Share the Love?

February 2, 2010 by · 1 Comment
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Yesterday evening we were fortunate to have Jaron Lanier, described by the New York Times as “one of the digital pioneers” in the internet age, come to give a talk at the RSA about his new book, ‘You Are Not a Gadget.’  In this book Jaron develops a more cautious tone to his previously optimistic take on the power of the internet to decentralise cultural production and empower a more diverse and diffuse cultural sphere.

Instead, he argues that a more pernicious by-product of the mantras of ‘open culture’ and ‘information wants to be free’ is coming to dominate.  This by-product is a destructive new social contract whereby, as he writes, “authors, journalists, musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind.  Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion.  Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”

This raises an interesting point for us in Connected Communities, for it suggests that this ‘social contract’ might be re-spun in a more positive light, whereby culture becomes precisely nothing but altruism.  This possibility is deflated, however, when we consider what John Tierney, in the New York Times, describes as a “crucial distinction between online piracy and house burglary: There are a lot more homeowners than burglars, but there are a lot more consumers of digital content than producers of it.”  The problem, then, isn’t so much the giving, but rather the disequilibrium that has emerged between those who provide and those who retrieve online content.

It is in part in response to this disequilibrium that Jaron proposes an overhaul of the ideological underpinnings of the Web, comprising a revision of its software structure and, notably, the introduction of a universal system of micropayments (among other innovations).  The suggestion is that even in the online world where the scope for a global economy of regard is huge – in so far as transaction costs can be minimised and information shared with incredible ease – penalties, controls and prices need to be introduced to ensure that this vast potential is not abused.

This seems, in sum, to be a call for a more healthy form of reciprocity, whereby payment is not so much seen as antithetical to reciprocal relations – as Tim Harford put it recently “many policy wonks believe …that cash incentives are counterproductive and even morally corrosive” – but rather, where needed, as a formalisation of the very process of reciprocation.

Back on the ground, in traditional, place-based communities, the implications of this are as yet unclear.  However, as we start at Connected Communities to try to lubricate the exchange of individuals’ and groups’ social capital, assets and resources, it does raise the question not only of how we should expect communities to cope with unequal flows of time, knowledge and resources (time banks may be one possibility), but also of how any regulatory framework that we develop around this accounts for the differentiated stocks of social capital (and so individuals’ capacity to share) that already exist.

Bringing the digital to life: how can new media reinvigorate the material public sphere?

January 21, 2010 by · 2 Comments
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I read with interest Rob Bagchi’s prediction – and let’s face it, as a sports journalist he’s pretty familiar with predictions – that the closing down of the British Library’s newspaper depository in Colindale in 2012 may signal the demise of the UK’s statistics-enamoured sports fan community.  As he put it at the end of his revealing mini-ethnography of this particular grouping of, it seems predominantly if not entirely entirely, men:

When Colindale closes in 2012 I fear that another refuge for the trivia-enchanted sports fan will not take its place, somewhere that you could always wear your metaphorical anorak with pride.  The internet provides things we could never have envisaged but the library’s sense of community may be lost forever.

What struck me about this closing comment was that while the internet has been touted as an overwhelmingly empowering medium, through which we can build anew a lively and inclusive public sphere, in this instance the digitisation of information may result in the disbanding of an, albeit fragile, active and engaged community.  What also struck me was the significant role played by Rob’s sensually-experienced descriptions of the library’s visitors – e.g. ‘the man who reeked of Dettol’ or ‘the hare-eyed chap with the roll-up permanently wedged behind his ear’ – in illuminating the milieu to which he referred.

If we take such physical co-presence and the immediate (as opposed to mediated) experience of difference as an important part of a healthy, democratic society (esp. see the work of Iris Marion Young on ‘the politics of difference’), then the implications of such displacement of face-to-face communities by wired ones may be serious.

In particular, I would argue that a particular question is raised by these implications, namely how might we actively re-shape the potential posed by ever-increasing digital connectivity to take mutual social activity out of place into a reinvigoration of embodied public life that draws on the internet’s potential to draw people together around interests, concerns, ideas etc?

