How do we innovate for purpose on the south coast?

June 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up to attend the RSA’s Innovating for Culture and Communities event: “How do we innovate for purpose on the south coast?” Only recently have I become a Fellow of the RSA, and having spent the past 20+ years working in private sector innovation, non-profit innovation was new to me.

Photo credit: Irene Campbell (@ireneukey)

Photo credit: Irene Campbell (@ireneukey)

To set the scene, we were approximately 25 people gathered to hear 5 speakers talk about their projects, why they got involved, and how they’re creatively addressing challenges. Projects included ‘hiSbe’ the new socially conscious supermarket in Brighton, the Brighton Science Festival, Hastings Pier, the Beacon Hub Project, and the Saltdean Lido project. No PowerPoint slides – this was an open and honest conversation, fuelled by each speaker’s passion for their projects.

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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

Working in communities and the arts: being part of the group

November 20, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society 

Every now and again I have a really inspiring meeting that draws together common threads from our work in Arts and Society with thinking from other people and the wider world.  Yesterday was one such day. I was meeting the artist Lucy Steggals about the Creative Intersections project we are doing with King’s College London and our recent event showcasing the journey of this work with participating artists and academics – and recent learning and reflection from Arts and Social Change in Citizen Power Peterborough came flooding into the frame whilst hearing about Lucy’s experiences in Gravesend and the Isle of Sheppey.

Peterborough Street Pastors comic strip. Credit Grennan & Sperandio

We’ve just published a case study on the artist’s residencies.  Called ‘Context Matters’ this is a reflective and observational document by Richard Ings about the experiences of the two residencies that I have curated for Arts and Social Change. Very much intended to be about sharing learning and experiences, this takes the first-hand views of the two artists, Joshua Sofaer and Simon Grennan along with the two community groups they worked with; Morland Court Residents’ Association and Peterborough Street Pastors respectively.   This coupled with the Made in Peterborough commissions programme; the first with Encounters who devised the Take Me To project and the second with Joanna Rajkowska’s Peterborough Child sculpture – consolidated much of the fascinating consideration and challenge that needs to be borne out when working in ‘Any Place’ successfully where there are mutual outcomes needed for the many parties involved from the funder to the commissioner, from local residents to the artists themselves.

In embarking on the journey of working in communities with the arts, much of the consideration lies in where and how the artwork is conceived.  Initially informed by the brief given to the artist and underpinned by the strength of support to the ideas within it from the local partnership, there needs to be a framework with which to engage at the beginning.  This is then followed by flexibility so the ideas can be shaped and informed by local conversation and context.  This need for flexibility and open acknowledgement across the stakeholders is crucial. We don’t know for sure how it is going to proceed until we’ve met the local people.  If the first path chosen is not working then another needs to be taken and this takes time.

Establishing the trust for this to take place with the people you are working with is also paramount – and as an artist (and in our case, commissioner/producer) you give something of yourself to that.  Friendships are established, mutual professional bonds develop, time (and sometimes budget) is spent way beyond the project brief to get the job done because you become invested in it and the people involved.  You become part of the group.

Different artists work in different ways of course.  For some, their approach means engagement locally begins once the work is installed and for others the work is informed entirely through local people making the decisions on the artwork.   There exists in the middle and at the edges a process of co-design and co-creation.  In introducing an artist to a place, much is led by the nature of the introduction to the local community.  As an ‘outsider’ in many cases, whether it is as a facilitator, workshop leader or artist, this can play a significant role in the expectations and understanding of people locally – who if to be engaged need to have a sense of:  Who are you?  Why are you here? Who is the work for?  Why should I bother to get involved?

All of which needs to be skilfully woven with the artist’s own integrity and practice.  This is not about the artist dictating direction necessarily but about having a voice to shape and lead the project among all the parties involved.

In turn, this throws up the fascinating subject of where the art is created and where the real value of the work is held for the different people and stakeholders involved.  In ‘socially engaged’ projects, sometimes it is necessary to pull back from the final product as being the end game (and therefore the sign of success) to instead consider the journey and process that has been crafted and experienced.

