The Centre for Citizenship and Community, a new collaboration between the RSA, the University of Central Lancashire and the Royal Society for Public Health, was formally launched at the RSA House yesterday. Grounding academic and social research in community practice, the Centre will bring together researchers and practitioners from universities, public bodies, voluntary organisations and business to implement community projects and guide social policy using a Connected Communities approach to social and community networks. The launch consisted of key-note speeches from the Centre’s associates followed by a series of discussion groups held by delegates from numerous professional backgrounds to debate the policy implications of the Centre’s early perspectives.
Co-production: a connected communities approach to social policy
In a plenary speech David Morris, Professor of mental health, inclusion and community at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and the Centre for Citizenship and Community, spoke about how the Centre will promote a vision of the ‘social value of empowered communities’ being integrated into public policy, with a culture of co-production emerging in public services. He stressed the need for policy makers to recognise the complexity and potential that lies within communities, to build innovations around shared community assets, and to use Connected Communities-inspired research to inform the production of community owned, networked social interventions.
Afterwards, RSA Connected Communities director of research Steve Broome criticised what he described as the standard ‘deficit model’ of viewing communities, which focuses exclusively on their problems rather than their assets and potential. In contrast he demonstrated how social networks approaches help us to understand communities using an ‘attribute model’ which reveals which assets in a community help people interact and support one another. He emphasised the prominent role that public services play in supplying or supporting these community assets, and went on to highlight the danger that ill-considered spending cuts present to social networks when community assets are not mapped or recognised. A forthcoming RSA report will develop these themes further, focusing on the viability of community assets and social networks in the context of government austerity.
Theory into co-produced practice: Murton ‘mams’ and ways to wellbeing
Examples of such projects were presented by Mandy Chivers of Mersey Care NHS Care Trust and Lyndsey Wood of the East Durham Trust. Both organisations are working in partnership with the RSA and UCLan to implement co-produced, network-based community projects based on findings from Connected Communities research. In Liverpool, Mersey Care is training volunteers from the BAME community in the principles of the New Economic Foundation’s ‘five ways to wellbeing’, while in Murton, a former mining town, the East Durham Trust has helped set up a new social group for single mothers called ‘Murton Mams’, in which the activities and programme are led by the members of the group themselves to help combat the widespread isolation among this group that the Connected Communities findings revealed.
Challenges ahead: austerity, tolerated harshness, and championing social networks
Following the introductory talks, attendees split into discussion groups to debate the implications of the presentations for public policy and community practice, and to begin to think about what the Centre can contribute to such debates in the future. Some key points that emerged from these discussions included:
i) The need for the Centre to promote and build the status of social networks in a context in which the very existence of ‘communities’ often seems to be doubted. The evidence base for a networked approach to public and community policy must be vigorously argued.
ii) The need to be conscious of the risk of ‘making a contrivance out of ordinary connection’. Co-production, in other words, must avoid the pitfalls of regularising informal, reciprocal relationships, or exposing what David Halpern has called the ‘hidden wealth’ of communities to overly harsh light where they would be better preserved by remaining hidden. An example given was the ‘spontaneous expression of citizenship’ of a train ticket saleswoman who enjoys smiling at her customers and once decided to give Easter eggs to her regulars; if a statutory system of formalised gift-giving on public transport was initiated, the spontaneity and charm of the exchange would doubtless be compromised.
Other challenges were also discussed. Morris and Broome both highlighted the dangers posed to sometimes fragile networks by austerity, growing inequality, and ‘externally enforced fragmentation’, while it was elsewhere noted that cultural norms are becoming less social, along the lines of what Hugo Young described as a growing ‘tolerated harshness’ in society. Other attendees urged that co-productive services must be genuinely co-produced with public services taking an active role, rather than simply deferring responsibility or ‘outsourcing by another name’.
The mood was on the whole optimistic, however, with numerous attendees stating that they welcomed the opportunity to network and debate issues in this way, and praising the new Centre as a valuable line of communication between community-oriented actors from the academic, public, private, and third sectors.
