A fortnight ago, we held our first ‘Introduction to RSA Crowdfunding’ event, open to both Fellows and non-Fellows who were interested in learning more about crowdfunding. People were able to attend the evening session both in-person at the RSA House and remotely over free videoconferencing software. After nearly 6 months since the launch of the RSA curated area on Kickstarter, we have realised that the main difficulty facing project leaders is how intimidating crowdfunding can seem. Fellows often have lots of questions and reservations about it, ranging from how high a fundraising target they should set, to how much work a campaign actually is. In this session we set out to allay some of those fears. By simply going through the basics of crowdfunding, we were able to ‘totally demystify crowdfunding,’ in the words of Jane Glitre FRSA, who attended the event. Here are the answers to just a few of the worries people had about running crowdfunding campaigns.
By simply going through the basics of crowdfunding, we were able to ‘totally demystify crowdfunding.’
- I don’t think my project/social enterprise is suitable for crowdfunding. While it is true that massively, out-of-this-world successful projects tend to be things like video games or technology products, many different kinds of campaigns have the potential to be successful, and there are crowdfunding platforms for all different kinds of projects. Kickstarter, on which the RSA has a curated area, favours ‘creative’ projects. However, the term creative should be interpreted broadly, and depending on how you phrase your project, can accommodate a wide variety of projects that don’t initially seem creative. For example, Nalibeli, a project seeking to create an online wiki educating Nepalese citizens about their rights, successfully crowded for over $3,200 on our curated area. Projects that receive our support to prepare for a crowdfunding campaign can choose to go on other platforms—such as Indiegogo, which is what Sunday Assembly decided to do—but at the moment we can only offer our publicity to FRSA projects on Kickstarter.
- How much work is crowdfunding, really? Anybody who has run a crowdfunding campaign will tell you that it is a lot of work. In fact, we brought in a Fellow who had recently crowdfunded to talk about her experience, and she said that her campaign almost became a second job. However, I think the underlying fear here isn’t the amount of work, but rather the possibility of wasted effort. What we’ve found after six months is that most project leaders who are able to put in the necessary time and effort towards a crowdfunding campaign end up being successful.
Conversely, a common theme of unsuccessful campaigns was that they suffered from a lack of capacity from the start. Kickstarter cites the statistic that of the projects that reach 20% of their target, 80% are eventually successful. It is also worth mentioning that many rewards-based crowdfunding campaigns are selling a product or service directly to its potential audience in the form of rewards, which provides the project leader with valuable information on the demand for the project and experience with marketing it.
- What happens if my project doesn’t reach its target in an all-or-nothing campaign? Even if your project is unsuccessful you will be able to message your backers through Kickstarter. In many cases, some backers are still willing to donate to your project even if the campaign hasn’t been successful because they really want your project to happen. In other cases, you can use the support for your Kickstarter campaign in things like grant applications as evidence of the demand for your project. MAKLab, an FRSA project which did not reach its target on Kickstarter, used their 64 backers to convince foundations to provide the funding for the project, still housed in Somerset House, at a slightly lower budget. No matter what, you’ll have a new group of people who liked your project enough to back it and who can get involved in your work in the future.
Since crowdfunding support is a unique offer from RSA Catalyst, we plan to run several more ‘Introduction to RSA Crowdfunding’ events in the future, open to both Fellows and non-Fellows. If you are interested in crowdfunding for your project or social enterprise, or would simply like to learn more about this fast-growing source of funding register for our next session here, which will be held on Wednesday 19th March, 6:00-7:30pm, both at the RSA House and online.Interested in FRSA projects involved in crowdfunding? Check out This University is Free (IF) on the RSA curated area, a project to provide a free humanities summer school to young people priced out of higher education. You can also read Jonny Mundey FRSA’s Big Idea blog about the project. Learn how to start a crowdfunding campaign for your project with RSA Catalyst – helping to turn RSA Fellows’ ideas into action. Apply for crowdfunding support from the RSA here.
The Big Idea: This University is Free (IF) is a new project co-founded by Jonny Mundey FRSA offering free humanities courses to young people priced out of today’s higher education market, by using London’s cultural wealth in innovative ways.
Late last year I met my colleague and soon-to-be IF co-founder Barbara for a coffee. Our meeting was billed as a routine catch-up but by the end of our talk we had posed ourselves a question it proved impossible to ignore: what if you could use the free cultural resources of a city, the web and shards of donated time from academics to create a series of free undergraduate-level courses? The IF Project was born.
