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.

London v the Rest: Did Evan Davis find the gap?

March 6, 2014 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Enterprise 

Evan Davis brought the economic geography textbook to life on the nation’s TV screens Monday night, with Mind the Gap (available on iPlayer until March 17th), in which he “asks what the rest of the country can learn from London’s success”. Alex Salmond has recently referenced London as the “dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy”, echoing criticisms made by Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable, who described the city as “a great suction machine”. Mind the Gap featured sweeping shots of London’s skyline and plenty of insight into the property and infrastructure developments underway, alongside snazzy data visualisation of how London’s exceptional economic productivity and worker density, in a UK context. Oh, and some nice archive footage.

London's influence goes beyond its administrative borders

London’s influence goes beyond its administrative borders

Here are five insights and five oversights from the narrative Evan presented.

At the City Growth Commission, hosted at the RSA, we’re funded by the Mayor of London, London Councils, and the Core Cities. Our role is to influence policies which will ensure that all cities (and the wider metro areas) are able to maximise their growth potential.


Cities depends on agglomeration economics: the productive benefits that come when people work closely alongside each other between organisations and between industries and sectors. Firms want to be close to other firms to collaborate and compete, stealing staff and ideas and customers and suppliers. It was great to hear about the importance of networks – social as well as digital. As Evan says, “We were told technology meant location doesn’t matter; but it matters more than ever”. The great irony, highlighted by Manuel Castells 20 years ago, is that the more ubiquitous electronic communication becomes, the greater value we recognise and ascribe to in face-to-face interaction.

Jules Birch ‏@jules_birch Mar 3 Funny how ‘networking economics’ concentrates everything in one place when theoretically it shouldn’t matter where you are #mindthegap


Few people have been able to define if and when there are downsides of ever-greater concentration and densification start to outweigh the benefits. London is building up, more than out, due to the Green Belt, but is still only half the density of New York City. While I’m not as sure as Ed Cox that of IPPR North “all the evidence shows” that London will overheat and topple over, we didn’t hear enough about the co-dependent relationship between London and other towns and villages across the South. Another aspect of London’s economic geography was conspicuous in their absence: the relationship between migration, diversity and urban growth. As well as economic opportunities, do migrants feel especially inclined to settle in London, because of its size and capacity to host multiple communities? And what about evidence that there is an economic benefit from diversity?


Agglomeration plays a role in the economics of urban development, for example leading to infrastructure projects to expand transport capacity. Economic success feeds itself: it’s a self-fulfilling positive feedback loop. “You can’t design an ecosystem, it evolves”, said one tech investor in Shoreditch. The best government can do is shine a spotlight in order to “nudge on” these successes. This means, essentially, “there is no formula to copy” – except perhaps bigger is better?


It wasn’t clear whether these dynamics are particularly strong in London, now or historically, or common to all large cities. Urban development depends on other factors including political power (such as compulsory purchase – used very differently in China and India), and factors such as the international economic climate and currency exchange rates which make London property a particularly attractive place for those with financial wealth to invest. Furthermore, I wonder if Evan has ever been to Silicon Valley? It’s the most exciting tech community in the world, it got a turbo-charge from federal investment, and one of the least exciting suburban landscapes to explore. Economic dynamism and great urbanism don’t always go hand-in-hand.

Apple offices and empty streets in Silicon Valley. Image credit raneko via Flickr

Apple offices and empty streets in Silicon Valley. Image credit raneko via Flickr


London’s leaders want growth, and have won the national argument to invest in growth. “London is the flywheel that drives it” said Mayor Boris Johnson; “the gateway”, which “exports tax and jobs…the better London does the better the UK does”. As Transport for London added: “there are certain sectors which choose locations at an international level; if we don’t get it in London we don’t get it in the UK.”


Part of London’s success has been a projection, nationally and globally, as a place where exciting things happen;it’s a city which can represent itself well visually – with plenty of new skyscrapers crammed upona medieval street pattern. But the programme fell into the trap of assuming “London” speaks with one voice At one point Evan Davis claimed that “Londoners have an insatiable appetite to expand”. Do they? As we highlighted in our recent Metro Growth report, parts of Outer London have fallen behind the rate of recent national economic growth, and there is greater variation in economic activity within each UK region, than between them.


We’re in the middle of the greatest industrial restructuring since industrial revolution, fuelled in part by the ‘Big Bang’ of financial deregulation in 1986. London now has the greatest concentration of “producer services” in the world, and millions of workers are also millions of consumers. Their consumption in turn fuels millions of jobs, locally, in other service industries.