Based in the School of Social Work at UCLan and the King’s Fund offices in London, the Centre for Citizenship and Community will meet regularly over the coming months and offers organisations dedicated support for community engagement through:
- Strategies and integrated programmes for social and community- based commissioning
- Service development and redesign, based on economic modelling and cost-benefit analysis, organisational, leadership and workforce development
This is backed up by:
- Bespoke programmes of accredited learning and professional development
- Programme evaluation and research evidence.
Its associates will be posting regular updates from varied perspectives on the RSA’s blogging platform; in the meantime, more information on the Centre including contact details can be found on the RSA website. If you would like to be notified when the forthcoming RSA report on the impact of austerity on communities is published, or to be kept informed of the work of the Centre for Citizenship and Community, email firstname.lastname@example.org and request to be added the the RSA Action and Research Centre mail list.
At the RSA I have the opportunity to meet and work with a diverse and motivated group of Fellows. I’m always amazed how they manage to juggle the range of different ideas and enterprises that they are developing. With 27 000 Fellows there are so many stories it can sometimes feel like you can’t see the wood from the trees but today I’d like to tell you a story of Fellows getting together, discussing an opportunity and providing a solution that helped the environment but more importantly a young man called Sam.
Hill Holt Wood lies on the borders of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire and is home to an award winning social enterprise. If you get the chance to visit please do, you’ll be welcomed with open arms and always offered a cup of tea. In just over ten years of operation, the enterprise has transformed the woodland from a failing, flooded rhododendron-smothered patch of trees into a thriving broadleaf wood.
The main stay of the enterprise has been as a supplier of alternative education. The woodland provides a developmental resource for excluded or marginalized young people to build skills, confidence and improved prospects. Benefits to the young people and to the woods feed back positively one on another. Kids need the woods to learn and in turn the woods are maintained by kids. So year on year a trickle of woodland converts graduate from Hill Holt Wood who are interested in sustaining woodland and so the story goes on…
The wood itself was privately owned but is now open to the public and community owned and the social enterprise operates from a stunning eco-build that incorporates an eco design team, meeting rooms, and a café.
Salvation Army enterprise manager Steve Coles was looking for a similarly sustainable project in which to invest a small fund of £10,000 donated as a bequest by the Booth family for the purpose of planting trees. Hill Holt Wood seemed ideal and proposed the money be used to support a young person through a horticultural apprenticeship AND plant trees. The long-term on-going gains are obvious.
Sam Welch was 15 years old when he first visited Hill Holt Wood. As part of his school curriculum he attended for a day a week on a junior rangers scheme. He developed an unexpected passion for woodland and went on to attend Riseholm College in Lincoln but when he graduated with Level 2 and 3 qualifications in arborioculture he could not find work in Gainsborough. At this point a Job Centre advisor suggested that he return to Hill Holt Wood as a volunteer on the flexible support fund. Sam proved to be a fantastic volunteer and an obvious candidate for the Salvation Army fund.
The award was given to Hill Holt Wood and they have funded Sam’s on-going apprenticeship in horticulture. He says he has two main goals in life “the biggest one is to get a full time job at Hill Holt Wood which I would love, or work somewhere doing the same sort of job…”
The Fellowship Team are always looking to hear about Fellow led projects. If you know of work that is going on that would benefit from Fellows support and advice please get in touch directly, shout about your work at rsafellowship.com and apply to RSA Catalyst. If that work is based in the East and West Midlands then I’m your first point of contact, email me at email@example.com or tweet me @pickfordrich I love hearing about new ideas especially when they are told over a hot cup of tea and some cake.
One evening last summer, for reasons I can neither adequately remember nor explain, I found myself at the ‘alternative’ 300th birthday party for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the outdoor courtyard of a former squat in Geneva.
Being neither an expert on Rousseau nor a French speaker, I sat awkwardly through the lengthy speeches from local historians and activists, while an English-speaker patiently filled me in on the history of this cooperative-run apartment block; how it had been earmarked to be bulldozed to make way for a supermarket in the midst of the city’s 1980s housing crisis before being squatted by a band of community activists who had, eventually, secured ownership rights to the building.
