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.

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: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/the-police-swamped-brixton-yesterday

‘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.”

(http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/01/its-all-other-police-deaths-should-really-trouble-our-politicians)

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.

 

A limited opportunity to walk a mile in our shoes

February 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Innovation, Social Economy 

The RSA’s Social Mirror project was featured on BBC points west yesterday. Footage will be available online until 7pm tonight, and our slot starts around the 18 minute and 50 sec mark.

Social Mirror is a way of operationalising network analysis and wellbeing science to make tangible differences to peoples’ lives. In the Social Mirror: Community Prescriptions project, people waiting to see GPs in Knowle West, Bristol, are asked to complete a short questionnaire via an app on a tablet computer and are then given a ‘social prescription’. This directs them to community activities or groups such as coffee mornings, sports classes or local history clubs – instead of being prescribed drugs or other health interventions. It’s essentially a bit like an automatic magazine quiz: you answer questions and, if you need it, Social Mirror can issue you with local ‘community prescriptions’ based on your interest: from a walking group to a photography class.

In the BBC Points West video I explain why Social Mirror is important, and why our human and community-based approach to health and social care demand management is so necessary and timely.

“We know that social isolation can be as bad for you as smoking, with effects ranging from depression to cardiovascular disease. It’s often very small changes that make big differences in our lives; and Social Mirror is that first step from being alone or feeling that you are not doing great things in your life, to feeling part of your community”

From small acorns, great oaks. What has been  described by Radio 4’s Giles Fraser as a ‘small local project’ is one participants have claimed has made their ‘life is worth living’. One participant who was given a prescription for a walking group has never looked back. He says:

“It has changed my life. I would recommend it to anyone. I wasn’t doing anything; I’d been a recluse and for three days a week I wouldn’t go out of the flat and the weight was piling on. I’ve now lost a stone and I can talk to people quite freely which I couldn’t before.”

The benefits are also being felt by local activities. Mary Hall runs a lip-reading group at Knowle West Health Park for those with hearing loss. She has had referrals from Social Mirror and says her group really benefits those who attend. She explains:

“They come and meet other people like themselves and compare notes to their heart’s content – it’s much less isolating for them. I reckon I keep people out of doctors’ surgeries because of depression. They come once a week and we are like a family here.”

As I have said elsewhere, my hope is that one day Social Mirror and other community approaches that change social relations to transform economic and community potential will be available for all. For now, fingers crossed!

 

 

 

I like it. What is it?

February 10, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Design and Society, Social Economy 
http://www.anthonyburrill.com/images/purchase/i-like-it/01.jpg

Image by Anthony Burril. www.anthonyburrill.com

The first ever unMonastery launched this month in the city of Matera, in Southern Italy. Doing something new is messy. The path is unclear, doubt is a killer, and it’s somehow never easier to quit than when you are on the verge of something real.

2014 could be the year of unMonastery, and my mission, gladly accepted, is to help shape evaluation models and metrics that help us understand what it is and if it is working.

#unMonastery?

UnMonastery is place-based social innovation that throws a group of people into one place – currently Matera – and sees what happens. It takes issues facing the whole of Europe – youth unemployment, mismatched skills, brain drain to major cities, under-utilised buildings, depleted public resources –and offers up a secular, 21st century version of the monastery. People with skills and projects to offer are housed, fed and work out of a building that would be otherwise left empty.

Best suited to areas suffering brain drain and a lack of home-grown opportunities, the ‘unMonasterians’ are tasked with working with people from the local area to develop locally specific projects that respond to local needs and assets.  For me the key question will be measuring whether the project is one that both preserves the sanity of its protagonists, and can be mapped to really engage with and become embedded in its local area. Without the wellbeing of those working in it, it becomes a workhouse, without local embeddedness it becomes a fun working holiday for some super-skilled Europeans.

Matera 

The unMonastery building is highlighted in red.

