At the RSA I have the opportunity to meet and work with a diverse and motivated group of Fellows. I’m always amazed how they manage to juggle the range of different ideas and enterprises that they are developing. With 27 000 Fellows there are so many stories it can sometimes feel like you can’t see the wood from the trees but today I’d like to tell you a story of Fellows getting together, discussing an opportunity and providing a solution that helped the environment but more importantly a young man called Sam.
Hill Holt Wood lies on the borders of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire and is home to an award winning social enterprise. If you get the chance to visit please do, you’ll be welcomed with open arms and always offered a cup of tea. In just over ten years of operation, the enterprise has transformed the woodland from a failing, flooded rhododendron-smothered patch of trees into a thriving broadleaf wood.
The main stay of the enterprise has been as a supplier of alternative education. The woodland provides a developmental resource for excluded or marginalized young people to build skills, confidence and improved prospects. Benefits to the young people and to the woods feed back positively one on another. Kids need the woods to learn and in turn the woods are maintained by kids. So year on year a trickle of woodland converts graduate from Hill Holt Wood who are interested in sustaining woodland and so the story goes on…
The wood itself was privately owned but is now open to the public and community owned and the social enterprise operates from a stunning eco-build that incorporates an eco design team, meeting rooms, and a café.
Salvation Army enterprise manager Steve Coles was looking for a similarly sustainable project in which to invest a small fund of £10,000 donated as a bequest by the Booth family for the purpose of planting trees. Hill Holt Wood seemed ideal and proposed the money be used to support a young person through a horticultural apprenticeship AND plant trees. The long-term on-going gains are obvious.
Sam Welch was 15 years old when he first visited Hill Holt Wood. As part of his school curriculum he attended for a day a week on a junior rangers scheme. He developed an unexpected passion for woodland and went on to attend Riseholm College in Lincoln but when he graduated with Level 2 and 3 qualifications in arborioculture he could not find work in Gainsborough. At this point a Job Centre advisor suggested that he return to Hill Holt Wood as a volunteer on the flexible support fund. Sam proved to be a fantastic volunteer and an obvious candidate for the Salvation Army fund.
The award was given to Hill Holt Wood and they have funded Sam’s on-going apprenticeship in horticulture. He says he has two main goals in life “the biggest one is to get a full time job at Hill Holt Wood which I would love, or work somewhere doing the same sort of job…”
The Fellowship Team are always looking to hear about Fellow led projects. If you know of work that is going on that would benefit from Fellows support and advice please get in touch directly, shout about your work at rsafellowship.com and apply to RSA Catalyst. If that work is based in the East and West Midlands then I’m your first point of contact, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @pickfordrich I love hearing about new ideas especially when they are told over a hot cup of tea and some cake.
This, believe it or not, is a photograph of a year seven pupil improvising Romeo and Juliet. Even more surprising is that this pupil was one of a group that started this Shakespeare workshop only a few hours earlier professing that they either knew nothing about Shakespeare or that what they did know of him was “boring”.
This was how my day began when I visited Windsor school in Germany last week as part of a partnership project between the RSA and SCE (Service Children’s Education). The aim of the partnership is to support SCE as two of its schools in JHQ Rheindahlen are due to close along with the Garrison. The focus at Windsor school is to teach the students about Shakespeare whilst also helping them to develop competences from the RSA’s Opening Minds framework which they can call upon during this challenging time and in their future lives.
The pupils’ initial reaction to a day of Shakespeare reminded me of the way in which I and many of my peers greeted Shakespeare learning at school. However, the workshop that followed could not have been more different. After watching the Globe’s promotional video Stand Up For Shakespeare, in which celebrities, such as Judi Dench, explain that Shakespeare is to be acted and not read, we followed their cue and began improvising scenes before even glancing at a script.
Following the truly inspirational facilitation of our lead partner, SCE’s Performing Arts Consultant Joy Harris, the students were led through a number of exercises that helped them to break through Shakespeare’s intimidating language and recognise emotions and scenarios that are common to all people of all ages and times: children and adults, Tudor subjects and modern day citizens. By mid-morning the students were leaping around the room, brandishing imaginary knives and reciting lines from the play, unscripted.
