Developing through social enterprise

This is a guest blog by Kate Swade of Shared Assets, reflecting on the Developing Socially Productive Places conference at the RSA, 2nd April 2014.

It is when the different worlds involved in developing place and community meet that really interesting conversations begin to happen. The “Developing Socially Productive Places” conference last week was a brilliant opportunity to bring different sectors together – developers, local authority officers, urban designers and social entrepreneurs. As one of the speakers said, we should all be talking to each other more: there should be more pub conversations about place and the built environment!

I had a niggling feeling all day, though, that there was something missing.

The conference seemed to take it for granted that the creation of places is going to be developer-led, with local authorities and the planning system playing a strategic and regulatory role. It is certainly taken as read that when we say “developer” we are talking about private, profit driven companies. But there are a different set of possibilities which open up if we take a different starting point.

Some private sector developers are excellent; committed to fostering quality of place and quality of life. It was heartening to hear British Land talking about their long-term approach to the Regents’ Place development and their commitment to involving local people. Developers bring investment, of course: they have access to the cash on the terms and at the scale necessary to make things happen – and to buy enough land to create a critical mass around a development. Chris Grigg, the CEO of British Land’s point that diversity of ownership can mean a piecemeal place was a good one.

Tim Dixon from Reading University’s presentation on measuring social sustainability was fascinating and offered an insight into the challenges of measuring something that doesn’t easily lend itself to quantification. This is where we can start to feel possibilities for socially productive places evaporate.


If we take the developer-led, private sector model as the blueprint for how we make places in this country then of course we need metrics to help us understand the impact that that is having on society, and on the environment. That is a big “if”.

If we accept the dominant idea that development will be motivated by profit for developers, we will always see the social (and, for that matter, the environmental) as things that are considered separately from the “real” business of development; as externalities that need to be managed.

Private sector developers are driven to maximise shareholder value. That is why they exist.  For many, this means taking a relatively short-term view of the financial return on development: build and sell. It is shareholders who ultimately have the shortest profit horizon. (With computer algorithms dominating trading, the average share is held for 22 seconds).

Places built on the logic of a development appraisal tend to be homogenous and led by commercial property. While some developers are better than others, the crop of identical “unique landmarks” springing up all over London illustrates the cumulative effect of this shared logic.

We all know – and can feel – that good places, places where we want to be, which must be at the heart of what makes a place socially productive, respond to their location. People and the local environment are the logic.

Where this really has an impact is in the public realm: the spaces in between the buildings; the liabilities in between the assets.  At Shared Assets we believe that these spaces, regardless of ownership, are common goods, and should be managed and governed as such.

This requires more than just “community involvement”; it means that local people and organisations need to be actors in the development process. Local authorities need to see social enterprise development and land management as a viable option when thinking about the future of their areas.

This feels like a huge opportunity to me. How much more could we achieve if we truly put local people and their environments at the heart of the logic of development, rather than the creation of value for shareholders? If enterprise was encouraged, but profits reinvested in an area rather than siphoned out of it? If all investment in place was long-term, rather than the current short-term paradigm?

There are risks to this transition which would need to be managed, but it’s worth trying: physical regeneration has rarely delivered on its promise of associated social regeneration. When a community develops a shared asset collaboratively, this inherently involves both.

Property development and place making are skills, and there are many talented people in the development industry. I would contend that if we want to see places that are truly socially productive, the social sector needs to harness some of those skills and take an active role in development and place making.


Reflections on ‘Developing Socially Productive Places’

This is a guest blog by Alison Seabrooke, Chief Executive of Community Development Foundation. Alison spoke at our recent conference at the RSA on developing socially productive places.


I was privileged to be asked to participate on the closing discussion panel at the RSA and British Land event on 2nd April on ‘socially productive places’. These places are ones where communities have an opportunity to shape the physical environment where they live, work and socialise; and to benefit socially and financially from the end result. It was clear from the opening speakers that community and built environment development should be intertwined and that places should be networked in more than one sense. This common thread ranged from the need to cluster like-minded businesses and for greater public, private and voluntary sector collaboration, to well-designed transport infrastructure which helps people move about and connect.

The event was comprised of a largely private and public sector audience. During the sessions we heard inspiring stories of successful private and public sector community development. Chris Grigg, Chief Executive of British Land, a property investment company, opened the day by describing his experience of the 30-year Regents Place development. The success of this project was an exception given the long timescale, but he gave a convincing description of his, and his company’s, changes to community development practice as a result of the project. His conviction that community collaboration worked for them was driven by his experience that sitting at the table with local residents and businesses led to intelligent, productive and sustainable outcomes. Which makes sense: how many new developments are delayed and local tensions stirred by a failure to communicate effectively? Or how many companies, or public bodies, pursue a new development without the input of pragmatic, locally-driven intelligence? In effect, these processes of local engagement should also be viewed as a form of commercial as well as community risk mitigation.

