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T. S. Eliot once wrote that poets are like catalysts that bring about an interaction between two gases.

T. S. Eliot once wrote that poets are like catalysts that bring about an interaction between two gases.

People seem to need a similar catalyst in order to bring about interactions between themselves and their neighbours. Many people express a nebulous desire to know their neighbours but they do not act on this desire. In fact, the thought of just knocking on their neighbour’s door fills some people with a deep sense of dread. People have told me that they would be accused of all sorts of lurid criminal behaviour if they knocked on a stranger’s door.

I recently bought something from the internet. I was not in when it was delivered. Nothing strange in that. Rather than returning the package to the depot the postman left it with a neighbour. This forced me to talk to a neighbour that I had never previously talked with.

Reflecting on this, the postman had acted as a kind of catalyst (ok, not a catalyst, chemistry was never my strongest subject, but I hope you understand what I am getting at), adding an extra element which forced me to interact with my neighbour.

This reminds me of the argument Mario Luis Small recently made in the RSA Journal that institutions (he used the example of nurseries) can make demands of their users in such a way that they build the social capital of the users (he used the example of parents being forced to help out on trips to museums).

Could this be a new model of public services? One which places demands on users, in such a way that they build new connections? How might this apply to various public services e.g. policing, adult social care…? It would be great to hear your thoughts.

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