Thankfully, there are already some unmissable indications that the digital revolution doesn’t have to sign the end of communities of co-presence, but rather can generate communities of this kind that were unimaginable previously.  I am thinking of flash mobs specifically here and the numerous transformative appropriations of space and time that this situationist ‘movement’ has achieved.  Notably, flash mob happenings have been able to bring together previously unknown others to act collectively to an unprecedented degree.  Rather than lament the envisaged dissipation of the Colindale sports fan community, then, can we be more hopeful that the digitisation of sports statistics may provide a shared resource around which a wider community may develop?  Does the transfer of information into bits and bytes necessarily mean that we’ll no longer come together to share in its exploration and analysis, or does it just mean that we might have to be more actively engaged in ensuring that this information is shared, pored over and put to use in ways that still physically bring people together?

Count me in: limiting social exclusion through regulation?

October 30, 2009 by · 2 Comments
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In his last blog Jonathan concludes that one of the ingredients of Barack Obama’s success as a community organiser was his “deep appreciation for people and communities.”  Obama not only sought to understand ‘communities,’ but importantly recognised their diverse constitution and that reaching out to people and individuals was essential groundwork.  He had what is sometimes coined the  ‘human touch.’

The need for such a capacity to include is at the heart of the Connected Communities programme as we seek not only to reinforce existing community networks, but also to build these networks out in ways that oblige them to include those people at the margins with depleted stocks of social capital.  We must try, that is, to overcome a recurrent pattern in community regeneration whereby projects come to work alongside the usual suspects (be they individuals or local CVS organisations) and concurrently fail to reach the most excluded (potential) community members.

How we manage this is going to be tricky, but I’m hopeful that the ‘Regulation for Regeneration’ summit being held in conjunction with the Local Better Regulation Office (LBRO) at the RSA next week may help us to develop some ideas.  Specifically, this event is going to bring together local authorities and businesses to discuss the challenges that they face in the current economic recession.  In particular, through a series of sessions led by expert speakers, delegates will be asked to consider what the priorities for action should be and in what ways regulation can make a contribution to meeting these priorities.

The last of the sessions will bring the summit together by enquiring into what a new model for regeneration might look like.  One of the key themes of enquiry for this session concerns how regulation can help us to nurture the types of communities and local economies that we’d like to participate in.  Specifically, it is posited that in this new model of regeneration we might look to draw upon regulation as a means to help us build constructive social and economic norms through which communities can ‘regulate’ themselves.

Hopefully this in-depth conversation about the relationship between regeneration and regulation will garner practical ways of harnessing the principles of regulation as a means to facilitate more equitable community regeneration on the ground.  Could, for example, a framework for regulating the involvement of community members in projects be developed so as to ensure inclusivity?  Or, in a related way, might the social capital strategy we create out of our work in Knowle West and New Cross Gate comment on how the reach and accessibility of interventions looking to build social networks is regulated? Out of this, the hope would be that we start to see the development of more deeply resilient and empowered communities in which engagement (and so responsibility) is more open and shared.

Provoking responsibility, nudge-style

October 12, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
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It was a bit of a surprise to hear at the end of last week, and verify over the weekend, that Barack Obama has been awarded the nobel peace prize for ‘extraordinary efforts’ to improve world diplomacy and co-operation.  My initial response, no doubt mirrored around the world, was what has President Obama done to warrant receiving this award?  This is a question that numerous other blogs have covered directly, for example Gideon Rachman’s blog at the FT.

One answer of particular interest to the Connected Communities programme can be reached if we turn this question around.  That is, if we ask why would the Nobel committee grant President Obama this award so early on into his presidency?  Looked at this way round, I would argue that a strategic motive for this gesture emerges.

That is, it could be argued that this prize was given to Barack not so much in recognition of achievements to date, but rather so as to characterise his presidency as one directed by peace-making from the off.  In many respects, this is the nudge principle writ large.  Set ‘peace presidency’ as the default position, but leave the door open to opt out (although significantly such an exit could not be achieved quietly given the issues at stake).

Such a strategy has interesting implications for our work at Connected Communities.  In particular, at last week’s AGM the question of how to involve leaders in our proposed Community Garden Project was a thorny one.  On the one hand, it was recognised that identifying leaders at the local community level was critical as they can generate so much momentum on the ground.  On the other hand, it was also recognised that going to existing leaders can reinforce existing community divisions, and that a fine balance between leaders and facilitators must be struck.