Finally the speeches ended, and the party switched to an activity I could understand: eating. Heaps of sausages and vegetable cous-cous appeared as if from nowhere, and people squeezed alongside each other on long picnic tables to tuck in and chat. Any divisions among the group were invisible as private tenants and former squatters alike talked and laughed and kept each other’s glasses filled with cheap red wine. Nobody seemed to object to my presence as an uninvited stranger taking far more than my share of sausages, a greedy Anglo-Saxon unacquainted with their continental and collectivist ways. They explained to me that, while this was a special occasion, they often met as a group to share a meal, and that this ritual fostered the community spirit which enabled them to successfully organise and manage the once dilapidated but now thriving property. I remember feeling a distinct sense of warmth, a convivial and exciting atmosphere as people bonded over the breaking of bread.
This is the kind of scene that Tim Smit, the founder of Cornwall’s Eden Project, has been creating all over this country through his latest brainchild, The Big Lunch. He was at the RSA last night, along with the broadcaster Fi Glover, Linda Quinn from the project’s backer The Big Lottery Fund, and Jonathan Carr-West of the Local Government Information Unit, to discuss what can be learned from The Big Lunch project about community building.
The title for the evening’s event was ‘Where Does Responsibility For Community Lie?’, and this is a question that greatly interests me as a project developer on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme. Is it possible for a third party or an external campaign to help build social capital and encourage a community spirit, or can such feelings only be aroused by people acting independently and spontaneously? Does government have a role in creating the conditions in which communities can flourish? What is the role of business and the third sector? And what the heck do we mean by ‘community’ anyway?
Smit and his co-panelists had much to offer on these subjects and much besides. Smit talked about how food, and the British institution of the Sunday lunch, is a crucial element in encouraging people to gain the confidence to knock on each other’s doors and turn strangers into neighbours. This, in short, is what Smit claims an external project like The Big Lunch can do; in his words it can ‘give people permission’ to overcome shyness and take responsibility to act in the community.
Smit said that he hopes that within ten years the pizzazz of ‘The Big Lunch’ branding and publicity won’t be needed, and that a regular, grassroots ‘neighbours day’ will have outgrown the initial project. But he also sees the potential for something much bigger to emerge out of the initial small-talk that occurs over an outdoor dining table. Especially keen Lunch organisers are invited down to The Eden Project for training as social activists and organisers, and are encouraged to develop the confidence to help mobilise communities in new and potentially radical ways. In the modern context of the traditional, hierarchical modes of centralised politics being seen to be losing relevance and influence, Smit says that ‘the potential for a really powerful social force’ lies among horizontally-organised groups of citizens.
Back in the present, Carr-West was on hand to discuss the impact of The Big Lunch to date, following the publication of his report on the project. Headline figures of 8.5 million participants over four years, with 82% reporting that they felt closer to their neighbours as a result, are remarkable, but some of the more qualitative observations are just as significant. Conversations, he said, weave the fabric of communities and allow people to feel better about themselves while also building social capital. He pointed to evidence that an increase in social capital is good for people’s health, it’s good for the economy, and it helps to lower crime. Furthermore it cannot be monopolised – or cut – by governments as it is held collectively in society. And yet the public sector does have a role, he maintained, in helping to connect community activists with one another to run services, provide social support, and enact change, with local councils especially well-placed to facilitate a kind of ‘connected localism’.
All of this may sound like a lot of lofty talk when placed alongside Big Lunch photographs of people wearing face-paint and cutting Victoria sponge cakes underneath lines of bunting. But the culturally ingrained custom, built up over millennia, of people coming together around food in an atmosphere of sharing, warmth and safety, allows for social connections to form. And as the RSA’s Connected Communities programme helps to show, our social networks go a long way to determining our wellbeing, our employability, our health and our ability to get things done in society. And that is something that my erstwhile dining companions in that housing cooperative in Geneva are living testament to.
