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Steve Broome FRSA looks at how new understanding of how networks work is informing the RSA’s work on drug use and asks what it may mean for the Society.

How many of your friends drink alcohol? How many might say they used alcohol problematically? What about illicit drugs? Probably a smaller proportion of the people you know take drugs, but perhaps a few have experienced problems with drug use at some point in the life.

For the 160 current and former drug users who took part in the RSA’s User-Centred Drug Services Project survey, answers to these questions are, I presume, rather different to yours. Among drug users in Crawley and Bognor Regis (where the project is co-located), 30 percent said that all of the people they know use drugs, with most of them using problematically. Similarly, around a third reported that all of the people they know used alcohol, and around half of them had problems because of it.

A recent event at the RSA showed how social networks influence us in a great many ways: our ideas, behaviour, emotions and health can be shaped by our friends, their friends, and their friends. The average probability of smoking, for example, is found to be 61 per cent higher if a friend smokes (one degree of separation), 29 per cent higher at two degrees of separation, and 11 per cent higher at three degrees of separation.

A recent RSA paper on problem drug use suggests that recovery may be ‘contagious’ in the same way. This is an important insight, but problematic: if all of the people you know take drugs, how do you get out of this networked influence that entrenches drug use? A study (external PDF) of drug user networks in Connecticut found that, on average, 85 percent of the people in a drug user’s personal social network (or ego-network) used drugs. Piecing together the community-wide drug using network, the researchers found clustering of drug users into African American, Puerto Rican and White communities. Interestingly, the mapping also revealed who the key influencers were in the drug using network;  those 'nodes' at the centre of the network most strongly connected to large numbers of other users.

The RSA is extending its work on drugs to look at how we might similarly map drug using networks in Peterborough, with a view to identifying and working with these potential ‘recovery champions’ to transmit recovery through the network. There is good reason to try this: intervention programmes to tackle smoking and alcohol use that deliberately employ peer effects and social network ‘modification’ are found to be more effective than those that do not.

This line of RSA action research builds from the RSA's Connected Communities programme, which takes a social networks look at community regeneration and how we might think about a Big Society as a network of (often under-utilised) assets for co-production. Read the programme’s first major report. This quarter’s RSA Journal provides a networks perspective on policy design and evaluation, community participation, career advancement, and the potential of online communications for transformative impacts in all these areas, indicating the wide range of applications for network thinking. In our Projects team, we will be adding network analysis to our exploration of how innovation happens and how social enterprises come into being, and of how we can bring a city’s assets to bear in co-producing an Area-Based Curriculum.

If we, the RSA, are exploring contemporary challenges through a networks lens, and developing a distinct research identity that has network analysis as a key component, then perhaps we should seek to understand our Society and our impact in the world in a similar manner. Evaluating influence and impact is difficult enough, but a networks perspective adds complexity. Network outcomes are often emergent. If I seek to modify or improve a network in a certain way with outcome A in mind, I might also partially or wholly enable outcomes B, C, and D, even though my initial theory of change does not give any indication to expect such outcomes.

By drawing on the learning to date and forthcoming experimental work from our Connected Communities work, we can begin to better understand the RSA’s network topology and to develop a network-informed model of change. We can further improve the extent to which our action research, public debates and events, activity and values of 27,000 Fellows (nodes, many self-organised into regional networks), and our key hub at John Adam Street, act as a mutually reinforcing system.

Through such a model, we can develop our role as a Big Society Society.  As our Chief Executive Matthew Taylor suggests, organisations such as ours are well placed to help shape social norms and practices to make a benign social impact and foster Big Society principles.  We will be more effective in doing so reconceived as the Royal Network for the Contagion of twenty-first century enlightenment.

Steve Broome FRSA is the former director of research at the RSA and lead on the Connected Communities project.


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