Ian Blackburn FRSA argues that the concept of a 21st century Enlightenment coffeehouse has the potential to reach far beyond the membership of the RSA to other learned societies and embrace the groups and communities that actually go out and tackle the challenges of our time.
Three members of our Cannock Mill Cohousing Colchester group (CMCC) recently attended two RSA workshop sessions (one at RSA House in London, the other online). These discussions seemed to show broad agreement that lessons learned from the coffee houses of the 18th century can be applied to discussion of the challenges of our time. What was less obvious was how to support the groups that are actually tackling these issues. Many such groups are already making a difference; yet they need places to meet, help with technology to engage their members at a distance and access to a body of critical friends.
The RSA could extend the reach of groups such as ours operating within its areas of interest, enabling them to provide social benefits on a bigger scale. This effect could be multiplied many times over through similar support by other learned societies for initiatives in their respective fields.
At the session we attended at RSA House, Dr Matthew Green described how news, gossip and misinformation flourished in the 18th century Enlightenment coffee houses, with each coffee house attracting its own particular clientele, generating ideas through discussion. Coffee provided the jet fuel. These coffee houses shared their lineage with Lloyds of London and many august learned societies, such as the Royal Society, Society of Antiquaries, and so on. The RSA, in common with other learned societies, grew from these roots in response to the challenges of changing times. Like many of them it occupies outstanding property in a prime location. Continued occupation of such premises demands constant reinvention, exploiting technology to engage a far-flung membership in its business in the unique immediacy of its headquarters. Whilst the RSA is not alone it may be ahead of the curve in responding to these challenges and better placed to offer some fresh ideas.
The online discussion we attended explored how to reach 20,000 Fellows and wider communities, with lots of suggestions on how the technology available could engage people on line and in person.
While this discussion is going on, many of the communities that are actually tackling the social, economic and political challenges of the day are going about their business without such agreeable places to meet or the opportunity to discuss their ideas outside their own number. They cannot afford to hire rooms in central London so typically they meet in one another’s homes. Their membership often includes people working and living outside London or the UK, so they communicate by Skype and social media as well as by email. These groups continue to make an impact in the real world but, without access to a wider audience and without the benefit of the robust discussion, debate and exposure to new ideas, they remain niche players in a world that requires larger scale interventions.
One such example is the cohousing community. Intentional communities such as cohousing provide sustainable solutions to the contemporary problems of isolation, under-occupation, housing shortage and poor use of resources. Cohousing is better established in Europe and the US than in the UK. The UK Cohousing Network (UKCN) lists 19 established cohousing communities, with 48 others such as the Cannock Mill project in construction or being planned. Cohousing groups such as CMCC offer the opportunity to develop mutually supportive communities, with homes that have their own front doors and individual space, while sharing some facilities for group activities. The aim is to encourage social contact with the wider neighbouring community and build and manage a sustainable community.
Yet cohousing groups face a lonely battle to overcome many financial and legal barriers to developing and managing their schemes (of which inadvertent changes to leasehold legislation might have become the latest example).
The Cannock Mill project answers to the needs and aspirations of its particular membership. Cohousing is not a one size fits all solution, but a broader discussion of the obstacles we face would help other groups find sustainable solutions to their own particular needs. Further support for such groups would enable cohousing to become a significant housing alternative in the UK.
Most community organisations face similar challenges. The RSA coffee house for the 21st century could offer such groups operating in its own field affordable spaces to meet person to person, state of the art technology to reach a wider audience and opportunities for discussions with the Fellowship.
By extending the concept of the 21st century Enlightenment coffee house to include such groups the RSA could extend the range, diversity and reach of sustainable alternatives at a scale to make a difference at a national level. Other learned societies may be expected to follow this fascinating experiment with interest. It is exciting to imagine how each of them make the 21st century Age of the Enlightenment their own, reaching out to new communities as well as their membership.
Anne Thorne and Ian Blackburn attended the presentation on Monday 25th September and are fellows of the RSA. Ian and fellow director Phil McGeevor also participated in the on-line session on Thursday 28th September.
Dr Richard Simmons FRSA
Fellows’ diversity of knowledge, talent and great ideas, means that there is an opportunity to offer alternatives rather than bouncing back to the way thing were before the pandemic