Guest Blog from Dharmesh Mistry FRSA
RSA Dialogue serves as a fantastic platform for Fellows outside of London that are looking for ways to engage with the RSA Dharmesh Mistry
Fellows in the North West are always keen to try something new. Their latest initiative is RSA Dialogue, an alternative book club method using articles within the RSA Journal. The Chester Network volunteered to run a pilot which offers a chance to discuss a topic and then, vitally, generate output that can be fed back to the Fellows network. Meeting in March at Chester University, the group debated Can Cities Save Us? by Dr Benjamin Barber from Winter 2012.
The session attracted a diverse group of people from local residents, professionals plus many international students with interests ranging from architecture to students of faith and culture, IT professionals and community organisers. The diversity of the group enriched the conversation.
Some of the key points discussed included
- Cities maybe the largest level of organisation that people can conceptualise and identify with. A resident of a city can easily keep track of how different areas are developing. Even for a small country like England, it is difficult to have the level of insight of different parts of the country. For this reason, cities can foster increased participation and can be more democratic.
- Cities are not immune to the conflicts or ideologies that nations are. Currently, conflicts between nations are visible. Regional cooperation such as the EU would be much less possible with city level organisation.
- In the western world, perhaps in UK only, the current generation is much more likely to self organize and not rely on government to do things. RSA and its Fellowship does and should continue to encourage this. The establishment of cross-discipline networking platforms in cities can make a big contribution here. Is this why the RSA should priorities the establishment of City Chapters as considered by Mathew Taylor is his comment piece for the Winter 2012 Journal.
- The idea of the Parliament of Mayors was initially received with cynicism that it could become another talking shop, however through the conversation opinion moved to seeing the value as a platform to share ideas and practical solutions.
One group voted at the beginning and end on ‘whether cities are better at getting things done than nations.’
Start - Yes:9 No:5 Dont Know:5
End - Yes:9 No:2 Dont Know: 8
This change shows the impact and value of dialogue and hearing the different opinions.
Other questions raised during the Dialogue session were
- What can cities save us from?
- What defines a city? Its people or its infrastructure?
- Would the opinions be much more in favour of cities if this conversation happened in London?
Feedback on the format and approach of RSA Dialogue has been very positive. The session served the purpose of engaging locally based Fellows and taking the ideas of the RSA to a wider group. The second RSA Dialogue will be organised again in Chester following the publication of the Spring 2013 Journal.
Thanks for such an engaging session. Our European colleagues gained a unique insight into the RSA Allan Owens, Chester University
If you are interested in getting involved with the Chester Network or would like to organise your own RSA Dialogue event please contact Dharmesh Mistry for more details
Mental health is a globally pressing issue. Conservative estimates suggest that 400 million people worldwide suffer from various mental illnesses, while the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the world’s leading cause of the burden of disease, with mental health problems already exacting a greater toll than tuberculosis, cancer, or heart disease.
Yet look at this global picture more closely, and to some observers it appears as though this burden might not be spread evenly around the world. With recovery rates for schizophrenia and depression in the USA, UK, and other wealthy countries worse than those in Nigeria, India, and other developing nations, it looks as though the poor world is outperforming the rich when it comes to dealing with some mental disorders.
Theories as to why this may be abound. These range from the perhaps outdated and stereotypical idea that there is a greater tradition of family and community solidarity in economically developing nations, to the social anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s theory that a combination of greater stigma and “disgraceful” normative care practices in the West often mean that sufferers of devastating mental disorders like schizophrenia concurrently experience a range of other afflictions – ostracism, homelessness, poverty, substance addiction and a set of humiliating interpersonal experiences that she calls ‘social defeat’.
Last night, in his RSA lecture entitled ‘The Global Mental Health Crisis: What the rich world can learn from the poor’, Professor Vikram Patel of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine offered a slightly different perspective. Focussing on access to care, he gave examples of the relative ingenuity of mental health care practices in countries like India, where he has done extensive work.