Of course, it isn’t always like this and there are some difficult and bloody-minded professionals, as well as difficult and bloody-minded people living in our communities. But we all have the ability to be difficult when liberated from the constraints of our professional roles. So I remain bemused at these events when ‘community’ becomes an abstract term, when sensible and intelligent people separate their lived experiences, personal desires and expectations from their views on how things should work in a community other than their own.

At the event, we also heard about difficult community ‘representatives’; but then there were the side comments that these people actually come from all walks of life, including developers and planners, who turn up to argue against local developments. There were also comments that communities aren’t consistently reliable – of course they’re not! Communities, like organisations, change; people move on, their interests evolve throughout life cycles and local political leadership shifts. But unlike organisations, communities aren’t limited by a structure to drive consistent behaviour. That’s what can make them unreliable. It was the people who deeply understood this and worked with the grain, like Ed Watson from Camden council, who remain excited about the change that can be achieved in communities.

During our 50 years’ of work in and with communities here at the Community Development Foundation (CDF), we have learned that there are more common than divergent interests amongst different parties wishing to achieve ‘socially productive places’ – just as there are often more shared aspirations between people and families of different faith, race and socio-economic background than disparities. In fact, I would argue that there are usually more common goals between those pursuing new built environment developments and those living in the communities that benefit from them.

Let me describe what I mean by this. At the event, businesses and local authority planners talked about development to increase local economic prosperity, through things like increased land values, created by intelligent housing, business and transport infrastructure. For this, developers need a strong employment pool, populated by people with the right sets of skills. What’s more, public officials want to see environmental quality of place to meet health and community safety objectives.

In comparison, what do people living in communities want? Well, in my community, we want financial prosperity and wellbeing, driven by opportunity – jobs, education and training – to enable us to live in decent housing, with good schools and transport. And we want a pleasant environment so we feel healthier and safer. It seems what developers and communities want are simply both sides of the same coin.

What we know at CDF, and what those like Chris and Ed have learned, is that it takes a particular set of skills to facilitate these discussions, to be able to help prioritise goals and agree or agree to disagree on particular outcomes. New developments are about more than the spadework involved in digging the footings to a building; they are about the work behind the scenes to develop common goals and a shared understanding of what a socially productive place might feasibly look like. In other words, development that works for the wider community.

As William Blake said, ‘without contraries is no progression’, or Maroon 5 (She Will Be Loved) sing, ‘it’s not always rainbows and butterflies, it’s compromise that moves us along’.


How to develop a socially productive place

Last week the RSA brought together over 100 people who invest in, plan and construct our built environment – homes, workplaces and public buildings. Here, we summarise the key insights generated, and diverse voices heard. In the next two months, we will pull together a paper outlining policy directions for the government and the various relevant sectors of industry. This will be an open process, so we are starting here summarising feedback and providing minutes and presentations:

We want this to be the basis of an inclusive “in the pub” conversation which includes constructive cricism…

To open the conference, Mark Prisk MP, former housing minister, gave a keynote address – welcomed by Chris Brown of Igloo as the best he had heard in years. Mark was aware of how his ability to speak freely was liberated.

Mark outline five key challenges for the conference

  • “we will need to show people that when we build to a greater density, its desirable for them and for the wider community.”
  • “what needs to change, so we can integrate this [rapidly growing] older population back into the community?”
  • “those of you who are investors or owners will reel from the idea of broad, mixed-use asset classes. However isn’t it time to recognise how people’s lives are changing, and not leave these assets increasingly vulnerable to becoming redundant ?”
  • “So what does it mean for a space to be public? And how do we square private ownership and public access, in either new settlements, or urban renewal schemes?
  • “The final challenge is how can we empower people, to create lasting communities? It’s that social side, less tangible but just as important, which acts as the glue that binds a community together. Now all too often this is the exception not the rule. We need to change this, developers, community leaders and politicians alike.”

In short, the conference had to consider how our planning, development and construction sectors account for the changing reality of work, rest and play? You can watch his full presentation here:

Tim Dixon’s session concerned how the built environment fosters social sustainability, well-being and a sense of community.

Other sessions emphasised the need to allow successful places to grow and fulfil their potential? Chairing a session, Ben Lucas noted how this question was tackled by the City Growth Commission

…and identified that keeping successful places successful, while expanding them, rather than always making new places, is an art which may be promoted by new ownership models.

Matt Leach: What inspired you to take this approach?

Waheed Nazir: I’m a resident, born and bred. Grown up thinking “why is the public realm so awful”? It’s not rocket science – its basic. The planning process makes it complicated – frustrates residents.

