Connecting space, place and democracy at the Library of Birmingham

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Public libraries, a space for active debate?

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

Democracy needs an informed citizenry

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


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


My conclusion?

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

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


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

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

John Blewitt

What is a Blog?

October 25, 2010 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

It’s a means of thinking out loud.

A way to surprise oneself.

Sometimes a commitment device.

A way of engaging friendly strangers.

And thereby creating  strange friends.

It’s an invitation to others

to come hither and share in our best guesses.

A pretext for the excitement of hyperlinking.

A pretence at poetry.

An attention seeking device.

Actually it’s a waste of time.

At least this one is.

But as Bertrand Russell once said,

time wasted enjoying oneself,

is never time wasted.

The politics of TINA

September 21, 2010 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

TINA has been responsible for some of the most far-reaching political decisions of the last two decades or more. You’ve never heard of her? TINA is the popular abbreviation of ‘There Is No Alternative.’ A political catchphrase made famous by Margaret Thatcher when explaining economic liberalism, which was picked up almost two decades later by Tony Blair when justifying military action in Iraq. As Polly Toynbee has recently pointed out, TINA is being used again – this time when outlining the government approach to the financial crisis. At the Liberal Democrat party conference yesterday, Nick Clegg invoked TINA when trying to ingratiate party members to huge spending cuts.

Whatever your opinion of Thatcher, the Iraq war or the coalition government’s economic plans, we should be suspicious of people who tell us that TINA is justification enough for any political decision. There are always alternatives. There are alternatives to free market liberalism, to war and to coalition, whether or not you agree with them. When Labour introduced a minimum wage in 1999, many businesses argued this would force redundancies and that there was no alternative to painfully low wages. But there was an alternative, and in this case a very effective one, which business has now come to embrace.

TINA is too often used as a means of sidelining real debate and avoiding difficult conversations. But avoiding these conversations does a disservice to citizens and prevents us from getting to heart of the social, political and economic problems we face.

Take spending cuts as an example. Whilst there is unquestionably a need for action in the face of a £148 billion shortfall between government expenditure and government revenue, it is not the case that there is no long-term alternative to tackling our spending habits by cutting services. As is often quoted, the British public want “Swedish” welfare for “American” taxes. At the moment, the government has decided to get rid of Swedish welfare. But there is a long-term alternative in challenging our American rates of tax and opening up a conversation with the public about how much they are willing to pay for the services they want.

This short post is not necessarily an argument in favour of the alternatives, but it is an argument in favour of acknowledging them. Our society and communities are faced with a range of alternative futures at the moment: now is not the time to avert our gaze.

Holding up a mirror

June 15, 2010 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

This week Matthew Taylor outlines a vision of twenty-first century enlightenment that acts as a call for some paradigm shifts to our ways of thinking and a reimagining of core enlightenment ideals which may be needed for the coming years. Answering the complex, rapidly-expanding challenges of today and tomorrow means having to live differently, which in turn means appreciating that we are going to have to think differently.

Without doing so we’re going to find it harder to close our social-aspiration gap: that gap between the world in which we aspire to live in and the world which we are going to create through our present behaviour. Essentially, this vision says that what we require is a revived consciousness but more importantly it says that we must have a conviction to act on that revived consciousness.

Closing our own social aspiration gap through the merits of our own thinking, without the need for cumbersome carrots and/or sticks

Published today, Matt Grist’s Steer puts forward one possible way of moving towards this rejuvenated awareness. Based upon an ‘holistic reflexive’ approach to behaviour change, Steer suggests that by becoming more aware of how our brains operate and by being attentive to the myriad of influences and subtle forces that may affect our judgement and behaviour, we will be far better placed to make improved decisions for our own health and happiness. This “thinking about thinking” model puts forward a refreshing alternative to the context-specific nudge set out by, among others, Thaler and Sunstein and comes at a time when the old carrot and stick behaviour change methods are once again being called into question.

Catherine Bennett, a notable ‘root vegetable sceptic’, recently pointed out the problems with a simplistic incentive-led approach to behaviour change – especially the NHS trial of using cash rewards for weight loss and the chip’n’bin scheme for recycling – and described how these methods may actually end up undermining people’s motivation when the financial incentives stop.