There is, he said, no shortage of psychiatric professionals in wealthy Western nations; for example California alone has more psychiatrists than the whole of South Asia. Despite this, some 60% of people with mental illness symptoms in the USA do not access any form of psychiatric care. The UK, even with its free-of-charge National Health Service, only performs slightly better, with 40% of sufferers not seeking or receiving treatment. As explanations for this he pointed to the sometimes alienating, over-complicated professional culture of DSM-influenced approaches to mental illnesses in the West, and the remoteness of psychiatric practitioners to their patients in both lifestyle and outlook as reasons for people not knowing about or feeling they can access services.
By contrast, he presented a model of public health in India that, with limited resources in the form of professionals or pharmaceuticals, utilises lay community health workers to provide collaborative, locally appropriate community-based care. Specially trained lay workers operate under the direction of psychiatric professionals to provide outreach services, ‘psychiatric first aid’, and social interventions based in the home, in a Wellcome Trust-funded controlled trial, documented in a series of documentaries available online.
Back in the UK, the RSA is looking to draw upon a similar approach as part of its Connected Communities project, which seeks to explore ways of building resilient communities in which people’s wellbeing and life satisfaction benefit from social connections with their peers. Working with Nicky Forsythe of Positive Therapy, we shall shortly be launching an innovative Talk For Health peer support programme which will train key members of community networks as lay counsellors, giving them the confidence and knowledge to take the therapists’ skills of empathy, non-judgemental listening, and conversational support out of the doctors’ surgery and into the hands of the community. In Bristol, we’ve just launched an innovative tablet computer app called Social Mirror, which volunteer health champions will use to help people map their social networks and, where necessary, receive suggested social prescriptions. Simultaneously, we are working with Talk To Me London to launch an exciting pilot project in New Cross that seeks to encourage Londoners to engage in conversations with strangers, with participants identified by their ‘Talk To Me’ badges which show that they are friendly and willing to chat. The designers of the project promise that it will “be the most innovative, culture-changing campaign of our times”, so stay tuned for more on that.
With ever-increasing strains on public health and social care budgets, and worrying research that demonstrates links between social isolation and the risk of mental illness and death, it is hoped that we can learn much from Professor Patel and others in the ‘poor world’ who are demonstrating that innovative, ingenious social interventions can help manage the burden of mental illness by supporting connected communities. Keep checking this blog, follow #RSAConnected and @SocialMirrorApp on Twitter, or email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to join the relevant email lists to keep updated with how this work progresses.
As Matthew Taylor noted in an earlier blog post “it is often said that the Fellowship has the potential to be the RSA’s greatest and most distinctive asset”. Two key questions for staff in the Fellowship department are:
1) How can we support Fellows and provide them with new opportunities to help further the RSA’s charitable objectives?
2) How can we recruit new Fellows who have the potential to help us deliver the RSA’s mission?
A large number of Fellows are willing to donate their time and expertise to help others with projects that aim to have a positive social impact, and many organisations that share similar goals to the RSA would welcome the opportunity to access this expertise. By partnering with these organisations the RSA can:
- Provide new engagement opportunities for Fellows
- Help further the charitable objectives of our partner organisations and so in turn further the charitable objectives of the RSA
- Raise our profile within new communities of individuals committed to positive social change, and recruit new Fellows from amongst these leaders and thinkers
- Contribute to the growing sense that the RSA Fellowship is made up of people with the inclination and the tools to intervene when solutions are needed.
Given the increasing value of partnerships I thought it would be useful to outline the RSA approach to collaborative working.
Selecting the right partner
Selecting the right partner is important and before moving forwards both organisations need to give some thought to the following questions:
- Can we create something we wouldn’t be able to create on our own?
- What do we want to gain from the partnership and how realistic is it that we will achieve our aim?
Honesty is the key to success. In most cases, it is useful to have a broad conversation at the initial exploratory meeting which covers what both organisations would like to achieve in an ideal world, and then work back from this to reach more realistic objectives.
Honesty is the key to success.
Getting it right at the beginning
Once both organisations have identified some potential areas for collaborative working, a number of steps should be taken before moving forwards. They are:
- Establish clarity of purpose – ensuring both organisations are clear on what the common purpose is as well as the shared objectives. It is easy to put in place very broad over-arching objectives; however these should be teased apart to be short, simple and specific.