Here, then, the question arose as to how Connected Communities might not only use existing local community leaders, but also help people to generate leadership qualities at the local level.  Might it be, therefore, that one approach may be not to only view leadership as something earned, but also to ascribe leadership to individuals (e.g. by rotating committee duties between local residents interested in participating in a community garden scheme).  That is, by simply assigning responsibility (for reviving a disused local space or, more ambitiously!, world peace) might we also provoke more responsible decision-making?

Connections within, connections without

October 8, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
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During the plenary session of yesterday’s Connected Communities seminar at the AGM, Professor Stephen Coleman (from the University of Leeds) opened the comments by cautioning the panel against discussing digital and social communities as separate categories.  These communities, he argues, are not distinct, and so should not be treated analytically as such.

This comment stayed with me (perhaps I should take from this that I should from time to time try to make the first comment at an event!), and as I rode the train into work this morning crystallised into a recognition that ‘connected communities’ is not just about two case studies ‘communities’ (New Cross Gate and Knowle West).  Rather, even if the project were delimited to research in one geographical area, it would still be about a plurality of overlapping communities (which themselves are contested and defined in multiple ways).  The connections that characterise these communities would pass through (or within) the case study area, but would not necessarily cross.

In this vain ‘Connected Communities’ takes on a dual meaning, encapsulating both the intra-connections of a given community but also the inter-connections between communities at the local level. This arguably belies a need to understand not only the actors, networks and connections that help give rise to a given community, but also to map the connections (or dis- or mis-connections as the case may be) between these communities.

While this might suggest the need for multiple scales of analysis, e.g. a combination of social network analysis and the ‘small world’ theory of interconnectivity, in the long run it should provide a better idea of how to maximise the potential of connections not only within, but also between, communities.  As Jonathan recounts, how we measure the success of this process is an important question, and I would add, as I did yesterday, that increased community resilience (in the face of existing problems as well as unexpected ‘black swan’ events) may be one such measure.

Drugs, Communities and Citizenship – event at RSA tomorrow lunchtime (Thursday 8th October)

October 7, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
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Just a quick note to flag-up a free debate taking place tomorrow at the RSA (1pm – 2pm) that might be of interest.  The full title of the event is ‘Drugs, Communities and Citizenship: The new ‘recovery’ models for users,’ and, as the title suggests, the event is concerned with new models of rehabilitation.

At the heart of this issue is the question of whether or not a paradigm shift in rehabilitation approaches is needed.  Specifically, it has been argued that we require a shift to new models that are long-term at heart and, most importantly to Connected Communities, that are grounded in the supportive, inclusive and revitalising networks of family and community.  These questions will frame tomorrow’s event, with the discussion led by the following expert panel: Stephen Bamber, co-founder, Recovery Academy, Sebastian Saville, Executive Director, Release and Paul Hayes, Head of the National Treatment Agency (NTA).  The event will be chaired by Roger Howard, Chief Executive, UK Drug Policy Commission.

You will need to register to attend this event and can do so here.  In addition you can also find out about the RSA’s user-centred drugs services project on the RSA website.

From car-free to care-free (via flanerie)

October 5, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
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Picking up mas‘s most recent comment on the Connected Communities blog, there are some positive signs that attitudes towards car-free developments are changing at the present time.  In the last few weeks, in fact, the London Car-free Association held its inaugral meeting after two successful launch events in Brixton and Islington.

The aim of this Association is to lobby local and regional authorities, as well as developers, to allocate pieces of land in the capital to car-free development.  While such ends may seem utopian, it is worth pointing out that, as is seemingly often the case, cities in continental Europe (e.g. Vauban in Germany and Groningen in The Netherlands) already have urban  quarters designed in this way.

While the environmental sustainability implications of such an approach to urban development are well-researched (e.g. see Steve Melia‘s work on the Vauban example), from a Connected Communities perspective I am more interested in the more nebulous socio-psychological effects of eliminating motor vehicles from these residential areas.

