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We have all heard the dictum that getting on in life is not about what you know, but who you know. The truth is more complicated, because what you know and who you know are inextricably linked, and who you know is only important because of who they know, and how well.

We have all heard the dictum that getting on in life is not about what you know, but who you know. The truth is more complicated, because what you know and who you know are inextricably linked, and who you know is only important because of who they know, and how well.

The Connected Communities programme aims to be practical and tangibly effective at street level, initially in two particular places-New Cross Gate in South East London, and Knowle West in South Bristol- but it has a theoretical heart. In plain language the idea is that relationships and social networks matter much more fundamentally than policy-makers typically imagine, and this idea is grounded in evidence of what motivates people, and how empowering social networks are formed.

As Alasdair mentioned in his last post, Lord Andrew Mawson recently spoke at the RSA. Mawson's wonderful book, The Social Entrepreneur demonstrates the pivotal importance of can-do people with local knowledge getting together for the regeneration of Bromley-by- Bow. There is a more technical analysis of the same idea in a Demos pamphlet from 2002 with the evocative title: ‘People before Structures.’

Lord Mawson began his eight minute speech on Monday by stating that in his 25 years of local regeneration projects, he finds that central and local government persist in making the same mistakes in public service delivery because

Central and Local Government have a good idea of the shape of the forest but absolutely no idea of what is happening under the trees.

In many ways the connected community programme is about what’s happening under the trees. We are trying to understand what determines, at a more granular level, why local initiatives succeed and fail. The hypothesis is that useful things get done at a local level not so much because of the level of funding and delivery structure of government initiatives(although they are important) but because of how effectively the social networks operate. How much does it matter, for instance, that Andy knows Sally who recently bumped into Brenda who tried something similar a few years ago, and learned how to do it better next time?

We think social networks of this sort are pivotally important. The RSA are informed optimists about our ability to make a better world, and the centrality of social networks is built partly on a theory of human agency. For instance, in the Spring 2009 RSA journal, Director of Research Steve Broome refers to experimental research by Austrian economist Ernst Fehr that indicates most people are neither ‘essentially’ selfish nor altruistic. We are tit-for-tat creatures who want to be good and do good, but will only do so if we like, or more precisely trust whoever we are doing it for. In this sense, Fehr suggests we are ‘conditional altruists’- a useful expression.

The connection to social networks is fleshed out by analytical sociologist Peter Hedstrom who indicates that with just 5% of a sample population acting, not as conditional altruists, but as ‘egoists’, social interaction between egoists and conditional altruists lowers the overall level of cooperation in a network by about 40%. The contention is therefore that if social and civic action is taken in areas with good connectivity and high levels of trust, it is much more likely to be of net benefit, hence the emphasis on measuring social networks in areas in need of regeneration.

But this is still theory rather than practice. As researchers, if you want to understand social networks you have to spend time ‘under the trees’ in the areas in question, and build trust and good will with local residents. In time, you hope to discover who they know, how well, how often they call upon them, and hopefully some finer contextual details about the resulting community hubs, where the most important nodes of the networks tend to be.

However, being under the trees can be challenging, and involves, for interest, going from the relatively protected atmosphere of John Adam Street behind the Strand, to New Cross Gate, as I did on Monday with my colleague Alasdair Jones and community development consultant, Alison Gilchrist FRSA. In New Cross Gate, as in many inner city areas, you find legions of friendly people doing meaningful community work, but you also cannot help but notice dejected people sharing cans of lager on the sidewalk in the morning, while fighter dogs look on.

All the more reason to understand what is going on under the trees, in particular to track the informal social networks that might put individuals and groups in touch with another in constructive ways.

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