Matt: How have you found winning over those who made the mistakes in the 90s?

Waheed: Haven’t called them ‘mistakes’, for starters.

RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor defined a socially productive place as a place where “people are enabled individually and collectively to come up with solutions which help to meet their own needs and achieve their aspirations for issues which matter to them”. To realise this requires developing a shared vision. One challenge identified by Tom Bridges of Leeds Council is that places need to find a balance between finding their “unique selling point” in a competitive playing field, and having an economic development strategy which is too broad and generic so that “if you Tipp-Ex out the name of the place, it could be anywhere”.

All agreed that for successful places, a shared vision is required, and local plans need to be easy to understand. Where a vision is already in place (or development underway is prompting local people to respond), Ed Watson (Camden Council) and Nigel Ingram (Joseph Rowntree Housing Foundation) considered the actions they had put into practice, based on their understanding of local places, to foster better social and economic outcomes.

…some suggestions were made, and there was much debate about who should be in the driving seat, and what drives socially productive places.

In the final session there was consensus that one focus should be achieving progress measuring the social impact of development in the built environment. This will be considered in a policy directions paper to be released via the RSA website in June 2014.


Bristol: Reconsidering terms at our second formal evidence hearing

April 4, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

I was told to expect the Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, to appear in his signature red trousers. I was not disappointed.  The Mayor appeared on the first of our three panel sessions in Bristol and was candid in setting out the issues facing the city and its wider region.  He was followed by 11 other city leaders, drawn from business, academia, local government and the public and third sectors.  This was the second of the City Growth Commission’s formal evidence hearings, and the setting of the Lantern room in the Old Bristol Council House – with its beautiful domed roof – befitted the occasion.

Jim O’Neill, the Commission Chair, was flanked by Tony Travers, Ben Lucas, Alexandra Jones and I as we explored our main themes: What economic levers would the city like at its disposal to enable growth? What governance arrangements would be needed to support this? And how should public service reform be integrated into the city’s wider growth strategy?

The witnesses representing Bristol had slightly different take on these issues than witnesses from other cities. The Commission asked if this is because the city is the only net contributor to the Exchequer outside of London; and whether Bristol’s geographic distance from other major cities (compared to Core Cities in the north of England, for example) is a source of economic strength, with the city benefiting from an agglomeration effect. While the evidence is not clear and views amongst the witnesses were mixed, most agreed that the Commission – with its focus on city regional growth – needed to consider the definition of each of those terms, and why they were important.

‘City’ – Bristol city has a small administrative geography but its wider economic area extends into North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.  Development within the ‘city’ will need to be mostly in these areas, especially affordable housing – which was identified as pressing problem.

Regional’ – One of the Commissioners asked whether Bristol considered itself to be the ‘capital of the region’.  The response was ‘which region?’ and ‘it depends who you ask’.  One witness said that Tewksbury, on the north edge of the Bristol travel-to-work-area (TTWA) was closer to the Scottish border than Lands’ End.  The South West is not dominated by Bristol, and the city can pose as much of a threat as an opportunity within its wider region.

‘Growth’ – “Would [Bristol] be willing to forego growth for greater happiness?” asked Tony Travers during a discussion of what it meant for places to grow and thrive.  Liz Zeidler, co-founder of Bristol’s Happy City initiative and co-chair Bristol Green Capital city, turned the question on its head – “Should we be willing to forego greater happiness for growth?” The need for inclusive and sustainable growth was raised by many of the witnesses.

This article was originally published by the City Growth Commission.

A summary of social media coverage of the Hearing is available on storify - City Growth Commission Hearing (2)


Developing Socially Productive Places

March 31, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

Public and private investors seeking to create socially and economically successful places have historically focussed on the economic aspect of that equation.  In keeping with our commitment to finding practical solutions for today’s challenges, the RSA is seeking to redress this imbalance: our current open innovation Premium is focussed on boosting investment in people, and we are now pleased to announce a conference this Wednesday in conjunction with British Land, focussing on the place aspect of this tripartite.

The impact of the physical environment on individuals has been well-documented in recent years, particularly in relation to the health and wellbeing benefits of access to nature.  Wednesday’s conference seeks to build on this body of knowledge – and produce practical outcomes – by establishing which investments in the built environment will have the greatest social benefits.

from the blog

It’s an issue which the RSA is well placed to address: research and action projects by our Communities and Public Services team have uncovered a wealth of understanding of the ‘hidden power’ of communities, and how value is created in the interaction between citizen and service.  Now we seek to apply these lessons to the interaction between citizens and developers.

This is where British Land come in.  Through their work on sites such as Regent’s Place and West Euston, they have gained substantial expertise in community mapping and engagement, resulting in facilities that local people want, which boost employment and help to reduce crime, deprivation and isolation.

