Here we are - Connected Communities' first foray into the blogosphere. As a virgin blogger, I've been getting advice from Matt Cain on content, style and readership development. 'You need a mix of news and research comment, and analysis of some of the high level concepts you're dealing with. But your project is essentially about understanding and generating change at the neighbourhood level, so you really need to talk about some examples of grassroots action. But you probably need to set out all of this upfront, and simply, so you can take people with you and so they understand what they might be coming back for. You also need to make it personal - give something of yourself' I paraphrase him as saying. Helpful advice, so...
A couple of weeks ago, I got a flyer from Islington Council. It was entitled something like: 'Introduce-yourself-to-a-neighbour day' , the idea being that on some pre-defined day in the near future residents across the Borough would be calling round to the people next door and organically generating a more cohesive community. The idea of a direct call to social capital arms is interesting and raises many discussions about how policy and public sector actors can intervene (and whether they should) to build social relationships. More on this in future blogs.
I like to think of myself as an active citizen, and as a Fellow of the RSA as well as staff member, I want to live the values we espouse as an organisation. I also like to think of myself as a nice guy and given a new couple have just moved into a flat in our building, I decided to invite them round for a welcome-to-the-area-get-to-know-you drink.
They came round. In working our way awkwardly through a few glasses of wine, the inevitable question was put to me: 'So, what do you do?'. I have never been particularly good at answering this question - having worked in niche areas of economic development and community regeneration, and with a propensity to adopt and use the jargon of these disciplines, my replies have tended to confuse rather than inform. But I'd spent most of the week trying to give an answer to this question to RSA colleagues with respect to the percolating Connected Communities project. I was fired up by the possibilities that were emerging. I let them have it.
'It's about how social networks can be better understood and utilised in addressing social problems' I gushed. 'It's about reviewing the utility of social capital theory, turning it into practical tools for social change. It's about tapping into and building civic capacity, our willingness to do good things collectively, voluntarily'.
I realised I was sounding like John Prescott. I took a breath and tried to calm down. 'OK, look, simply put, social capital theory 101says that the connections, or networks, between people have value and there is evidence to show that they impact on important issues like economic performance, educational attainment, health, and crime. But these networks are hard to see, hard to understand, hard to measure, and hard to mobilise strategically in addressing any particular problem. Social capital can also take different forms: it can bond across homogenous groups; it can bridge across diverse types of people, and it can link people to power and decision-makers. These different forms are relatively more or less important depending on what issue you're dealing with and with whom. So if you were to try and generate social capital, you'd need a kind of multivitamin approach that got the right balance of ingredients according to what mineral deficiencies you were addressing. Or, if you like, a great recipe for a hearty, nourishing soup. You'd also need to think about at what level you might act: most consideration is given to social capital at the meso level - the between, community, level - but some peoplealso talk about the importance of and blend with the micro (family, close friends) and macro (national) level.
'What I'm interested in is the best recipe for meso soup. What ingredients do you need and how do you measure them out, how do you prepare and cook it, who should cook it, what skills and equipment do you need? I'm interested in understanding how you might create the conditions that support generating the right social capital, particularly if this is then done in the spirit of a new collectivism that is bottom up, networked, spontaneous, resourceful, and not only driven by public sector actors and the usual third sector suspects. I'm going to find new ways of mapping and visualising these networks, and of doing it in ways so that local people are encouraged to own, join, strengthen, enjoy and use these networks for social progress. The ideal communityscape I suppose.'
I looked up. Our guests had subtly, but certainly, recoiled. They were leaning back, chins into chests, peering over glasses, brows furrowed. It's a reaction I've encountered before when I've embarked on equally enthusiastic accounts of other favourite topics - logistic regression, spreadsheet functionality, and the like. Usually, one of two reactions presents itself. The first is a mixture of fright and bewilderment; the other simple pity. I waited.
So, pity had won out. I accept that I should probably get out more, but the speed and accuracy of the diagnosis was discomforting.
'Seriously, I think you should go. Our friend lives at the end of the terrace, his next door neighbour, an elderly man, recently moved in, tripped and fell into his front garden. My mate came out and took him to the Café for a cup of tea. Long story short, they now meet for tea each week or so, he helps him with his garden, he's plugged into the lunchtime social specials they have there, the police safer neighbourhood lot meet there and now know him and look out for him. They have weekend reading sessions for kids. And the Café itself buys all its ingredients from the other local traders, and they're completely into fresh healthy ingredients through a local network. It's all probably much more effective than anything the Council could deliver by itself. You could start to see it and encourage it as the hub of a network for social good. But isn't who goes there just opportunistic to an extent? If you could identify who uses places like this and why; how to make them more inclusive and understand and address local problems effectively; how to identify and use these kinds of resources in the first place, well...It's kind of social enterprise through reconceived existing networks. And if you could encourage other positive spin-offs: what good stuff could people who meet their together do? That's what you're talking about isn't it?' They waited.
'That' I said, 'is exactly what I'm talking about'.