Jobs for an intern: make tea, edit references, keep your head down and do the grunt work. Perhaps, but not at the RSA – here they encourage you to speak up, to blog and to generally make your voice heard. It is both refreshing and a little intimidating.
So when I got invited to attend a meeting at the start of this week I managed to do what I perhaps should not have done: I took a lot of notes and kept my mouth shut, but my ears open. There is much to condemn this strategy but I tell you something, you tend to learn a lot that way. As one might expect from a meeting between think tanks, there was some general confusion as to who was meant to be facilitating who but if anything this seemed to lead to a very productive meeting. The subject of the meeting: How can local government help communities be more resilient despite devastating flooding in the UK - especially since the climate change models seem to suggest this is is going to be a more regular occurrence in the future.
How can local government help communities be more resilient despite devastating flooding in the UK - especially since the climate change models seem to suggest this is is going to be a more regular occurrence in the future.
There have been several situations like this since I started at the RSA: I enter a room with notepad in hand, I sit down (finding somewhere to balance my cheap coffee) and then I listen carefully, whilst scribbling furiously drawing mind maps. Some meetings have been illuminating, some have been exciting, some have soared very high over my head and the meeting in King Cross on Monday managed to do all three. The topic of conversation was the role that the RSA Connected Communities approach to network analysis may have on the issue of community resilience to floods. As is commonly known, the devastating flood damage that hit the UK is more likely to increase, than remain an historical blip. Interestingly, how a local community deals with such disturbances can differ greatly depending on how well connected they may be.
At the meeting Gaia Marcus presented some excellent examples of the social network analysis that she has undertaken as part of her work with the RSA. She was able to clearly demonstrate the methods and impacts that such information may have on health and general wellbeing. Importantly, the presentation was not suggesting that simply having more friends would solve every problem during an extreme flood, but instead that there certainly are times when just knowing more people (having a wider pool of resources) would increase your ability to respond quickly or get your life back to something like ‘normal’ afterwards. Gaia Marcus used her analogy of a heart attack to make it clear that whilst there were times when simply having people around to help you mop the floor, get some food inside your children or lend you their working phone, there were always going to be times when you needed to call in the army.
One of the most fascinating questions I found myself asking (if only in my own head) was ‘Should we even be trying to prevent floods?’ – I don’t mean by this should we just leave people to their own when they are in need, but there must be a level in which we have to accept that such devastation can, and will, happen - regardless of how much we may dredge the rivers. After all, as one gentleman mentioned on Monday: “We have been having this problem since King Canute – we can’t stop it flooding”. Whilst there is an acceptance that prevention measures are required we must accept the reality of climate change and how the modelling suggests that these events are only going to continue, if not get worse. Further, that much work should be done to make sure that people who currently live on sites that are at risk to flooding are suitably informed; let alone the sites of new builds.
Alternatively, a systems theoretical approach to this subject might offer a fresh view on the issue. Instead of trying to prevent the impact we could try and understand what this sort of disturbance does to both at the local land and the community. Any disturbance to a system tests the functionality; it breaks down connections, drops redundant features and shortly afterwards makes new, novel, connections. These novel connections are key to the continued functioning of the system – it helps it adapt and make use of changing resources and avoid new dangers. The issue here is that local government want communities to remain ‘resilient’, to remain unchanging despite the disturbance, when really we need to facilitate change in those communities, when and where required. I would agree that to some degree it is part of the human condition to make stable (and enduring) out of what is inherently fluctuating, but to do so without adaptation leads to stagnation: a form of domestication, rather than evolution.
It is part of the human condition to make stable (and enduring) out of what is inherently fluctuating, but to do so without adaptation leads to stagnation: a form of domestication, rather than evolution.
Regardless, this does not mean that we sit idly by and watch devastation occur to those who need our help. Indeed, this is why the connected communities approach is so interesting: It highlights the importance of the connectivity of individuals and the impact that has both in times of significant need and in the more everyday concerns of health and support. Part of the concern of many around the table at the meeting was the feeling that when all the data is provided, to the people who hold the budgets, they would find it difficult to ‘sign off’ on the development of the project as it would not be the ‘dam building’ or ‘river dredging action’ that is so politically useful, and easy to sell – regardless of it actual use. Here, I was reminded of something John Major said that it is the role of the Politician to do what the electorate want in the moment (to act), but at the same time do what is needed to help them in the long term something much harder to explain, harder still to sell, but something that can be done in the background with timescales than span beyond the political term. The connected communities approach is one such possible project.
The connected communities approach is one such possible project.
Another barrier to starting such a project is that the benefits may not be directly observed. As Rowan Conway of the RSA noted, often the benefits of such a holistic approach appear in different areas of the system to where the project is being articulated. Interestingly, this barrier is also part of the reason why it can work so well - improving the connections between people will generate multiple benefits across a wide variety of social, economic and community health benefits. We can understand this sort of approach along the lines of distributed authority and agile organisations that work to increase adaptation rather than solidify structures. The question remains: where such distinctions between (environmental) cause and (political effect) are broken down can the action still be sold up and down the line?