We are looking forward to a day of expert insight, intense debate and collaborative working to identify the key barriers and opportunities in this sector.  Specifically, we will be focussing on the following issues:

  • Securing personal financial well-being: who benefits from building the built environment?
  • Investments which create shared value through community networks: maximising the social return on investment
  • Leveraging growth across city-regions: maximising the economic multiplier

Please feel free to follow along on Twitter, using #developingplaces or live-stream the keynote address (12.30-13.00) and closing plenary session (15.55-17.00).

We look forward to welcoming delegates to RSA House, surely the paradigmatic socially productive place.


Conor Quinn is Communications Intern at the Action and Research Centre, RSA.  You can follow him  @conorquinn85


The power to create: Who’s stopping us?

March 26, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

The RSA is developing a concept of ‘the power to create’ as a kind of values statement or intellectual guide to the work we should be doing. At its core is a recognition that ideas can come from unexpected places. What we mean by power is not necessarily how we normally imagine it, as governments, corporations, militaries, wealth, but as some potent cocktail of freedom, will, and capacity, which together can stoke up actions of unexpected resourcefulness and resilience.

It seems clear that the power to create should operate on a number of levels, from the individual to the community to public institutions. I believe that’s a crucial point, that what the power to create really means depends less on the subject – whether singular or collective – and more on the context in which this subject is situated, the external factors that limit, shape or inspire it. Based on a typology articulated by Hannah Arendt, we can think of the realms in which the power to create operates as the private, the social, and the political. In each realm, the power to create has distinct purposes, and distinct blockers.

The political (or public) sphere is where equality reigns. “Equality before the law has become an inalienable principle of all modern constitutional government”, Arendt writes. We can all vote and run for office, and laws and public institutions must treat all citizens equally. On the other side of the spectrum is the realm of privacy, the space we share only with those closest to us, where we develop and nurture the identity of the ‘self’ we use to enter the social or political spheres. Then there’s the social sphere, “that curious, somewhat hybrid realm between the political and the private in which, since the beginning of the modern age, most men have spent the greater part of their lives.” The existence of ‘the social’ has been debated endlessly, but for Arendt it’s a crucial space of freedom and differentiation, and must be understood as distinct from the equality of the public sphere. While in the public sphere we are all equals, in the social sphere we group together and define ourselves along the lines of such things as profession, income, ethnic origin, national origin, gender, class, education, manners, etc.

These days, we rightly talk a lot about inequality. But my sense from Arendt’s Reflections on Little Rock essay is that the extent to which we discuss and bemoan inequality today would make her a bit queasy, particularly because we don’t often specify what we mean by it. For her, inequality per se is not a problem; in fact it’s an unavoidable consequence of freedom. “The question”, she writes, quite provocatively, “is not how to abolish discrimination, but how to keep it confined within the social sphere, where it is legitimate, and prevent its trespassing on the political and the personal sphere, where it is destructive”.

In the Arendtian framework, any claim that we need a ‘more equal society’ rings slightly protototalitarian. We need a system that fosters equality of opportunity and equality of political representation, but we cannot downplay the importance of culture and group distinction – that is, of freedom, and therefore of difference – in the social sphere. “For equality not only has its origin in the body politic; its validity is clearly restricted to the political realm,” Arendt writes. “Only there,” in the eyes of the state, “are we all equals.” In other words, freedom and equality tend to get in each other’s way if not kept confined to where they each matter most.

The problem is that as a practical matter, it can be difficult to discern where one sphere ends and the next begins.

But if, as Arendt argues, a government that quells social inequality is tyrannical, so too must be a government that does the opposite – one that reinforces and even exacerbates a kind of inequality that is only economic, only public, on the surface. Deeper down, economic inequality is deeply associated with social inequality, which is reinforced through public institutions – the one area where inequality cannot be tolerated. As just one case in point, take undergraduate admission to Britain’s elite universities: only 7 percent of British pupils attend independent schools, but they are given a shocking 43 percent of Oxford’s undergraduate places. The problem is that as a practical matter, it can be difficult to discern where one sphere ends and the next begins, and it’s not entirely clear where the cause this admissions disparity lies (school performance, class, bias, etc.). But both the public sphere of equality and the social sphere of freedom are damaged, the former because of the immense advantages of the Oxford degree to the attainment of public office, and the latter because of the clear social and material advantages given Oxford’s graduates – again, not because advantage itself is a problem, but because in this case the social inequality derives from the gatekeepers of a public institution, and these gatekeepers play a strong role in perpetuating social disadvantage.

