The Ecology of Innovation

January 4, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

One of the component parts of Citizen Power (a two year programme of innovation, participation and place-making in Peterborough) aims to spark and support local people’s ideas that could make “green” behaviour easier throughout the city. When planning the project we were inspired by insights into what can influence people’s behaviour and decision-making (such as the dramatic effect of social proof).

Our approach has been to teach these principles to local residents and help them apply them to the behaviours that underlie local environmental problems. We think that giving community activists the knowledge and support to “nudge” their neighbours could be a better way of encouraging behaviour change. National attempts to apply these principles could leave people feeling preached at, or alienate people by taking covert approaches.

Instead, we think that training community activists with the knowledge they need to nudge their neighbours can harness their local knowledge, their “one-of-us” status, and their existing trusted relationships with their community.

Towards the end of last year we tested this approach in a two-day workshop. Twenty-five enthusiastic residents learned about the effects of personal, social and infrastructural factors on human behaviour, then worked together to apply this knowledge to Peterborough specific problems. After a pitch to a panel of judges, two ideas were selected for seed-funding and non-financial support to allow them to become pilot projects.

One of the pilots will encourage a wider segment of the community to manage local plots of unused land. The group behind this project plan to map unused land in their neighbourhood and throughout Peterborough, then run small interventions to encourage local people to take an active role in stewarding the land.

The other pilot will encourage residents living near an area of ancient woodland to take an active forest management role. Currently neglected and the scene of anti-social behaviour, the community decided to create a woodland walk to make walking through the forest a normal activity for local residents.

Part of this approach to local nudging was informed by a paper – The Ecology of Innovation - that we published just before Christmas. It presents a few simple principles that could be used to encourage and support local people in getting projects off the ground. These principles include ensuring that local community organisations are able to participate in contributing their ideas, and supporting their ideas with financial and non-financial support so that they can be tested. You can read the paper online or download it here.

In 2011, we’re looking forward to getting these ideas off the ground, and also holding more workshops to encourage and support more ideas that could make Peterborough into an even greener place to live!

Actually, prison can work

July 1, 2010 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Recovery, Social Economy 

I was only 11 years old when Michael Howard declared that ‘prison works’ in 1993.  I had little interest in anything other than hockey and who was going to be on Top of the Pops so you can imagine where this revelation registered on my radar.

My interests and priorities have expanded slightly since then so I pay attention when the Justice Secretary describes current prison numbers as ‘astonishing… impossible and ridiculous,’ and lambasted the revolving door of crime.

Let’s hope this is the new era of radical penal reform that will seek to do more than save the pennies

I support Clarke’s calls for a more sparing use of prison, especially if that means less use of short term sentences that do little more than exacerbate already difficult circumstances for people.  But it should be remembered that, done properly, prison offers an opportunity to provide intensive interventions that address offending behaviours and the reasons for those behaviours.  Those interventions can begin to develop the foundations needed to support long term recovery from substance misuse problems or the dismantling of sometimes deeply entrenched cycles of criminal behaviour.  This is certainly the overarching message in the RSA Prison Learning Report published earlier this year which laid out the principles for prison reform.

It is encouraging to hear the support of new initiatives such as the Social Impact Bond pilot in HMP Peterborough which will be seeking to develop some these intensive interventions in line with the ‘payment by results’ model Clarke mentioned.  I met with those leading the pilot yesterday and am excited by its possibilities not least as Peterborough prison will be the site of the RSA’s Recovery Capital Project being launched on the 19th July.

Let’s hope this is the new era of radical penal reform that will seek to do more than save the pennies.

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.

Notes on narrative: Sennett and the arts

Asking what binds human beings together, Richard Sennett recently offered two ingredients that act as cultural glue: ritual and narrative. Speaking at a great lecture with Dr Rowan Williams just a couple of weeks ago, Sennett argued that, “without shared rituals and narratives society has no purpose. The everyday relations between human beings risks falling apart. And yet modern society courts just that risk. The cultural glue of ritual and narrative is weakening.” Williams seemed to strike the same chord – referring to his latest book on Dostoevsky he pointed out that storytelling as ritual allows us to bond with one another as well as with a “realm beyond ourselves” yet it too is being washed away.

Having this shared narrative and this common ritual allows us to reaffirm our collective identity and strengthen our belonging to one another. In the process we are able to develop a strong place-identity; that is, an identity made with a mixture of memories and joint experiences that connects us to people around us and to the places we live in and which in turn acts as a kind of catalyst for participation – it essentially gives us a non-material resource from which we can draw upon to get involved in our communities and the places in which we live.

It might be that any sort of participatory drive set out through the Big Society will need an equally Big Narrative

Shared bonds with others can give us the mutual trust we need in order to commit to another’s benefit; it instils within us loyalty needed to motivate civic action; and, from a more rational perspective, it gives us an actual stake in our environment that we are eager to defend. A few years ago Mary Corcoran undertook some research in European cities which showed that residents were able to draw upon collective memories of the past in order to come together, clean public areas and tackle prolific drug dealers; a sure sign of the power of narrative and the bonds it creates. It might be that any sort of participatory drive set out through the Big Society will need, among other things, an equally Big Narrative. Or to be more precise, each place will need its own defining mini-narrative. Freedom to shape the places you live in is one thing, but if there’s no underlying bond or continuing narrative tying you to an area, there’s not that core incentive or that stake that might otherwise have impelled you to participate.