With the children’s excitement and imaginations ignited, my role – to introduce competences such as ‘risk taking’ and ‘feelings and reactions’ – was made much simpler. The children were fully engaged and able to relate the discussion to a present experience. They were, for example, able to put themselves in Juliet’s shoes and explore the risks that she took in marrying Romeo and taking the poison, and to debate whether her actions were admirable or plain foolish. Through the prism of the play and an exploration of the motives and emotions of the characters, they were able to develop a deeper understanding of the competences.
All of this is even more astonishing when you consider the uncertainty that these children face. Apart from the fact that they will not be in that school next September, many do not know much else about what the next year holds. It is hard to imagine the implications this has for them personally, as well as for engagement and morale within the classroom. A number of children will not be able to see the project to completion and, for one pupil, this was their last day in the school. Despite this, every child actively participated and the staff and the school’s Head fully supported the unique experience that they were able to gain that day.
I also learned a lot from the visit – and not just that Shakespeare is not as boring as I had remembered. The whole experience was an extremely powerful demonstration of how pupils become more engaged in learning if they are doing rather than just listening. This approach may seem more easily applicable to drama than other subjects, such as Maths, but maybe it is this pigeon-holing that we need to break away from.
As I approach the end of what is sadly my last day at the RSA (as I will be moving to a new role at Cubitt), my visit to Windsor has also helped me to reflect on the amazing experiences that I have gained here and to think about how I will utilise them in my next role. Perhaps, though, it will be twenty years down the line that I will draw on something that I have learnt here, and the people that helped form that learning won’t have any idea of its application. In the face of what could easily be a sad and demoralising year, the teachers at SCE remain passionate about ensuring that their students access unique opportunities that they can reflect on and use in the year and years to come.
‘Happiness’ is a concept that I seem to be increasingly encountering. It is the subject of a piece of work that my colleagues in Arts and Society are involved with in collaboration with the Happy Museum Project, an initiative that is encouraging UK museums to support transition to well-being and sustainability in our society.
The Happy Museum Project was born from psychological research suggesting that happiness and well-being are not related to material wealth. On the contrary, an emphasis on material wealth has led to a focus on the short term, causing the majority to feel pressure to “keep up” and leading to more unhappiness. Key to a sustainable notion of well-being, according to the Happy Museum Project, is what they call ‘support learning for resilience’, which encourages learning that is curiosity driven, engaging, informal and fun and can build resilience, creativity and resourcefulness.
Of course this is not a wholly new concept. We’re becoming increasingly familiar with research that shows that over a certain comfort threshold, increased wealth doesn’t correlate with general satisfaction, take Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, for example, which was developed in the 1970s. Now the UK government has started to focus on the notion of happiness, with the announcement of the National Wellbeing Project in 2010, which will see them attempt to measure how happy Britons are and use the results to shape government policy.
One area where happiness does not seem to have been a central consideration however is in education. Take the new Ofsted framework, which requires inspectors to place emphasis on behaviour, safety and teaching but makes no mention of emotional wellbeing, sociability and support. The aim here may have been to concentrate on the essentials and perhaps the more quantifiable elements, but this only reinforces the lack of regard with which these qualities are held.
Plans for performance related pay for teachers could be taken as another example of overlooking the importance of happiness. Not only is this measure likely to increase pressure on teachers, making them less happy, but their performance is likely to be measured solely on academic results, as it must be, and not well-being. This is not to say that the two will always be unrelated. For example it seems obvious that if a child is taught in a way that is exciting, fun, collaborative and supportive then they will not only be happier but will be more engaged and therefore attain better results. But this policy risks increasing pressure on students to achieve academically, leading to more teaching to the test and so risking children’s well-being.