The principles that have driven the project from day one are that an education in the humanities is an education that should be available to all (not just a luxury for the sons and daughters of the wealthy) and an education worth having, with the capacity to enrich young people’s lives and benefit society as a whole. In short, why shouldn’t the inspirational liberal arts education Barbara and I enjoyed be within reach of all school-leavers and young workers who wanted it?
There is clearly a demand for free self-driven learning: mass open online courses (MOOCS) have been expanding at a furious rate. Unfortunately, a lot of students abandon on-line learning. What they are probably missing is the college-type experience of debating and learning with and from fellow students; the fun and excitement of studying.
The IF project uses London as a giant lecture-hall, guiding students to free events relevant to our introductory short courses in subjects such as history, philosophy, music and the visual arts. It also brings together a network of academics and thinkers to lead weekly workshops, lectures and seminars with IF students. So far, we’ve forged partnerships with academic organisations such as Gresham College (which offers free lunchtime and evening lectures of the highest academic quality); recruited professors from top universities to offer free lectures; and connected with youth organisations who work with the young people who have been priced out of the current loans-based education market.
The IF Summer School
In May we are running our first course - a four-week humanities Summer School taking in history lectures at the Gresham College, visual arts experiences via the V&A’s standing collections and discussions around free concerts at The Festival Hall. We will use the Summer School to test out the logistics of IF and seek feedback and advice from our first students on how to expand the idea into something much bigger.
Get Involved with IF
We have just launched a crowdfunding campaign (as of yesterday!), supported by the RSA, to raise funds for the IF Summer School. We would be hugely grateful for any help in spreading the word.
We would also love to hear from Fellows and contacts interested in being involved in the IF project. To expand we need to connect with volunteer academics who can provide, say, one lecture a year. We need academics and thinkers and post-graduate students who love their subjects and want to talk to and enthuse new students about what they are doing in seminar sessions. We want to hear from organisations who can donate space for seminars and lectures. We want to form close links with cultural institutions sharing our aims.
Just as we have been inspired by the community of UK “free university” projects along the way, if we succeed in London, we hope others will copy the IF model.
Jonny Mundey FRSA
To get help from RSA Catalyst for your social venture visit our webpage
Starting up on your own is certainly no easy feat – in fact we often discuss the potential obstacles that lie ahead at the RSA’s monthly Social Entrepreneurs breakfast. However, one thing I have noticed is that the first barrier is not (as you might think) imagined lack of capital; it’s simply getting started.
Seemingly, a number of skilled, imaginative people are just unsure how or where to begin.
It wasn’t until I began working at the RSA that I fully appreciated the value of having a support structure. I thought breaking out on your own was something you should do…alone? I soon learnt that successful leaders do quite the opposite: they join a network, get training and tap into all the help that’s available.
A couple of weeks ago, we hosted an evening event at RSA House for thirty individuals currently undertaking the Clore Leadership Programme which focuses on those with experience working in the Arts, and the Clore Social Leadership Programme which is primarily for people with careers in the social sectors. We were privileged to have a mixture of current Clore Fellows join us for some drinks, networking and an historical tour of the building.
For those who don’t know, the Clore programmes are designed to develop strong leaders in the cultural and social sectors so that more individuals are better equipped to engender positive change in their communities, organisations and the world around them.
Given the electic mix of experience and knowledge in the room a number of interesting conversations were initiated – from discussing the trajectory of the Walt Disney corporation, to the role of art in school curriculums – Clore Leaders are inspiring and inspired company. For more information about the current cohort of Clore Cultural and Social Leaders you can view full profiles on the respective websites.
We were also joined by Asma Shah FRSA who spoke to the room about her social enterprise Ladies Who L-EARN. Asma demonstrates exactly how transformative the Clore programme can be. With a background in the Arts, Asma was a Clore Cultural Fellow though as she pointed out, you wouldn’t know it now as her current work sits firmly within the social sector.
Upon finishing the programme she joined the RSA Fellowship and by applying to RSA Catalyst, Asma was able to get her project off the ground. Since then she has been able to access further funding, attract more volunteers and ultimately, help more women.
Asma was keen to point out the combination of the Clore Fellowship and RSA Fellowship is a powerful one. This cannot be overemphasised. Asma began working with women in her community who had limited access to the kind of training or social capital that she had gained from joining influential, supportive networks like Clore and the RSA.
