Creative Connecting: the Magic Bullet? - RSA

Creative Connecting: the Magic Bullet?

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  • Picture of Gaia Marcus
    Gaia Marcus
    Former Senior Researcher, Connected Communities
  • Communities
  • Health & wellbeing
  • Social networks
  • Social innovation
  • Social justice

"It's almost as if there is this magic bullet that we all know about but [that is hard to] implement in public policy ... the people around you completely condition how well you do in life, what you end up doing and how well you are feeling"

"It's almost as if there is this magic bullet that we all know about but [that is hard to] implement in public policy ... the people around you completely condition how well you do in life, what you end up doing and how well you are feeling"

Gaia Marcus

On Saturday I was invited to speak to BBC Radio Bristol’s Dr Phil Hammond about the Social Mirror project we are currently piloting in Knowle West, Bristol, with our local partner, the Knowle west Media Centre. Social Mirror is a project in which people waiting in their GP’s surgery are invited to carry out a short survey on a tablet computer that ‘diagnoses’ their levels of wellbeing and personal connectivity, and that can suggest local community prescriptions if there is a need. These community prescriptions can be anything from walking groups to Tai Chi to Woodworking.

Social Mirror from The RSA on Vimeo.

Not for the first time, I was asked why the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce would “be doing good work like this” quite so close to the coal face, and quite so practically. It is easy to think that hyper-local projects might be too ‘small’ to be of interest to an organisation with such international reach, but it is only through trialling out our innovations in the real world that we can allow them to take real roots.

As Adam Lent - the RSA’s Action and Research Centre Director - laid out yesterday, the RSA has hoisted a new flag: the power to Create. Adding a new ending to the French enlightenment refrain -  Liberté, Fraternité! Egalité! Créativité! – our interest in the power to create helps explain why an organisation such as the RSA might be interested in connecting isolated people in Bristol to activities in their area. As I explained to Doctor Hammond, social connections – who we know, who we rely on, who we  get our information from – are almost the magic bullet; a friendly elephant in the room that no-one quite knows how to operate.

The truth is that who you know massively influences who end up being, just as you influence all those around you. In our research with 3000 people in deprived areas in England, we found that people‘s social connections affected their life satisfaction and sense that what did they did in life was worthwhile. Indeed, those people who did not have people they felt close to or who did not have people that might give them small-scale, practical help or that did not have any connections in the local area, had both life satisfaction and feelings of life being worthwhile that were lower in statistically significant ways, independently of other factors.  For groups that might generally be at a wellbeing risk, for example older people or single parents, we often found that social support seemed a determining factor in their subjective wellbeing being either very positive or very negative.

If we are to open up the power to create – the ability to ‘act in ways that are unique to [your] own capacities or vision’ [in a] unique, pro-active and self-determined nature’ - then we need to start paying serious consideration to the effect of an individual’s social context on their understanding of their own capacities or vision. Like Sir Young's originally satirical understanding of the term ‘meritocracy’, the power to create is not a phrase that we can accept uncritically, even as we welcome it into the arsenal of tools that we can use when seeking to help create the world we would like to live in.

Image by Josh C, taken from,


The perception of owning this power to create – the power to be an actor in your life and not merely a participant - is not as widely distributed as the ability to create is. People often need a push, a spark, a catalyst. The act of doing, of interacting, of creating implies some level of believing that you are worth it. By connecting people to others and activities in their local area, by helping them open that front door and get out there, we ultimately might be that spark.

“I can’t say enough about [the social mirror project] because it has changed my life… if I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t have known about these walking groups. After I retired I felt like a recluse, three days a week I didn’t go out of the flat. I’ve now lost a stone in weight, I can talk to people quite freely which I didn’t before… I’ve stopped drinking alcohol -I don’t need it to help me sleep as the walks tire me out.”

  Social Mirror Project Participant

Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA Connected Communities project, and leads the Social Mirror project.

You can find her on twitter: @la_gaia

Social Mirror has recently been featured on BBC Radio Bristol (at 1h :23 minutes) and on BBC Radio 4. 

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  • Hi Peter,

    I've always thought it would be a great idea for some organisation to keep up to date (somehow!) an online list of things like hyper-local Facebook groups (for roads, or communities etc), hyper-local blogs, community websites or groups, events listing et al - which apps could then draw on when someone puts in their postcode.

    Is anyone already doing this, will Social Mirror have databases of any of this stuff?

    I heard of something along these lines to help doctors with their patients' needs - from Thom Townsend, who works with the national Community Organisers' programme.


  • very much looking forward to working with Gaia, on putting ppl in touch with local groups - and indeed 'assets' of all sorts shapes & sizes, Matthew! [@alissproject]

  • Fascinating stuff Gaia, I've been meaning to learn more about your 'Social Mirror' work for months. Look forward to viewing the video you've included.

    I'm not quite sure if 'Social Mirror' actually puts people in touch with local groups directly...?

    I'm also intrigued by the issue of 'strong' ties vs 'weak' ties. I think previous work you did found that people with certain kinds of values (eg 'Inner Directed'/Pioneers) would be far more likely to have lots of network connections, but that they would be 'weak' ties. By contrast, people with 'Sustenance Driven' values prefer to have a far smaller number of 'strong' ties.

    I guess we need lots of 'weak' ties across groups in order to boost 'bridging' (rather than 'bonding') social capital?

    I'll bump into you some time soon and ask you about this - so be warned...;-)

    I do hope the RSA manages to one day spawn a concept as prevalent as 'Meritocracy' - even if people to this day are confused about what Michael Young's satire was really aiming at. Most people haven't even read it, of course - as with Das Kapital and On the Origin of Species!

    Plenty of people presumed it was just the history of the laudable new concept of Meritocracy - I think Tony Blair fell for that view. Was it an attack on a technocratic vision of a heartless Meritocratic society where assessed levels of intelligence leads directly to social position? Was it an attack on the statist leanings of many in the Labour Party, which Michael's more communalist/family-focused vision sought to avoid?

    For some, the rise of Comprehensives led to the end of the Meritrocratic ideal/nightmare (depending on how you see it). And in the background there was always a fear that social mobility by the Working Class, might lead to political mobility - away from the Labour Party. I think this concentrated some people's minds against Meritocracy.

    Michael Young himself seemed worried that a scientific meritocracy might leave people who end up at the bottom of the pile feeling they had no-one to blame but themselves, a heartless result that jarred with his communalist vison.

    I'm only droning on about all this because I decided recently that I really needed to get to grips with the history of 'Meritocracy' and have just started reading a collection of papers on it!