That restructuring was in part a political project. Heseltine’s leadership on redeveloping Docklands created space for a second office district and financial services hub in London.

Malcolm Tait ‏@TaitPlanning Mar 3 Getting frustrated with#mindthegap – regional imbalance isn’t just ‘natural’ – it’s shaped by political decisions

Before the 1980s, things weren’t looking so bright. Evan said “London lucked out by having the right industries at the right time”. But, as the Telegraph noted, financial deregulation was a conscious effort to drive employment growth and economic activity. There was no mention of how the financial value that is captured by different types of activities is negotiated between managers, staff, shareholders and those who regulate the economy. In short, London has always been a financial hub; but finance has not always been the economic nexus of the economy, nor such an extremely lucrative profession.

George Eaton ‏@georgeeaton Mar 3 Worth recalling that London’s population fell between 1960s and 1980s. Not a story of inexorable growth.#mindthegap


There are winners and losers in the process of economic growth. Evan suggested “It’s a much more brutal process than most of us would like”, focusing on the displacement of homeowners on the Heygate Estate. If we want to save national icons like Battersea Power Station from the wrecking ball, we need global investment. But affordability is a concern: “[London] has to watch it, and make sure it is a place open to the nation. It will be tragic if someone from Staffordshire thinks they can’t get a job there because they can’t afford to live there.”


Did Evan find the right gap? According to Evan, “everywhere I go in London, I see signs that the city’s success is becoming entrenched”. But Mind the Gap did not consider the gaps between people in London: walk a mile in any direction from the Shard and you’ll see success is not distributed. Like other places, average wages have not kept up with rising prices.

Median hourly earnings excluding overtime of all employees, UK and London, ONS Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings

Median hourly earnings excluding overtime of all employees, UK and London, ONS Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings

Having coffee with Boris at the top of the Shard makes for great TV, but we’d learn something different if Evan had coffee with staff at one of London’s 1500 coffee shops. We saw the gold plated plates of a £39.5m Mayfair house, and Evan remarked at how rising prices for such “prime housing” had endured the recession. It would be equally eye-opening to consider the sacrifices many people are making. Those on low wages in London jobs have economised by converting living rooms in shared housing to bedrooms. The number of overcrowded homes in outer East London grew 41% in the last decade.

Ampp3d ‏@ampp3d Mar 3 This is all lovely so far on#MindTheGap, but food bank usage in London has quadrupled in two years

From pubs to think tanks – people struggling with London’s housing affordability wonder whether these two trends are related, and London’s leading academics have denounced London’s latest housing strategy as woefully inadequate. Meanwhile the deputy director of research at the IMF, writing in the pages of the FT, concludes that “measures that governments have typically taken to reduce inequality do not seem to have stunted growth.”

I am sure we could make compelling TV which considered the relative merits of important policy options for mending the gap: how to use taxes, public spending, regulations like the minimum wage, and public services like education to improve the fortunes of a broader constituency: those in London and across the country. We heard from a recent Core Cities meeting that central government policy has a long way to go be more sensitive to the differences between different places. By contrast, Evan’s cinematic homage to a booming place was perhaps insensitive to the policies which have enabled that growth. Filming the differences between places is a visually seductive way of talking about differences between people.

Before the programme heads North, next week, spend two minutes and give the last word to a Londoner: George the Poet

Jonathan Schifferes is research lead for the City Growth Commission hosted at the RSA (@jschifferes)



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!




Licenced to create: five thoughts on a teacher licence scheme

January 15, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Despite no formal announcement of Tristram Hunt’s ‘licenced to teach’ idea, the concept has already been constructed and deconstructed by the edurati, with especially useful contributions from David Weston, our own Louise Bamfield, and Charlotte Leslie MP, who argues with the easy conviction of a backbencher  that:

“Any relicencing scheme that is the brainchild of a politician and born out of Whitehall is doomed to fail, and become just another stick with which to beat a demoralised, worn-out workforce.”

Given that almost everyone who has commented on licencing has used the ‘devil in the detail’ cliché, I’ll say that the angel could be in the bigger picture. Although I blogged in this week’s New Statesman that our school system should in 2015 have a ‘gap year’ from any new policies, I still believe that the licencing idea deserves air, time and hopefully support from the wide range of people who could together guarantee success. Here are five thoughts that might help.


