Undettered by the late autumn drizzle, the RSA hosted a Seminar yesterday morning on The Connected Communities Project, attended by academics, community development workers, civil servants, and RSA researchers.
Such gatherings are important for morale and for networking. Participants have shared interests, they learn a lot from and about each other, and visual and tactile contact encourages opportunities for cooperation that might not otherwise emerge.
My personal impression of such events is that few participants seem completely sure why they are present, and only a handful have a clear idea of what they are hoping to understand or achieve. This is no bad thing, and the lack of calculated instrumentality actually helps because, as with many academic conferences, the substantive discussions are partly a cognitive update, and partly a pretext for the more productive business of getting people connected.
The tea, coffee and biscuits may look like mere refreshments, but they are also a space, place and opportunity (as Alison Gilchrist puts it) for networking, because people frequently begin to disclose personal information as a follow-up to some benign chit-chat concerning how the biscuits look and taste etc. The refreshments also serve as a legitimate place to escape to if a discussion reaches an natural end, or to look busy when you feel socially excluded.
Following presentations by Steve Broome, outlying our project, Rachel Gibson on social media and political participation, Jeff Masters on the future of public services and Matt Grist on the Social Brain, Mathew Taylor chaired a wide-ranging discussion on community regeneration, which took place under Chatham House rules.
Alasdair Jones and I have written up a summary of the discussion, and we will draw on this summary periodically to inform our blog over the next few weeks and months. For now, I simply wanted to draw attention to a comment from one animated participant who remarked that the trouble with discussions about local regeneration is that they invariably have "more caveats than conclusions".
I immediately identified with this remark, because whenever we discuss community conceptually we need to exemplify the general discussion with particular communities, but that invariably brings manifold contextual details that are often highly specific in content, if not in form, that may not apply to other communities. This tension between the general and the specific therefore looms large over this whole area, and puts many people off.
On the one hand we seem to want a national strategy, but on the other hand the best national strategy may be local initiatives detached from formal government structures; and such initiatives, viewed nationally, may lack what Gregory Bateson famously called a 'pattern than connects'.
On such matters it is relatively easy to say 'if, but and maybe', and relatively hard to say 'this, that and therefore'. If you care about deeply understanding the issues surrounding community regeneration, in particular areas and in general, are you condemned to a lexicon that is long on caveats but short on conclusions? If so, how much does this matter?