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It’s a commonplace that the world is ever-more well-connected. It’s less clear what we should do with this knowledge. The RSA has pioneered the use of social network analysis to understand how people relate to each other in their communities, and use that knowledge to help improve them.

In this instalment of my week of blogs about how Fellows and staff at the RSA are creating social change, I'm going to talk about some of the implications of this work.

For us, understanding social networks isn’t just about seeing how a community works: it’s also a way of empowering people. If you have a better sense of how your social connections affect your life – for better and for worse – you can make more informed choices, and support those around you to do so too.

Our work with people in recovery from problematic drug and alcohol use is a powerful example of how the RSA is putting these ideas into practice. In partnership with the national treatment provider CRI and Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, we’re working to help people break out of cycles of addiction, with the RSA’s Fellows in Kent at the centre of the work.

In their 2010 report Whole Person Recovery – a user-centred approach to problem drug use, Rebecca Daddow and Steve Broome from the RSA’s Action and Research Centre made the case that successful recovery from drug and alcohol problems involves a range of reinforcing factors – and that one of the most important is a strong network of support. (An RSA Fellow, Tony Hodgson, was instrumental in developing the commissioning framework for recovery set out in the report, and a wider group of Fellows advised the project throughout.)

The insights from this work animate the work Rebecca now is leading in West Kent, and her team started with the aim of addressing the barriers to a healthy, happy, and supportive community which includes both people in recovery and those who are not. The original aim was to create recovery alliances: local community groups that would connect people in recovery to others, and especially to RSA Fellows.

In practice, this approach faced some challenges. In particular, Rebecca and her team found that asking volunteers to join a loose alliance wasn’t specific enough; this was particularly the case with Fellows, who are keen to give their time but want to work on something where they can make a specific and tangible contribution. In response to this, the team’s focus is shifting to strengthening networks in a more one-to-one basis, and they’re establishing a timebank to help Fellows and people in recovery give and receive services, and thereby meet each others’ needs.

It’s an object lesson in the challenges that come with making the best possible use of volunteers, but this new approach aims to provide specific support within the network. One recent example is that after being contacted by a key worker the team have been able to identify an RSA Fellow who may be able to provide relevant career advice to their client.

You can find out more about the RSA’s work on recovery on our website. If you’d like to stay informed, or if you live locally and would like to participate in the time banking scheme, email recovery@rsa.org.uk to receive the monthly Whole Person Recovery newsletter. And if you're interested in finding out more about our work on social network analysis, the RSA's social network analysis expert Gaia Marcus will be participating in a Twitter Q&A on Friday between 2pm and 3pm - do follow @theRSAorg or check out #RSAFriday for more information.

Sam Thomas is the RSA's project engagement manager. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.

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