1) Licencing is an ineffective way to remove bad teachers

If my child is being taught by anybody who is not up to it, I want him or her given immediate support to improve, with rapid removal if this fails to happen. Waiting five or even seven years is too long, and may create a further disincentive to do the right thing at the right time. Putting teachers into Capability, and finally removing them, is difficult, and always will be, but brave, assertive school leaders are finding ways through, and recent chagnes to regulations have made the process easier. This may be one area where academies and chains have been more effective and ruthless than local authorities, often if not always with positive outcomes. Setting up licencing as the magic bullet to remove poor teachers is setting it up for failure.


2) Licencing could reduce teacher bureaucracy

Of course, the process to gain and regain a licence is just that, a process,  so will therefore come with some bureaucratic burdens. However, any licence worth the paper its written on should be a licence to be trusted – that your professional judgement is valued, and professional autonomy revered. Armed with a licence, most teachers should be able to resist some of the more mindless soul-numbing paperwork that senior management teams, often falsely in the name of Ofsted, request of their teachers: The over-detailed lesson and termly planning documents; the written justification for every individual assessment decision; the word-hungry performance management papers. “Back off and trust me, my licence is up to date’ could be a useful bulwark against the creeping growth of petty paperwork demands.


3) A licencing system should be carefully created by a new Royal College of Teaching

Tristram Hunt has suggested that the College enforces and administers the licence. I think that the College needs to design and create the thing. This means that we would need to create a college in advance of the introduction of any licencing scheme. If this slows down progress, then that might be beneficial. Despite Hunt’s rush to announce the idea, any follow-through should be slow and cautious, understanding the impact on teacher retention and the teacher labour market.

I’ll declare a potential interest here in that, although the Prince’s Teaching Institute and others have done some fantastic development of the idea over the past few months, I think that RSA could be perfectly placed to make the College happen. We have a good history of incubating new ideas and institutions, are prepared to bash the heads that need bashing, and would also work to learn from the mistakes of the General Teaching Council of England. The GTCE was an example of New Labour policy implementation at its worst – a kind of half-hearted, ADHD-riven dirigisme which built the weakest of institutions. I am sure that the RSA could build an alliance that could do this better, and not just because we have a ‘Royal’ in our name too. Pitch over.


4) Licencing should be built around the concept of ‘clinical practice’

This builds usefully on the BERA/RSA Inquiry into teacher education and research. We launched our interim report this week. Here, we defined clinical practice in education as  

 “the need to bring together knowledge and evidence from different sources through a carefully sequenced programme which is deliberately designed to integrate teachers’ experiential learning at the ‘chalk face’ with research-based knowledge and insights from academic study and scholarship. Inspired by the medical model, the goal is to refine particular skills and deepen practitioners’ knowledge and understanding, by integrating practical and academic (or research-based) knowledge, and to interrogate each in light of the other.”

 This is more complex, nuanced and developmental than any crude aim to ensure that teachers’ practices more ‘evidence-based’. But the idea of clinical practice, also powerfully articulated by the US National Council for Accreditation in Education’s  ‘ten design principles for clinically-based preparation’  could  provide a powerful foundation from which to build a licencing scheme which would improve, engage and motivate teachers.


5) Licencing should offer teachers the ‘power to create’

I haven’t  joined the fray of my colleagues’ blogs about creativity, although I love RSA’s confidence to have these discussions in the open. I’m not yet ready to give my view on RSA’s possible overall approach to creativity in education – my five years of leading Creative Partnerships has rendered me cautious, if far from speechless. However, there is a genuine linkage between the philosophy emerging from the non-ivory second floor of John Adam Street and the teacher licensing scheme. David Weston’s blog neatly sums up teacher effectiveness as a combination of “subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, behavioural knowledge and interpersonal skills”. This isn’t enough. Teachers need the motivation, skills, and sense of self-efficacy to develop their own pedagogies and practices that can lead to the best possible outcomes for their pupils. Of course, innovation should be built on evidence, and all teachers need to adopt and adapt existing successful practices as well as develop their own. Although only a few teachers may ever create genuinely new knowledge, ‘little C’ creativity, the ability to generate and develop ideas that are original to you, and valuable in your context, should be at the heart of any licence – not just a right but a duty for all teachers.

