Help us shape the future RSA House - RSA

Help us shape the future RSA House

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  • Picture of Alex Barker
    Alex Barker
  • Fellowship
  • Social innovation

Since it first became our home in 1774, RSA Fellows have shaped the evolution of RSA House. We want to continue this legacy into 2018 as we begin work on creating a 21st century Enlightenment coffeehouse

Coffee was first introduced to London in 1652 by an eccentric Greek entrepreneur, and was by all accounts a revolting drink, routinely compared in historical records to oil, ink, mud, and soot.

But given that drinking the Thames water was a recipe for certain death, and spending your days in one of the city’s lively public houses rarely led to world-changing ideas, the introduction of the Enlightenment era coffeehouse was nothing short of a revelation. Historian Dr Matthew Green describes it as the ‘jet fuel’ of the Enlightenment.

It was in a coffeehouse in 1754 that the RSA was founded. Fast forward twenty years, and the Society had swelled from 11 members to many hundreds and moved into permanent premises on John Adam Street. RSA House, a bespoke building which later merged with 3 other townhouses and a tavern, became a place to showcase the innovations and great ideas of the time, drawing in crowds for live demonstrations of inventions such as the telephone and the extendable fire ladder.

We’re still proud to play host to ground-breaking new ideas, but recently we’ve been looking back to our roots and at the kind of environment that powers original thinking. It’s interesting what the research throws up. According to one study into the optimal noise levels for performing different tasks, a coffee shop atmosphere is much better for promoting creativity, compared to a silent work space.

"Modest background noise, the scientists explain, creates enough of a distraction to encourage people to think more imaginatively.”

Conversation was a defining characteristic of the Enlightenment coffeehouse; in some you were not allowed to cross the threshold until you had offered up a morsel of news or gossip. The reason for this was threefold; the introduction of coffee coincided with a media boom so there was suddenly much to read and be discussed; cities were growing at a rapid rate increasing the number of people you could meet with; and there was also a rise in the idea of politeness, so interaction was actively encouraged as a means to hone conversation skills.

It is an interesting parallel to today where powerful forces are struggling to contain and control media; cities are growing ever more rapidly but often at the expense of community; and while face-to-face interactions remain largely civil, online discourse is becoming famed for its vitriol.

The reasons why the RSA wants to reinvent the environment of the Enlightenment coffeehouse ties into all of the above. We want to bring people together to discuss (in a level headed way) the urgent challenges we face, and generate understanding on points where we disagree. We believe there is a need to strive for common ground.

We also want to help people work together. The world today is densely populated, intertwined and complex; we can’t simply showcase the ideas of a few and hope that one size fits all. We have to co-create new solutions. A study from the Harvard Business Review discovered that people who belong to co-working spaces report levels of thriving that approach an average of 6 on a 7-point scale. The research cites that this is largely because they found the work they were doing in these spaces meaningful, and they felt part of a community.

Help shape the space

So what will the RSA coffeehouse be like? How can we ensure it fuels great conversations, ideas and solutions? In part, that will be up to RSA Fellows.

In the next couple of weeks we’ll be launching a challenge on our ideas platform (you might be familiar with it if you participated in any of the Citizens Economic Council challenges). Here you’ll be able to submit ideas as to how and what the space could be used for.

You might want to think about:

- Events to encourage co-recreation, consensus reaching or debate around particular topics

- Ways to encourage interaction between people in the space

- How the space could be used to connect with our global network 

We’ll let you know when the platform launches, but in the meantime do take a look at the dedicated microsite to find out more about the whole project.

If you have any questions you can email [email protected]

Join the discussion


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  • I have a few responses. Firstly I'd suggest we are all rather white, highly educated and priveledged, so I'd welcome a coffee house platform that allowed for much more diversity of social and cultural and pholosophical perspectives. Secondly, and perhaps more important, is the emphasis on innovation. I'd argue that to truly uncover what needs to emmerge in these crumbling and very insecure times is not a repeat of caffeine fueled debates but forums that allowed/promoted real listening and authentic dialogue that fosters a collective emergence of that which resonates and guides what needs to be responded to.  SOmehow we need to explore new pathways into a different perspective with new rules form the one we currently inhabit, much as Einstein stated, loosely, you cant create solutions from the old thinking that got you into the bloody mess in the first place.

  • It's a great idea though there will need to be some innovative thinking on how to incorporate those who, like me, live half-way up a Pyrennean mountain. The original enlightenment was presumably so-called because it challenge the political, economic, religious and societal norms of the time. We need some thinking about what those might be and how they can be collectively challenged for better, or rather different, developments. I spent my whole life in different branches of education - schools, industry, university - latterly in the development of \Learning Cities and Regions. Much change has taken place but there is still a huge polarisation in society between those who are able and willing to think things through and those who do not. Despite years of education the latter are in the majority. That is not an enlightened society and is, for me, at the very centre of this debate. .

  • Hi,

    Sounds like a great way to introduce more people to the RSA. I am a member of a co-working space and coffee is defo the fuel behind the ideas that come from there. 

    I'd be interested to know more about how the RSA plans to run the consultation process members. I am a live illustrator and have run events with graphic harvesting. If that is of interest to the development team please do get in touch via the portal or at [email protected]

    Sarah McSorley

    • Thanks Sarah, at the moment we're partnering with a platform called Wuzoku for the consultation part but we'll keep it in mind for future aspects of the project

  • Whilst I fully support the re-development I am concerned that the opportunity is being lost to take a major step towards fulfilling the vision of a global RSA through the incorporation of digital technologies to enable Fellows to connect, engage and collaborate, regardless of location, time of day or day of the week. There is a danger the CH will only benefit the c. one -third of Fellows that live in London and the South East and do little to attract, retain or engage those Fellows unable or unwilling to take advantage of its location.  

    • Hi Brendan, yes this is a valid point, we will be looking for ideas for how the coffeehouse can connect outwards to the wider Fellowship so definitely submit ideas to the platform when it launches. If you have a specific questions around this, would you be interested in joining an online Q&A around the end of September?  

      • Hi Alex. Tx for the reply. I am booked on the 12th Sept Zoom but I'm open to participating in something else.

  • Dear Alex,

    What an excellent initiative!  It reminds me of the French tradition of Café Philo which can be found at the Institut Francais in South Kensington, London [only every 4th session is in French].  The format is for people to propose specific topics at the start of each session, and for everyone to vote on their choice.  I find this more satisfactory than having topics set in advance, because, self-evidently, it allows the most recent events to be brought in. There is one regular chairman, but I would propose rotating chairs.

    Anita Pincas

    • Thanks Anita, that's a good idea, it would be great it you could add it to the ideas platform when it launches. I'll send you the link nearer the time. 

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