At the same time, these sort of approaches hit upon a moral-reasoning dilemma – that coercion or reward for partaking in a certain behaviour may ‘crowd-out’ and cheapen positive and pro-social actions that an individual was willing to partake in anyway. Steer, on the other hand, tries to avoid many of the problems of these clunky top-down approaches and instead strikes right at the heart of Charles Taylor’s idea of positive freedom. Alain de Botton recently put it that people tend not to lack freedom as the chance to use it well – the methods behind Steer allow us to effectively use what you might call positive cognitive freedom to understand what actions our behaviour might have on ourselves and others while allowing us to achieve the lives that we aspire to lead; closing our own social aspiration gap through the merits of our own thinking. Without the need for cumbersome carrots and/or sticks.

How then might the results of these findings be best put into practice? Matt Grist offers a number of different areas where this model might be implemented ranging from teaching about thinking within schools through to helping those in rehabilitation to change their habits. But in reality this research can add a great deal of value to a whole range of different areas including a number of our own projects at the RSA. If, for example, we take the Civic Health Audit strand of our Citizen Power work in Peterborough, we can embed this reflexive holistic approach as part of an additional strategy to improve civic participation. This project is essentially about designing a tool that can be used to better understand civic health in any particular group or locality by measuring the presence of  core capabilities and qualities needed to effectively place-shape. But from the findings laid out in this report, we now know that we are not just able to use the Audit for understanding changes in civic health but that we can also use the Audit itself to improve civic health by playing back the results to the community and allowing them to ‘mull over’ and reflect on their own capabilities, their networks and their social assets – in fact, one of the biggest capabilities is knowing that you actually have the capability and the agency to effect change. This instance may be just one of many projects, areas and initiatives where embedding a reflexive element can really start to add add value and allow people to steer their own lives and shape their own futures.

Dork’s Diary

June 25, 2009 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 
Jamie's Diet Diary

Jamie's Diet Diary

Just because I like to embarrass myself, I thought I’d do a quick post to let you know that I’m keeping a diet diary this week – I’m a bit bashful about it.

I’m doing it partly out of interest, and partly as a mini-prototype of what it might be like to use a persuasive mobile-phone based diet diary – an idea that Stephen and I talked about in the comments of this post.

It has been a bit of an eye opener so far. My guideline daily amount of kilo-calories is 2500, but yesterday I’d already gobbled up over 4000 by the time I got home from work. By the end of the day I’d eaten 5308 kcal (two day’s worth!) [Actually the real eye-opener is that I obviously can't tell the difference between kilojoules and kilocalories - I only had 1808kcal yesterday, 692 too few...]. I’ll do a more detailed breakdown of results at the end of the week…

The benefit of a mobile phone application to help me keep track of my diet is that it could reduce the risk of (accidentally) under-reporting what I eat – either by forgetting to enter something in, or by losing track of what else I’ve eaten that day. My mobile is almost always in my pocket, so it could be a good platform for designing something a bit more engaging than my paper prototype.

Allowing me to self-monitor by giving me feedback and a target is one thing – it enables me to monitor my diet, but what’s the next step? How could a mobile phone app encourage me to change my diet? Should it make suggestions by recommending me what to eat to keep to my personal target, should it use surveillance (or social proofing) to make my diet visible to my friends and vice versa? How could it encourage healthy eating rather than extreme dieting?

Here’s a relevant statistic for these cost-cutting times: “The NHS costs attributable to overweight and obesity are projected to double to £10 billion per year by 2050. The wider costs to society and business are estimated to reach £49.9 billion per year (at today’s prices).” said Foresight, in their recent Tackling Obesities: Future Choices project.

User-centred Design vs. Persuasive Technology?

June 17, 2009 by · 16 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Just a quickie to say that it’s fantastic to see some higher-profile and thoughtful conversation developing on the web about the influence that designers have in enabling and encouraging people to change behaviour. In an introduction to the concept, Robert Fabricant (VP of Creative at Frog Design) writes:

“…we’re experiencing a sea change in the way designers engage with the world. Instead of aspiring to influence user behavior from a distance, we increasingly want the products we design to have more immediate impact through direct social engagement … but many designers hesitate to pursue [this approach]. Committing to direct behavior design would mean stepping outside the traditional frame of user-centered design (UCD), which provides the basis of most professional design today.”

User-centred design is the default paradigm for industrial designers; the user is king, and the designer’s job is simply to design products that serve the user’s desires as closely as possible. Robert Fabricant suggests that when designers start using persuasive techniques (e.g. those of persuasive technology) then the roles are suddenly reversed; designers start designing according to how they think the user should behave, and the user (knowingly or unknowingly) is led down that path.