Additionally some proponents of performance related pay for teachers base their arguments on economics; a good teacher = a good education (good grades) = a good job = more money. Not only in the current climate is this not necessarily the case, as there are not enough good jobs for high achieving students, but if money doesn’t make us happy then we shouldn’t be thinking only about education in these terms.
So I come back to the Happy Museum Project’s central tenet – our culture must focus on the long-term and sustainable benefits of its actions. Whilst achieving good academic results may lead to happiness in the short term, it can no longer guarantee a child’s future well-being in the face of unemployment, recessions and climate change, although perhaps it can help. My point is not to belittle academic achievement, but to emphasise that like so many things, we just cannot be sure. What we can be sure of is that having confidence, emotional stability and resilience, will help this generation of students to survive this uncertainty and to cope better, if not always be happy.
It is now stating the patently obvious to say that the public policy and public services landscape – especially at a local level – is undergoing a transformative change. Austerity, fiscal pressures, political shifts in Whitehall and a raft of social, political and demographic changes and pressures are forcing decisionmakers and public managers to rethink the way services are designed and delivered. “Public service innovation” has become a buzz-term, and councils are at the forefront of attempts to re-design services in the context of massive fiscal squeezes, ageing populations and rising demand for services. This is why 38% of all local authorities in England and Wales applied to be a part of the LG Group and NESTA’s Creative Councils programme last year – with the hope of implementing radical innovations to meet these challenges.
Public policy is also changing: the localism bill and associated policies and drives for greater decentralisation (or, according to critics, attempts to shift responsibility – and blame – from Whitehall to local government) – along with overarching narratives such as ‘the Big Society’ – are heralding in a future where ‘more with less’ is set to become the central organising principle. The Big Society vision has been used to provide a great deal of the moral case for change: the government says it wants to see greater power in the hands of local communities and citizens, and wants to see an active and engaged citizenry as a core part of a new era of politics and public services.
The difficulties and contradictions are abundantly clear. Some argue councils simply can’t deliver ‘big society’ initiatives at the same time as they are forced to absorb massive cuts in funding – this is why Liverpool City Council withdrew from the government big society pilots last year. Nevertheless, several other councils are making strong attempts despite recognising the pressures of austerity and disagreeing with current Government policy. For examples, thirteen Labour councils – including Sunderland – have joined the Labour Co-operative Councils network, which seeks to develop co-operative models for running local services – putting citizens at the centre.
Much of the scepticism about the ‘big society’ comes from many regarding it as a rhetorical device, and arguing that it relies too much on volunteerism without a solid political structure behind it. It is clear that for truly ‘big society’ politics to take shape, the concept needs to be less associated with volunteerism (although this is important) and more grounded in a new political economy – a point Philip Blond has repeatedly made.
In this respect, Sunderland City Council’s Community Leadership Programme (CLP), which is a key strand of the council’s ‘Sunderland Way of Working’, provides a good example of a local model that is moving towards a political ‘big society’ approach- even though the Labour-run council would eschew the ‘big society’ as a political term. As the 2020 Public Services Hub’s latest report – an evaluation of Sunderland’s CLP – shows, the CLP encompasses multiple strategic layers. This includes engaging elected members more effectively as community leaders and creating the processes and structures necessary to empower them at the community front-line. The second layer is about reconfiguring public services so that they are locally responsive and foster new forms of delivery and accountability in partnership with citizens. The third layer harnesses the power of people, place and council to achieve sustainable growth at a time of political and economic flux. While Sunderland’s CLP certainly faces challenges and has space for improvement, the 2020PSH report shows that it provides valuable lessons for localities across the UK.