- Establish roles and responsibilities – complex partnerships with different strands of work often have several people involved and so clarity of individual roles and responsibilities is important.
- Operational plan – put in place a plan which outlines what will be happening when, and who is responsible.
- Measures of success – ensuring that there is some system for measuring success against each objective.
- Review – agree an initial date to review the partnership to discuss progress against each objective.
- Memorandum of understanding – before commencing with the partnership a document outlining all of the above should be agreed – note this does not necessarily have to be a formal contract. This document is essential to ensuring the on-going success of the partnership and should form the basis of future review meetings.
Give and take
Partnerships tend to fall along a spectrum with more transactional partnerships at one end contrasting with much closer working relationships at the other. Partnerships are not static, and so there needs to be some flexibility regarding governance and processes. As a general rule, the more transactional the relationship the more you need strong governance (e.g. a contract for a reciprocal advertising arrangement across several forms of media), whereas more collaborative partnerships need to have greater flexibility built into the governance and processes.
Partnering with the RSA
If you would like to discuss partnering with the RSA please do get in touch.
For more guidance about partnerships and collaborative working, please do take a look at “Collaborative Leadership: How To Succeed in An Interconnected World” by David Archer FRSA and Alex Cameron. This publication is available from the RSA Library.
Adam Timmins is Deputy Head of Fellowship Partnerships at the RSA, you can contact him on email@example.com or @Im_AdamT. For more images please visit http://www.flickr.com/groups/rsa/
We had two great events from the RSA’s Social Entrepreneurs network in recent weeks; a quarterly event on culture and branding and a monthly breakfast on sharing the ownership of your social enterprise.
Both were very different; one was a huge event in association with three different partners (Ravensbourne/Digital Enterprise Greenwich and BITC’s arc service) with 100+ people in attendance, a guest speaker, and 5 different breakout groups running simultaneously – a feat of organisation which to be honest probably added another grey hair to my curly locks. The other was a monthly breakfast; a focused discussion of much more modest size, with people all passionate about social enterprise or lending expertise where they can.
Both events had excellent points and their own value – which I’ll go into later – but it got me thinking about group dynamic and what the best situation is to dissect the key issues a social enterprise faces. Or whether these situations are just the starting point to build those deeper relationships and contacts that are vital to help you keep going.
Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust kicked us off at the quarterly event on culture and branding with a moving and highly timely account of the growth of his foodbank organisation over the last few years – sadly an organisation like his is needed most when somewhere in society something has gone awry. The organisation was involved in a recent BBC documentary highlighting the problem. Great work but also a sad reflection of the current economic climate. With now over 250 food banks, Chris spoke about the challenge of keeping the culture of an organisation in multiple locations consistent, and what is the ’non-negotiable’ in an organisation which must be maintained. Some of the social entrepreneurs involved in the Social Enterprise Spotlight project then joined in the conversation. Becky John’s (of Whomadeyourpants?) suggestion of culture was bringing your workforce together through social time, cake and glitter. Read the Storify of the event for some of the highlights.
What is the best situation, size and context to dissect the key issues a social enterprise faces?
We then split into breakouts groups on branding, culture, growth, money and people. They were led by contacts of the BITC’s arc programme, people who are experts in their field and shared their extensive knowledge and expertise. You can see who they were and read a summary of the outcomes from these breakouts on the Social Entrepreneurs Network online group – find out what happened.
You can also see some thoughts from the attendees of the event in this word cloud:
This was taken from a new questionnaire we have introduced in the Fellowship team – more about this will be coming in a forthcoming blog…
Moving onto the breakfast on sharing ownership, a few of the key questions (as well as ascertaining whether people were a trustee/volunteer or had managed either) asked were: Sharing leadership: Why is this hard for a social enterprise founder? Sharing ownership: What’s hard about sharing ‘ownership’ of a project with your team? Shifting power: Within your social enterprise, what significant shifts have you seen in your role?