Joe Hallgarten    Director of Education  @joehallg

The ChangeMakers we want to see in the world

September 19, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

­­Sarah Osei* moved to London from Uganda a number of years ago. She trained as a social worker, and currently manages a community centre which supports migrants who are at risk of violence and homelessness. She frequently travels back to Uganda where she runs a number of business and charitable projects, supporting girls to stay in education and working with women to maintain financial independence through making and selling cheese. She is just one of more than 500 people who have applied to take part in the RSA’s new Diaspora ChangeMakers programme since the recruitment process started three weeks ago.


Click here to see RSA Diaspora ChangeMaker champion Lulu Kitololo speaking about the project on Vox TV’s ‘Shoot The Messenger’ chat show

Diaspora ChangeMakers, funded by Comic Relief and Unbound Philanthropy, seeks to identify and support a network of people from the African diaspora who are passionate about driving social change in their communities of heritage or countries of origin. The project takes its cue from the original ‘ChangeMakers’ work led by my colleague Ben Dellot in Peterborough last year, which posited that there are key individuals, rooted in their communities, who have an appetite to apply their skills to local issues. We believe that by mapping and bringing together networks of these individuals great potential for positive change can be unleashed.

The new project combines these principles with the international interest in the contribution of people in the diaspora in supporting development in their countries of origin. By identifying key ChangeMakers in the diaspora and supporting them with a programme of leadership development courses, peer support, knowledge exchange, mentoring, project development workshops and networking with our 27,000-strong RSA Fellowship, our hope is that these individuals will be able to achieve a greater impact in their various enterprises which benefit the lives of others.

But we’re not simply looking for maverick ‘community leaders’ as commonly defined. In line with our other work in the RSA Connected Communities team, we’re interested in social networks, and we want to find the individuals who seem to be in key positions of influence through having connections to different groups of people. When people apply to take part in our project, we don’t only ask them about what community work they have done in the past and what change they want to see in the future – we ask them who else they consider to be ChangeMakers. We will then contact these other people who have been nominated by others, and encourage them to apply to the programme too – and ask them to tell us about yet more ChangeMakers from their own networks. Over time, this will give us a good idea of how our potential ChangeMakers interact with each other, how they can influence others to share the burden of bringing about the change they wish to see, and how they themselves might change as a result of working with others as part of a network.

Gandhi is often quoted as saying ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ But there is no specific record of Gandhi ever having said this. It is a misquote and a misconception. If we introspectively focus on changing only ourselves and assume that the world will catch up with us eventually, we are unlikely to achieve much more than misplaced self-satisfaction.

What Gandhi actually said was ‘We but mirror the world[…] If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him […] We need not wait to see what others do.’ The key words of this passage are the ‘if’ and the ‘attitude’ of others. Completely changing the self would change the tendencies of the world, but this is difficult or even impossible to achieve on one’s own as we are but ‘mirrors’ of wider society (for more on the importance of understanding the individual as a mirror of society, read about our Social Mirror project). What the individual can do is to take a lead, without waiting ‘to see what others do’, and gradually change the attitude of others towards him or her. Once the attitudes of others begin to change, then the social world might change too. It is because of this necessity of influencing and cooperating with others that the Diaspora ChangeMakers programme focuses on networks as well as individuals, and relationships as well as leadership.

Pleasingly, we can already see some of those networks and clusters of connected people who have nominated each other as ChangeMakers. The image below is a visualisation of the applicants from the first two weeks of the recruitment period – before we had even approached the nominees of initial applicants.

diaspora network 1909

Each dot is a potential Diaspora ChangeMaker who has completed our application survey, and the lines linking the dots represent connections between those people. Here is a close-up of a few of these groups of people and they are connected:


Some of these people are recent immigrants to the UK who have lived most of their lives in Africa, and some are people who were born in Britain and whose families have lived here for generations. Their careers, interests, and ambitions vary hugely. But all of them feel a personal link to the African continent in some way, and all of them are passionate about achieving social change that benefits African communities, either in the UK or in the African continent.

If you are a Diaspora ChangeMaker and want us to know about your place in this network, or if you’re interested in benefitting from the Diaspora ChangeMakers programme activities, then please complete the application survey and find out more about the programme at


*name changed in line with data protection procedures

FRSA London and the Fellows Artists Network: Reboot and the Jubiloo

September 6, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

This is a guest blog by Mark Power FRSA. Mark is an architect and a member of the Fellows Artists Network.

