As many current and former colleagues will confirm, it is a dangerous business presenting me with emerging research findings. Always eager to discover something newsworthy, and better at big concepts than methodological detail, I am prone to seize on tentative findings and turn them into a massive breakthrough in human understanding.
The dismayed research team has then to deal as best they can with the fallout as I charge around town, telling anyone who cares to listen that we have made a great discovery while each time expanding just a little bit further on what I was originally told. Within a short period any resemblance between the modest claim supported by the research and my towering hyperbole is mere coincidence.
So, I sensed a nervous frisson run through the team when yesterday I seized on a very early finding of our Connected Communities project, being undertaken in New Cross Gate. The researchers are now analysing the nearly 200 interviews which aim to map the social networks of local residents. The results confirm starkly the hypothesis that many people in disadvantaged areas have very limited social networks - for example a significant minority say not only that they don’t know anyone in authority but they don’t know anyone who knows anyone in authority.
But the finding upon which I alighted related to who and what are the main foci for networks. Not only are these centres - as we might predict - local institutions, like schools or Sure Start, or local public servants, like postmen or wardens, but a particular kind of person. It appears that those who say they most value neighbourliness are also those to whom most people connect.
This immediately put me in mind of two recent statements made at recent RSA Great Room events. First, there was David Halpern telling us that what appears to shape levels of happiness within nations is not so much their material circumstances as what they say most matters. So, for example, the Danes are the happiest people in the world partly because, uniquely, they say that ‘love’ is the most important component of contentment (unlike the miserable Bulgarians who say it is money). Second, there was the comment by the author of ‘Connected’, Nicholas Christakis, that there is a significant genetic component (around 40%) to explain why some people are better social networkers than others.
As the research team tried in vain to get me engaged with others aspects of their findings I was already air-born with my flight of fancy…..
It appears that some people both value social networking (it is what makes them happy) and are adept at it. These people are potentially a massive resource for any community. There is no reason to believe that this character trait will be less prevalent in deprived communities than anywhere else. However, it may, for a whole variety for reasons, be the case that these people are not in positions where the community as a whole can best capitalise on these skills. (Indeed it may be that some of those in key formal positions of influence – the ones we tend to assume are the most important - are not themselves well-endowed with networking skills.)
Therefore, it should be a key plank of strategies to build community resilience that we identify who these people are and that we give them resources (for example, access to social media) so they can apply their skills. These are the people public authorities should engage when they are designing some or other policy intervention.
You might think this is a bold and interesting enough claim to be going on with, especially as it is based on analysing only about a quarter of the returns. But surely we can go that one step further. Doesn’t our research offer convincing proof of ‘the people gene’? If only we could find the people carrying the gene, support them, listen to them, make them be the leaders they were born to be, we could transform the resilience and capacity of every community.
The left would rejoice as deprivation was tackled, the right would celebrate the evidence that it is not in the actions of the state but in the capacities of civil society that the path to social renewal lies. The RSA would be seen to have been responsible for one of the most powerful findings in modern social science and its (surprisingly young-looking) Chief Executive would become a household name, winner of awards, friend of Presidents, feted at home and abroad for his leadership and wisdom, a regular on the One Show …..
'Nurse, I think it may be time for Mr Taylor’s medicine.'
As we begin to imagine the post-pandemic world, we need to challenge our use of old metaphors to allow for new narratives and better futures to emerge.
With the post-Christmas resolutions looming, when we try to address the worst of our seasonal over-indulgences, the question remains: how can we give up bad habits for good?