In particular, since drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin in my previous studies I have been interested in the relationship between traffic-dominated streets in the contemporary city and our capacity to engage in ‘flanerie.’  Specifically, in his edited volume on ‘the flaneur’ (read: urban stroller, loiterer and pseudo-detective), Keith Tester recounts how the rise of the speeding motor car in cities led to a diminishment of the qualities conducive to flanerie.  Specifically, because of the danger that they posed these vehicles meant that people on foot could be less care-free about their approach to wandering the city.  Vehicles engendered a background awareness in urban denizens that, arguably, acted as a distraction to their ‘idle’ musings on the city and urban life.

In my view, flanerie, most notably in the parallels between it and detective work, is about identifying and tracing the connections between people and things.  In this reading, it has both methodological implications for the analysis of social network analysis and also substantive ones – namely that in more resilient and connected communities our capacity to disengage from previously pressing needs should increase.  The question is, how do we incubate the spatio-temporal conditions for this more critically engaged practice of being in the city to flourish?

Driving through conditions for community

October 2, 2009 by · 10 Comments
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Just been prompted by a comment by mas on Jonathan’s blog, namely that community connectedness nowadays is often undermined “by among others people not walking the streets where they live (just to the car & back), not working where they live and in too many cases being fearful (rightly or wrongly) of where they live.”

I would certainly concur with these arguments (in particular when we’re thinking about Jonathan’s first, community-cum-neighbourhood, community typology) but there’s much more to it the contribution of car use to diminishing social networks.  Specifically, I am thinking here of Donald Appleyard‘s classic ‘Liveable Streets’ study of the effects of vehicle throughput on different streets in San Francisco on neighbourliness in those streets.  This study was re-created by Josh Hart in Bristol in 2008 – see www.driventoexcess.org – and came to the same striking conclusions.  Of particular relevance to Connected Communities, this more recent study found that:

  • Residents of the heavily-trafficked (>20k motor vehicles/day) street studied were found to have less than a quarter the number of local friends than those on the lightly-trafficked (140 vehicles/day) street and under half the number of local acquaintances.
  • Residents on the heavily-trafficked street had a much smaller ‘home territory’ (the area over which they felt ‘a sense of stewardship or personal responsibility’) than those on the less-trafficked streets.

That is, studies both in the US and the UK demonstrate convincingly that car-use not only reduces the number of opportunities that the driver might have to develop social networks in his or her local neighbourhood – through chance encounters etc. – but also drastically erodes the conditions in which fellow residents might feel comfortable connecting with their neighbours.

Getting motorists walking, that is, not only increases their own chances of socialising in their local neighbourhood, but also increases the likelihood of other residents doing so.  Choosing not to drive becomes a civic, ‘other-regarding’ decision in a very immediate sense.

With this in mind, might local community-based digitally-networked work spaces (such as the hub in King’s Cross or Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol) not only foster digital inclusion, therefore, but also – by reducing commuting distances – indirectly enable the conditions in which more traditional forms of social inclusion take place?

Our house, in the middle of our street

September 29, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
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Despite hearing that Mercury’s current orbit is disrupting our ability to communicate at the present time, I rather fortuitously learned last night that a BBC Radio 4 series has just started looking into the history of private life.  I wish I could claim that this coincidence, in terms of content, with my initial blog posting for Connected Communities was all exquisitely planned but the truth is far less strategic on my part.

The 30 programmes-strong series, which started yesterday, looks at the hidden history of the home over the past 400 years.  While a primary reaction might be that this will be of little relevance to us in Connected Communities, on closer inspection a number of interesting ties emerge.  In the half hour discussion used to launch the programme, then, Professor Amanda Vickery argues that “households are the founding social and spiritual unit of society in the early modern period” and that they are the platform for our engagement with the public world.  Through her socio-historical analysis of first-hand accounts from letters and diaries, then, we hear that over time distinctions between the private and public spheres have been far from stable.

Moving to the present, anthropologist Dr Daniel Miller points out the role of media in moderating this relationship between public and private.  Specifically, he emphasises the ways that Web 2.0 platforms can expose the intimacies of the private domain to the public, even to strangers.  For him, privacy is changing – as a result of the proliferation of new media – in ways that we’ll struggle to keep up with.  But at the same time, this ‘privacy’ is being increasingly publicised.

The overarching theme, then, is that relations in the home might not be so much distinct from those taking place out in public, but rather that the former are a microcosm of the latter – interactions in the home are connected with the public world, and vice-versa.  Fascinating stuff, and it might just stop me from tuning-in to Five Live for football results every morning!