Roberto Unger alluded to this growing collusion while speaking at the RSA recently. “Indeed, we need, each of us, not just a secure home, but security generally in a haven of vitally protected interests.” I interpret this statement with great alarm as a suggestion that the integrity of all three of Arendt’s spheres has become compromised. The inequalities rightfully arisen in the social sphere have become reinforced through a public sphere designed not just to allow social and cultural differentiation to flourish, but to allow social difference to escalate into differences in power and opportunity, and a widespread inability to transcend one’s context. A structure of governance and public institutions that reinforces such rampant inequality impinges both on social freedom and on political equality. And privacy, as Unger suggests, is not the protective cocoon it should be. When a person looks outside her four walls of privacy and sees a social sphere that is not free, but dominated by fixed pathways and protected social interests, how can she freely decide for herself how she wants to enter the world?

If sameness were our highest aspiration, the realm of privacy would be an austere place.

The suggestion here is that we should fear sameness as much as we fear inequality. Do we really want a central authority to become the official arbiter of difference?[1] Perhaps just as pernicious as the social injustices of fixed fates and vested interests would be the notion that social equality should trump social freedom. If that were the case, and sameness were our highest aspiration, the realm of privacy would be an austere place. Freedom in the social sphere should not be about amassing differentials of power, but about being able to define oneself through differentiation – and this requires the acceptance of difference. The power to create is as much a way for individuals to distinguish themselves as to proactively remediate inequality of opportunity.

All this begs the question of who has, or should have, the power to create; i.e. whether it works on both individual and collective levels, and whether it applies in each of the three spheres. I would venture to say yes to both questions. Even if the power to create ultimately boils down to individual freedom, most of our decisions are shaped and bound by social contexts, which means that the power to create is well served both by encouraging individual freedom and responsibility as well as by enhancing individuals’ ability to act through effective institutions.

Sphere Subject Rights Power to Create: Potential Blockers
Private Individuals - Privacy
- Personal distinction
- Isolation and loneliness
- Mental health disorders
Social Communities - Free association
- Group distinction
- Culture of conformity
- Overreliance on external provision
- Tribalism
- Resource limits
Political/Public Public institutions - Legal equality
- Political franchise
- Unequal representation
- Curtailment of social freedoms
- Vested interests

The RSA does and should continue to work in all three spheres, from learning, development and human behaviour in the realm of privacy; to design, enterprise and communities in the social sphere; and public policy in the political sphere. We must simply keep in sight the humanity at the core of systems and institutions – or to go even further, as Unger does, to “divinise humanity”.

“What we want is an equality in a shared bigness, in a largeness of life, incompatible with entrenched social and economic inequality, but having a much larger significance.

Please follow me on Twitter: @twtwism

[1] See, for example, the UKBA’s bone-chilling slogan: “Working together to protect the public”.


‘Where Will The People Go?’ Planning and Measuring Socially Productive Places

March 24, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

This is a guest blog by Tim Dixon, Professor of Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment at the School of Construction Management and Engineering, University of Reading. Tim will be speaking at an upcoming conference at the RSA on developing socially productive places.


The debate over Garden Cities and the recent announcement of Ebbsfleet, alongside the development of Eco Bicester, is another part of the long journey we are making to tackle the acute shortage of homes we have in Britain. To put this into perspective, in order to meet current projected population increases and shortfalls from previous years that we face as a nation, somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 extra homes a year are needed for the next 20 years. This will require a huge effort from the government, planners and development and construction industry if we are to succeed.

Urban regeneration and development still has a key role to play in helping create and redesign communities which do make a difference to peoples’ lives and provide them not just with housing but also a sense of belonging. Thinking around these concepts isn’t new. Early planners such as Patrick Geddes and Ebenezer Howard recognised the importance of linking people and place; in fact it was Howard who posed the question ’where will the people go?’

Dixon - graphic


This question is still being asked more than a century later, alongside questions as to how to create places that are truly sustainable in environmental, economic and social terms. We are also trying to come to terms with a planning system which is under a critical spotlight, as radical changes in market-led planning and localism start to gain traction under the Coalition government, and as the NPPF stresses, we need to take account of the social role of development.

Social sustainability, however, has often been seen as the poor cousin to environmental and economic sustainability, perhaps because of the difficulty of measurement, but also because people saw a trade-off between social progress and environmental impact. Today the new planning regime; a focus on corporate responsibility by the development industry; and the fact that communities matter across the political spectrum, have all placed social sustainability much higher up the agenda.

Social Sustainability

‘Social sustainability [is] about people’s quality of life, now and in the future. Social sustainability describes the extent to which a neighbourhood supports individual and collective well-being. It combines design of the physical environment with a focus on how the people who live in and use a space relate to each other and function as a community’.