To quote Richard Ings in the case study “there is, in artist residencies generally, a creative tension between the artist’s prime function, which is to make art, and they social role they may be asked to play (or find themselves playing) – and about the role that the group or community they are working with should play in the realisation of this art

If you are interested in these considerations and challenges, socially engaged artist Hannah Hull and ixia are exploring these ideas through the Critical Spaces network.  Hannah is bringing together artists and conversations along this socially engaged arts/artists working with people theme to generate an artist-led critical voice and practice in the public realm.

There will also be more to follow from the RSA as the full suite of case studies and evaluation of Arts and Social Change, and Citizen Power more broadly are published online in the coming months.

Latest Winners of a Citizen Power Award

April 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

This post was originally posted on Project Dirt, where we are building a cluster for all the community-led environmental projects in Peterborough.

Here at the Citizen Power Peterborough* project we’ve been working with community groups that have ideas which could make Peterborough a greener place. One way we’ve been doing this is by running workshops that allow people to develop their ideas and meet others, then help them apply for a Citizen Power grant that will allow them to test that idea on the ground.

So far we’ve funded further development of a well-loved community garden in Paston and a group who are in the process of assuming responsibility for a section of ancient woodland in Bretton. The latest decisions on funding were made at an event last Friday, when eleven individuals and groups applied for grants to allow them to put their ideas into action.

The three judges were environmental innovators Pam Warhurst of Incredible Edible Todmorden and Hermione Taylor of The DoNation, together with Councillor Sam Dalton – the member of Peterborough’s cabinet with responsibility for environmental issues. The judges heard from each group, who pitched the idea of their project for the chance of a grant.

People developing project ideas at an earlier workshop (photo by Adrian Stone)

Among others, the judges heard from one group who wanted to replicate the success of a Cambridge paint upcycling project in Peterborough. Rather than sending paint straight to landfill, they planned to collect waste paint from local recycling centres, store, sort and redistribute it to community groups and families.

A group of students from Peterborough Regional College presented a plan to convert old unused bicycles into safe and usable bikes. The improved bikes will be available for college students to buy at low weekly cost over the course of a year – making travel a more active and healthy experience, as well as being better for the environment.

The judges also heard from another individual who wanted to demonstrate the effectiveness of alternative energy systems like hydrogen power to people at public events. He planned to use an education fuel cell to power a low-energy projector, at the same time demonstrating and explaining the physics behind the post-oil future.

In the end, the judges opted to fund all eleven projects for amounts between £300 and £500 each. Each project will be creating a profile on Project Dirt (if they don’t have one already), so in time you’ll be able to keep track of their progress through the Peterborough cluster on Project Dirt.

Well done to all involved!

* Citizen Power Peterborough is an initiative from the people of Peterborough, the RSA, Peterborough City Council and the Arts Council, East

The full list of winners:

  • Peterborough Repaint Scheme from Kevin and Fiona
  • The Backyard Food Group Shop from Sophie
  • Green Backyard Woodskills from Renny
  • Rake and Bake Gardening Club from Parents United
  • P£anet Bikes from Peterborough Regional College students
  • Pond & Frogs project from Peterborough Regional College students
  • An Introduction to Hydrogen Fuel Cells, HHO and Alternative Energy from Jordan
  • Bike workshop from Dominic
  • Slow Sewing from Lorena
  • The Little Miracles Peterborough Sensory Garden from Michelle
  • The Olive Branch Community Garden & Allotments from Mark

Social Attitudes Survey shows Big Society is getting smaller

December 7, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey is a blow for the left. 54% of respondents think employment benefits are too high, 63% blame parents for child poverty and fewer people are willing to give up their own hard-earned cash to reduce the income gap. People appear to be becoming more individualistic. As Penny Young, the Chief Executive of the National Centre for Social Research, says, ‘In a time of economic austerity and social unrest, the big question coming out of this year’s report is whether we really are in it together, or just in it for ourselves?’