As a small postscript, I also noted today that forty-five local authorities have approached the national housing and regeneration agency (the Homes and Communities Agency, HCA) to express interest in putting their land into its new programme for building homes on publicly-owned land.  While the need for new homes in the UK is great, this rather stark transformation of public into private land (regardless of the grey areas) may have serious implications for our health.  This is particulalrly true if the public land being earmarked is green or ‘natural,’ as I read with interest in Jonah Lehrer’s article earlier today, or if it could be planted to be so.  As we look to provide housing for our growing populations, then, shouldn’t we also be looking to provide the green infrastructure to mitigate the psychological damage of built-up environments?  How can this be achieved in the communities in which our project is going to work?  I think it’s time for me to look back at the RSA’s long-record of tree-planting for some of these answers…

Private interests, public sphere: learning from the street

September 25, 2009 by · 2 Comments
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My name’s Alasdair Jones, and, alongside my colleague Jonathan Rowson, I’m one of the two new researchers on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme.

Having written my PhD on the co-production, through use and design, of public space on London’s South Bank, it was a great joy to find that on my first day at the RSA the evening talk Cities and Citizenship: Surviving the 21st Century concerned “the relationship between the way we design our city and our perception and experience of citizenship.” Moreover, among the panellists was Anna Minton, who’s recent book Ground Control has generated a resurgence of interest in the changing nature of Britain’s urban public realm.

While the themes that the discussion sought to address – cities and citizenship – were relatively abstract, a number of more grounded issues that arose struck me as pertinent to the Connected Communities action research that Jonathan and I are embarking on. Specifically, and perhaps not surprisingly given his extensive and lauded role in community regeneration, in the opening presentation by Lord Andrew Mawsom we were reminded of the importance of the physical, everyday, walked street to the vitality of local neighbourhoods. The design and quality of the buildings that line our routes through the city are, according to Lord Mawsom, central to shaping the way we view and conduct ourselves, and to the extent to which we are other-regarding.

Moreover, through references to Lord Mawsom’s own observations of the St Paul’s Way project in which he’s currently involved, we were told that it is not only the morphology of the street, but also, if not more so, its use that can help to foster social capital. In his example, it was through working part-time at the pharmacy on St Paul’s Way that two students from the nearby school pursued vocations in the medico-pharmaceutical sector. Their vocational interests developed outside of the educational setting, that is, and for Lord Mawsom this points to the need for an educational model that is oriented towards the community, rather than turning it’s back on and fencing itself off from it.

This point was picked up by Matthew Taylor, who fleshed the RSA’s idea of ‘schools without boundaries’ – that “in essence…we should make the work of schools, and the wider project of developing the next generation, the task of the whole community and not just parents and schools.” This offers an interesting challenge to the way that we think about the urban realm, and in particular to the way that we understand boundaries between public and private (as broadly conceived) institutions and spheres. Taking the terminology in a very literal sense, it means dismantling the boundaries that have been erected between loci of education and those of everyday community life.

This was of particular interest to me because Anna Minton’s most recent work argues, by contrast, that we need to be more assertive in the way that we distinguish between public and private realms in our city. From this view, the big mistake of planning in the last few decades has been to allow private developers to construct seemingly public spaces. In response, she argues, we should be looking to build spaces for doing nothing (or anything), to build spaces unburdened by some functional predisposition.

What I am interested in here is in the role that ‘private’ (or exclusive) institutions and activities – be they shops, schools, or even skateboarding on London’s South Bank – play in ‘connecting’ our public realm. It is the shop, in Lord Mawsom’s example, that provides the context and facilitates the contact through which the students from over the road find their vocations. It is through skateboarding that young people from different parts of London meet on South Bank meet and exchange views.

Paradoxically, is it not through the imposition of ‘private’ functions and activities on a space, rather than through their erasure, that a well-connected community, or a vital ‘public’ sphere, is produced? If we want more civic-minded citizens, might we want to look not at excising institutions and activities from our cityscapes, but instead at how best to harness the capacity of these institutions and activities to promote social interaction and connectivity? Shouldn’t we be looking to learn from our regular high streets, where private settings provide the context for regular public interactions, rather than promoting the development in isolation of these two spheres?