Talking about change - RSA

Talking about change

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  • Social networks

One of the joys of my job is meeting RSA Fellows.

Last week, for example, I attended a New Fellows’ Evening here at John Adam Street, and I spoke at a Brussels RSA event attended by local Fellows and a group visiting on one of our popular ‘demystification’ tours. Talking to Fellows you are guaranteed two fascinating discussions: first, about the Fellow themselves – after all they have been nominated in part because of their achievements in life; secondly, about Fellows’ expectations of the RSA.

Of course, many people look forward to being able to use the excellent facilities on offer at John Adams Street and others talk about the lecture series, the Journal and the website. But there is another dimension to Fellowship that I am keen we promote and support. This is the idea of the Fellowship as a network of people not only committed to progress but also to acting to promote change.

From now on we will be putting ever more emphasis on this peer-to-peer dimension of Fellowship. The most high-profile and effective expression of this idea currently is the Coffeehouse Challenge (CHC), which we will be officially launching next month. Through the CHC, the RSA and Starbucks aim to bring people together to discuss local issues and explore the possibility of taking action together. The CHC has already been the springboard for initiatives ranging from a zero waste organic café to a campaign against knife crime to a charity to provide public places for elderly and infirm people to be able to sit and rest.

It is an important dimension of the CHC that it is up to people meeting in their local Starbucks to decide what the important issues are and how they should respond. Without wanting to lose this spontaneity, we want this year to also offer suggestions to local groups for ideas they might want to consider. For example, I was approached by the former MP Peter Bradley who is promoting the idea of creating Speakers’ Corners in major towns and cities as a focus for open and lively civic debate. This is the kind of manageable but potentially significant project that CHC meetings might decide to take on. We are exploring other ideas to showcase in the Journal and put on the CHC website. Over time, I would like people and organisations across the UK (and where we are strong internationally) to see the RSA as a powerful source of ideas, energy and commitment.

So the CHC is at the heart of our model of Fellowship activism. But there are other important dimensions. We are investing in our website, with a particular focus in strengthening the Fellows’ areas. We have launched our Fellow2Fellow web feature, in which we invite Fellows to share opinions and proposals. And, as we get more and more Fellows willing to provide us with information and allow us to connect with them online, we are able to provide a powerful service to people trying to get advice and support. A few weeks ago we were able to contact getting on for a 100 architect Fellows in and around London on behalf of a Fellow wanting to see a higher profile debate about the changing architectural shape of the capital. Just this morning I heard about the help we had given a Fellow who is chair of governors of a primary school. In thinking about his new school building, he had wanted advice on what are likely to be the next advances in school ICT. Drawing on our database, we contacted several Fellows, many of whom have responded with useful thoughts.

For me, the model of Fellow activism has the potential to address what I call the ‘social aspiration gap’. This is the divide between the kind of society we want to live in and the society we currently feel able to create (I may treat readers to a fuller account of this in a future blog!). The Fellowship was one of the main reasons I came to the RSA; the more I see of it in action to more excited I become about its potential.

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  • I certainly agree that peer-to-peer discussion is important, but I think the RSA should be looking outside it's own (web) domain for oppportunities to promote debate.

    I'm on several social-network sites; including FridayCities, Facebook and the ubiquitous MySpace. I could be on more if I wanted to, or had the time.

    Yes, much of the traffic on these sites might be pointless and inane chatter; but they potentially offer a huge opportunity to engage with people relatively easy and on their terms.

    I certainly don't think the web is the only solution, but I think the RSA needs to be responding to the fact that people are using the internet to build complex social networks.


  • This is an excellent piece, Matthew. Active Fellowship is something that really appeals to me - and I am sure to many other Fellows too.

    The idea of the RSA Fellowship being an active - and above all positive - thing delivering real and visible results can be an inspiring vision (and hopefully a reality too). Roll on the Coffeehouse Challenge.

    The main barrier is how Fellows are brought together in the first place. It looks like you have identified that and are addressing it. Excellent.

    I am really looking forward to what you will achieve during your time as our Chief Executive, Matthew.

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