The Matera unMonastery is situated in the ‘Sassi’ of Matera, a ridiculously picturesque setting in the labyrinthine ancient part of the city, where, since the troglodyte era, houses have been built into the local ‘tufo’,a calcarenitic rock that comes from marine sediments. Whilst fantastic, this setting will actually prove to be one of the first challenges for the unMonastery: Matera, the people, is not Matera, the beautiful and touristy Sassi.

The team

The Matera unMonasterians were selected through an international open call in which people were encouraged to apply for residencies in Matera with projects that responded to local needs and interests, as had been set out following a series of co-production workshops. The final team comprises of projects that take us from building functional solar-panel trackers with local young people, to setting up water-filtering systems for urban farming. The skill-set of the unMonasterians spans coders, graphic designers, illustrators, engineers, social scientists, artists. Over the next four months their projects will focus both on Matera, and on unMonastery as a venture in its own right. UnMonastery favours total, brutal, transparency: you will able to follow its progress, with everything from project plan updates to budgets available online. If at all curious, you can meet the team and ask many questions today (!) from 10am UK-time, by following the hasthtag  #unmon on twitter.

http://www.anthonyburrill.com/purchase/arrange-whatever-pieces

Anthony Burrill – http://www.anthonyburrill.com/

Progress so far?

The first week has been slow, taken up with the difficulties of setting up when much is out of your control: internet down, heating variable, furniture arriving after the people.

Due to the iterative nature of building unMonastery, it was always hard to know what it would end up being. Born as an idea in the first EdgeRyders conference in Strasbourg, it only became real when Matera – currently a candidate for European City of Culture 2019 – stepped up as a host and funder. First Materans shaped unMonstery in their understanding of what Matera’s assets, resources and needs were; then the unMonastery applicants shaped unMonasery through the projects they proposed. And now, Matera and unMonasterians – sometimes the same thing – will shape each other.

So, how will we know if it is working?

  Without the wellbeing of those working in it, #unMonastery becomes a workhouse; without local embeddedness it becomes a fun working holiday for some super-skilled Europeans

http://www.anthonyburrill.com/images/purchase/work-hard/01.jpg

Anthony Burill – http://www.anthonyburrill.com/

The job of the unMonasterians is now to work hard and be nice to each other – not too light a request when living and working in the same space as up to ten people for up to four months.

Using metrics developed in the RSA’s Connected Communities work, I am helping them develop ways of measuring how things are going, inside and out.

1. How are you? Social change is messy, and burn-out is often the cost. The unMonasterians will be asked to measure their levels of wellbeing, and make sure they have routines that allow for some version of the five ways to wellbeing and proper sleep.

2. Do you feel part of a community? RSA Connected Communities work has really highlighted the importance of feeling part of a community, of feeling accepted where you are.

3. Do you feel supported? It is important to know that you can go to others when you need, and our social connections are often the first thing to suffer when we move around. Even for those who live in Matera full-time, their new focus could disrupt those social connections that currently help them feel well.

4. How are you and your project linking in to the local area? This is the big mama of the questions. Even if our unMonasterians are happy, bright eyed and bushy tailed, without real local engagement unMonastery is a spring-break, not a new way of working. Using social network analysis, and possibly linking to unMonasterian Lucia‘s walking ethnographies, we will be tracking who the unMonasterians are working with, how this changes, and if this goes beyond the existing contacts of our contacts. Everywhere is a bubble: a key question will be whether we can burst ours.

2014 could be the year of the unMonastery, and unMonastery could be the start of something really excellant. Please do follow unMonastery on twitter, keep up to date with what they are doing here, and join them for an online twitterstorm at 10am today!

 

 

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Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA Connected Communities project.

She is an an Edgeryder and an UnMonk advisor, founded the RSA Social Mirror project and is ¼ of the ThoughtMenu.

You can find her on twitter: @la_gaia

The fabulous poster images are all by Anthony Burrill

Remembering Pete Seeger – and why ‘community’ is still a radical concept

January 29, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

The influential American folk singer Pete Seeger died this week, aged 94. In an official statement, President Obama said: ‘Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song. But more importantly, he believed in the power of community – to stand up for what’s right, [and] speak out against what’s wrong.’