But as Sennett said in his lecture, the cultural glue that is narrative has weakened over the past few decades. It’s difficult to understand exactly why this has happened and there’s bound to be a huge number of reasons in play – from the transient mobile nature of society which prohibits any large collection of shared experiences to the rapid turnover of our physical and urban environment which erodes our collective memories – something Glenn Albrecht terms as Solastalgia (Geoff Mulgan pointed out at the same lecture event that we’re now living to such an age where we are beginning to have a longer lifespan than many of the buildings we live and work in – something that is pretty detrimental for the build up of memories that our physical environments store).

One of the key parts of ritual and narrative is that it has to be theatrical and accessible so that everybody can participate

Having said that, it’s still clear that people seem to have an innate need for a story that they belong to and an inherent desire for a strong binding narrative; so much so that we seem to try and plug this vacuum in a number of other places. A piece a few months back in the Autumn RSA Journal by Ross Deuchar pointed out that gangs were able to offer young people a “surrogate family” with strong social support, bonding and identity. A more recent piece drawn upon in ESRC’s Identities and Social Action programme put heavy drinking binges between friends as a way for young people to be part of a community; a kind of ritual act that binds them together through regular bouts of drinking. And then there’s a widespread consumer culture which Amitai Etzioni sees as a fairly empty collective route to self-actualisation.

It has to be said that sometimes these rituals, narratives and acts of belonging do actually deliver some benefits but overall it’s fairly obvious to say that they are pretty unsustainable and damaging to our environment, to others around us and to ourselves. So how do we form a strong narrative that moves us away from this kind of “bad belonging” to a “good belonging”? How do we bring together stories that tie us to a place and instil within us a desire to participate and simply get involved in our communities? There’s probably a fair few ways towards achieving this but I couldn’t help noticing throughout the Sennett/Williams lecture that the main attributes of the arts kept coming back to what Sennett said was required to reinvigorate narrative.

Sennett pointed out that one of the key parts of ritual and narrative is that it has to be theatrical and accessible so that everybody can participate. Participants are giving “expressive performances” that everybody can see and everybody can relate to and which can reaffirm our connection to one another. This is something right at the heart of the arts. Art in all its forms provide a stage upon which narrative can be developed and where the sometimes weak connections between one another can be strengthened and highlighted.

If you take a landmark sculpture like the Angel of the North it’s these kinds of defining symbols that can help make a place distinct from another and give residents a sort of self-esteem about the unique identity of the place in which they live. But one of the most  important things about art is that it can help develop bridging social capital as well as bonding social capital. Instead of ‘Alamo-identities’ that can come about from initiatives that mean communities disassociate with one another more than they associate within one another, art is something that might just be able to transcend that parochial feeling – without trying to milk a cliché too much, it brings people from different backgrounds together to share a common story, a common narrative. Just look at the way the latest 4th plinth has been able to breathe a bit of narrative and story back into Trafalgar Square.

Photo of Richard Sennett courtesy of Richard Sennett
Photo of Angel of the North by Antony Gormley by

The value of talking to strangers

I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.

The evocative final line of A Streetcar Named Desire has been reverberating in my mind over the last week as I have been involved in the setting up of our work for Citizen Power in Peterborough, meeting people, looking for office and meeting spaces and generally getting to know the place. The quote was sparked by the lecture at the RSA last week by Paul Seabright on his book The Company of Strangers.

How do seemingly serendipitous exchanges inform our perceptions about a place?

He referred to the modern world being constructed on everyday exchanges between strangers, often based on necessities such as getting to work but also on all those seemingly meaningless interactions that relate to a highly momentary reality such as the weather. He spoke of hard wired empathetic abilities that have more influence that we might imagine and it got me thinking about how I have been getting to know the two cities I am working with. How do these seemingly serendipitous exchanges inform our perceptions about a place? Do we value what they can reveal or indeed, take them seriously enough to include them in our thinking? In Manchester, while scoping for the Area Based Curriculum opportunities, I was consciously engaging in a series of serendipitous meetings; actively looking for them, taking the chance that strangers will stop what they are doing and speak to you. You get a different kind of perspective, often a very immediate and genuine kind of one. People often reveal something much more direct, honest and critical to a stranger in a momentary situation.

In my previous work with Creative Partnerships, schools were increasingly enthusiastic about creative learning walks in their own communities as a way of deepening learning back in the classroom. With regard to my current work in Peterborough, I have been relying much more on the scoping data and my meetings with those who are much more knowledgeable about the city than I am. However, I suspect that I

have missed a step here in not purposefully engaging with the serendipitous and reflecting on what this can reveal and as a consequence, developing a personal relationship with the place. But all this also reveals the extra dimension of kindness or the lack of in these everyday interactions and the willingness to engage and offer something of yourself. A friend and Fellow of the RSA, Tom Andrews is structuring his work on engagement in Herne Bay around valuing kindness.