The RSA has partnered with Clore Leadership for nine years now and we continue to work together because of our mutual belief that investing in individuals is one of the fundamental ways to improve society.
Part of investing in people is offering them a framework to carry their ideas, so that getting started is never an obstacle.
Alexandra Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordiantor at the RSA
If you would like more infromation about RSA Fellowship or any of people or projects mentioned above, then contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The Big Idea: Auntie Daisy is a new service that delivers sanitary towels and tampons discreetly through women’s letterboxes every month. 100% of profits go to Camfed - a charity educating and empowering girls in Africa. Matt Lill FRSA is the co-founder of Auntie Daisy.
When my partner Claire lived in Tanzania and taught English to young girls, she noticed how some of them would often miss school at certain times of the month. Without access to sanitary protection and without proper toilet facilities in schools, some girls in Africa can miss a whole week of lessons every single term – just because of their period. This leaves them way behind, which is just not right.
One evening many years later, Claire told me about the girls she met and the problems they faced. My brain automatically turned to my background of working with social enterprises, and a few glasses of wine later Auntie Daisy was born!
Auntie Daisy is not just about supporting girls’ education with our profits. We want to hit a chord with women in the UK by relating to something they use every single month.
We aim to inspire women to change their shopping habits ever so slightly, and buy their sanitary products through Auntie Daisy. By buying social, they can have a direct impact on girl’s lives in Africa and help Camfed educate more young women of the future.
The RSA Catalyst grant has been fundamental in getting Auntie Daisy off the ground. We invested the funding in the packaging for our boxes, which will be hitting women’s letterboxes soon. The boxes look amazing and hopefully women who receive them will agree and enjoy opening them each month.
As well as funding, the RSA has provided us with some invaluable advice from its fellows, including those with expertise in marketing – essential for helping as many women as possible to hear about Auntie Daisy. We have also received a lot of advice and encouragement from other fellows we’ve met, including at the excellent recent #RSAEngage event (and I don’t say that just because I was speaking at it!). We look forward to meeting more inspirational fellows over the coming months.
As for next steps – well to be honest as a new business everything’s a next step at the moment! But we definitely have some exciting times ahead. The first thing we want to do is find out what women really want when it comes to their periods. Together with Mumsnet, we’ve launched a survey about women’s monthly trends and habits. The responses will help ensure that we’re offering the best service we can, that appeals to women and gives them one less thing to think about each month.
Auntie Daisy needs you!
Auntie Daisy provides convenience, discretion and a contribution to a cause for our customers – we want to get these messages out in front of as many women as possible. We think that one way to do this is through partnerships with established women’s networks. Accordingly we would be grateful for advice from anybody who has held a senior position in such a network, or negotiated such a partnership, to make sure we get our pitch right, in a way that will be valuable for both sides.
RSA Fellows can help Auntie Daisy get it right from the start – please take the survey and pass it on to any women who might be interested. If you think Auntie Daisy is a service that could work for you, please visit our website and sign up. Again, please pass the link on to any women you know. You can also show your support and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.
We’re really excited about what the future holds for Auntie Daisy and we strongly believe in everything it stands for. But we’re always very open to more suggestions and ideas. Please do get in touch at email@example.com – we look forward to hearing from you!
To get help from RSA Catalyst for your social venture visit our webpage
One evening over the Christmas break, I found myself at the home of a friend and her partner, both of whom happen to be psychoanalysts. Over dinner, whilst attempting to steer the conversation away from work, we began discussing the role of storytelling in our lives; the social narratives we believe in, the stories we pass on to others and the ones that resonate at a personal level.
The conversation led us to conclude that whilst a good story will always have readers, a really powerful story, will inspire people to act. In the Fellowship department, we often discuss how to make this shift. When there is so much great material available, it can be difficult to know how to piece it all together and the power in a story can easily be lost.
At first glance, social change appears to lend itself well to narrative. For a start, there is natural beginning; if we are trying to solve a problem, first we have to understand it. The starting point has to be-
What exactly is happening here?
This is especially poignant when encountering subjects that people might be uncomfortable talking about. Rachel Clare FRSA is Assistant Director at the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) which deals with the issue of male suicide. According to recent government statistics on mortality rates, suicide is a bigger cause of death in young men than HIV, traffic accidents and assault combined, with 77% of all cases of suicide in the UK every year being male. CALM was born from a simple need to generate greater awareness of the problem.