Sharing leadership: Why is this hard for a social enterprise founder? What’s hard about sharing ‘ownership’ of a project with your team? Within your social enterprise, what significant shifts have you seen in your role?
I am not sure we got any definitive answers to these questions (as it is a matter of individual preference and context) but they will be returned to at a later event. What we did get was a collection of key tips from those who attended about trustee boards and volunteers. They were:
- Be clear on the roles you are giving Trustees – what are the deliverables, what are the ground rules. And reiterate these each time a new person joins.
- Trustee boards with all the expertise and experience are notoriously difficult to manage – you therefore need a really strong chair to corral and ensure when taking decisions they are evidence based.
- Don’t make trustee boards too big – if you are a small enterprise, remember you need to make decisions and move forward – but three is too small so be wise with how many people you ask.
- BUT be ambitious with who you ask.
- Volunteers should be given a clear role – what are they there to deliver, what is the infrastructure for them to succeed, what rewards are there. The issue also came up about recruitment (it was mentioned you should be slow to hire but fast to fire – a controversial statement but it’s about making sure you get the right people into your organisation – another thing to cover in due course).
But back to group dynamics; I am going to err on the side of obvious and say that both are useful but in different ways. The key to big events is promotion, networking and inspiration. Small events however enable depth, bonding and genuine collaboration – the combination is very powerful. But both are about peer-to-peer learning; a powerful way to increase your knowledge and understanding about where to head next. One of the RSA’s greatest strengths and resources is the incredible diversity of our Fellowship, so ensuring we offer a varied manner of ways to engage and share is a key opportunity for the Fellowship team.
I was struck by just how powerful the work of a few individuals can be to create and sustain an idea following a meeting recently with Ian Jamie, a Fellow and School Governor at Whitley Academy. Through personal experience and insight of the local situation he has begun to work with the Academy to help support Year 12 students as they begin to consider their next steps. Having experienced the power of support from a network of alumni and family friends as he developed his career he has seen the value of connectivity. Ian and the staff that are working with the 6th form are keen to take the best from their experiences to offer similar opportunities for 6th form students at Whitley Academy.
As students move into 6th forms, colleges and work the need to focus their minds is increasingly encouraged. Choices and decisions are looming and it is school, families and friends that offer support and advice. Recent work from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has highlighted that young people and families rarely suffer from a lack of aspirations but what if students families and friends have limited experiences of the wide career options available?
At Whitley Academy Ian Jamie and the Academy staff will be offering further support to Year 12 students. He has worked with the school to create a programme to help students explore where they want to go after Whitley Academy. As Temi Ogunye notes in his blog about school networks it is important to “provide opportunities for [students] by creating the conditions within which useful connections can be made and enriching experiences can be had.”
This is the overarching aim for the work in Coventry. The Academy has identified career connections for all its Year 12 students. Through personal and community networks the staff and governors have begun to draw up a list of supporters to offer advice, encouragement and links with the world of work.
On Thursday 21st of March they will be taking the next step by hosting a targeted careers session for the 6th form to help foster these connections. Ian is hoping to encourage further support from another powerful network that we all know about. I have been tasked with seeking out a number of Fellows from our 27,000 strong network to offer support and time to students, so if you see firstname.lastname@example.org or @pickfordrich in your inbox you know what might be coming next. If you have any of your own ideas for supporting students across the RSA Academies then please contact me. The RSA will be running open roadshows at each of the sponsored schools across the next two terms. The first was held yesterday on Monday, 4th of February at RSA Arrow Vale and Ipsley Academies. Watch this space for a report about this event.
When did you last send a tweet? What did your Facebook friends have to say about how they’re feeling this morning? How important are online networks to your sense of who you are? Chances are you’ll have something to say about at least one of these questions. For a majority of Britons, online persona and virtual networks are becoming increasingly definitional.
Monday saw the publication of a new report that looks at the impact of technology on identity, by the Government’s chief scientific advisor, Professor Sir John Beddington. The report, The Future of Identity, identifies ‘hyper-connectivity’ – near-continuous access to the Internet – as a very significant development. Beddington argues that hyper-connectivity is likely to have a profound effect on how people regard their place in the world and define themselves.