It’s an interesting definition of ‘community’, conceiving of the notion as one that is inherently political and provocative. This conception is perhaps rooted as much in Obama’s early career as an activist and Community Organiser in poor Chicago neighbourhoods as it is by Seeger’s musical calls-to-arms in songs that raged against injustice, fascism and inequality.

Seeger’s work was ardently political, with songs like Solidarity Forever, We Shall Overcome and Where Have All the Flowers Gone demanding workers’ rights, advocating social struggle and lamenting war. The live performance of these songs was as significant as their lyrical content, with Seeger and his banjo often making appearances at strikes, protests and political meetings where he encouraged audience members to participate in communal singing as a way of bonding. The music critic Andy Gill writes: ‘Seeger viewed songs as cement that helped glue communities together when they were under stress and he tirelessly spread the word in person, playing local union halls, assembly rooms and schools; even when blacklisted during the era of [anti-Communist] US Senator Joseph McCarthy.’ For Seeger, politics and community were inseparable as people came together for and through political campaigns. Injustice was a problem and cooperation was the solution: ‘the whole world will have to do something about the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,’ as he once said.

he believed in the power of community – to stand up for what’s right, [and] speak out against what’s wrong

The contemporary, British, conception of ‘community’ – including within the RSA’s Connected Communities action and research programme – is on the face of it comparatively apolitical. In contrast to Obama’s definition of community as akin to activism, examples people commonly point to when they talk about what community is, such as the Olympics, street parties, or Big Lunches, do not typically include ‘standing up for what’s right’ or ‘speaking out against what’s wrong’ as a central feature. Similarly, the RSA’s pilot projects in our Connected Communities sites do not explicitly engage with the political themes of Seeger’s protest songs: Social Mirror connects isolated people to local leisure and health activities, Murton Mams provides a venue and a time for single parents to socialise, and trial projects in South East London encouraged New Cross residents to have meaningful conversations with other people in the local area.

Why has our understanding of ‘community’ changed in this way? And have we really lost so much ground since Seeger’s mid-20th century heyday that where community work once meant people cooperating to achieve radical social and economic gains, it now means merely encouraging people to find out who lives next door?

One explanation may be that the shape of society has changed in a way that makes social life feel more atomized and alienating. The decline of many localised dominant industries mean it is now less likely that neighbours automatically enrol in the same community of interest by joining the same labour force, and few of us can now draw on common identities as easily Seeger could when he sang, ‘My daddy was a miner and I’m a miner’s son.’ Technological and economic shifts, changes in the way we work, the decline of participation in organised religion, and increasing rates of migration within and between countries mean that it may be harder for people to find common ground with others in their immediate geographic area based on obvious shared interests.

However, in such a context, where membership of a local community can no longer be assumed on the basis of shared labour interests for example, saying ‘we are here, we know each other and will support each other’ is arguably radical in itself. Last May, Professor David Morris spoke at the RSA about the radical and important stance of those who promote the idea of community ‘in a context in which the very existence of communities often seems to be doubted’ and in a society where a certain ‘tolerated harshness’ has become a cultural norm. In a recent BBC Radio Four documentary presented by Giles Fraser (which featured the RSA’s Social Mirror project), the social geographer Jane Wills argued for an understanding of the radicalism and importance of the modern, apparently apolitical form of community organising. She lauded the achievements of initiatives such as Citizens UK that allow a white Christian to meet the Imam of a local mosque and realise that, despite a lack of immediately obvious shared interests, they can get along and begin to look out for each other in the neighbourhood.