The results are a reminder that in hard times it becomes more difficult to make the case for tackling shared problems. When resources are tight, people are concerned with protecting the little they have. But the results of this year’s survey are not only a concern for progressives. The thread of individualism that runs through this year’s survey presents real challenges for the Government’s Big Society vision of stronger, more resourceful communities in which people work together towards common goals.

There are two lessons for Government here. First, its emphasis on individual blame (e.g. ‘welfare scroungers’ or ‘greedy public sector workers’) as a means of building public support for austerity has had the effect of damaging social ties and made it harder to persuade people to work together to tackle social problems. In this sense, the Government’s own rhetoric is destroying the ground on which a Big Society should be built.

Secondly, the Government has characterised civil society and the state as being at odds. For Government, public services are themselves partly an expression of a dependency culture and a suppression of the ability of citizens to generate bottom-up solutions to public problems. In reality, the reverse is true. Whilst there is space on both the left and the right for the argument that the skills, ideas and enthusiasm of citizens and charities need to play a stronger role in society, the state and public service institutions have a crucial role to play in helping communities thrive. From funding charities and local groups to commissioning more inclusive services. This was the strong message from charities and public service representatives present at the launch of a recent RSA report on public service reform, Communities Connected. Citizens, civil society organisations and public services are interdependent. The answer lies in finding new ways of working together to tackle challenges in education, health and social care, not breaking these different institutions apart from one another.

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey shows the ties and institutions that bind us to one another are losing traction. People are becoming more self-involved. If the Government does not change course and start emphasising the values, institutions and rights we have in common, people will become more individualistic and atomised, and our ‘big’ society will start to feel very, very small.

Social sentencing

November 18, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Recovery, Social Economy 

While waiting for This Week to start, I channel-hopped my way to the ‘highlights’ of a Lords debate on BBC Parliament.  (I told you Brighton, my home town, was notorious for partying.)  The focus of the debate was Law and the Big Society: something that resonated with the recent talk given at the RSA by the excellent Larry Sherman, and with my own interests in restorative justice (I helped to establish New Cross Gate in South London as a ‘restorative community’ some years ago).

The debate was wide ranging, covering the representativeness of the magistracy (improving, but still poor); court administration (too slow, and with uneven access to and use of technology); and public faith in the justice system (variable).  Much of the debate, however, focused on the relationships between community and the criminal justice system and the purpose of sentencing.  Broadly, what is the relationship between the law and the idea of the Big Society?

Several of the contributors pointed to the magistracy, celebrating its 650th anniversary this year, as perhaps the first example of the kind of voluntarism and localism that is at the heart of the notion of the Big Society.  But how can the magistracy (and other local administrations of justice such as restorative approaches and the forthcoming neighbourhood resolution panels), contribute more to the development of the Big Society, particularly given the public scepticism around community-based sentences?

Lord Patel, admitting his lack of enthusiasm for and understanding of the term ‘Big Society’, saw it is a model of social inclusion, but he focused only on inclusion within the magistracy and the need for the administration of justice to be delivered by and reflect all constituencies within a community.

Lord Thomas built on this theme, remarking that order is preserved in a community not by the police, but by the people. He pointed to work done by the Centre for Criminology at Oxford (with whom the RSA is researching co-production in recovery from substance misuse), which points to co-production as the central principle of the Big Society.  According to the work, communities have very little engagement with the courts and “live in two separate worlds”.  On the one hand, communities were disappointed with the level of engagement from magistrates, while on the other, magistrates worried about their judicial independence in building strong relationships with community stakeholders.  The research concluded that courts have yet to embed principles of community justice, seeing their role as “adjudicators of fact and meters out of punishment and no more”.

If the law and the Big Society are to be mutually reinforcing, “community engagement and problem solving in partnership with community groups and agencies should become a formal, standardised part of a magistrate’s training and part of continuing professional development for existing district judges and magistrates”.

