Humanity Online Ltd was formally registered as a company in 2014. However, Humanity Online and the design and concept of engage.re is the result of years of focused study, research and engaging in relevant experience, after Sholi's original idea for a web-facilitated societal interface began to form over ten years ago.
In the early 2000s Humanity Online Founder Sholi Loewenthal began designing the architecture for a website discussion forum where users around the world to be able to come together around any issue, to exchange ideas and be productive together. In 2004, Sholi registered the website Humanity Online as the first formal step towards developing the web-platform. However, Sholi felt he did not sufficiently understand the notion of society, the web, globalisation, conflict and collaboration - the cultural underpinnings of them all - in order to create a web-interface that would meet the potency of web and society. The risks of creating something mediocre, that didn't serve the needs of people - or worse, would create more problems than solutions - was too great.
With this in mind, Sholi undertook five years of study and research into the sociological and political underpinnings of society. Theorists such as Talcott Parsons, Bourdieu and Foucault on system and agency; Jurgen Habermas, on public sphere; Olsen on collective action - - to name but a few. Key academic papers written by Sholi during this period of research and study focused on the role of the internet in bringing together public and private institutions of local, national and global communities. Sholi's dissertations at undergraduate (2009/2010) and postgraduate (2010/2011) level outlined descriptions of an issue focused web-platform that would bring together all relevant stakeholders to pursue collaboration and collective action.
Practical enquiries and experimentation
Beyond academic study, Sholi realized that the beating heart of community interaction lay not in academic research and writing down ideas, but in getting experience with real issues happening live on the ground. So, in his first year at University, Sholi began volunteering with Home-Start Barnet, where he supported parents with children at risk on a weekly basis whilst he also volunteered at the charity's office supporting in administrative tasks; learning about the charity's workings. During his second year at University, he began working part-time at the Volunteer Centre Westminster to gain practical experience in organising multi-stakeholder initiatives, bringing together public sector and private sector bodies, as well as citizens in the community. His passion in communications, he was eventually appointed by CEO Gareth Owen to lead on the organisation's IT and communications. In this role he reviewed the ICT used to facilitate bringing together the community. Together with Feras Dib he described a platform that could enable businesses, charities and local volunteers to organically develop projects. The project failed to receive Nominet funding but provided a good understanding of issues around organizational collaboration and the role of brokers in facilitating volunteering.
Towards the end of his undergraduate studies, in 2010, Sholi - along with university friend Abi Peyman - experimented with the concept of a P2P Country Network. This was a web-platform model for skill-sharing between countries, where people in specific sectors could easily find each other to support growth and development of businesses. They talked to several organisations, getting feedback and iterating the concept.
In 2011, now doing his MA, Sholi went about exploring the role of media in the internet public sphere when he set up SIBE, a student media organisation that produced live interactive TV shows on student and local issues. The goal was to bring together relevant stakeholders, to understand issues and to develop solutions. Originally, Sholi conceived of the SIBE project in 2008-2009 to be run in secondary schools as part of the Westminster Youth Volunteering Programme 'V', but the 'V' programme stopped receiving government funding in 2009. As a result, CEO Gareth Owen encouraged Sholi to experiment with the project at University.
Between 2011 and 2013 SIBE broadcast Monday Live, a weekly live interactive TV show - produced with Kristina Donauskyte - focusing on practical student issues like mental health support at the University, sustainable practices, student democracy. Monday Live also explored issues in the local community, like disenfranchised youth in Canley. Here, local teachers, youth club leaders, young people from Canley and students came together to understand the local issues for young people and to explore ways that students at the University and local young people could collaborate.
In 2012-2013, SIBE launched The Breakout, again produced with Kristina Donauskyte. Here, the internet-public sphere experiment of SIBE itself featured an enquiry into the role of the internet in the public sphere and collective action. The Breakout featured weekly live interactive workshops on the role of the web in facilitating global collective action at global and local levels. The discussions included practitioners from around the world, including global, national and local NGOs, campaign consultants and web-developers. The research-workshops resulted in developing a methodology for an annual global collective action initiative, and a web-platform that could facilitate it; a concept that was experimented with by student teams who participated in a SIBE-Hackathon in June 2013.
It was over the summer of 2013 that Sholi decided to take the plunge and to focus his efforts full time on the Humanity Online project. Initially joined by Kristina Donauskyte, they focused on developing the annual global action initiative web-site. But 2013-2014 was focused almost entirely on getting feedback from organisations where it became clear that Sholi's main project of an issue focused collaboration platform was what was needed first and foremost. So Sholi decided to turn his efforts to this - his main project - which he then named engage.re, as a project of Humanity Online.
In January 2015 the engage.re project received funding from the European Commission's FIWARE initiative to define the concept for engage.re and prepare for alpha prototyping. The EU's FIWARE vision to establish a data standard to facilitate collaboration within and across sectors and across smarter cities resonated precisely with the goals of engage.re.