As Seeger’s lyrics repeatedly insisted, in order for people to be in any position to work together for social change, a sense of community cooperation and support is essential. It may be that such a sense was more easily assumed in Seeger’s day and that ready-formed communities could jump directly to the hard socio-economic issues that needed changing – or it may simply be that people were more prepared to imagine away the differences and fractures that existed in society. With hindsight, the levels of solidarity rhapsodised in Seeger’s songs seem illusory given what we know about race, gender and sexual minority relations of the time. And if solidarity was such a natural and indisputable thing, why did there need to be so many songs arguing for its benefits? As Giles Fraser explored in his documentary series, there is often something nostalgic, pious, and even exclusionary and conformist in the notion of a community. Such intolerance of individuality is evidenced in some of Seeger’s songs which viciously criticise ‘scabs’ who operate according to individualist rather than communitarian moral codes, and in his behaviour when he allegedly attempted to take an axe to the power supply when Bob Dylan famously crossed the ultimate folk taboo by plugging in an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Perhaps on the occasion of the death of a man whose impassioned songs inspired countless musicians, we can reconcile Seeger’s outright radicalism and the apparently softer aims of those who share his belief in the power of community today. The political and transformative social aspect of ‘community’ that Obama associates with Seeger is still inherent in the concept. But today there is greater a greater sense of realism regarding the difficulties communities face in becoming connected, and the necessary – and still radical – first steps of making contact across social divides, developing empathy where it might not immediately flow, and offering support to others from outside of our immediate shared-interests.

Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014). Picture Credit: Bruce Davidson/Magnum

There’s more to shops than shopping

January 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

While several retailers sit reflecting on a disappointing Christmas trading period, 2014 promises to buzz with excitement about online, mobile and social network tools to get you to buy things. We’ve heard plenty about the ‘death of the High Street’; its time to contemplate the future of the ‘big box’ out-of-town superstores in the online era. Shops are about more than shopping, their advantage remains face-to-face interaction. Retailers need to make physical stores community hubs to entice shoppers, appease a restless public, and help a stretched public sector.

New research we released today suggests that a future retail model must make the most of the physical assets of large stores and their network of human relationships. A big supermarket typically hosts 200 staff and 10,000 customers every day. Physical space offers the opportunity for services and experiences which can’t be replicated online. Most important for shops, as people live more of their lives staring at screens, is human interaction. As well as sites of consumption stores are sites of social interaction and employment with a role in combating loneliness and isolation which are increasing. Our previous research found 40% of shoppers at one large DIY store talked with other customers.

With every self-service checkout there is a missed opportunity to build a relationship between staff and shoppers.

What’s in store for the store of the future? We are already seeing shopping malls, retail parks and town centres add leisure and entertainment attractions, but participants in our research wanted to see a wider range of community services offered at large supermarkets. As well as existing cafes and pharmacies, large stores have the flexibility to use space in their car parks, staff rooms and back office. Two years ago Asda started letting community groups use space in store for free; since then they’ve been used 65,000 times. In this period of public sector austerity, we’ve seen libraries and youth services shut their doors and while need for support rises. Local residents suggested to us that they wanted to see their local Asda used for recruiting volunteers, expanded health services and hosting homework clubs, art shows and sports tournaments. Successful large stores will need to be fun destinations: there could be food markets by day and drive-in movies by night in the car park.

Shopping for Shared Value report cover

In coming to terms with the rise of online shopping, we are not rejecting the concept of physical shopping as is frequently claimed. Rather, we are using apps and websites as a new channel to browse and buy, adapting the way that we use stores. As digital platforms which make sharing product information, comparing prices and organising consumer campaigns easier, key attributes that brands desire, like trust, must be translated to new types of customer interactions.

In reconfiguring the shop floor for the mobile-connected consumer, stores will need to differentiate themselves from competition, build loyalty and secure a reputation for being a positive force in society. Realising this prize will mean creating social value for the locally-connected citizen. We call the exploration of these opportunities ‘community venturing’. Early indications from Asda’s Community Life programme – which the RSA evaluated for its report – suggest that the most socially valuable projects will be developed in partnership between charities, public sector agencies and business.

So why should a large national supermarket care about community venturing? It gives people a range of reasons to visit a big store and deepens relationships which can generate local insight: something commercially valuable to retailers. As Campbell’s Soup is finding at their headquarters in New Jersey, engaging in community work is inspiring to employees. Perhaps most importantly, it’s in the interests of a big store to grow the social economy and help local people lead fulfilling and rewarding lives.

You can’t have a thriving store in a failing place.