Baroness Seccombe argued that the Big Society means ”bringing decision-making back to communities so that local people have a real stake in running their own lives and supporting those who need a helping hand so that they can improve their lives. It means giving people the opportunity to bring colour and happiness to others less fortunate than themselves, while at the same time experiencing the genuine pleasure that can be had from joining a group of people who get things done, so contributing to a thriving community. The Big Society is where we can all help each other as we try to do our bit to promote local well-being.”

If the law is to be in part a driver of the Big Society, what scope is there for the criminal justice system to foster group collaboration, the inclusion of marginalised people, and thriving communities?

Community sentencing seems an obvious first place to look.  Community sentences often include ‘community payback’, which focuses on unpaid work such as removing graffiti, clearing public areas/wasteland, or decorating public places and buildings such as local community centres.  Such sentences have undergone changes in recent years: the renaming from community service to payback emphasises the focus on punishment, and the enforced wearing of high-visibility jacket emblazoned with ‘Community Payback’ aims to improve public confidence in community sentences and increase deterrent and shaming effects.

Are we missing a trick to make sentencing more socially productive?

But are we missing a trick to make sentencing more socially productive?  In visibly marking offenders as ‘other’ and by focusing on payback activities that mean offenders work in isolation (either individually or only with other offenders), are we limiting the rehabilitative potential of such sentences?  The RSA’s Connected Communities programme has explored the ways in which our relationships influence our attitudes, behaviours and opportunities.  Our work on recovery from substance misuse, for example, shows how those who use drugs problematically are caught in social networks in which most, or in many cases all, of the people they know and/or receive support from are other drug users.

Given this kind of example, can we use sentencing to widen the constructive social connections of offenders and provide the possibility of more positive social influence?  Rather than separating off offenders, can they undertake ‘payback’ that is equally demanding and useful, but that requires interaction with the parts of their communities from which they are removed?

‘Social sentences’ speak to restorative models of justice, and encourage ‘reparation’ agreements that tap into victims’ desire for wrongdoers to make amends in meaningful ways

Such ‘social sentences’ speak to restorative models of justice, and encourage ‘reparation’ agreements that tap into victims’ desire for wrongdoers to make amends in meaningful ways.  Examples might include helping to organise and put on community events, working on specific tasks for voluntary groups, assisting with community organising, helping with consultations and so on.  Such examples might be particularly effective where sentences involve a relatively high number of hours work that enable sustained interaction and influence.

Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie argued some 35 years ago that conflicts belong to the people that are involved in them and that in transferring ownership of them to the state and courts, we ‘steal the conflict’ and remove communities’ opportunities to resolve them directly and the benefits that might result in doing so.  Even in restorative practices, and in prescribing (or directing) the kinds of reparation wrongdoers might make in community payback, we still limit the social benefits and rehabilitative power of local resolutions.

In a Big Society model of locally administered justice, the balance between punishment and rehabilitation, and how each is delivered, should be for communities and victims to determine, within the wider legal framework.  And of course, we have to take care to respect victims’ wishes, and ensure social sentences do not cause problems and burdens for those assisting in carrying them out.

In the Lords’ debate, Baroness Miller felt that the “possibility of rehabilitation is a very worthy objective, but one which perhaps all too often does not work. Community service orders are regrettably inadequately staffed and funded and sometimes consist of futile lamppost-counting operations.”  Social sentences make the possibility of rehabilitation in the community more practicable; provides more meaningful activities to be carried out in the sentence; and provides more capacity for administering the sentence.

Such options can be applied through the magistracy (which deals with over 90% of all criminal cases), neighbourhood resolution panels, and other restorative mechanisms.  In fact, there is the possibility of developing more socially productive sentences through existing means.  Community payback currently offers the opportunity for local people to nominate work/projects.  So go on, nominate a social sentence, and let me know if you are successful.