The question of whether the use of persuasive techniques is still user-centred design is fascinating to designers. Although Robert Fabricant thinks it’s not, he still seems in favour of the use of persuasive techniques. Others have shared his non-user-centred point of view, but with a more negative tone. In a book review of Persuasive Technology (BJ Fogg’s seminal book on the topic), Robert Johnson writes

“the book portends to be interested in end users – office workers, teachers, students (young and old), and the general public – … in practice, the book is designer-centred and system-centred” *.

Dan Lockton has written a response to Robert Fabricant’s article, in which he touches on whether using persuasive techniques is user-centred or not:

“I would argue that in cases where design with intent, or design for behaviour change, is aligned with what the user wants to achieve, it’s very much still user-centred design, whether enabling, motivating or constraining. It’s the best form of user-centred design, supporting a user’s goals while transforming his or her behaviour.”

I tend to agree with Dan’s position. As I’ve jotted down in the past, when products that have persuasive techniques designed into them are sold on the free market, I can’t see significant problems with designers using persuasive techniques. Taking the useful (but rather tired) example of real-time energy displays, if I buy one to keep a closer eye on my energy consumption, I’m quite happy for it to be designed in a way that will help me influence my behaviour most effectively. I suppose (as Dan says) I’d be a little less happy if there was a disconnect between my original purchase and the behaviour that it tried to encourage in me – say I bought a George Foreman grill that somehow gently nudged into becoming a vegetarian.

What I think is much more interesting (and problematic) is if the state gets involved. One of the aims of the RSA’s work in this area is to explore whether design can make a positive contribution to behaviour change policy. Policy makers are keen to hear of new methods of changing behaviour. For example, the present government is proposing to fit smart meters into all UK homes by 2020 which will be equipped with real-time displays that you can carry about your house communicate energy consumption. To help design these displays, the recent consultation from the Department of Energy and Climate Change seeks:

“…input (from consumer groups in particular) on the type of data that will best incentivise behavioural change (for instance, information on energy use, money, CO2 etc). Getting the balance right between providing enough data to enable behavioural change, without overloading consumers, will be important.”

Here’s a product that you don’t choose to buy, but will be specifically designed to influence your behaviour and distributed to your home over the next ten years. You can always bung it in a drawer though.

Ethical issues abound in behaviour change policy – particularly when more sophisticated insights from psychology are applied. Whether people think there is a role for government to try and change behaviour will always vary from behaviour to behaviour, and it doesn’t make much difference whether the method used by government is regulation, taxes & incentives, information, advertising campaigns, or other forms of design.

* I can’t find the original review, but his words are cited in a later review by Bernardine Atkinson

Counting Calories

June 8, 2009 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Since watching the BBC’s 10 Things [...], I’ve been paying more attention to the nutrition labels on the food I eat. Lots of these labels are pretty dull and difficult to understand, and I don’t reckon they have any influence over my diet. Also, I’ve no idea what my GDA of calories, fat, saturates, salt or sugars is, so knowing that something has 2.1g of sugar in it is next to useless.

The better labels show what percentage of my guideline daily amount my sandwiches contribute, because then the numbers begin to mean something to me. I don’t count up the various percentages over my day, but I do look out for things that have massive numbers (like the cheesecake that contributed over 30% to four out of the five categories).

Better still (in my opinion, though it looks like I’m wading into a two year old debate in my cutting-edge way) are the traffic light labels that you sometimes see. Red, amber or green depending (presumably) on how big the contribution is to your GDA. Red means “indulge now and again”, amber means “enjoy most of the time” and green means “go for it!” according to today’s sandwich from Boots. That does help me.

Here’s an idea that might help to engage more people in getting a better idea of how what they eat stacks up. How about printing the nutrition labels onto stickers, so you can peel them off the packet and keep them on a card. Then at the end of the day (if you’ve nothing better to do) you can see how many reds there are compared to the greens and ambers.

Going further – if I was going to bring “persuasive technology” into it, then maybe someone should develop an iPhone application that uses the iPhone’s camera to take a photo of the traffic light label, recognise the colours, and automatically add up the totals for you. It would make it much easier to remember, would allow accurate self-monitoring, and could be a good way to engage some people (London is full of people surgically attached to iPhones) in watching their diet.

Charm Offensive

May 28, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Just a quick post to note that Kingston University, the University of the West of England and Swansea University are collaborating on a three year project (CHARM) to explore the effect on people’s behaviour of giving them feedback (what B J Fogg calls “self-monitoring” in Persuasive Technology). Mixing sociology, social psychology and behavioural economics, the project will run three case studies that show the effect of feedback on people’s electricity consumption, their health, and something rather more nebulously based around Facebook.

