Welcome to the new RSA Fellowship blog – where we will be sharing news and views about the passions and projects of the RSA’s 27,000 Fellows, and also keeping you up to date on what’s happening in the Fellowship team.
It is a group blog: its authors (see photos, right) come from across the Fellowship department – including the nine Networks Managers.
We plan to invite guest bloggers to be involved too.
Everyone is encouraged to add their own comments under the blog posts – it would be great to make this a thriving discussion area, both between RSA staff and Fellows, and between Fellows.
We look forward to hearing from you.
- Michael Ambjorn, Head of Fellowship Networks and Josef Lentsch, Head of Fellowship Services
Tomorrow, the Dutch artist Marjolijn Dijkman arrives in the UK to begin her residency at Clare Cottage in Helpston, near Peterborough. Her stay marks a shift in focus for Arts & Ecology, towards exploring how the arts may engage people locally with environmental change and sustainability. As part of this, Marjolijn has been invited to stay at the home of the local romantic poet John Clare who died in 1864, so is no longer living there. The cottage was refurbished last year and Marjolijn intends to explore contemporary ideas about ‘place’ with people in the surrounding villages and the city of Peterborough, which is where the RSA Citizen Power project is located.
(By Rohan Talbot, RSA Intern for Connected Communities and Social Brain)
Reading through the 2008 Social Capital Survey carried out in Camden, I came across something that piqued my interest. Among the various findings of the survey was the discovery that residents’ perceptions of whether they could influence local decision-making (either individually or collectively), are related to their satisfaction with their local area and quality of life. Higher satisfaction with quality of life was also found among those who thought they had a choice over whether or not they had to live in that local area.
This seems to chime with research in clinical and health psychology demonstrating the importance of personal ‘perceived control’ to human wellbeing. There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that people in stressful circumstances (including physical or mental illness) who believe that they have some control over the situation and their lives generally tend to have better physical and psychological health outcomes.
Sir Michael Marmot, professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL and author of ‘The Status Syndrome: How social standing directly affects our health and longevity’, has pointed out that socioeconomic status is inversely related to health and life expectancy, even when risk factors such as smoking or high cholesterol are controlled for. Resources such as income and social support give people more choices and therefore more opportunities to change aspects of their lives that they may be dissatisfied with. Understandably, therefore, those with lower socioeconomic status often feel a lack of control over their lives. A lack of perceived control may therefore be not only contributing to the low reported wellbeing and satisfaction in deprived communities, but also to their significantly poorer health. Marmot argues that this link is due to the fact that low status leads to stress, which in turn can directly harm health.
Reviewing research into personal control beliefs, John and Catherine MacArthur also found that perceived control may buffer against some of the negative effects of low socioeconomic status:
“…among those with less education or income, those with strong control beliefs reported health outcomes comparable to those seen in higher SES groups for self-rated health, acute physical symptoms, depressive symptoms and life satisfaction.”
If we wish to improve the community wellbeing, perhaps we should seek to increase the control people feel they have over their lives. The most direct way to do this is to increase the material resources and developing education, income and public services. Nevertheless, in a time when financial belts are being tightened and there are fewer resources available for development, we may have to look at less expensive ways to increase people’s actual and perceived control.
Informing people of what decisions are being made in their local area, and ensuring residents’ voices are heard in decision making (e.g. the Tower Hamlets ‘You Decide!’ initiative to give residents a say in how the local budget is spent), may contribute to perceived control. Enabling people to connect to a wider social network of others with similar interests and concerns, who may be collectively able to influence decision-making, may also help. Perhaps even the process of surveying communities may have a positive impact, so long as those being surveyed believe that their opinions and concerns are being listened to and that the research will address local problems.
Whatever projects giving people more control over their lives and communities are pursued, they can clearly a positive impact beyond people’s engagement with the community and satisfaction with their quality of life. They may help make our communities not only happier, but potentially healthier too.
A week ago the RSA and Arts Council England held the substantial State of the Arts conference, which we hope will become an annual event. The conference tweeters continue to sing with the compelling ideas and discussions that the event prompted. And now content from the London event is becoming available from the RSAs main website and there will be more online soon. Enjoy.
Do me a favour – the reciprocal development of the RSA’s Connected Communities and Social Brain projects
My name is Rohan Talbot, the new intern with the Connected Communities and Social Brain projects. One of my first duties is to write something on the relationship between these two projects, so here goes.