Once a problem is defined, we have to figure out the best way to solve it – how do we improve the world around us?
Monday night’s Fellows event RSA Engage demonstrated that within the Fellowship there is a wealth of ideas about how we can transition from the beginning to the middle; problem to potential solution. Amongst the seven Fellows who pitched their project at the event, was Richard Blissett FRSA. Richard was recommended for Fellowship by a previous Catalyst winner and in turn decided to apply for funding for his own project. Through RSA Catalyst, his digital tool Edukit is well on the way to helping teachers find the appropriate resources to support disadvantaged students, quickly and easily. For Richard, the how lies in getting the right tools to the right people.
However, for a modest enterprise like Edukit to earn a place in the grander narrative of social change, it must also create a story around itself. Tools will not reach people if it’s not clear why they’re relevant, so creating a strong, individual narrative is critical – it is not enough to be heard, you have to be understood.
New RSA Fellow Emily Farnworth founded her social business Counter Culture on precisely the understanding that powerful stories are the key to changing indiviual behaviour, yet when tackling complex issues such as poverty or climate change, a simple beginning, middle and end doesn’t always cut it.
Emily believes that ‘the only way to solve the world’s biggest problems in a meaningful way is to see all sides of an argument.’ Counter Culture was established to help businesses and charities reach their audiences through a more agile form of storytelling that incorporates multiple and differing perspectives.
This can be achieved in many different ways. Even if you don’t recognise it immediately, brands, charities and individuals are communicating with us all the time without ever needing to put pen to paper. New Fellow David Pope, filmmaker, consultant and member of the British Council’s Creative Economy Pool of Experts, is interested in the storytelling possibilities offered by new technologies because this evolution is creating opportunities for a more diverse range of voices and stories to reach wider audiences.
New mediums can transform the way an issue is presented and the type of people who can tell the story. An example -
In December, Mark Leruste FRSA joined the Fellowship. As well as being an ICF Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC), he is a Country Manager for Movember, the infamous worldwide men’s health charity that invites men around the world to grow a moustache for 30 days in November to raise awareness and funds for men’s health. This in itself proves that a serious message can be communicated through the power of a moustache.
A story can still carry weight even if the chronology is disjointed or the medium unconventional.
Movember shows that a life-threatening disease affecting a particular demographic can gather mass support using humour and facial hair. If that isn’t re-writing the story, I don’t know what is.
If you would like to find out more about any of the projects or Fellows mentioned above, or would like to know more about joining the Fellowship please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Alexandra Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordinator at the RSA
The Big Idea: Fluency is a learning platform and crowd work marketplace that gets young people into work and connects them with small businesses who need their skills. Sinead Mac Manus FRSA is the CEO and co-founder of Fluency.
I founded the company to solve two big problems: the fact that there are limited work opportunities at the moment for young people, both here in the UK and across Europe, and the lack of digital expertise in small businesses in the UK.
We teach our young people in-demand skills such as how to build a website, how to market a company on social media or how to optimise content for Google. Our learners complete digital challenges and collect badges to demonstrate their learning. But what’s really unique about our platform is that as our learners get mastery in a subject, they become eligible for work on the crowd work platform. In this way they can ‘learn and earn’ at the same time.
The story so far
My background is a digital coach and trainer to small businesses. For the past four years I have been working with them to overcome stresses about engaging in digital and showing them the potential that the web and social media can have for their business. But many of my clients were just too busy to implement much of my advice so I back in 2011 I saw a gap in the market for providing outsourced digital services and, with help from UnLtd and then the Nominet Trust, started training low income women in east London with these skills.
To be honest I never had a passion for working with young people specifically – as a feminist, creating economic opportunities for women and girls was always more my thing. But as I developed this work, I couldn’t ignore that youth unemployment remains stubbornly high here in the UK and is catastrophic in many European countries such as Greece. Spain and Italy. I realised if we don’t provide work opportunities for this generation of young people, then we run the risk of a ‘lost generation’ with knock-on effects in communities for decades. Since starting to work exclusively with young people last year, I have been amazed at their talents and ambition to make a better life for themselves and feel proud if we can help even one young person succeed.
Fluency was accepted onto Bethnal Green Ventures social technology incubator in July and have been building the platform and piloting our work with young people over the last six months. The Catalyst grant from the RSA was amazing and it allowed us to work with a great bunch of young people over the summer – one of whom is now working in our company, one is doing a technology apprenticeship, and the others are interning or in education.
