Networks: the big launch

Tim Smit describes the cultural glue of community and the idea behind his own community-building initiative, the Big Lunch

The idea for the Big Lunch began when I met a woman from Dutch television at a friend’s birthday party. She told me a story about a guy who lived in one of the roughest neighbourhoods in Amsterdam and got mugged by someone who lived on his street.

He decided to get his revenge by taking a camera and filming the culprit and putting him on a community television channel. But it turned into a comedy of errors because the first house he went to wasn’t the mugger’s. He spoke to the occupants about his experience and they joined him to hunt for the attacker. They eventually talked to nearly everyone on the road and, as a consequence of this interaction, the area was transformed into a community.

This got me thinking about how we believe myths about ourselves as being isolated and violent when, in truth, most people are good and yearn for a sense of belonging. We don’t have the equivalent of a Thanksgiving or Independence Day in the UK and street parties such as those to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee happen infrequently.

But there is a regular communal institution that we do treasure (along with supping warm beer): Sunday lunch. So, the Big Lunch was a way of broadening out what already existed, trying to get people to symbolically break bread together.

There are lots of other messages involved with the idea, such as sustainability and sourcing local food, but I want to concentrate on the central theme of community. It is a word that has been used extensively over the last fifteen years, but I doubt many people know its actual meaning. It comes from two words: the Latin ‘com’, which translates as ‘together’, and ‘munos’ which means ‘in gift’. This is a lovely concept: a community is about people being together in gift.

NetworksWhen I was at university studying anthropology, I read a book by Marcel Mauss called The Gift and this had a huge influence on me. In it, he talks about the meaning of community and argues that you need to understand transactions to truly comprehend the nature of social cohesion. A transactional relationship where you pay X for Y, and their relative value is perfectly clear, does not create social meaning. But ‘gift relationships’, where a person borrows sugar from a neighbour or someone intends to buy some nails and you say, ‘I’ve got some, I’ll give you mine’, works because of the inexactitude of it. It makes those involved feel that they are still beholden to the other because they are not quite sure of the equality of gift. This creates an interesting cultural glue.

I believe the reason why community is so important now is that many places don’t have their original reasons for being. Forty years ago, people in a town knew what the main industry of that place was and why it existed. Now we are more nomadic and there are any number of reasons why someone could be in a particular town. Therefore, we need to have a new story about the places we live, to give fresh meaning to where we are. One of the ways that this can happen is by creating events, and the Big Lunch is one of those. It is an opportunity for a group to create a shared piece of history.

Within 20 years the watchword for our community will be ‘sharing’ and we will need a new narrative that makes the concept of sharing commonplace. When I talk to kids, I say, ‘Look how ridiculous this is. You go down a street and there are 400 little lawns and everybody owns a lawnmower. It’s just daft’. Most people can understand the ridiculous side of ownership and looking around our houses we can see many items of significant value that are only used for very short periods. 

This is not an attack on the capitalist system; it is simply a recognition that businesses will need to learn to serve their communities in a different way.

I hope you will want to get involved in the Big Lunch on 19 July, we currently have around 4,700 streets signed up. I think it’s a brave thing for people to make the effort to meet strangers and say ‘I am here to show that I want to belong’.

Tim Smit is an RSA Fellow and founder of the Eden Project.

Get involved

As many as 300,000 people in the UK can go a month without speaking to a family member or a neighbour. The Big Lunch is a great opportunity for RSA Fellows to become active participants in their local community by hosting their own events. To find out how you can take part, visit the Big Lunch website.