If a person wishes to fix a broken car, they must understand its internal components, how they function, and how these functions relate to other components. If the problem lies in a small part of the engine, then attempting to fix the car as a whole entity would be fruitless. Similarly, if we wish to solve societal problems, it is important to understand the behaviour of individuals since it plays such an important part in shaping the effectiveness of the community as a whole.
Of course, underpinning any model of social interaction are assumptions regarding human motivations and behaviour, but these models have typically assumed that humans act in a way that is referred to as ‘rational’; i.e. that individuals are self-interested and seeking to maximise personal gains. Such models of human behaviour therefore give relatively few opportunities for pro-social action (either from individuals or whole groups) compared to other approaches, since they expect that people are unlikely to expend resources and engage in behaviours that do not directly benefit themselves. We therefore need a fuller appreciation for our social nature, to help us understand how we can be motivated to act in ways that benefit our communities without the provision of direct (and perhaps economic) incentives.
With surprising regularity, we come across instances of individuals who risk their well-being or reduce their own resources in order to help others. Examples range from grand personal gestures (such as Warren Buffett’s pledge to donate billions of dollars to the Gates Foundation) to the many people who engage in voluntary work. These seemingly ‘altruistic’ acts pose a significant problem for traditional rational-choice models of human behaviour, since such actions would not occur if human beings were self interested resource-maximisers. Notably some evidence is starting to suggest, as we have long suspected, that individuals are greatly influenced by their social cognition. Factors like social identity, empathy and social perception can therefore be important influences on people’s behaviour.
So the reasons for seemingly altruistic behaviour are becoming clearer. We may engage in such behaviour for intangible social rewards of ‘positive regard’ or increased status. Others suggest that altruism may be based on the person’s desire to view themselves as a ‘good person’, rather than empathic concern for the well-being of others. The view that the RSA seems to espouse, based on evidence from evolutionary psychology and behavioural economics, is that we are reciprocal altruists. The ‘reciprocal altruism’ argument suggests that people may engage in behaviour that incurs a personal cost because they expect that, if they were to also find themselves in a position of need, they would receive similar help or cooperation from others in their group. The strength of reciprocal altruism is, however, limited by the number of people who consistently prioritise their own needs above collaboration. If just 5% of a population act as ‘egoists’, it can reduce overall cooperation among the population by about 40%.
Such is the strength of the norm of reciprocity that, when a favour is enacted (whether asked for or not), we will be more willing to comply with requests from the giver; even when it opposes our own, ‘rational’ interests. A common example can be seen when charities include a small ‘gift’ (such as a pen or personalised address labels) with their direct mailing. By giving us this token, they are engaging with the reciprocity norm, in an attempt to induce ‘altruistic’ behaviour in the form of donations. It is a tactic that works surprisingly well.
All of these approaches share an appreciation for the fact that we are essentially social creatures. There are already examples where such an understanding has been put into practice. In 2005 Camden Council initiated their ‘Exceptional People in Camden’ awards (repeated in 2006 and 2008) for people who have made a notable contribution to local life through their voluntary and community-focussed work. By recognising and publicising community-focused action, such programmes can help to reinforce community norms which value ‘altruistic’ behaviour and the people who engage in it. Furthermore, initiatives such as time banks, which allow individuals to reciprocally exchange services rather than money, have been introduced in some areas. Such schemes can be relatively cheap to set up, and may help to promote and formalise community norms of trust and reciprocity, thereby building social capital by helping to extend and strengthen social networks.
Our decision-making processes clearly go beyond simple economic cost-benefit analyses. Instead, they include a strong concern for our place in society and our relations with other individuals. Understanding the ‘Social Brain’ is therefore important to the Connected Communities project, as knowing how to motivate the ‘engine parts’ of communities (i.e. individual members) to act in a pro-social way can help us to keep our communities running smoothly.
Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!
I’m wildly excited about two books, one coming out this month the other next year – both are radical insights about what environmental change means for the human relationship to the planet. One is Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto and the other is Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought.
What I find so vital in their work is that they are strongly against the misanthropy that seems to underpin much of the dominant narrative around the environmental movement. To my mind, the idea that humans are stupid, indifferent and deliberately destructive is not only an inadequate account of human nature it is heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking because it is debilitating at every level. At a time when we most need compassion and creative thinking the very sentiments that block these – pervasive cynicism and conservatism – are prevalent. (I’ve used too many words beginning with ‘c’ in that sentence, I’ll move onto the letter ‘R’ for a while).