At the roundtable marking the launch of the report (on Wednesday 8th February), there was also a general broad agreement by participants on different sides of the political fence about the importance of locally responsible and citizen-centric services supported by various forms of community leadership. Participants at the roundtable also raised some of the challenges that face local politics in practice. For example, Christina Dykes (of the Conservative Next Generation Project) spoke of the need for a culture change at the local level, which Government needs to be proactive in helping. Conservative councillor for Hammersmith and Fulham (and former Leader) Stephen Greenhalgh also said there needs to be greater effort in achieving mass engagement and communication to make local politics relevant to local people. Representing civil society, Neil Jameson (CEX of Citizens UK) and Lucy de Groot (CSV) also argued that civil society is the missing ingredient in many approaches to reinvigorating local democratic politics – civil society has the greatest engagement and contact with citizens, and yet it is often the weakest political actor in the local mix, and so it needs to have greater support. All participants generally agreed there needs to be a politics behind local democracy, and the state at various levels has a key role to play in making narratives such as ‘big society’ viable in practice.
To read the 2020PSH report, click here.
This is about a radical model of enterprise in Stoke where the “cradle-to-cradle” zero-waste business model has been taken one step further. On Saturday I heard at Stoke Stories how a former cattle and tropical agriculture specialist came to be involved in an organisation tackling pressing environmental and social problems through computers.
Hugh Irvine is one of a number of people who are functionally “directors” of The Ethical Computer Company (TECC), based near Stoke. He gave us an honest and insightful account of how it refurbishes and recycles computing equipment that has stopped being used or is damaged. For the last 12 years it has sold computers at low-cost whilst providing paid employment for long-term unemployed and training for young people and marginalised individuals to get them ready for employment. Unemployment is generally recognised as Stoke’s greatest problem, in particular, the unemployment of skilled artisans who once worked in the pottery industry.
This is borne out in the murmurs of approval 51 seconds into Hugh’s talk…
… or if you prefer more quantitative evidence, almost a third more people in Stoke‐on‐Trent are unemployed compared to the national average (1).
Desso aims for all the material resources in their products to be recycled or reused to ensure that a “new” product needs no additional raw materials
I wanted to write about TECC in relation to the “cradle-to-cradle” approach discussed in last week’s RSA lecture, which included Dame Ellen MacArthur and Stef Kranendijk, CEO of the carpeting company Desso. Desso (like TECC) aims for all the material resources in its products to be recycled or reused to ensure that a “new” product needs no additional raw materials (though renewable energy and human resources are undoubtedly needed to undertake this recycling and reusing).
TECC delivers a zero material-resource-waste and a zero human-resource-waste business model… helping local people develop transferable skills that they can reuse in future employment
What TECC showed me – and this is why I called it a radical model – is another way of looking at the cradle-to-cradle business model. Firstly, TECC also recycles and reuses the products of other computer sellers (its competitors of sorts), as well as making its own products recyclable and reusable. Secondly, and what I will explore in a bit more detail, TECC also focuses on human or social sustainability. Desso might employ whoever in the labour market wants the job (to deliver a zero material-resource-waste business model). TECC, on the other hand, delivers a zero material-resource-waste and a zero human-resource-waste business model. It employs local people who face difficulties in getting employment because of a culture of unemployment, physical disabilities or a criminal record. Desso wants to prevent its product materials from ending up on the environmental scrapheap. This compares with TECC which also works to prevent people from ending up on the ‘economic scrapheap’, instead helping people to develop transferable skills that they can reuse in future employment.
This model of operating a business will be familiar to a number of social entrepreneurs. Indeed eight of the 25 enterprises that won the prestigious social enterprise programme the Big Venture Challenge are applying a similar method; employing people who would otherwise face major difficulties in getting employment.
With this in mind, you could argue that this (expanded) interpretation of cradle-to-cradle then also has relevance for those few sectors that don’t dispose of their products quickly for recycling to be important. At the Desso lecture, Paul King, CEO of the UK Green Building Council, laid down the challenge of retrofitting Britain’s housing stock – 80% of which he said will still be here in 2050. Could retrofitting be delivered by training up the long-term unemployed? The Green New Deal described this as a ‘carbon army,’ Boris Johnson proposed something similar, but RE:FIT, set to retrofit 55,000 London homes before March 2012 (2), show no signs of training long-term unemployed people. Birmingham council has embarked on something along these lines. With the retrofitting industry worth £500bn over the next three decades (3), with the likelihood of public investment diminishing and with people so far unenthusaistic about letting big energy companies sell them energy efficiency services, is there not a space for a social enterprise? I’d love to know if one exists.
we don’t have a hierarchy, we are a bunch of people that want to make things happen
Lastly, I wanted to raise some of challenges TECC faces in increasing its impact that Hugh talked so passionately about, which I will soon put to the RSA Fellows’ Social Entrepreneurs’ Network.