In 2013 national retailers faced public and political scrutiny over supply chain practices, pay conditions and tax payments. In 2014, High Streets will continue to adapt, and new retail businesses will show us products and producers in new ways. Several recent research reviews have suggested that with coordination among stores, High Streets can harness the power and reach of online channels. Vacancy rates will stabilise in most places; independent businesses have often been first to respond to the opportunities of contemporary consumer demands whether its coffee, bike repairs, or ethical products. Internet companies, both startups and established heavyweights, will increasingly try to develop a localised retail offer. It’s up to our big national chain stores to use their local presence to beat them to it and offer us something as citizens as well as consumers.

This blog was first published on Huffington Post.

Jonathan Schifferes (@jschifferes) is a Senior Researcher working with 2020 Public Services and Connected Communities

Creative Connecting: the Magic Bullet?

January 7, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Innovation, Social Economy 

“It’s almost as if there is this magic bullet that we all know about but [that is hard to] implement in public policy … the people around you completely condition how well you do in life, what you end up doing and how well you are feeling”

Gaia Marcus

 

On Saturday I was invited to speak to BBC Radio Bristol’s Dr Phil Hammond about the Social Mirror project we are currently piloting in Knowle West, Bristol, with our local partner, the Knowle west Media Centre. Social Mirror is a project in which people waiting in their GP’s surgery are invited to carry out a short survey on a tablet computer that ‘diagnoses’ their levels of wellbeing and personal connectivity, and that can suggest local community prescriptions if there is a need. These community prescriptions can be anything from walking groups to Tai Chi to Woodworking.

Not for the first time, I was asked why the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce would “be doing good work like this” quite so close to the coal face, and quite so practically. It is easy to think that hyper-local projects might be too ‘small’ to be of interest to an organisation with such international reach, but it is only through trialling out our innovations in the real world that we can allow them to take real roots.

As Adam Lent – the RSA’s Action and Research Centre Director – laid out yesterday, the RSA has hoisted a new flag: the power to Create. Adding a new ending to the French enlightenment refrain -  Liberté, Fraternité! Egalité! Créativité! – our interest in the power to create helps explain why an organisation such as the RSA might be interested in connecting isolated people in Bristol to activities in their area. As I explained to Doctor Hammond, social connections – who we know, who we rely on, who we  get our information from – are almost the magic bullet; a friendly elephant in the room that no-one quite knows how to operate.

The truth is that who you know massively influences who end up being, just as you influence all those around you. In our research with 3000 people in deprived areas in England, we found that people‘s social connections affected their life satisfaction and sense that what did they did in life was worthwhile. Indeed, those people who did not have people they felt close to or who did not have people that might give them small-scale, practical help or that did not have any connections in the local area, had both life satisfaction and feelings of life being worthwhile that were lower in statistically significant ways, independently of other factors.  For groups that might generally be at a wellbeing risk, for example older people or single parents, we often found that social support seemed a determining factor in their subjective wellbeing being either very positive or very negative.

 

If we are to open up the power to create – the ability to ‘act in ways that are unique to [your] own capacities or vision’ [in a] unique, pro-active and self-determined nature’ – then we need to start paying serious consideration to the effect of an individual’s social context on their understanding of their own capacities or vision. Like Sir Young’s originally satirical understanding of the term ‘meritocracy’, the power to create is not a phrase that we can accept uncritically, even as we welcome it into the arsenal of tools that we can use when seeking to help create the world we would like to live in.

 

Image by Josh C, taken from http://theonlinecitizen.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Meritocracy-1024×735.jpg,

 

The perception of owning this power to create – the power to be an actor in your life and not merely a participant – is not as widely distributed as the ability to create is. People often need a push, a spark, a catalyst. The act of doing, of interacting, of creating implies some level of believing that you are worth it. By connecting people to others and activities in their local area, by helping them open that front door and get out there, we ultimately might be that spark.

 

“I can’t say enough about [the social mirror project] because it has changed my life… if I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t have known about these walking groups. After I retired I felt like a recluse, three days a week I didn’t go out of the flat. I’ve now lost a stone in weight, I can talk to people quite freely which I didn’t before… I’ve stopped drinking alcohol -I don’t need it to help me sleep as the walks tire me out.”

