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Its time to blog about a brilliant RSA project! Central to my work at the RSA and the Citizen Power programme is the ‘Citizens of the Future’ project – a hugely ambitious and exciting project. The project is based on a partnership between the RSA, Peterborough City Council (PCC), Opportunity Peterborough (OP) and Arts Council East (ACE). This will form the basis of a long term collaboration with the aim of fundamentally restructuring the social ecology of civic behaviour in the city and with it the relationship between local public services and citizens in Peterborough.

Its time to blog about a brilliant RSA project! Central to my work at the RSA and the Citizen Power programme is the ‘Citizens of the Future’ project – a hugely ambitious and exciting project. The project is based on a partnership between the RSA, Peterborough City Council (PCC), Opportunity Peterborough (OP) and Arts Council East (ACE). This will form the basis of a long term collaboration with the aim of fundamentally restructuring the social ecology of civic behaviour in the city and with it the relationship between local public services and citizens in Peterborough.

 To give the project focus, we are looking at the complex relationships of place, identity and collective action through a specific focus on ecological sustainability and what we are calling ‘sustainable citizenship’ that links sustainable, ecologically friendly behaviour to the wider project of increasing levels of pro-social, civic behaviour at a local level that harnesses the innovation of the arts.

 I am now on my way back from a ‘Citizens of the Future’ project meeting with Peterborough City Council, Opportunity Peterborough and Arts Council East, which I attended with our chief (Matthew Taylor) and Michaela Crimmin (RSA Head of Arts). It was an excellent meeting – how refreshing it is to collaborate with three organisations (PCC, OP and AC) genuinely committed to substantial social change, open to real innovation and who are willing to put their money where their mouth is! Yes – all at the same time…

As part of this project, we are currently undertaking a rigorous scoping phase at the RSA that consists of (a) a comprehensive literature review (b) deliberative discussion groups with local people and community groups and (c) in depth interviews with a diverse range of local public service leaders in Peterborough. Today we presented some interim feedback and findings on the project so far. Here are some of the key ideas and principles that are emerging:

1. We cannot and should not create a distinction between a place and the people who inhabit it. They form what we might call a ‘Hegelian totality’ in which each part is mutually dependent but quasi-autonomous. Places are the people who fill it with meaning. The collective identity of place whether that be a city, town or neighbourhood is defined by the behaviour and self-identity of its people. By definition, the identity of a place cannot be imposed upon or distinguished from the people.

2. The starting point is the cultivation of civically minded people with the necessary capabilities for living a civic life of co-operation. For this to happen, public services should be focusing less on branding and short-termist communications exercises and more on building the social ecology of conditions - institutional, cultural and socio-economic - most conducive to pro-social, civically minded behaviour.

3. To do this, public services need to shift their focus from “place shaping” to “person shaping”. The identity of place is dependent on active citizens – that is, people who not only identify with what a place represents and symbolises but who reflect that identity in their actual behaviour.

4. This innovative emphasis on what Matthew Taylor calls “Person shaping” demands a new approach to policymaking – listen to the excellent Radio 4 programme, Persuading Us to Be Good, presented by Daniel Finkelstein and featuring MT. Cultivating pro-social, civic behaviour is a complex process, thought one that is a realistic goal for all ambitious public services. But it requires strong and visionary leadership (as demonstrated by Peterborough City Council) and a ‘gestalt shift’ in public policy with long-term strategic policymaking the norm not the exception to the rule.

5. Local public services need to be making far better use of the powerful insights into human decision-making being generated in social psychology, behavioural economics and neuroscience. As part of the ‘Citizens of the Future’ collaboration is the plan to undertake a ground-breaking RSA-led longitudinal study of the impact of behaviour change on sustainable consumption, civic action and public solidarity.

6. If the ‘social-aspiration gap’ is going to be closed, we need an essentially different relationship between local public services and local people; one in which people are not  ‘service users’ but 'active agents' (citizens) shaping the direction and identity of their lived environment, and local public services 'co-producers' and partners and not ‘service providers’. Under such conditions the very concepts of ‘service provider’ and ‘service user’ become redundant, replaced by the concept of ‘citizen-led organisations’ aimed at the common good.

7. In order for this to work, the relationship between public service and citizen needs to be rebuilt a local level. To build a connection with citizens, local public services first need to establish a collective identity people want to buy into. This means directing action and policymaking at the local, neighbourhood level. This is the level most conducive for the development of ‘meaning’ and collective identity.

8. For a place to have an identity that is durable it needs to have an identity that is self-generated from the bottom up. People are far more likely to identify with something they helped develop. Indeed, attempts to impose an ‘identity of place’ will only lead to failure and an inefficient allocation of resources.

9. Urban regeneration can have a key role in developing a specific sense of place as has been seen recently in places such as Manchester and Castleford. But all such projects should have collective targets and goals. A collective aspiration to achieve goals at a neighbourhood or community level instils within people a sense of purpose that binds people together. We have found, for example, that pledges, community contracts and other forms of collective agreement in which people openly agree to a course of action can be extremely effective in terms of strengthening community cohesion and influencing civic behaviour.

This is just the start. The 'Citizens of the Future' collaboration offers the RSA a real opportunity to turn innovative ideas into social action, shaping the very substance of a city with great potential and a big future.

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