- In a majority public sector economy, there was some scepticism among previously state-funded voluntary groups who had been told by local authorities to become social enterprises. But the story of the Ethical Computer Company showed that it was possible to build a social enterprise in Stoke, with a lot of hard work and no little skill, without funding from the public authorities. That said, TECC has been frustrated about the lack of collaboration from the public authorities. It is based exactly opposite a partially-empty Council-owned building which could provide a springboard for growth, and Hugh knows of a closed-down school that has a great deal of IT equipment just sitting there unused
- Established in 1999 before the Community Interest Company legal form was created, TECC is a charity and company hybrid. This makes some charitable foundations suspicious and less ready to fund the enterprise
- Hugh describes TECC as follows “we don’t have a hierarchy, we are a bunch of people that want to make things happen.” Decisions are made in a weekly meeting, open to all team members, each of who provide leadership according to their own particular strengths. This is philosophically important to the team but is a challenging way to organise an enterprise and also thoroughly confuses some people. Suggestions of how to scale up governance arrangements that are neither a fully-fledged collective nor a traditional company are welcome.
Please get in touch via the comments below.
John Pavlus, a blogger for MIT’s Technology Review, dismisses most of TIME’s current feature The 50 Best Inventions of 2010 as “shiny flying things that no one on Earth needs”. A sceptical technocrat after my own heart then. But he picks out three that he thinks are more worthy of attention, one of which is a prototype incubator for premature infants.
Conventional incubators can reduce neo-natal deaths by carefully regulating the baby’s temperature, but they are completely unsuitable for less economically developed countries – high up-front costs and require prohibitive ongoing costs and training. The NeoNurture is rather different.
While researching the problem, the team of design students and professional volunteers behind the NeoNurture noticed that a lot of medical equipment donated to the hospitals they visited quickly broke and was much too complex to fix. Starting to ask “What does get fixed?”, they were swiftly led to cars.
Adding “Car” to the four Cs (Coke, condoms, cigarettes and cell phones) that Paul Hudnut describes as ubiquitous products, they developed an incubator that can be constructed from widely available vehicle parts and mended by any local mechanic. The warming is provided by headlights, a motor blower draws in filtered air, indicator lights as an alarm and a motorcycle battery protects the incubator from power outages.
It’s ingenious inventions like this that perfectly exemplifies the thesis behind the RSA’s Design team. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are” as Teddy Roosevelt (who I guess would have made a very resourceful designer) put it. Or as the Design team’s webpages argue: “design will be fundamental to closing the gap between behaviour and aspiration because of the particular resourcefulness that designers represent”.
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters, Social Economy
Aside from the student march in central London yesterday protesting a proposed rise in student fees, many conversations around the implications of the CSR and the imminent and immediate budget cuts have significantly died down. On the design front, there was a flurry of discussion around the demise of Cabe announced as part of the budget cuts, but there has been much less talk about the possible end of another, much smaller design champion, Design for London.
Operating under the London Development Agency (which itself is under threat) Design for London, has adopted a more proactive approach to championing good design, driving forward the Mayor’s policies and objectives and working with the London boroughs to deliver high quality plans, most notably the Thames Gateway and a number of public realm initiatives. Their contributions to new design schemes in Barking, Brixton and Dalston town centres are of particular note. Design for London represents a model for the future of locally-led, collaborative planning and urban design that will result in better places ands spaces for all citizens.