However, creating socially productive places for people still faces two big challenges:

  • Defining the role of planning more clearly. There is a notorious and oft-quoted statistic which suggested that planning delays ‘cost’ £3bn pa. However, there is now an increasing focus on assessing the true social and economic impacts of planning. Planning has evolved from the strong interventionist policies in the post-war period to a more local, market-led approach that we see today. This places a strong focus on shaping markets through an economic growth agenda, but also has a role in stimulating capacity in local areas. But in terms of impacting on the best design outcomes of places, planning has perhaps been much less successful.
  • Measuring social sustainability. Defining it is relatively easy (see Box 1). Measuring it in a coherent and consistent way is more challenging, although  we have seen recent examples of successful metrics in the housing industry, riding on the back of better census data and improved statistics, and a clearer sense of ‘place-keeping’ (or long term stewardship) amongst both local authorities and developers. Despite this there are limited examples of applying measurement systems ‘downstream’ to assess whether places have really delivered on their social sustainability.

We need to find more consistent ways of measuring social sustainability therefore, but also find ways for the planning and the development industry to work together in creating and maintaining socially productive places in existing communities. To paraphrase Ebenezer Howard, wherever the people do go they will need to be in socially productive places which are liveable, resilient and sustainable, and we need better-defined measures to assess the success of those places in being socially productive.


The RSA conference on April 2, 2014 brings together leaders from policy and practice in the built environment to consider how public and private investment can best contribute to social and economic productivity, and strengthen local communities. Following the conference a paper will be released in Summer 2014.


Chatting to the neighbours: makes us happier, saves lives, comes to the rescue when we lose our keys

March 20, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

At about 7.30am last Thursday I heard a tentative knock on my front door.

Standing on my doorstep, shivering in pyjamas and with a look of acute embarrassment on her face, was my new neighbour Carolina* from the studio flat downstairs.  Her bathroom is across the hall from her flat, and she’d managed to lock herself out after going to the toilet without her keys. Critically, she had also managed to lock her keys and phone inside her flat, and was stranded in the stairwell.

I gave her my phone so she could call her office to explain that she’d be late. We have the same landlord so I called him to explain the situation, and invited her inside to wait while he drove a spare key over from Essex. I had to leave for work, but my girlfriend had a day off and so sat with Carolina for the next couple of hours and made her breakfast and tea. They chatted. They got along quite well.

The situation had initially felt  all the more bizarre and awkward given that I’d only moved into the building that weekend, and had met her before this only once, as I was carrying furniture up the stairs on my moving day. I’ve lived in buildings before where I never spoke to – or even saw – my neighbours, but given that I now work on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme I thought I’d make an effort to practice what we preach, and made sure I chatted her when I spotted her. We didn’t speak about anything hugely exciting on that occasion – essentially we told each other our names and said hello – and it didn’t feel particularly important at the time. But how long would she have sat helplessly panicking in the hallway on Thursday if we had not bumped into each other and exchanged small talk earlier that week? Would she have knocked on my front door when she did, or would it have seemed too difficult to inconvenience somebody she had never met before in such an embarrassing situation?

This is partly what the founder of the Big Lunch, Tim Smit, means when he says that ‘Small talk is in fact ‘big talk’ – it’s the code or tool which enables us to overcome our shyness’. The Big Lunch have published research this month that they say shows that ‘the chattiest streets are the happiest streets’, with seven in ten people surveyed saying that simple conversations with their neighbours make them feel more in touch with their community – but with one in twenty reporting that they have never spoken to their neighbours at all. This is worrying because not having these kind of local connections might not just make us less happy – or leave us caught short when we forget our keys – but it can be highly damaging to our health as well.

Last week, the writer Will Storr wrote in the Guardian about his own reluctance to talk to the people around him, and about how he is trying to change this. Contrary to the popular image of British villagers coming together at times of adversity, he recounts being rude to an environment officer and having an argument with a neighbour who wanted to borrow sandbags during the recent flooding in Somerset where he lives. Prompted by these negative interactions he decides to learn more about loneliness and is told by a genome biologist that isolation has a similar mortality risk to smoking , and so he decides to make a conscious attempt at being friendlier to his neighbours:

‘That evening, the man fails to return my sandbags. I wonder if he might have done had I responded to him differently. Worried about the flood, which is now just steps from my door, I walk around the corner to find them being used to corral a stream of water into a bubbling drain. Under the irritated gaze of the affected homeowner, I lug them back, one by one. Then I stop and return. With a smile and an apology, I explain who I am and why I need them. We have a chat. As it turns out, he’s quite nice.’

This friendly small talk between people who live near each other are the kind of interactions that Talk To Me London, a new campaign group in the capital, want to see more of. It’s a simple aim, but we think it’s an important one and that’s why we worked with them to pilot their approach in south east London, and why we’ll be supporting them to raise funds for a city-wide launch on the RSA-curated section on the Kickstarter crowdfunding website. Watch out for that and get updates by following @talktomelondon on Twitter.