The report suggests that the ubiquity of smartphones is changing the way we relate to others, and may lead to place-based communities becoming less cohesive. In tandem, hyper-connectivity enables greater connectivity between otherwise disparate groups, making it very easy for groups to organise themselves quickly.
The Telegraph, reporting the publication of Beddington’s report, emphasises the risk that the rise of social networking may “fuel social unrest”. The role of smartphone technology in the riots of 2011 was well documented, and it’s clear that these communication platforms offer the means to facilitate phenomena like rioting, protesting and social disturbance.
But is it really accurate to say that hyper-connectivity can in itself be a cause of social unrest? I’m not convinced that these developments in technology are responsible for bringing about the motivation or impetus for groups of young people to loot and riot across the UK’s cities. Sure, they provide the communication platform to make it easy for large groups to organise themselves, but why should the existence of such technology be a trigger?
the perpetual presence of the smartphone impacts on our patterns of attention – we’re always on ‘standby’, ready to be interrupted
Having said that, it occurs to me that there are other ways in which in hyper-connectivity is likely to impact on us, as individuals and as a society. I’m sure the perpetual presence of the smartphone impacts on our patterns of attention – we’re always on ‘standby’, ready to be interrupted. As Jonathan Rowson noted in this blog, connectivity comes at a cost, undermining deeper connections that are all too easy to take for granted. Whether or not we’re aware of it, the reality is that many of us are addicted to receiving new information – the kick we get out of receiving new emails, SMS, and reading the latest Twitter feed is unrivalled by face to face interactions. Comparing ourselves to others is an inevitable side effect of online social networking, and this can have hugely negative consequences for self-esteem and assumptions about what is ‘normal’.
All of this must be affecting our brains somehow, whether the impact is on our patterns of concentration, expectations for instant information, or ability to focus our attention deeply. What we pay attention to can have a profound effect on our overall outlook, as Nathalie Spencer discusses here. Hyper-connectivity must also impact on our inner life – how comfortable would you be to spend half an hour doing nothing, without a Smartphone to engage with? What would it mean for your sense of self if all your online presence were to be erased?
Beddington’s report suggests that in the future, it is very likely that someone with no online persona will be regarded as unusual or even suspicious. This seems to indicate that the blurring of the boundary between online and offline identity is set to intensify. All of this makes me think that we may need to force ourselves to disconnect, unplug, and make space to notice and appreciate our offline selves.
But, do we have the willpower? Are we prepared or able to face up to the possibility that hyper-connectivity might be damaging, and whose responsibility is it to put preventative or protective measures in place? Which public or private bodies would fund research to find out whether and how smartphone usage is harmful to our wellbeing? Are we already in some sort of collective denial about the damaging impact of hyper-connectivity and might this mean sleep walking, in a hyper-connected way, into future problems?
As many of you know the life of a Regional Programme Manager is a mixed one; a glamorous combination of travel, meetings, discussions, ideas, meetings, projects, events and meetings. All Regional Programme Managers look after specific areas sometimes with a focus on specific issues. Over the years I have supported a number of areas both regions and nations including Midlands, Yorkshire and North West (where I live). Currently I still support North West but now advise both Wales, and as of October, Ireland.
I worked with Ireland Fellows a few years ago and attended the Networks based in Belfast and Dublin. So far its good to be back. Along with familiar faces I am working with a new team of Fellows leading activity and a new approach one that involves developing the idea of “civic conversations“. Shortly we will be preparing a Development Plan for the areas working with Fellows based in Belfast, Dublin but also Athlone and Derry. I have personally committed to help develop activity in Cork and hopefully we can grow the Fellows in Ireland over the next few years as well as develop some key partnerships and collaboration to develop both projects and activities.
As ever, I welcome suggestions and connections that could assist with Ireland focus specifically organisations keen to work with a Royal Society; albeit one that aims to turn ideas into reality.
Suggestions please on a postcard or simply send me an email.
Deputy Head of Regional Programme