Sustainable Living

Harnessing The Power Of Social Networks For Social Change

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I was sat in a refuge writing in my diary, overlooking the Swiss Alps. I decided then that I’d like to apply my creative, strategic, digital skills for the purpose of creating a more sustainable society; and to do that, I probably needed to start my own business. Which was always going to be a challenge for me because I’m an introvert. That was back in 2001. It didn’t happen immediately but over the years we’ve established a brand and reputation for being socially minded.

I’ve always been interested in social issues since, well, for as long as I can remember. But, for me, a major turning point was reading Small Is Beautiful by E.F Schumacher for the first time whilst trekking in the Alps. I had been working for a Telecoms company and then a digital agency prior to that; helping global companies sell phones, beverages, cars, insurance etc through digital technology and this book explained to me the things I had long been thinking about but hadn’t found the words for. It made me reflect on a lot of things and, in particular, what I wanted out of life and what my role in society was. 

Photo by Marco Meyer on Unsplash

I was born in Stroud – a former cloth town where woollen mills were powered by small rivers which flow through the five valleys. We set up our business in Frogmarsh Mill – a mill owned by drinks company “Bottle Green”. Stroud is quite an alternative place so perhaps that has shaped who I am and why to some extent. I certainly remember going for lots of walks, cycles, runs around the Stroud valleys, up to Randwick Woods, across Slad valley, through the veins of Sapperton or Chalford, ambling along Juniper Hill … just thinking about stuff like this, not really making any sense of it but knowing for certain that I wasn’t driven by material wealth or greed. But I think though it’s more just something I was born with. I’ve always had empathy for people and that’s just who I am.

Building Resourceful Communities

At Made Open we develop solutions to social challenges using design and technology.

Our work is focused around two areas:

  1. Community platform ( we license our community platform to organisations who want to activate their communities or networks.
  2. Design services ( we help organisations to design better services, and provide design services to platform-based clients.

Networking is an inherently human endeavour and yet there are very few social networks dedicated to helping people create change in their community or network. So that’s it in a nutshell. We’ve created a social network for communities; where people can share information, ideas, skills, resources, projects and opportunities with each other. Fortunately, we’re discovering that a networked approach appeals to a variety of networks / markets. Our platforms are currently being licensed to an array of organisations and networks in the UK and Australia; spanning health, community development, economic development, employee engagement and so on.


If we’re ever going to be a sustainable society, we have to be more resourceful with what we’ve got. Which applies to how people use their time too. Being resourceful can mean a lot of things of course. It could mean giving a junior member of staff an opportunity to demonstrate their leadership in an otherwise hierarchical environment. It could mean giving people with real-world experiences a platform to share their knowledge. It could mean encouraging a lonely person to get involved in discussions and opportunities in their community. It could mean giving entire communities and organisations a means to solve a problem faster simply by helping them communicate and work better together. This might sound like a bit of a paradox but in some ways, you could argue that society is both increasingly connected and disconnected because of social media. Our social platform connects people to their communities in positive ways.

Connected Communities Lead To Sustainable Communities

I co-founded Made Open in 2001. However, we didn’t start developing our latest community platform until July 2018 and it has taken us over a year to develop.

I’m a natural-born connector – I’ve always been someone who makes connections between people and things in the hope that I might be able to help in some way. This is probably one of the reasons why I wanted to develop a digital technology that could connect people and businesses to their community in more meaningful ways. The Made Open platform is like the digital manifestation of my personality!

Creating the Made Open platform has been an amazing journey but, it’s been anything but easy. It’s taken years and years and a lot of hard grafting to perfect. We were lucky to receive two modest grants from Creative England and Unltd to get us started but, other than that, we’re totally self-funded which has been super challenging. We’ve survived at times simply by working ourselves to the bone. Convincing would-be clients to invest in our vision and platform many months before the product was built was a huge show of faith on our clients’ behalves – something that has weighed heavily on me for months (not wanting to let them down). There is nothing easy about self-funding a social networking platform and licensing it to organisations across the world.

As an introvert, I perhaps don’t have the natural charisma to steal the limelight and I’ve always taken the approach that you’re only as good as your next project (i.e. let your work do the talking). In a competitive world, this is not always the best strategy! But we’ve made it work.

We moved our business to Cornwall in 2005 which, in some ways, has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s been a blessing because we live in an environment that we love – Kathryn and I are happy here, we’ve brought up a family here, and when you love something you work hard to make things succeed. The curse is that you can be off people’s radar – missing out on opportunities or creating a perception that you’re a lifestyle business. Now with clients as far away as Tasmania, our platform has helped Made Open to demonstrate that we are a business with the ability to achieve social impact to an international audience.

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash

When did we realise we had a viable business that was both profitable and purpose-driven? Tomorrow 😉 

Actually, in all seriousness, we have been developing our platform for the past 18 months and, despite only being ready to take our platform to market in the last few months, we have somehow managed to earn as much as we have spent. That is a story in itself – earning revenue from a product before it was built. Self-belief, a supportive wife, an incredible team and some truly wonderful clients who were prepared to be early adopters kept me going. It’s built now so hopefully the future looks bright.

Launching a socially conscious business is challenging, but there comes that moment where you begin to make impact, a highlight which gives you the momentum to carry on. For us, launching our first platform Hexitime was a major highlight for us. We’d spent nine months developing our platform by that point and so this was a real litmus test moment for us. The feedback was sensational and it’s great to see Hexitime grow from strength to strength.

The same can be said of Torbay Together. Torbay Together is a place where people can exchange ideas, skills, information and knowledge in pursuit of answers to their own day-to-day challenges. Members can use the platform to meet new friends and make positive connections, earn time credits and connect with a whole variety of support services, social groups and volunteering opportunities. Well over 10,000 credits / hours have been earned from timebanking. Each hour exchanged has a story behind it. Someone somewhere is making a small difference to somebody else for no other reason than they want to. That’s impact.

At Made Open we’re still a small team. There’s only 6 of us but hopefully that’s set to change. It’s great that our work is being recognised nationally. We were finalists in last years Tech 4 Good awards and awarded the accolade of a “Creative England Top 50” company.

Scaling Up

We’re about to embark on a project to make our platform multi-lingual; helping us to license our platform across the world. We’re also very keen to start producing real-time reports that measure the social / economic impact of activities in minute detail; for example, seeing how much impact activities are created in a neighbourhood or department.

Most of our team are service / graphic designers by trade and we’re often asked to bring these skill sets to many projects. So we’re currently developing a series of tools and resources to help our clients embed their platforms into their communities or networks more successfully. In fact, we’re publishing this all on our “guides” feature – a new tool that we’ve co-designed with a wonderful organisation called Parents1st to help share resources knowledge and best practice.

In addition, we’ve just finished creating a tool which aggregates all of the data being produced by our community platforms. So hopefully we can start sharing some of the combined impact of our platforms soon. And of course, we’d like to win more clients here in the UK and internationally – to scale our impact further.

We’re just at the beginning with Made Open. One question I would challenge people to think about every day; If you had no money in the world, what would you be grateful for and how would you draw on that to help someone else?

Robert Woolf