When I went back to my flat after work a few evenings ago, Carolina had left a little box of chocolates for my girlfriend and me as a thank you. Where in other places I have lived my neighbours have been strangers, now I have some form of connection with Carolina. We’ll look out for each other now and, who knows, maybe become friends. We might support each other in any future tenancy disputes about the building or the landlord. We might hit some bars to explore our new neighbourhood together. Or we might just keep a spare key for her in case she gets locked out again.


*Not her real name.


Should the lack of evidence keep us from devolving power locally?

March 10, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

Taking an evidence-based approach to policy is rarely questioned. Alongside austerity, its economic logic is particularly obvious. However, trialling wholly new approaches and ambitious reforms is trickier; the evidence base, inherently, can’t be clearly established.

Last week, the City Growth Commission convened an experts’ seminar on metro-regions and the future of local government in which we debated the merits of using international examples to validate devolution in the UK. Speakers Professor Henry Overman from LSE and Dan Corry, the Chief Executive of New Philanthropy Capital, were in agreement that there is currently little to no evidence underpinning recommendations for devolving power to a local level, but diverged on how much this actually matters in convincing the government that it is worth pursuing.

Advocates of decentralisation know this conundrum all too well, but to what extent is it possible for us to justify reforms to governance by using cities elsewhere in Europe and further abroad as case studies?

This image illustrates where citizens edited the open-source map of the UK (Image credit: Peter Miller via Flickr).

This image illustrates where citizens edited the open-source map of the UK (Image credit: Peter Miller via Flickr).

Overman was wary of the traditional ‘logic chain’ for devolution, which he explained often started from the premise that there were economic benefits to be reaped, in order to then make claims about strengthened social and political democracy. In truth, there is a dearth of evidence from within the UK. Pointing to success stories elsewhere has been tried repeatedly to no avail. A report that washes over the risks will be shelved by Whitehall, and to be credible, a narrative must address concerns about local autonomy deepening spatial inequalities.

We were reminded by Corry that the probability of us ever comprehensively proving the case for devolution is slim to none, but that this isn’t a reason to stall. We know that the set-up we have now works best for London; local politics struggles to engage citizens and businesses in the rest of the UK. Lord Adonis noted last week that more people in Newcastle could name the mayor of London than their own council leader. An agenda for political reform should be tabled on the grounds that staying as we are isn’t an option, especially when other European cities have already taken the leap of faith. Local accountability may be just the bargaining chip that will persuade the Treasury to go ahead with the idea. For example, central government consented to London’s Congestion Charge in part with the comfort that Ken Livingstone – rather than national politicians – would be held to account if it failed.

It is clear there are limits to what we can deduce from the successes or failures of devolution to cities internationally. One of our commissioners, Ben Lucas, made the point that since no other country is as centralised as the UK is, our ability to make a like-for-like comparison is undermined. Furthermore, it’s difficult to understand successful efforts to devolve power given the differing historical and political contexts in which arrangements were brought forward. We also tend to gloss over examples of where devolution has failed.

When we begin to make suggestions about how we should begin the process of decentralisation, the key consideration is what would be in the best long-term interests of the UK when it comes to maintaining international competitiveness, rather than rehashing old arguments about ‘rebalancing the UK’. One of the biggest remaining challenges in defining the specifics of how decentralisation should transpire in the UK: whether particular city-regions or metros should be prioritised, sequentially, because of their existing capacity and growth potential; or whether reforms attempt, simultaneously, to offer something for everyone.

Last week, Greg Clark MP, Minister for Cities, co-authored a study on the wealth of cities with City Growth commissioner (also called Greg Clark). Highlighting the dynamics of competition and collaboration within and between national and international systems of cities may get us further, in advancing arguments for decentralisation, than chasing evidence ever will.

This article was originally posted by the City Growth Commission.


How do you feel when you see the police?

March 7, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

When you see a police officer do you feel safer, or less safe?

This is the half-serious test that the anthropologist and activist Prof. David Graeber uses as a metric of whether somebody has a middleclass ‘mind-set’ or not. It is also a distinction that threatened to expose some social divisions in Brixton, where I live, yesterday.

Brixton Underground Station, Thursday 6th March. Photo by Tom Johnson for Vice:

‘Brixton Unite’ was, depending on which side of this social divide one situates oneself, a community-outreach day coordinated by a coalition of Lambeth Council, the police, and Job Centre plus to ‘reduce the harm caused by gangs’ to the community, or a huge display of force by the Metropolitan Police and British Transport Police to intimidate, harass and inconvenience as many residents as possible.

