Food cuts through society on so many levels that perhaps focusing on how we feed ourselves is the best chance we have to achieve progressive social change. If an army marches on its stomach, perhaps social action starts at our kitchen table.
The number one ask from Fellows is connecting and networking with Fellows. Building on this the Regional team has been developing the RSA Engage series. During 2015 we will deliver over 40 Engage events across the UK from Falmouth to Glasgow, Norwich to Dublin. The series provides two types of activity:
Engage - targeted for larger audiences between 50-150
Connect - targeted at smaller groups of 20-30
Both Engage and Connect fuse together project-showcasing combined with structured networking. Essential for the project pitches is a core ask from Fellows, outlining their specific needs for help and support. Feedback from Fellows has been extremely positive with attendees enjoying the balance between the networking and opportunities to get involved in different projects. The series also offers attendees an increased understanding of the RSA’s charitable mission of finding practical solutions to social challenges.
Staff will be delivering the series as core way to engage and network across the Fellowship. The Engage format has been developed through events in Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham and London. Upcoming locations for the series include Sheffield, Edinburgh, Newcastle Gateshead and Nottingham, as well as continuing regular Engage activity in London. This autumn we are developing the RSA Connect format which is aimed at smaller numbers focused on one or two projects, similar to Engage but on a smaller scale. Locations for Connect include Falmouth, Liverpool, Cheltenham and Exeter. The events take place where we have recognised clusters of Fellows and good transport links.
The Engage series will complement existing regional activity and provide a strong event framework and planned calendar of events across the UK, reaching as many Fellows as possible. With each event there will be tailored follow up on individual projects, ideas, introductions and connections.
Our overall aims and objectives for the programme are:
Connect: providing structured networking sessions
Inform: outline RSA activity, projects and routes to engagement using 4 ways to engage
Inspire: demonstrate how the RSA enriches society through ideas and action
How can Fellows help or get involved? You can volunteer to pitch at a future Engage event; please get in touch. The Engage series thrives on Fellows looking to share their stories and identify the help they need. We are keen to hear from Fellows and organisations who are seeking advice from the Fellowship and Fellows involved in venues that can provide RSA Spaces.
Whether you attend as a participant or a pitcher we look forward to meeting you at a future Engage event and exploring how you can help support and develop the work of the RSA. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to get involved or simply find out more.
Head of Regions
Ignore the Star Trek reference. Over the coming months the Regions team will be expanding the RSA Engage series. Following recent events in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Stoke we are now introducing two types of format on a regular basis; Engage our large scale networking event for clusters of around 100 and Connect, our smaller focused sessions on a specific themes for 25 people. Both formats share two key ingredients for Engage all activity; structured networking combined with clear routes to engagement to the RSA.
We will be planning a calendar of this activity through to the end of next year and looking for venues prepared to host an RSA Engage event. Essential to the format are spaces with good transport links, easy to find, accessible to all and with welcoming facilities. The space doesn’t have to be private but not too noisy. We particularly want to hear from venues that mirror RSA aims and objectives, and could help develop projects. We have limited budget available for catering and refreshments but looking for venue support on a pro-bono basis. RSA Engage events are organised by staff.
A lot of people don’t get it, but I design from the inside out so that the finished product looks inevitable somehow. I think it’s important to create spaces that people like to be in, that are humanistic.
Fellows are welcome to recommend venues that meet these basic criteria. In return we aim to feature each acknowledged RSA space in a variety of ways profiled on the RSA website and highlighted at the relevant Engage event. Long-term we are also keen to offer these spaces for other Fellow-led activity including governance meetings, project sessions and events such as live-streaming creating a resource of recognised RSA Spaces for hosting activity. If you would like to recommend a venue for RSA Spaces send details to the Regional team email@example.com.
Head of Regions
Jobs for an intern: make tea, edit references, keep your head down and do the grunt work. Perhaps, but not at the RSA – here they encourage you to speak up, to blog and to generally make your voice heard. It is both refreshing and a little intimidating. So when I got invited to attend a meeting at the start of this week I managed to do what I perhaps should not have done: I took a lot of notes and kept my mouth shut, but my ears open. There is much to condemn this strategy but I tell you something, you tend to learn a lot that way. As one might expect from a meeting between think tanks, there was some general confusion as to who was meant to be facilitating who but if anything this seemed to lead to a very productive meeting. The subject of the meeting: How can local government help communities be more resilient despite devastating flooding in the UK – especially since the climate change models seem to suggest this is is going to be a more regular occurrence in the future.
How can local government help communities be more resilient despite devastating flooding in the UK – especially since the climate change models seem to suggest this is is going to be a more regular occurrence in the future.
The lead singer of Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson last week claimed that the Glastonbury Festival was “the most bourgeois thing on the planet. Anywhere Gwyneth Paltrow goes and you can live in an air-conditioned yurt is not for me.” My unsubstantiated guess is that this weekend’s Festival of Education, held at Wellington College, might smash Glastonbury in any game of bourgeois Top Trumps. However, the Festival yesterday hosted the launch of a new campaign that RSA Education is delighted to have helped initiate and excited to be playing a continued role in.
The Fair Education Alliance aims to work towards ending the persistent achievement gap between young people from our poorest communities and their wealthier peers. Our aim is hardly novel; in some ways, it’s been an implicit ambition since 1870’s Education Act, made more explicit through the birth of the comprehensive movement. This is why Gove and others’ flippant dismissals of those with different views about how to close achievement gaps as ‘enemies of promise’ can be so corrosive. In contrast, the Alliance carefully brings together partners who may have very different routemaps to a fairer education system, but are prepared to collaborate to achieve common goals.