As I recently discovered at this summer’s RSA Reboot event-Re:Engage, creativity is in plentiful supply within the London Fellowship network. The event focused on how Fellows could use the 4 ways to engage model to find and support each other in their work. It also featured a lightening talk by a member of the cross-disciplinary Fellows Artists Group which myself and a group of other Fellows have set up. Our members range from film-makers to sculptors, architects to writers and we meet seasonally and informally to visit exhibitions, discuss artists, discuss each other’s work and discuss ourselves and what makes us tick.  We also encourage creative ways of recording our responses to the Reboot events, such as this stop-motion video which shows the buzz surrounding new connections being made.

Reboot events are organised by the London Region Fellowship Councillor, and are an excellent platform for getting to know other Fellows; getting to know what they do, what they believe in and getting them tipsy on whatever they bring along. However, running parallel to this social exchange, as RSA Fellows we have a more urgent and vital agenda: to engage in the current debate on public funding and support for the Arts, a debate which so often excludes the artists themselves and tends to emphasise instrumental over intrinsic value. We pursue this in various ways, the London Region has supported a range of events including a debate at the ICA a and a celebration of the 160th Anniversary of the Royal Photographic Society, founded at a meeting held at John Adam Street in 1853.

For me, as a member of the Group and architect running my own practice I am interested in the tension between instrumental and intrinsic intents that makes architecture what it is. At the first Picture of the queen inside Jubiloo and shot of the London EyeFRSA Reboot event I showcased our design for the Jubiloo, a marvellous new public convenience temporarily moored on the historic Thames riverbank, 100m from the London Eye; a dramatic image for a dramatic setting.

As a result, I was able to invite a group of RSA Fellows to experience the Jubiloo, which according to Mary from Manchester was ‘the best toilet I’ve been in’. Fellows heard about the rich historical allusions embodied in the floating barge-like image of the pavilion, admired its flush detailing (automatic of course), whilst also learning of its capacity to turn rainwater into greywater. Although the project was funded by a private company who built and now operates the facility, public funds were contributed by Lambeth as part of its efforts toward landscaping and integration in the public realm. The Jubiloo serves as an amenity for the Jubilee gardens and Queen’s walk, both of which are part of the ‘continuous foyer’ of London’s South Bank, hence the public contribution could be justified on instrumental grounds. The formal and material allusions integral to the design which give the building its intrinsic cultural value interestingly, were paid for by the operating company who felt they would attract more people to use the toilets.

Toilet rollls and a portrait of the QueenResponses to the Jubiloo have been both instrumental and intrinsic; at the launch, the South Bank Community Choir sang “Up, up and away in my beautiful Jubiloo”. In Summer 2012 a specially convened Jubiloo Shakespeare Company performed Act II Scene 2 Antony & Cleopatra “The barge she sat in, like . . .” remembering the Bard’s sighting of Elizabeth I in her golden vessel on this stretch of the Thames.

Looking back at the activities of the last year, I can truly say that the partnership between the RSA London Region and the Fellows Artists’ Network has given me some highly sought-after opportunities to meet and exchange ideas and experiences with other Fellows. I am looking forward to continuing the conversations with Fellows from around the world in our new Artists Group on the RSA social network and seeing what events we can come up with for the London Region Autumn programme.

For more information about Fellowship visit or if you would like to know more about the Reboot events or the Jubiloo please email

Join a history of enlightened thinking

August 20, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

What do you say to people when you talk about the RSA? Do you mention a great lecture you’ve seen, a Fellow you’ve met or perhaps share an animate online? It’s easy when you’ve got an example but sometimes when you’re on the spot, it can be difficult to in articulate all the many aspects of the RSA’s work. It’s a multi-layered, multifaceted organisation that is governed from a huge house which can feel like a bit of a labyrinth -  so where do you begin?

RSA pamphlet: ' Welcome to the RSA the home of enlightened thinking since 1774'Here in Fellowship we’re pretty clued up on the benefits of joining the RSA’s 27,000 strong network; we can tell you about the Four Ways to Engage, all the House facilities and how our Regional Programme Managers can help you find like-minded people in your area. But, we also know that when you join an organisation it is important for your commitment to have meaning that goes beyond having a place to meet and free Wi-Fi. You need to have a clear idea about what those four letters – FRSA, represent. There are thousands of organisations out there to join and thousands of worthwhile charitable causes.

