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Keith Harrison-Broninski FRSA (leader of the RSA Catalyst project Town Digital Hub for volunteer supported wellness planning, and RSA Heritage Ambassador for Frome) provides an update on RSA events in the pioneering and socially progressive town of Frome.

What is a good community? And why does it matter?

In December 2016, the RSA published the first of two blog articles about RSA Frome, which started with an observation that will be familiar to many FRSAs - in the 21st century, even the prosperous often have poor quality of life.  The articles went on to make the case for supplementing medicalisation of mental health issues with a new approach based on community support for holistic wellness.  This vision is at the heart of RSA Frome, and two years down the line, this blog highlights how we are getting on, and how our approach reflects current RSA thinking.

Frome is an interesting example of a community that aims at effective collaboration for fair action.  The town’s independent politicians have been highly active since gaining control of the council in 2011 and then all 17 seats in 2015 – to see some of their achievements, check out their amusing video.  There are many other initiatives associated with the town –the “Compassionate Frome” venture by the town medical practice has been commended by the Prime Minister and Minister for Loneliness via a Point of Light award, the annual multicultural event mentioned above is spinning off smaller events throughout the year, and grass roots organisations such as the Edventure school for community enterprise together form a town which "thinks like a system, acts like an entrepreneur" (to quote Matthew Taylor in “Citizen-Powered Progress”, RSA Journal, Issue 3 2018).

The town spirit guides RSA Frome, and we are planning our biggest event yet for Thursday 17 January 2019, where we take a look at the key challenges and opportunities for 2019 - Brexit, Social Media, Crowdfunding, Artificial Intelligence, and more.  Deep societal changes such as these throw down the gauntlet for 21st century enlightenment, which Matthew Taylor (ibid.) takes to start with three core principles: Autonomy, Universalism, and Humanism.

Autonomy is dear to the heart of Frome residents, since the town has been a pioneer in flatpack democracy, a DIY approach to independent politics. Peter Macfadyen, author of the eponymous book, has featured in our events since the start and does so again on 17 January.

Universalism is also a key theme in Frome.  We are proud that in our small Somerset town of 26000 people there are communities from 48 countries with over 40 languages spoken.  We celebrate this multicultural diversity with family provided food, music, workshops, and stalls in annual events that are full of joy and a delight for all who attend.  As with all Fellow-led events, RSA Frome does what it can for universalism by making its events open to all.  The result has been events attended by up to 60 people of all ages, new fellowship applications, and re-engagement with the RSA by long-time FRSAs who had lost touch.  We are allowing for up to 100 people on 17 January.

Humanism, which Matthew Taylor equates to a combination of democracy and utilitarianism, is where the rubber meets the road for us.  A new populism is leading to people questioning the value of democracy altogether, but this is not a new debate – it has been around as long as democracy itself.  In “Democracy in America” (1835 and 1840), De Toqueville set out his belief that democracy has a tendency to degenerate into soft despotism and risks developing a tyranny of the majority.  Over two thousand years before, Plato described in his “Republic” (380 BC) a democratic leader as a man of false and braggart words and opinions who dismisses moderation, calling insolence “good breeding”, licence “liberty”, prodigality “magnificence”, and temperance “want of manhood’”.  Fox News, anyone?

Utilitarianism is facing a related crisis, since populist leaders typically use arguments of the utilitarian variety.  The aim to increase the sum total of human welfare is attractive at first glance but has fatal flaws – not only can it be used to justify morally unacceptable ends but also any means to such ends.  Utilitarians may set out with the intention to act in the common good only to find themselves supporting eugenics and concentration camps.

So where can we look for alternative guidance on humanism?  Kant’s Categorical Imperative faces ethical challenges similar to utilitarianism, with figures such as Adolf Eichmann claiming to have been guided by it, and the principle being used to argue both in favour of birth control and against it.  Do we need to look back to more ancient concepts of morality for inspiration?

The Aristotelian concept of virtue ethics is essentially about who you are.  Rather than attempting to develop a generic formula that generates the correct action in any situation, it says that good people learn both from upbringing and from habit to act well.  This seems to offer a flexible approach with the potential to accommodate the challenges of a modern inclusive society, but there are gotchas here too.  Virtue ethics was applied in Ancient Greece to justify the existence of a patrician class that knows what is best for the masses, and more generally, it can be used to create a meritocratic society that disempowers those disadvantaged by background or genetics.

My personal view is that virtue ethics does offer a way forward, but is more robust when applied to communities than to individuals.  A good community is far more than the sum of its parts, and assuming it has the right techniques and tools available, contains natural checks and balances that allow effective collaboration for fair action.  I have been writing about applicable techniques since publication of my book “Human Interactions” (2005), which sets out simple universal principles for effective collaboration across organisational boundaries.  These principles are now the basis for freely available tools including Town Digital Hub, a tool for volunteer supported wellness planning that provides community members with the ability to help each other using locally available resources, and Bizbi, a new tool that will enable new resources to be developed anywhere from an inner city to a remote rural area to a war zone.

Our upcoming event on Thursday 17 January 2019 will help anyone who is thinking of starting or already running a business or social venture, project, or community activity to avoid the pitfalls and make the most of the opportunities in these times of immense change and uncertainty.  Industry experts will provide the inside track and be available for discussion on topics including:

  • Brexit
  • Finance
  • Technology
  • Marketing & Sales
  • Staffing
  • Partnering

To reassure attendees that not everything has changed, there will be traditional folk music from Crossing The Rockies, and the entry price of zero includes hot food (veg and meat options).  We are expecting a high turnout, and places are limited, so early booking is essential via the ticket link. Whether you are local or not, do feel free to join us – everyone is welcome in RSA Frome!

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