As I got off the Tube at Brixton station on my way home from work, a man was shouting a warning to everybody as they approached the escalators, ‘Loads of police upstairs! Watch out! Undercover police, filth everywhere!’

Commuters chuckled dismissively over their smartphones, shaking their heads at this noisy man who was making a scene with his paranoid ranting. One man tutted and made eye-contact with me, a white man in office clothes and – so he seemed to think – a natural ally with whom to share his amusement. But my personal experience of the police has not always been pleasant, and as I reached the top of the escalator and saw scores of officers in hi-vis jackets, a man being searched by the ticket machines, black-clad plain clothes police scanning the crowds, and sirens screeching up and down the road outside, I felt uncomfortable at seeing a place that looked under siege.

Outside the station a small group of activists waved placards protesting the heavy police presence, and tried to direct people’s attention to the front page of the Evening Standard, which coincidentally carried new allegations of police misconduct in the Stephen Lawrence case. There were raised voices and mini-clashes as accusations of disrupting or supporting police activity were traded. Elsewhere in Brixton people made their displeasure at seeing such numbers of active police officers known in various ways, as detailed in reports by Channel 4 and Vice online.

For some, Brixton Unite was conceived to intimidate and unsettle people, the latest stage in what they view as a deliberate ‘gentrification’ of Brixton amid a context of rocketing private property rates, evictions, the proposed sale of a community college and an influx of symbolically high-end business such as Champagne & Fromage and Foxtons estate agents.  The perspective of those commuters I saw who seemed unconcerned by the police presence – the ‘If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to worry about’ mentality – doesn’t wash with everybody, as the political commentator Stephen Bush (who is black) illustrates vividly:

When I think of the police, I think of being stopped-and-searched, aged 15, on the Embankment in broad daylight with everyone looking at me, an experience as humiliating as if I had been stripped naked right there on the Strand. That’s the part of me that gets nervous when I see police officers at Highbury and Islington Station of an evening, or quickens my pace around the Palace of Westminster.”


If we take Lambeth Council at their word and accept that Brixton Unite was a well-intentioned attempt to engage with the community and reassure residents that problems with gang violence are being tackled, then the episode demonstrates some of the difficulties faced by public services when they attempt to engage with their communities proactively. Communities, perhaps especially urban communities, are not made up of people who think and experience the same things, as my colleague Jonathan Schifferes blogged yesterday. Some people are reassured by the sight of police officers proactively keeping the peace; others see an invasion of authorities attempting to ruin their day. In a place like Brixton where there is an ongoing debate about gentrification and, for some, a perceived divide between working class long-term residents and well-heeled newcomers attracted by the city transport links and trendy market, then tensions can arise such as those I observed at Brixton underground station yesterday.

‘Relational’ public services that productively engage with communities are difficult to achieve – as recent work by the IPPR has discussed and the RSA’s public services and communities action and research strand continues to explore. Yesterday’s events in Brixton demonstrated this further; the same actions by public services can alienate some and reassure others. It is a conundrum that the authorities in Lambeth will have to work out, but on yesterday’s showing it seems unlikely that the mass appearance of ‘bobbies on the beat’ is really the thing that will see Brixton unite.



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    Social Economy: A blog from the RSA's Connected Communities and Citizen Power teams covering topics such as community development and empowerment; civic and democratic renewal; social networks and neighbourliness.
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    Steve Broome, Director of Research, oversees our Connected Communities, recovery from substance misuse, and criminal justice work. He also works to develop our research and evaluation capability, particularly through approaches that reflect our interests in co-production, networks, and systems. Follow @smbroome

    Gaia Marcus, Senior Researcher, works with Connected Communities, is the RSA's social network analysis champion, and leads the Social Mirror project. With a background in youth participation and human rights, prior to joining the RSA Gaia worked as Research Associate for the Space Makers Agency. Follow @la_gaia

    Lucinda Thelwell works for our partner the Knowle West Media Centre as Volunteer Coordinator for Social Mirror, a social prescription project for the Knowle West area of Bristol. Her role includes recruiting, training and supervising the volunteers for Social Mirror, as well as doing outreach work for the project. Lucinda is a Qualified Social Worker with a background in mental health, homelessness and sensory support, and over the last few years she has been working in the voluntary sector developing various social and environmental volunteer projects in the UK and abroad.

    Matthew Parsfield is the Connected Communities Project Developer, and works with Fellows and partners to translate the ARC team’s research into practical, funded programmes on the ground. He has a Master’s degree in social anthropology, and previously worked as a public engagement officer with a professional football club. Follow @MParsfield

    Jonathan works to explore how the built environment affects social and economic productivity. He’s currently researching how future retail models can better serve society. With a background in urban planning and community development work, Jonathan previously worked for nef undertaking social and economic impact evaluation. Follow @JSchifferes

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