Of course, other readers may just want to nominate people whose company or conversation feels like a (different kind of) social sentence.  I can feel my colleagues exchanging knowing looks already…

Let’s talk about sectors

August 9, 2011 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

In common with many areas of England, Camden Town, where I live, saw extensive civil disorder last night. Shop and pub windows were smashed, there were numerous confrontations between police and scores of citizens and a number of shops were looted.

Pretty soon I started hearing about plans for organise volunteers to clean up the mess in the morning. A lovely idea.

This morning I woke up early to walk around my neighbourhood to assess the damage. I saw three shops with extensive damage to their frontage. They had uniformed police officers standing outside them. There were a number of other shops with damage to windows. Many of these already had glaziers attending to fix the damage. There was very little rubbish or broken glass on the streets or in the roads. The street cleaners were out in greater numbers than normal. I decided that there was not actually any cleaning up that I could do, so I came to work.

This got me thinking about sectors. It is conventional to divide the country up into three sectors; public (government), private (business) and community (charities and community groups). There is a lot of rubbish talked about the supposed superiority of the various sectors. Listening to some people it can sound like all business are innovative, or that all state employees are motivated by a strong public ethos or that all charities have unbreakable bonds of trust between them and their users. Actually, of course, the picture is varied across all the sectors.

People feel safer in neighbourhoods where greater numbers of people know their neighbours by name

A spontaneous effort to clean up mess is a heartening response to civil disorder. However, it is also exactly the type of problem that the public and private sector are better at responding to. As Adam Smith famously said “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Similarly, we expect businesses to fix their windows and the council to sweep the streets.

However, there are some activities that the community sector is best placed to undertake. As Tessy Britton and Cormac Russell have argued, people feel safer in neighbourhoods where greater numbers of people know their neighbours by name and where people spend more time together with each other outside of the house. Whenever there is civil disorder there is always a lot of talk about “long term” solutions. Let’s hope that this time the long term solutions include attempts to build more connected communities.

Can TV be social?

October 21, 2010 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

Last night I presented at the Facebook Developer Garage London.

It was a fun event where I learnt, amongst other things, that the Farmville game on Facebook has nearly 60 million users a month.

I was making an argument, based on the work we have done in New Cross Gate, that many of the problems which governments try to solve can be best understood as network problems. We can think of high levels of spatially concentrated unemployment, feelings of powerlessness and even low mental well being as network problems.

Going further we can argue that these problems are best solved using the logic of social networks. Rather than focusing on dealing with individuals or groups we could focus on building or diversifying connections.

This points to the power of social media and hence my presence at a Facebook Developers Garage.

Social media has a unique role in building more empowered, resilient communities 

Some facts;

•Researchers in the US find internet users tend to have more bridging social capital than non-users

•17% of British users say they communicate with strangers and 35% with friends of friends via social networking sites.

•The various mySociety projects, such as Pledgebank and Fixmystreet, employ the interactive, networked capabilities of the internet to help people coordinate their political and local concerns, and feed them into the democratic process

•The internet allows campaigns to ‘scale’ quickly, in the sense that small groups can swiftly turn into large-scale networks and campaigns, with no extra cost

•There is a growing number of online projects that seek to circulate specifically local information and put residents in touch with each other. Harringay Online is an exemplary site, featuring discussion forums, a blogging platform, a user search and event announcements.

I could add more but this certainly suggests to me that social media has a unique role in building more empowered, resilient communities.

I am not making the argument, which Gladwell recently dismissed, that social media will lead to more or more effective activism. Rather, I am suggesting that if a group or agency is seeking to invest in and build connections in a given area that social media is an invaluable tool.

One of the most moving findings in our work from New Cross Gate concerns people who are extremely isolated. One 75 year old man told our researcher “all I do is watch TV all day”. Perhaps, for him, social television, which allows viewers to discuss what they are watching with others, would be a better way of breaking down this isolation than coffee mornings.

I would love to know your thoughts on this.