More details on CHARM here.

It will be great to have some more rigorous academic research in this area.

The project at the RSA that this blog accompanies, by the way, is intending to look at the way in which we can apply Persuasive Technology (including feedback/self-monitoring) to encourage behaviours related to the environment, health, and (again more nebulously) civic participation.

- update -
Details of the EPSRC grant behind CHARM are here with a bit more info.

Design with Intent

April 8, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

In a pretty mammoth series of posts, Dan Lockton (a doctoral researcher at Brunel University’s school of Engineering and Design) has published some of his research into “Design with Intent”. Dan defines Design with Intent as design that intends to result in certain user behaviour, and suggests that Persuasive Technology (which the RSA’s project is inspired by) can fit within this wider term.

The research he presents is fascinating for its inclusion of design from an exhaustive variety of fields – techniques from traffic management, public spaces, architecture, manufacturing, product, graphic and interior design, behavioural economics and psychology, as well as persuasive technology are included.

Dan presents techniques of designing for behaviour change that are grouped by six “lenses” – each providing a behaviour-changing worldview through which designers can look; the architectural lens, the errorproofing lens, the persuasive lens, the visual lens, the cognitive lens and the security lens.

More than examples however, Dan is working on a design methodology that helps designers choose techniques to either enable, motivate or constrain certain behaviours.

It’s definitely worth a look for a good description of the ideas of persuasive technology, but I also like the examples from urban planning like the “slanty design” that prevents people leaving litter on top of cigarette bins, and the portion sizes of snacks from the errorproofing group.

The Fogg Behaviour Model

April 3, 2009 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Behaviour models are a way to understand the factors that drive particular behaviours. The best known comes from economics and is the theory of rational man (or homo economicus). Rational man theory simply says that people decide how to behave by weighing up the costs and benefits of each choice, and choose the action that maximises their expected benefits.

When put like that, it almost sounds sensible, but if you scratch the surface, you realise that this makes some pretty bizarre assumptions. Namely that people behave in a solely self-interested way, cognitively deliberate each decision they take, and don’t at all care about the fall-out consequences of their actions.

It’s dismal indeed to think that this model has been the predominant informer of many policy decisions. The resultant thinking is generally to (i) increase consumers’ access to information, and (ii) to make sure that the social costs of people’s behaviour is internalised (which aren’t bad things in themselves of course, but are relatively impotent with most people if used to try and encourage behaviour change).

Understanding of behaviour within the policy world is beginning to get more sophisticated, as the behavioural economics discourse transposes psychology into a format understandable by politicians. Habits, non-self-interested (social, moral, altruistic) behaviour, social norms, and emotions are all being added into the mix, and we end up with models like Theory of Reasoned Action or Theory of Planned Behaviour (there are lots more if you’re keen).

The devisor of “persuasive technology”, BJ Fogg of Stanford University, has recently released his own behaviour model. Here it is:

The Fogg Behaviour Model

The Fogg Behaviour Model:

I found the recent report by the UK’s Government Social Research helpful in its distinction between models of behaviour (which help you understand the factors underlying behaviours) and theories of change, which give insight into how behaviours change and how that change can be encouraged. Although the two ideas overlap, going by this definition, I guess the Fogg Behaviour Model is closer to a theory of change.

Fogg’s model is nice and simple to understand, and shows that three things; motivation, ability and a trigger are required to change a particular behaviour. There are three types of motivator, each with two sides (pleasure-pain, hope-fear, and social rejection-social acceptance). Ability, within the Fogg model, means making the particular behaviour easier to do or simpler. There are also three types of triggers named (facilitator, spark, and signal, but as the model is in its early stages the difference between these three isn’t quite clear to me yet).

The Fogg model says that if you get the motivators right, and if the behaviour is made easier for people to do, and if you trigger it – then the behaviour is more likely to occur. The model is intended to bring clarity for designers to the world of behaviour models, and I think its simplicity definitely scores highly from that point of view.

One thing that struck me when reading the background material of the GSR report’s (mentioned above) section on theories of behaviour change is this:

Both Lewin’s Change Theory and systems thinking approaches focus on resistance to change, and suggest that lasting change requires a process of engagement, in which audience groups are included as partners in the process [pdf link]

Engagement seems key, and as well as apparently being more effective, makes the idea of helping us to change our behaviour less mechanical (which is essentially what rational man theory does too), and more to do with learning. Could this fit into the Fogg Behaviour Model?

It’s (always) a good time to quote George Box: “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”.

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