What makes us different?

elightened thinkingWhen you join the RSA you join a rich history of enlightened thinking. As the Changemakers handbook demonstrates, the RSA is here to facilitate people thinking differently about social challenges. Back in 1754 when the RSA was founded, the people of Britain were facing the dawn of the industrial revolution; a period that saw great technological advancements and equally, many unforeseen problems.

What is remarkable about the RSA and its Fellows is thaelightened thinkingt they began to find solutions to global problems long before buzz words like social justice and sustainability were on the national political agenda. In 1758, an RSA Fellow suggested providing an award to whomever could devise the best plan for the establishment of a charity house to shelter women whose poverty put them at risk of prostitution. Just under 20 years later, we offered an award for inventions that could reduce smoke emissions.

It is easy to underestimate the importance of having a social space to share ideas.

In 1852, the RSA organised the trial of the first public Water Closets but unfortunately, few people were inclined to use them and the campaign was deemed a failure.  The idea was temporarily laid to rest but then dug up many years later and, where would we be today without public lavatories?

Sometimes, planting an idea is enough.

This is how I prefer to explain the RSA’s significance to people who are interested in getting involved. By joining our network you are continuing the history of Fellowship: a group of people who are not only willing to think more broadly than the majority, but who have proven many times over that they have the tenacity to pursue their ideas and turn them into practical solutions for the public good.

Find out more about Fellowship

If you already a Fellow but know someone who would be a great addition to the Fellowship, why not nominate them?


 Alexandra Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordinator at the RSA

Sharing our way to prosperity (Part 1)

August 6, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

Sharing is popular again. It’s been 25 years since Harry Enfield mocked 1980s greed and individualism as his Loadsamoney character – a cockney plasterer. Now, a quick and exciting route to riches is promised by the sharing economy. Airbnb, its posterchild, is worth $2.5bn (£1.5bn) and Silicon Valley is buzzing again. Does sharing represent a scalable opportunity for a socially productive economy? This blog grounds the sharing economy in some context, and is followed by Part 2, analysing of who profits from sharing.

San Francisco, October 2011, Source

San Francisco, October 2011, Source

Since 2008, our dominant economic and financial structures have come under increased scrutiny, from many directions. Many argue that existing systems have delivered material wealth at great environmental cost, contributing to (or even relying upon) growing inequality at many scales, and that as we get wealthier, wealth is increasingly an ineffective means of delivering well-being. As the public sector started talking about “doing more with less’ and “sweating the assets” politicians and business consistently urged the public back on to the treadmill of buying more stuff a generation of social entrepreneurs said “let’s use what we have better”, and were spurred to develop their own peer-to-peer circuits for production, distribution and consumption. They were driven by objectives which ranged from getting rich themselves to meeting their neighbours to minimising overall consumption, and we now have a carnival of applications which connect individuals to one another to exchange in new ways.

The sharing economy in a tweet: “#whyishare is making MORE, for LESS and with NEW people”.

The sharing economy is how we describe this system which widens access to goods, services, assets and talents, through arrangements of collaborative consumption, a term first applied in 1978 to car-sharing. The sharing economy is a bunch of new ways to connect things that aren’t being used with people who could use them. It often does this through internet-based applications, and therefore does this radically better than previous systems in achieving higher utilisation of the economy’s ‘idling capacity’. According to Professor Clay Shirky, “the world has over a trillion hours a year of free time to commit to shared projects”.

In 2011, the RSA hosted Rachel Botsman and Time magazine said collaborative consumption was one of ten ideas to change the world. Now sharing economy initiatives are squaring up to entrenched businesses, and regulators and tax collectors are becoming interested.

Rachel Botsman defines three types of collaborative consumption: product service systems (like Barclays bikeshare in London and Netflix, where you rent for short periods rather than owning), redistribution markets (like eBay, Freecycle, Gumtree, where you sell or give away unwanted stuff) and collaborative lifestyles (like Landshare, Streetbank, and Couchsurfing), where people swap skills, time and other assets.

Like efforts to build a circular economy the sharing economy often promises environmental efficiency. Reducing waste appeals to our moral sentiment (waste is a feature in two of the seven deadly sins) while sharing means we get access to more, and perhaps put individualistic materialism (the envy and jealousy associated with coveting thy neighbour’s goods) in the back seat. To paraphrase Neal Gorenflo, the idea is that instead of keeping up with the Joneses, we are inspired and enabled to collaborate with the Khan’s, rent our under-used assets to the Cheng’s and get tips from strangers on how to hack, fix and rejuvenate objects at a makerspace with shared tools. We meet new people (online and offline) and make a living in new ways, while using money less, hoping to reverse declining social capital.