And I am wondering what the connections are between kindness and developing attachment to place, engagement and participation and the value of talking to strangers and of course, what this means for how I start to better understand the places I am working within.

Big Society(3): shape and size matter

May 17, 2010 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

Is The Big Society toast?

Writing in Friday’s Guardian, Simon Jenkins suggests that it might be.  It has emerged that “The Big Society” idea was difficult to sell on the doorstep, and another report in the Guardian featured “a senior and normally loyal Tory MP” who complained that Cameron’s big idea for the campaign under which armies of volunteers would come together to tackle the country’s ills – was “complete crap”.

When the "Big Society" idea was finally tested on the electorate late in the campaign, it received a thumbs down

“We couldn’t sell that stuff on the doorstep”, he said, “It was pathetic. All we needed was a simple message on policy. We could have won a majority if we had not had to try to sell this nonsense.” This frustratingly anonymous source may have a point, given that when the “Big Society” idea was finally tested on a sample of the electorate, surprisingly late in the campaign, it received a thumbs down.

Time will tell whether Cameron’s Big Society, like John Major’s Back to Basics Campaign, will be a fleeting aspirational notion, or whether the  Liberal Democrats are willing to help resurrect an idea that, as Simon Jenkins and others have pointed out, may be perfectly sound in theory. As Mathew Taylor indicated, the RSA have been working to make society “bigger” for some time,  and when it comes to “bigging up” society, the Connected Communities Project in particular have some useful ideas on the kinds of size and shape that matter.

It is so easy to slip from talking about "neighbourhoods", to reminiscing about "communities", to lamenting the various ills of "society"

A big society needs good social networks, and “good” does not merely mean a ridiculously high number of friends on Facebook, but rather links to important source of information and power, and access to people and institutions that offer skills and resources that are relevant and meaningful to the groups and individuals who seek them out.

Such connections can be measured, and networks have sizes and shapes with  qualitative as well as quantitative aspects, but to get a feeling for what is “big”,  we need to be clear about what “society” means in terms of network scale. This clarity is particularly important in the discourse surrounding community regeneration and social renewal, because it is so easy to slip from talking about “neighbourhoods”, to reminiscing about “communities”, to lamenting the various ills of “society”. Such terms will always be fuzzy edged and contestable, but at each level of scale we need different kinds of measurement.

The Young Foundation appear to be focus their community work at the neighbourhood level of a few hundred people, our Peterborough Project is city-wide, relevant to scores of thousands and therefore closer to “society”,  while The Connected Communities project, currently focussed on New Cross Gate, aims to be relevant to the roughly ten thousand residents who live there, and to serve as an example or prototype for work at a similar scale.

David Cameron seems to have a vision of a society of reciprocal altruists, proatively seeking to help each other and seeking help through friends and neighbours, rather than the state. His innaugural Downing Street speech clearly reflects a view of people with a shared sense of belonging who are essentially cooperative and helpful. In this respect, when Cameron invokes the big society, he means he wants to rekindle “Gemeinschaft” in the classical sociological terms of Tonnies, in which people bond over shared social mores.

This is a curious point, given that Gemeinschaft typically translates as “community”, while Gesellschaft, in which people’s associations are motivated by self interest and controlled by legal sanctions, typically translates as “society”.  Even more curious is that Gesellschaft is problematic precisely because of its scale, which leads to the breakdown of shared norms, which is another reason to think that, as the expression of an important idea, “The Big Society” may be somewhat misconceived and poorly expressed.

Indeed,  it is possible that the underlying motive for the idea of the singular “Big Society” is actually multiple communities of various shapes and sizes, in which people are connected through interests, norms and mores, and not through contracts or the happenstance of geographical proximity. Our Connected Communities project will try to make this case clear in our report that will be released this summer.

See also:
Big Society(2): What’s Blue and Yellow and Red all over?
Big Society(1)

Sustainable Citizenship in Peterborough: making a start

April 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

Emma Norris and Jamie Young of RSA Projects outline some of the thinking behind the Sustainable Citizenship project in Peterborough and what they mean by “civic environmentalism”:

For more information go to

Also see:

Art, Ecology and Citizen Power

April 9, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Social Economy 

Tomorrow, the Dutch artist Marjolijn Dijkman arrives in the UK to begin her residency at Clare Cottage in Helpston, near Peterborough. Her stay marks a shift in focus for Arts & Ecology, towards exploring how the arts may engage people locally with environmental change and sustainability. As part of this, Marjolijn has been invited to stay at the home of the local romantic poet John Clare who died in 1864, so is no longer living there. The cottage was refurbished last year and Marjolijn intends to explore contemporary ideas about ‘place’ with people in the surrounding villages and the city of Peterborough, which is where the RSA Citizen Power project is located.

Wandering Through the Future (installation) by Marjolijn Dijkman, 2007. Commissioned by Sharjah Biennial 8: 'STILL LIFE, Art, Ecology and the politics of Change'. Photo by Lateefa Maktoum

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