RIBA has similarly warned that in the face of organisations like Cabe and Design for London being axed, the Coalition government must work even harder to promote local empowerment in individuals and communities (through the Big Society agenda) but it must also foster support for local authorities to understand and make informed design decisions. What we desperately need are organisations, communities and individuals that will promote good design through the delivery of practical, locally-led, high quality schemes.
In light of this need for design champions, we return to the RSA’s central mission to foster good citizenship by closing the gap between our current behaviour and our aspirations for the future. The RSA Design team argues that design is fundamental to closing the gap between behaviour and aspiration. The process of design demands creative problem-solving and improvisation in the face of the unexpected. Designers observe, analyse and seize opportunities and this course of action (observation, analysis and opportunity) is particularly relevant as all citizens will need to take greater leadership and ownership in their communities, including the built environment that surrounds all of us.
Though not a design consultancy or a design advisory body, the RSA is a design champion of a different sort. We are the only UK organisation that considers design within a broad, multi-disciplinary understanding of society, enterprise, individual human capacity and collective action. We are particularly interested in how design can increase the resourcefulness and self-reliance of people and communities. We promote design through hands-on projects, such as our forthcoming Resourceful Architect project, our Design & Rehabilitation work and our recent 3-day residential Design & Creativity Workshop (which Emily Campbell, Director of Design recently wrote about here).
It remains to be seen who will take on the leadership role of championing good design in the environment and in our communities in the absence of organisations like Cabe and Design for London, but I can only hope that more resourceful citizens will emerge, taking a vested interest in the power of design to improve communities from within.
Here within the RSA design team, we are known for our mantra: design and designers have a vital role to play in making citizens, and therefore society, more resourceful. We argue that a fundamental optimism with respect to progress, change and fulfilling needs is at the core of design. But just as the definition of design is becoming increasingly diffuse, so is the quality of design becoming increasingly varied. This prompts the question: what constitutes good design, how is it measured and what are its effects?
Ben Toombs addressed the effects of good design in his recent post On Everyday Beauty, acknowledging the fundamental link between a sense of civic pride and well-designed, beautiful places and spaces. Toombs’ point is a good one and one that is widely perpetuated in urban design circles and as a way of highlighting the benefits of place-making. But, in her piece, You know more than you think you do: design as resourcefulness & self-reliance, Emily Campbell, the RSA Director of Design, notes that “Good design in itself is not a guarantee of good citizenship.” But what about bad design? Does bad design have a role in perpetuating or facilitating bad citizenship?
Design starts with a problem of what people want and/or need and finds a solution. Bad design takes many forms and in its worst, it can exacerbate a problem rather than solve it. Does this mean, then, that it can even be called design? I’ve been toiling over this idea for years and I wrote about extensively in Design Denied: The Ethics of Withholding Good Design, but I’d like to know what others think…
Bad design is increasingly abundant. In her piece, Campbell acknowledges that an increased prevalence of amateur design, especially provoked by electronic design tools, “breeds quantity more than quality; it adds to the complexity and abundance of our world, rather than producing clarity.” (Of course, amateur design does not necessarily equate to bad design, but it can and often does). So, are there principles of bad design (does bad design even have principles?) that we can learn from to help us inform good design? Is bad design a necessary part of the development of good design (as the ‘try, try again’ philosophy seems to imply)?
Designers today have a responsibility to not only promote the resourcefulness of design, but specifically good design. Campbell is on to something: the professional designer needs to not only increase access to design tools, but also to champion good design and raise the overall quality of design.
As I was paying £1.20 for a sad, solitary chocolate biscuit this morning, I began wondering about how we choose to value things in society, and how all too often this valuation takes a monetary form.
There is an interesting programme going on at the NEF at the moment called ‘Valuing what Matters’. Their argument is simple: when governments set targets for themselves, they tend to measure what is easy to measure, like savings. The stuff that gets measured tends to become the stuff that matters when evaluating performance and so this cycle repeats itself.
Well, what happens when we are measuring the wrong thing? This is the argument the NEF is considering, and it applies to education too.
As students begin school again this September one thing remains constant: results matter. They are the measure universities and employers use to determine who gets in and who doesn’t. This doesn’t mean that they are only thing that matters.