  Social Mirror Project Participant

 

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Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA Connected Communities project, and leads the Social Mirror project.

You can find her on twitter: @la_gaia

Social Mirror has recently been featured on BBC Radio Bristol (at 1h :23 minutes) and on BBC Radio 4.

 

Cooking with Mama

December 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

This is a guest blog from Jennifer Fong FRSA. Jennifer is Founder and Co-Director of Cooking with Mama, a project which received Catalyst funding earlier this year.

Coconut biscuits, Sri Lankan pumpkin curry and Mexican chiles en nogada. These are a just a few of the many dishes that over 150 Londoners have learned to create at Cooking With Mama (CWM).

A RSA Catalyst-funded culinary school and social enterprise, CWM has had a productive first year, including cooking classes, secret supper clubs, catering, corporate events, market stalls, Mama training days, an expansion into Berlin, and kitchens filled with new friends learning to create authentic home cooked meals. Best of all – we have been able to empower women, our Mamas, with confidence and work-readiness skills through training and paid opportunities to lead cooking classes in communities across London.

CWM is taking shape at a critical time for women. A report from the Fawcett Society earlier this year showed that women’s unemployment has risen to a 25 year high, with almost three times as many women as men having become long-term unemployed since 2010. This is a context within which social enterprises like CWM can help fill a critical gap. As ‘conventional’ full-time jobs become increasingly rare, people are acquiring work experience in more creative ways.  And, if you’re a great amateur cook, you can pass along your skills and knowledge to a curious and committed audience with CWM.

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Beyond our cooking classes and supper clubs, CWM recently held a ‘Mama Training Day’ dedicated to our Mamas’ personal development, professional goals, and building a strong community of women with whom to learn and grow. A focal development area was the importance of storytelling and developing the skill of bringing cultural content to life during the classes.

For our official launch party, CWM also gathered a diverse mix of individuals from the foodie and social enterprise spheres to showcase our Mamas’ culinary talents and celebrate our achievements for the year. See a video highlighting the moments here:


How you can get involved

CWM is thankful for its supporters! As we continue to grow and develop, our goal is to serve our existing Mamas by providing them with access to opportunities to gain food industry experience and continue to support as many women as possible. Based on the feedback we have received in recent months, the encouragement and motivation provided by the RSA’s Catalyst Award, and our genuine love of yummy things of all kinds, we believe the future is bright. Our future is looking very tasty indeed!

If you think our idea sounds delicious, there are many simple ways to get involved!

  • “Like” us on Facebook and “follow us” on Twitter
  • Sign up for a Cooking Class or Supper club
  • Let us plan your next group team building event with a Corporate Class
  • Contact us to join our mailing list to learn about upcoming events and news
  • Volunteer with us – we’re particularly looking for people with expertise in partnerships, recruitment, social media and websites. We are also looking for legal/tax advice. Please get in touch if you think you can help us!

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Find out more about Cooking with Mama at www.cookingwithmama.org.

Contact
Sayo Ayodelesayo
sayo@cookingwithmama.org
@CookingwMama

If you would like to support some of the fantastic projects run by RSA Fellows – such as Cooking with Mama – please sign up to RSA Skills bank and join a growing network of individuals inspired to share their knowledge, time and expertise to deliver social change and enhance human capability. 

The Networked Nonna

This post has been re-blogged from the Nominet Trust Website

One of my favourite things is a picture of my Italian grandmother, my Nonna, when she was 20 years old. The war is over, and she is celebrating in a pleated skirt she had sown herself, whilst brandishing a sub-machine gun. Born in 1925 in a tiny hill-top hamlet north of Venice, her lifecycle takes us from the fallout from WWI, the rise of fascism as a political force, the extreme changes that faced Italy post WWII – from latrine outhouses to more cars than children in under 50 years – and the political jokers that we find ourselves with today.

http://www.tuttitemi.altervista.org/Storia/Nostrastoria/Italia1945_50segue.htm

This is not my Nonna!

