The waterfront area of Bristol is lovely in the sunshine; it made me want to pack up my bags and move to the West. I was there on Monday meeting some Fellows to talk about their projects and speaking at a Festival of Ideas event. One of the most interesting conversations I had was with local Fellow activist, Ted Fowler. It inspired me with some further thoughts about the RSA and its model of change.
Ted has worked with other FRSAs to build up a really strong city network. While we were meeting, RSA network manager Chris Luffingham confirmed that there are seventy Fellows signed up for an event this evening.
As Ted and I discussed, Bristol is like a lot of other places in that there is an urgent need for civic leadership in the face of public sector austerity, economic frailty (although the city itself is doing comparatively well) and longer term challenges like sustainability and population ageing. This leads people to want to have wide ranging conversations about a new vision for their town or city and to connect this to concrete community-led action.
Ted’s question to me was how to structure such a conversation so that it is most likely to lead to powerful, creative and practical conclusions. I have some ideas for the kinds of questions that might be useful:
1) What kind of place are we, what are our strengths to build on and our weaknesses to tackle?
2) Where are we wasting human capacity and how could we liberate and channel that capacity?
3) Who are the innovators and grassroots leaders in our community and how can we engage and support them in making more impact?
4) What specifically can the RSA best contribute given our Fellows and their networks?
But Ted wanted answers as much as questions; in particular he wanted to know what kind of conversations and actions had worked for other Fellows exploring similar issues.
A few weeks ago I went to Brighton for a fascinating event to start developing a local programme of action for the RSA and our Catalyst Fund has recently given support to what looks like a really ambitious civic gathering in Leicester in September.
The challenge for our Fellowship team is to start connecting active Fellows who are hosting similar kinds of conversations in different places. We need to know what processes work best and what kinds of outcomes we should expect and encourage.
The other potential is to connect the place shaping actions of Fellows with the work of our own Projects team. Now we have brought the 2020 public service team into the RSA we are developing a powerful offer to local authorities and public agencies around helping them adapt to new times. In part this involves our ideas on subjects like social networks, co-productive public services and developing cultural communities but also insights we are developing about how to foster and support local social innovation. When members of our Projects team are invited to speak around the country we always try to connect with the local Fellowship.
At which point I have to use a word that usually makes me cringe: synergy. If specialist staff members can connect and support the civil society initiatives of Fellows and if engaging Fellows becomes part of our offer when we talk to local institutions, we have scope to create initiatives which are distinctive and powerful and which blur the boundaries between state and civic action.
The challenge of austerity and the opportunity of localism means places need to have a much deeper conversation about how they see their future and what that future involves not just for ‘the authorities’ but for local people. The RSA can play an important part in developing that conversation. It relies on the commitment, goodwill and creativity of Fellows and on us being able to lever resources to provide staff and other forms of support (like Catalyst). But it is an exciting prospect.
Although these thoughts it has been swirling around in my mind for some time, if it does come to pass I will always associate it with sitting in the April sun drinking latte on the Bristol quayside.
*In case anyone was wondering about the derivation of this term ...