As every CBI report I have ever read informs me, the UK’s top employers are worried: they need a demanding set of attributes and qualities from their graduate workers which academic qualifications cannot quantify. Since they are not being measured for, apparently whether or not an applicant has them can be up to chance.
From GCSEs to IGCSEs, the International Baccalaureate, the ‘English Baccalaureate’, BTECs, NVQs, the Cambridge Pre-U, to the new A* A Level grade and talk of scrapping AS Levels (having just introduced them) altogether, our crowded qualifications landscape is endemic of an inability to agree on what counts in education. Demos may have asked why educational assessment was ‘failing’ in 2003, but it appears the question remains just as pertinent now in 2010.
Business (and, more importantly, society) needs people who can be leaders and communicators; critical, independent thinkers, who are able to adapt and be resilient in the face of change and who are capable of applying knowledge rather than just acquiring it. These are the people who are most likely to do well at work and these are also the people who, studies tell us, are most likely to thrive in life too.
But how then do we create a school system that values and supports the development of the other qualities and capabilities people are going to need beyond school, such as an ability to stick to goals, show resilience and regulate behaviour? Or should this not be the preserve of school at all, and what then for those children who parents are unable or ill-equipped to pass these demanding qualities on to their children? Should the acquisition of such values be left to chance?
Opening Minds has been developed by the RSA partly in response to this question, and the RSA Academy’s 2010 exam results attest for how a skills based curriculum can begin to produce both well-rounded and academically sound candidates.
At Whole Education, we are beginning to ask these questions too. We don’t have all the answers are yet, but we are looking.
What does “civic behaviour” look like? Voting springs to mind, as does volunteering, with perhaps starting a charity or social enterprise towards the black-belt end of being an active citizen. Debugging a page of code in the evenings is not something many of us would immediately point towards. But this particular example of civic behaviour, hidden to many of us, is going on across the country.
It’s become much more visible to those with an interest in technology through the example of pioneers like mySociety, who presciently argued for public sector data to be freely available in helpful formats to everybody at the same time as demonstrating how it could be put to social use through sites like TheyWorkForYou – created entirely by volunteers. And while the slowly-turning machinery of government chewed the idea over (now manifest in data.gov.uk), ingeniously came up with their own solutions of scraping it from the Government’s very web 1.0 sites and making it available to others.
Other enterprising groups have established their own community websites, which pull local residents around their neighbourhood, achieving in a Big Society-ish way some of what local government would like to do, while hacking events like those run by Rewired State (“Geeks meet Government”) bring people together to make useful and open applications from public data.
Rory Cellan-Jones broke the news today that many government websites could be cut, after a review from the government that highlights some of their soaring cost. This review seems in sympathy with a report the RSA published earlier this year that heard a variety of stories around the depressingly wasteful cost of public sector IT and argued for a more parsimonious approach to technology in a cold economic climate.
When the RSA was founded it aimed to “embolden enterprise, to enlarge Science, to refine Art, to improve our Manufactures, and extend our Commerce”, and offered premiums or awards “for any and every work of distinguished ingenuity”. William Shipley, a drawing master, felt deeply about the importance to Britain of the skill of drawing. One of the first premiums given is recorded in the minutes of the RSA’s very first meeting on 22nd March 1754:
“It was likewise proposed, to consider of giving Rewards for the Encouragement of Boys and Girls in the Art of Drawing; and it being the Opinion of all present that the art of Drawing is absolutely necessary in many Employments Trades & Manufactures, and that the Encouragement thereof may prove of great Utility to the public, it was resolved to bestow Premiums on a certain number of Boys or Girls under the age of sixteen…”
Drawing was a key skill in the eighteenth century, but in the twenty-first, it seems to me as though developing computer code is also important to solving some of the real problems we face. Developing code that helps people to feel attached to their neighbourhood, strengthens community, helps keep the government accountable, and reduces the burden on public money is of course a civic behaviour.