field of "personal development planning" (PDP) and electronic portfolios to explore opportunities for incorporating ethics, and reflection on values, into current and forthcoming e-portfolio tools. Additionally, many of the current e-portfolio and PDP ideas could be incorporated into specialist value-based reflective and developmental tools, perhaps sponsored by faith groups, and those NGOs with a clear values basis. All software and systems developed by me as Visionary will be freely licenced (e.g. GNU General Public Licence — "GPL") for others to use, and I will encourage collaborators to do the same where feasible.

I will seek to involve people and groups that are likely to share similar values, and who may also have relevant expertise. Groups which I will approach range from small British Quaker groups, through organisations in which I know someone such as the Institute for Development and Policy Management and the Intermediate Technology Development Group; to organisations whose values seem aligned with this vision, such as the Fairtrade Foundation UK, Transparency International, OneWorld.net, the One World Trust, UN World Institute for Development Economics Research, and UK and EU development agencies. Any NGO that wants to find more people aligned with its values and objectives may have a motive to collaborate. Other collaborators could be those with businesses in the area of values. Some of these collaborators may sponsor or even carry out parts of the work, where they share an interest in the outcome. In these cases I could act both as a consultant, and as networker: setting their efforts in the wider context, of other related ones, and of the vision I am promoting. Both roles are core to my recent professional work.

To support synergy in all of these possible applications, I will focus consensus among these stakeholders in developing relevant standards and technical "architecture". Technical interoperability standards are vital to the development of web-based systems and markets, and I have recently been centrally involved in the development of a British Standard for exchange of personal information related to learning and development (BS 8788). I ensured that in this standard, the word "values" appears and has a clear place. I am considering using the Hall-Tonna system (see e.g. here, here, here) as the basis for standard definitions of values, and have discussed this with several of those most active in its use. I will also develop a conceptual domain model: how can we think of ethical action in a way that can serve as a model for tools and services using currently leading-edge web technologies, e.g. those known generally by their acronyms XML and RDF.

One route to dissemination is the publication of a traditional book. I have recently formulated an outline for a book on a closely related area, which would be a compilation of contributions from experts in related fields. I believe that a book is still a valuable route to dissemination, and a useful physical token. The plan for this book will be developed alongside the choice of contributors, and with their help, and then a suitable publisher sought. A second route, complementary in its effects, will be publication on the web. I have already had experience of making a book available freely on the web at http://thepartnership.quaker.org/ - "The Partnership". A third plausible route to dissemination will be through giving papers at relevant conferences, and perhaps organising conferences. I have experience of both. Links will be sought with media people who share the overall values, for further advice on how to use other media for greater dissemination and publicity.

5 What help will you need ? (for example, people, resources, funding) How will you set about finding it ? How will you find any necessary funding for it ?

Contacting people costs little on the Internet. Equally, development and consultation on standards can be done largely by e-mail. That will initiate the growth of a community of interest which will then be approached for help and suggestions to finance the relatively small amount of money needed to set up and run the initial envisaged services. This will be done on a cooperative basis, with involved workers with shared values (not commercial investors thinking only of "shareholder value") buying into an eventual company, possibly common-owned or co-operative. Further resources will be sought through partnership with other bodies which share the interests and values of the vision, including NGOs and charities.

6 Where will the work be carried out ? What part of the world will benefit ? Will there be a geographical limit to your work ?

My work will be based on the Internet, thus primarily carried out from my own office space. A vital supplement to this will be travelling to visit and meet people, most efficiently in groups, or at conferences, but also individually where those individuals are particularly influential. Initially, the immediate beneficiaries might be seen to be people in developed countries with high Internet usage; but this is not the point: the intention is to mobilise those people to join together in following ethics of justice and peace to help poorer and less-developed peoples. Thus the intended secondary beneficiaries will be those in greater need — and the point is to give focus to, and leverage, the kind of good-will which we have seen in the western world's response to the recent tsunami disaster. The hope and vision is that the secondary wave of benefit will far outweigh the primary, and indeed prove to be more widespread and effective than a single initiative directed at one particular poor part of the world. As the work will be Internet-based, there will be no inherent geographic limit.