Sharing can get really creative: through Waze (which Google just bought for $1bn), drivers share their live data on traffic to help others travel more efficiently. GoGenie shares information about disabled access. Carrotmob organises campaigns for people to vote with their money, giving businesses positive incentives to make sustainable investments. On TaskRabbit, people bid to perform chores and…tasks, while Instacart specialises in matching your shopping list with someone to do your shopping and deliver it to you.

Of course, sharing goes way back. We’ve always been sharing, bartering, lending, gifting, and swapping. Collaboration has been our primary competitive advantage as a species. Before we had money, we had a gift economy – “you owe me one” – rather than a barter economy. Within modern capitalism there have emerged a range of redistributive institutions such as co-operatives (800 million members globally) and credit unions. Good 360 has taken $7bn in corporate donations over the last 30 years and distributed them to charities. We often lose sight of the fact that efficient resource allocation is what the (old) economy is fundamentally driven to do, but often fails. The sharing economy might be best conceived as a system to address market failures in personal consumption; to share market information, lower transaction costs and lower barriers to entry, therefore expanding the market of buyers, sellers, donors and recipients.


Usage of key terms, indexed, 1955-2008

Usage of key terms, indexed, 1955-2008, Source

In contemporary society, what some have dubbed the core economy – the unpaid care, support and nurturing we provide for one another – structures our lives as much as the monetary economy. Sharing mechanisms have long supported the core economy, through informal networks and more formal institutions: 28,000 people have collectively pooled their skills and support at 300 local Timebanks across the UK, on the basis that an hour of my time is worth an hour of yours, and there is potential for institutions and business to do the same – e.g. Hackney Shares.

We are at a moment of hyperbole, so there is a risk that new tech applications divert our attention from the breadth and heritage of sharing structures in society, and the risks of failure. Many sharing platforms struggle to reaching critical mass in activities which represent a natural monopoly based on a network effect, so efforts are now being made to build infrastructure to consolidate the sharing economy – comparison websites and sector-wide initiatives (…is this meta-sharing?). But the growing consensus is the sharing economy could be as transformative as the industrial revolution; and Natalie Foster says sharing “will be the defining economic story of the 21st century.”

The sharing economy is beginning to look like a panacea: an all-conquering system of innovations which can drive can drive economic growth and social outcomes. It’s more complicated than that, and Part 2 on this blog discusses profiting from a sharing economy.

Jonathan Schifferes (@jschifferes) is a Senior Researcher and leads on the 2020 Retail project for the RSA.

Fellowship Partnerships – we’re scaling up to help further our charitable mission

June 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

It’s been a while since my last blog post, and it’s been a busy 6 months for the Partnerships team!

London UpRiser's & RSA Fellows meet to discuss Social Action Campaigns

London UpRiser’s & RSA Fellows meet to discuss Social Action Campaigns, at our Catalyst workshop in January 2013

I have been leading on Fellowship partnerships for two years at the RSA (my ‘RSAnniversary’ was in May), and I’ve seen big changes, big challenges and gained insight into the value of the RSA as a convener of networks.  My colleague Adam, wrote a great post in February that outlined our general approach to partnerships, which we strive to keep to whilst allowing us flexibility when working with such a range of organisations – my key aim, is to ensure that we can develop collaborative partnerships that use our resources efficiently and can support the charitable objectives of the RSA and the organisation we’re partnering with.

So what have we been doing?

1. Messing around with a new database…

Don’t worry, I’ll keep this brief! Trying to get to grips with a new database is many things, if not challenging.  However, with the implementation of this new system of administrative delights, we’re beginning to recognise the exciting possibilities of having all of our partner administration in one place; easily accessible.  This will eventually feed into all of the work we do with our Fellows from partner organisations and how we report on the impact our work is having.

2. Forging some new relationships…

Legacy Trust UK:  LTUK’s recent report on the impact of Olympic and Paralympic Games on the country’s next generation, was recently launched at a fascinating panel debate held at the RSA, which was hosted by Jonathan Edwards, CBE.  You can watch it here.

Following this, we have begun the process of creating a Fellowship partnership, whereby we hope to connect with the present and former programme managers that LTUK has supported across the country.  There are some fascinating projects and we hope that Fellowship can further support them through the skills we hold within our networks.