The internet is some sort of magic… but it feels a very prosaic type of magic when you are 60 minutes into a trans-European phonecall trying to explain how to re-plug a router!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My nonna has worn many hats. Her dreams of being a teacher or accountant were scuppered at the tender age of 10 when her father died – malaria handing him over to pneumonia in the end.  This daughter of petty bourgeoisie sharecroppers became a scullery maid then seamstress then resistance fighters’ runner then market trader. Despite being very tech-savvy for a woman of her time – good on a typewriter, she had cycled hundreds of kilometres at a time during the war and had learnt to drive very early on as one of the minority of women working after it – the computer and the internet had largely passed her by. Until now.

Now I’m networking my almost ninety-year-old Nonna up to noughties. It’s hard work. She distrusts and finds joy in the internet in equal measure. Each day is a new battle; reminding her where the skype button is, ruefully laughing each time she delightedly exclaims “I can see your face! How funny….” The internet is some sort of magic, granted, but it feels a very prosaic type of magic when you are 60 minutes into a trans-European phonecall trying to explain how to re-plug a router!

London to Milan is a very long way when it is your route to grandma. Whilst I know that she has family, friends and neighbours that support her those 782 miles away, there is always that feeling of guilt when I get up to leave. Beyond my nonna, we all know that more should be done to combat loneliness and social isolation, especially in older people. Scientists have found that feeling lonely over long periods of time can kill you: being emotionally isolated can be as fatal as smoking, and common illnesses that are made worse by loneliness include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, and cardio-vascular diseases.

We try to do our little bit to help out in the Social Mirror project: Social Mirror is a way of linking local people to local activities and groups, using local knowledge. Social Mirror is a bit like an automatic magazine quiz: you answer questions and, if you need it, social mirror can issue you with local ‘community prescriptions’ based on your interests; anything from a walking group, to a photography class and much in-between!

My nonna is something of an inspiration for the Social Mirror project. Working with the wonderful Sue at the Knowle West Media Centre we have been using the magic of the internet to ‘plug’ mainly elderly isolated people into the magic that is local community.  With developer delays and all the usual jazz the project has suffered from some ups and downs, however we all agree that the initial feedback coming in makes it all worthwhile.

One elderly gentleman has even gone from being largely alone to going to multiple walking groups a week. He has been so enthusiastic about the project that he agreed to speak to the Rev Giles Fraser about it for his upcoming series – Communities through Thick and Thin. Be sure to listen out for us on the 15th December, and do tell us what you think!

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Original post here 

Gaia Marcus is Senior Researcher with the RSA Connected Communities team, and leads the Social Mirror project.

To find out more, you can follow her on twitter or watch this short video about social mirror.

The image has been taken from this Italian history timeline.

Connecting space, place and democracy at the Library of Birmingham

December 3, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

This is a guest blog from RSA Catalyst supported West Midlands Fellow John Blewitt.  He reflects on the impact of Catalyst and the new Library of Birmingham on his work to connect spaces and people with democratic actions.

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Over the last couple of years I have been working closely with the library service in
Birmingham and Worcester and have been fortunate to have become a Library of Birmingham ‘Face’.  The Library of Birmingham is a prestigious public project at the heart of the city centre aiming to animate the city socially, economically and politically.  Architecturally engaging and ‘iconic’ in the true sense of the word, it is most importantly a major investment and commitment to the public sphere and citizens’ right to the city.

Libraries need to become event spaces for democracy, culture and learning 

Public expenditure cuts have led to the closure of many libraries in the UK but these financial pressures have also coincided with a need to completely rethink the nature of public libraries as a public space and place. Mobile digital technologies, tablets and smart phones, the Internet, e-books, Twitter, Facebook and the like are shifting the way we socialize, communicate, access information and learn about the world around us. They offer us all sorts of amazing new opportunities unimaginable only a few years ago, but there are problems.

Some of those problems are well known – lack of skills or access and perhaps a growing passivity that comes with the ease of clicking here to buy, to vote or to think, or watch the aftermath of a hurricane or Strictly Come Dancing. The term ‘clictivism’ has now entered our language. In some ways, of course, it was ever thus and I’m sure there were analog equivalents.