What roots the rigorous accounts given by ecological experts such as Brand and Morton is that people are hugely capable of complex thinking, adaptive living, resilience and resourcefulness. We have created this situation of environmental change so now we must rise to challenge of transforming how we think and behave in response to it. And when I read documents like Peter Head’s Entering an Ecological Age, and see speakers at the RSA like Graciela Chichilnisky, not only do these extraordinary changes feel crucial they appear do-able.
Drawing on Brand, Head and Morton, I have written a short essay for the Copenhagen exhibition RETHINK: Contemporary Art & Climate Change.
Here’s a bit of it: Art and ideas are not timeless, they are historically specific. The uneasy realisation of our current situation is that we are part of an ecological system that we influence more than we previously thought was possible. We are not outside observers, we are participants; we engage and affect systems whether we intend to or not. … we are the co-creators of our environment. Yet we do not yet fully recognise ourselves as such. This is a revelation awaiting to be fully explored through the arts.
It is the beginning of some work I’m developing for the Arts and Ecology Centre on what the arts may contribute in moving us towards an ecological age. Some of the ideas are controversial. And as part of this, writer Josie Appleton has been commissioned to write an essay for this website, as her work sets out to explore fresh thinking about human capability. The Challenge of Climate Change: Towards a New Human Consciousness – is a ‘thought experiment’, as she says in her blog – so comments are welcome.
Guest blog by Josie Appleton: The discussion about climate change is full of sweeping rhetoric – references to “consciousness”, “future generations”, doing “something that matters”. Yet somehow, in practice, climate politics ends up being so banal: it is about targets, carbon calculations, energy bills.
My essay on the RSA Arts and Ecology website The challenge of climate change: Towards human species consciousness is really a thought experiment, to try to look at climate change through a deeper moral/existential frame:
“The first lesson of climate change is that we are living in the anthropocene. Through our actions we have changed the very operations of the atmosphere; we have changed the chemical composition of the Earth. The situation of climate change is an awesome and weighty reminder of how much human powers have increased. This implies a responsibility to use those powers for good, and not to fritter them away or use them destructively.”
I suggest that we need to develop a “human species consciousness” – to act consciously as a species on a planet. What might this look and feel like? How might it affect our views on the future? How would we choose?…
Josie Appleton is a writer, and convenor of the Manifesto Club, which campaigns for freedom against the hyper-regulation of everyday life. She has contributed to a number of publications, including the Spectator, The Times, Times Literary Supplement and Daily Express. She has written The Challenge of Climate Change: Towards human species consciousness for the RSA Arts and Ecology website.
The events for Pestival weekend look extraordinary and include a large Termite Pavilion, Praying Manitis Kung Fu and Forensic Entomology (insect experts who are often called on to assist the police in cases of suspicious death). Needless to say there will be lots of lots of insects. And some excellent RSA Fellows who have recently worked with RSA’s Arts and Ecology: neuroscientist Beau Lotto is creating a large bee hive in the Queen ‘Bee’ Hall and Architect Michael Pawlyn will present his biomimcry work.
Pestival is a rare creature: an international, inter-disciplinary, community-led festival. Events include insect-inspired comedy, music, ID walks, talks, workshops, experiments, fashion and a termite inspired architectural structure at the centre of Pestival 2009. 80% of creatures on earth are insects, the ‘pests’ without whom humans wouldn’t survive. Pestival celebrates the 100s of millions of years of evolution, which places insects at the heart of human existence. Pestival 2009 celebrates how insects shape our world, and how humans shape the world of insects, in both science and the arts.
Check out the programme for 4 – 6 September: Pestival programme
The events will be broadcast by London’s favourite (and only) art radio station Resonance 104.4 FM and Tweeted on The Guardian’s Environment Blog.
If you want to learn to think differently in less than two hours, then come to London’s Barbican Gallery for 7.30pm tonight. … Many thanks to everyone who came to the event, ran around forming adaptive eco-systems and generated new design possibilities. (And sorry to those who couldn’t get in because the event sold out).
Biomimicry is a new discipline that consciously emulates life’s genius.
It’s a design principle based on the genius of nature. The idea is not simply to utilise the natural world, but to learn from the exceptional aspects of its design.
It is the most radical approach to problem solving I have heard of.
And when architect Michael Pawlyn (FRSA) told me about it, I thought: ‘ Hmmm, it’d be good to learn how that works – not just ‘hear about it’ as something interesting – it would be great to understand the principles of it, then find ways to apply it.’ Then I drifted off into a daydream about the possibility of applying biomimicry in the arts….
The event is part of the Barbican exhibition Radical Nature – Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969–2009. To join us for the event, you need to buy a ticket for the exhibition, which is open until 10pm.