Our five Impact Goals, all measurable statements of progress, are as follows:
- Narrow the gap in literacy and numeracy at primary school
- Narrow the gap in GCSE attainment at secondary school
- Ensure young people develop key strengths, including resilience and wellbeing, to support high aspirations
- Narrow the gap in the proportion of young people in education, employment or training one year after compulsory education
- Narrow the gap in university graduation, including from the 25 per cent most selective universities
The Alliance recognises that the “the underlying causes of educational inequality are complex and interconnected, and they need to be addressed across the education system and society. No single organisation has the knowledge, resources or expertise to bring about the changes we need to make our education system fair for everyone.” Today’s silly Times leader column, which gave an outdated, un-evidenced view of Universities’ role in teacher training, and claimed that the best way to improve the performance of white working class pupils was to “motivate them with more vocational training”, exemplifies the kind of rhetoric we do not need. Michael Wilshaw’s speech yesterday, reclaiming the comprehensive agenda with a more nuanced account of recent progress and current predicaments, was far more balanced and helpful. For once, read the speech, not the headlines.
The Education Endowment Foundation amongst others has recognised that most interventions which successfully improve outcomes also widen gaps in outcomes. This serves as a useful precis for the last few decades of schooling in England. Leaving doubts about grade inflation aside, the performance of white working class pupils at GCSE has risen significantly, and now outperforms the average… of twenty years ago. The problem is that overall average performance has risen faster.
The Education and Employers task force’s latest publication, exemplifies this dilemma. Taken in totality, employer engagement in education reproduces social inequalities. Put simply, if all employer engagement, from informal internships to formal programmes in schools to work experience, stopped tomorrow, this would probably narrow gaps in education and labour market outcomes. This, of course, is undesirable, and does disservice to the many initiatives that are designed to work with those who most need them. Yet it chrystallises the issue: If you don’t target resources with precision, a terrible thing happens. The Pupil premium has become a powerful, helpful nudge on school spending and wider strategic planning, supported by the new accountability rules which will make sure, that, to borrow a much maligned phrase, every child matters.
Teach First has achieved a terrific job in initiating the Fair Education Alliance without hubris, pulling in favours and resources, and carefully constructing some early theories of change around each change goal. yesterday’s Telegraph article by CEO Brett Wigodrtz cogently explains the organisation’s rationale for creating this alliance. It’s now up to us, as twenty-five organisations with our own priorities, deadlines and baggage, to work collaboratively, involving thousands of others to maximise our collective impact.
Too often, alliances such as these become a half-hearted bolt-on to each individual organisation’s ethos creating inertia rather than momentum, smugness rather than anger. Agreed actions can feel a million miles away from the task at hand – (“What do we want? Mapping our activities across localities! When do we want it? Soon!”). To quote Whitley RSA Academy’s mission statement (a school which puts huge efforts into closing achievement gaps, with increasing success), we need ‘deeds, not words’.
Words may matter too, however. Effective alliances dare to speak truth to power in a way that individual alliance members (many of whom will be reliant on ‘Power’ for funding) cannot. We should be brave enough collectively to think radically about school admissions and segregation, funding, teacher choice and allocation, and practices such as setting and streaming. We may want to challenge the current, confused orthodoxy around school autonomy, and the extent to which is a route to or a reward for successfully achieving our impact goals. Nick Clegg’s social mobility strategy seems heavy on indicators and light on everything else. I still haven’t met any of these oft-quoted academics who argue that ‘deprivation is destiny’, but as an alliance we should be prepared to question broader government approaches to poverty and regeneration, whilst remaining passionately optimistic about what schools can achieve, regardless of wider contexts.
Key to our success, as one alliance member suggested, may be to “reposition education as a public good”. In other words, am I prepared care a little less about my own children’s performance, and a lot more about the outcomes of their poorer peers? This is challenging terrain. Education has always been couched largely as a private, positional good, and the forces of consumerism and an increasingly unstable economy has reinforced and positively encouraged this attitude. As a society, we generally agree that closing class gaps in health outcomes is desirable (unless you are particularly callous, health is not seen as a positional good). In terms of education outcomes, if we’re honest with ourselves we aren’t so sure how much equality we really want, so continue to hoard advantage whenever possible (and it’s usually possible).
RSA Education has always engaged in issues relating to social justice in education – my predecessor Becky Francis’ review of social justice in education, and report on progression in further education, provide fantastic foundations. Last year’s report on in-year admissions highlighted one cause of injustice, and our Academies work daily to address educational inequality. As a founder member of the alliance, will now make a simple commitment. We won’t engage in education programmes, whether policy research or practical innovations, unless ‘closing the gap’ is built into the design and ambition of these programmes. Our own focus will move increasingly on what we are calling ‘closing the creativity gap’ across all stages of life, always connecting this agenda with attainment and other broad outcomes. That’s for another blog. For the moment, we hope that thousands of RSA Fellows and others participate in the alliance and sign up to our goals. We don’t care how bourgeois you are, and even if you’re an Iron Maiden fan, you’re welcome.
Are you interested in helping young people realise their potential?
This summer we are launching an ambitious new project that seeks to improve the career prospects of RSA Academies students – and we need your help. Read more
This is a network:
It’s not a very interconnected network yet, but it’s a snapshot of the 100 remarkable people who we will be working with over the next year, and the relationships that connected them at the start of the Diaspora ChangeMakers programme. [Read more below]. Read more
Chatting to the neighbours: makes us happier, saves lives, comes to the rescue when we lose our keys
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!