Section 2 — About the Impact

7 During the five years, how will you know — and how will we know — that you are making progress ?

Indicators to be considered will include: number and status of declared collaborators and supporters; book sales; numbers of papers and articles related to the vision published; uptake of web sites in comparison to similar sites; throughput of web-based discussion systems; transaction volume and turnover of commercial web-based systems; media interest and exposure; invitations to speak; and (as they emerge and can be compiled) testimonies of personal experience of change related to the promotion of this vision.

8 How will the world — or a part of it — be more just and/or more peaceful after 5 years of your work and passionate commitment ?

There will be more people who will have reflected on their values, and made choices promoting justice and peace which they would not have done otherwise. Some of these people will have found others who support their good values, thus joining together with each other and facilitating their dedication to justice and peace, enabling them to promote those values in their own ways, which cannot be foreseen.

As a result of the choices people will have made, there will be an increasing awareness that values and ethics other than personal monetary wealth and "shareholder value" deserve a much greater place in our culture and economy. The concept of ethical values will have become more significant in the labour market, leading to corporate workforces with more coherent values, and thus increased trust and transparency. It is conceivable that through joining together those opposed to corruption, corruption will be consequently reduced, with the consequent positive results for economic development in areas currently subject to corruption.

9 Why are you best placed to take this idea forward ?

I have the very wide overview of the different developments that need to be brought together for this vision, including a good understanding of personal psychology and the usability of ICT tools, many contacts with people concerned with values, and a sufficient knowledge of the leading edges of Internet information systems development to recognise what needs to be done in the ICT realm to provide the necessary effective information systems infrastructure. This has all come together and fallen into place in the last year or two.

10 What risks are you taking ? What might stop the work being effective ? How would you try to overcome challenges ?

A major risk to the success of the website services mentioned above would be a lack of take-up. This needs to be forestalled by good market research and publicity, as well as good design.

To identify risks and help point to ways to overcome challenges in general, I will refer to my support group and community of common interest. I will take care to keep these people involved and motivated.

11 After five years, will your work be complete ? Or will it require further development by you or  by others ?

I expect that the ethical information infrastructure will have been developed and disseminated, though more promotion will always be welcome. Anyone will be able to build further on that basis. The greater work of development towards an ethical global economy raises deeper questions which others will help me answer.

Section 3 — About You

12 What have you done in the past that prepares you for this challenge ? How does this application build on — or divert you from — your current skills, experience and interests?

Wide-ranging thinking and theorising has been part of my life for a very long time. My PhD in cognitive science (available on my web site, http://www.simongrant.org/pubs/thesis/ ) and other academic work, developed my research ability, and gave me insight into the limitations of one person's work.

Experience of how people learn and develop, at least in this culture, together with my work on LUSID, and involvement with the PDP community, have led me to a deep understanding of personal development.

Work on the "choice-matching" concept, and running up against the practicalities of business finance, has developed a greater understanding of real obstacles, and an appreciation of which challenges are ones to rise to, and the ability to come to terms with those that are not practically tractable. Since 2001, I have been actively contacting people working in the area of values, and exploring opportunities for future collaboration.

Work in the areas of web technology and standards has taught me how, if you want to do something that is really going to catch on in the technological world, you don't just create your own system, you create the standards and infrastructure to allow things to happen, so that others can be contribute on their own terms.

13 If you are in current paid employment, what is this ? And if you are not, what do you do ?

I am currently self-employed as an information systems strategist, with a very full portfolio of projects focused in the areas of personal and professional development, and particularly the ICT tools, systems, standards, and infrastructure which support this.

14 In relation to your vision, what do you consider to be your greatest achievement ?

I see my larger significant achievements, not as great, but as all preparing in different ways for bringing this vision to reality. These are: my PhD thesis and related academic work; my work in building a prototype "choice-matching" system; my large contribution to the design of the conceptual architecture of LUSID; my work in taking forward the interoperability standards in the area of personal development information, in particular for BSI's DD 8788; and my work on web-based communication and discussion systems, including detailed specifications for a system to support Quaker-style business meetings on the web.