 NCVO: As a champion of the UK’s voluntary sector, NCVO provides its 10,000 members with key advice and support for nearly all areas of organisational operation.  We met with NCVO to discuss the natural connection between our organisations, and soon recognised this may be an opportunity to make RSA Catalyst support more visible to NCVO’s members.  We are also working to discover how RSA Fellows can get involved with NCVO to offer their expertise.

3. Developing our work with existing partners…

Winston Churchill Memorial Trust: The past two years have seen some great developments with our partnership, thanks to key RSA Fellows and staff that have really driven this collaboration.  My colleague Vivs, recently wrote about the advising scheme that is bringing RSA and Churchill Fellows together in Wales, East Pennines and the South West (do have a look at her blog).

We are also hoping to do this in an international way too…

The RSA Fellowship extends across the world to more than 80 countries. In many of these countries we have an RSA Connector. RSA Connectors are a new and growing network of RSA Fellows worldwide; acting as a first port-of-call and a ‘friendly face’ for new RSA Fellows who want to find out more and get involved. As part of the RSA’s continuing partnership with the Churchill Trust, we are piloting a facilitated introduction between selected Churchill Fellows with an RSA Connector in the country they are visiting.  We hope that this will be a valued connection, and may help Churchill Fellows link up with contacts on their travels that will enrich their research.

UpRising: In January we ran an event to bring together London’s UpRising participants and RSA Fellows, giving them advice from Fellows and making them aware of the expertise and support that the network can offer.  The 36 UpRiser’s in London that attended are working on some important Social Action Campaigns: crime, food waste and affordability, education (behaviour management), partnerships and communication, young translators, safeguarding young women, bringing politics to people and housing.

We’re looking forward to running something similar Bedford and Birmingham for the new cohorts this year, as we had some good feedback from the London group:

Find the full Storify here:

Find the full Storify here:

So what now?

Updating our partner web page, measuring our impact and looking regionally…

Two immediate areas of focus for me, will be to re-vamp our Partner page on the RSA Website, (which will reflect the lessons we’ve learnt over the past few months and give a clear, transparent picture of how we want to work with our partners) and to start along the journey of impact measurement (now that’s a whole different post right there!)  It’s easy to get lost in the smog of emails, phone calls and events, without stopping to reflect and explore exactly who is gaining (or losing) from this, and in what way.  As yet, reporting on the impact that our work with partners is having for the RSA, and RSA Fellows in particular, isn’t something that we’ve done.  However, it has become clear that this is a really key thing to do, not only to for the various stakeholders at the RSA, but also for staff motivation and learning.

 I’ve found  that some of our most rewarding collaborations exist because our Fellows have connected RSA staff to amazing organisations, and put a huge amount of effort into driving these relationships forward. 

For the moment, there will be a few things that I will be focusing upon to draw success stories from our partners.  I’m keen to show how existing and new Fellows are benefiting, so story- telling will be just as (if not more) important than the number crunching.  Two immediate examples come to mind; firstly, as I mentioned earlier, through our work with WCMT, RSA Fellows that are getting to use their time and expertise to help with Churchill Fellows’ research across the country.  Secondly, a relatively new Fellow that joined the RSA through our partnership with the Emerge Venture Lab, Juan Guerra FRSA, was awarded Catalyst Funding and mentoring from the Fellowship Council for his crowdfunding platform, Student Funder.  Juan’s project recently made it to the final 10 from 600 entrants to the EU’s Social Innovation Prize.

One continual theme that runs through our partnerships, is the central role that Fellows play to develop these relationships.  I’ve found  that some of our most rewarding collaborations exist because our Fellows have connected RSA staff to amazing organisations.  They also put a huge amount of effort into driving these relationships forward, and I very much look forward to updating you about the regional/national work with partners in the coming months.

Finally, interested in becoming an RSA Fellow or partnering with us?

Then contact us on +44 (0)207 451 6904!


Then get in contact with me via

Jo Painter is the Partnership Development Manager at the RSA.


Co-producing theory and practice: new Centre for Citizenship and Community launched

May 21, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

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

Prof. David Morris, UCLan.

Prof. David Morris, UCLan.

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.




Steve Broome, RSA

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

Mary Chivers, Mersey Care.

Mary Chivers, Mersey Care.

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:

Attendees at the Centre for Citizenship and Community launch.

Attendees at the Centre for Citizenship and Community launch.

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 and request to be added the the RSA Action and Research Centre mail list.

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