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What is really worrying  is the sense that civil society needs reactivating. It needs to be given a life that is not completely composed of 0111001001111 and commodified entertainments. There has been a great deal of talk about the need for increased literacy and numeracy, social engagement in volunteering, and a more responsive political democracy and a less disaffected citizenry. The Big Society has come and gone as has the Occupy movement, the flurry of student protests over £9000 per annum fees and the urban riots that targeted mobile phone and fashionable shops.

Public libraries, a space for active debate?

We no longer seem to have spaces and places where we can come together physically, openly and freely to discuss issues and events that are in essence political. Democracy needs an informed citizenry. It needs public spaces and places that are connected to other spaces and to people as citizens who want to learn and discuss issues that are not filtered and framed by News Corporation, Google, or Jeremy Paxman. Public libraries are such places. In fact, they are one of very few public spaces and places left in our increasingly commodified and privatized world where this can occur.

Democracy needs an informed citizenry

I recently used the wonderful Library of Birmingham to run two public events supported by the RSA Fellowship and Aston University. The first was focused on the concept of resilience – a term used with increasing frequency in business, sustainable development, society, urban government and education. How the term resilience is being used was the topic of a book I recently wrote with Daniella Tilbury, which served as the basis of a genuinely interesting discussion on what we humans want to do with our future. People from business, education, charities and from the city came together on the evening of Halloween to deliberate, think and learn. It was a public event, in a public place and it was free. You can get an idea of what was discussed at the event here.

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Two weeks later I ran and chaired a larger event held in the Studio Theatre at the Library of Birmingham. The topic was the future of our public services in an era of austerity and ecological limits to economic growth. The Green House Think Tank presented its views as expressed in Smaller but Better? Post Growth Public Services, and a panel consisting of Matthew Taylor (CEO, RSA), Heather Wakefield (Unison), Cllr Stewart Stacey (Birmingham City Council) and Josie Kelly (Aston University) responded energetically. However, it was the questions and comments coming from the audience that produced the most interesting and thoughtful contributions of the evening. The event lasted two hours but could have easily gone beyond. As I was preparing to leave the reasons became for this became obvious.  Some departing audience members said to me, “why don’t we have discussions like this more often?”, “what are you putting on next?”, “you don’t get this on the TV” and, from one of the theatre’s A/V technicians, “that was really interesting – most things are so boring”.

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My conclusion?

Given the opportunity, the experience, the place and space for democratic discussion many people do and will engage with enthusiasm, commitment and intelligence. Far from being disaffected I believe there is actually a hunger for public spaces where public democracy can be enacted. And, public libraries offer such spaces because they are trusted, respected, neutral and, most importantly, PUBLIC. But to prosper in our consumerist digital age they need to remain public, remain relevant and remain committed to public education and public democracy. They need to become event spaces for democracy, culture and learning

As an RSA Catalyst Award winner I am concerned to connect these trusted spaces and places to a range of activities that will help engage people as citizens rather than as consumers, as active learners and as creators and producers of a vibrant civic public sphere. Public libraries are an important but threatened element of our public sphere. My Catalyst project titled Connecting Spaces and Places, recognises the very important physical spaces libraries offer can be complemented by digital technologies but cannot be replaced by them. Thus, public libraries are becoming culturally open ‘event spaces’ and they need to be promoted and used as such if they are to survive as democratic spaces.

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The Library of Birmingham has a space, ‘Brainbox’, on the first floor which could conceivably be used for any creative and innovative activity. What it will be used for will be determined by the people using it. No predetermined plan, no strategy, no prescriptions but genuine innovation and free exploration. The RSA funding I received has enabled me to practically encourage people to use and view library spaces in ways they would not previously have done. It has attempted to make real that global call to make real our right to the city.

OK, my two recent events involved talking but talking is doing too as we must all talk democracy to make democracy happen. I intend to initiate other library based events, activities and hopefully exhibitions in the near future. If you want to join me and continue this debate please get in touch via email.

John Blewitt

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