What does the future bring
We are a very young startup but have received lots of recognition from industry and the press. We were finalists in Vator Splash, one of the most prestigious pitching competitions in the US and we won The Challenge Cup in November last year and were voted Best Education Startup in the UK. We have made strategic partnerships with some of the biggest youth charities in the UK such as The Prince’s Trust and are just about to start working with our first 100 young people getting them trained up and working as digital experts. We have grown our team from the original two co-founders to a team of five and are raising investment to bring the team to nine and reach as many young people as we can.
We have a passionate belief at Fluency that we can help some of the 75 million young people around the world who need work. As more people around the world come online and get access to cheap devices, we want to be there providing access to decently paid, online work opportunities, not only in the digital space, but moving into other verticals such as customer service, lead generation and customer support.
How you can get involved
We are always looking for youth partners to get involved. If you or your organisation are helping young people get into work, then please do drop us a line and see how we can help. We are also looking for small business clients for our young trainees, so if you need help with a making a website, managing your social media, or a host of other digital services – then please do get in touch with us on email@example.com. More information can also be found on www.fluency.io.
Sinead Mac Manus FRSA
Follow them at @getfluency
To get help from RSA Catalyst for your social venture visit our webpage
Nathan Boublil FRSA co-founded Stat.io, a Cambridge-based software company aggregating the millions of statistical spreadsheets released by government units. While the data-driven software is mainly intended for professional decision-makers, Stat.io is now partnering with cities to launch OpenCity portals. These virtual townhalls allow any citizen to be able to seamlessly view all available data points about their city and engage with other citizens as well as their local policy makers.
The story so far
Stat.io, founded in late 2012 by a team of Cambridge University graduates, has been committed to developing technology addressing Open Data’s usability issues: segregation (the data divided across more than 500 portals on the web) and formatting (eclectic mix of data formats, structures and languages). As millions of datasets are being released publicly by government units, Stat.io has been working on ways to aggregate, geo-reference and normalise this statistical data, creating in the process a search engine particularly relevant for professional decision-makers (corporate strategists, NGOs, government officials). Supported by the RSA’s Catalyst programme, Cambridge University, Unltd and Google, Stat.io has already aggregated over 20 million datasets.
Stat.io will not rest until the socio-economic situation of every geographical point on the planet can be accessed in a few clicks.
We have all seen the deluge of citizens commenting about their cities, neighbourhood of street – in positive or negative ways – on obscure online forums or social media… The issue is that online citizen engagement has so far been inefficient. Comments often lack credibility as not backed up by data and simply hit a communications wall as there is no way for government officials to keep track (and therefore act on them).
Through OpenCity, we at Stat.io are essentially creating a 24/7 easy-to-use virtual town hall. The platform provides a common structure where every citizen has access to all the objective (recent and historical) facts and can, in one click, make data-driven suggestions/comments involving other citizens and local officials. The entire platform is geo-referenced, making it particularly easy to navigate. All discussions happen using twitter/facebook credentials, adding even more convenience as both citizens and (increasingly) government officials are present on the social networks. Stat.io will not rest until the socio-economic situation of every geographical point on the planet can be accessed in a few clicks.
At Nacue’s varsity pitch in November (where Stat.io won best financial technology), ex Ambassador David Landsman OBE called Stat.io “an important tool for democracy”. Indeed, Stat.io clearly intends to provide a way to improve both transparency and accountability – one city at a time.
How you can get involved
Stat.io is currently recruiting 5 partner cities (3 in the UK and 2 abroad), of all sizes. If you are interested to be part of the scheme or believe your city should be – please do get in touch with us on firstname.lastname@example.org. More information can also be found on www.stat.io/cities
Nathan Boublil FRSA
To get help from RSA Catalyst for your social venture visit our webpage
This is a guest blog from Jennifer Fong FRSA. Jennifer is Founder and Co-Director of Cooking with Mama, a project which received Catalyst funding earlier this year.
Coconut biscuits, Sri Lankan pumpkin curry and Mexican chiles en nogada. These are a just a few of the many dishes that over 150 Londoners have learned to create at Cooking With Mama (CWM).
A RSA Catalyst-funded culinary school and social enterprise, CWM has had a productive first year, including cooking classes, secret supper clubs, catering, corporate events, market stalls, Mama training days, an expansion into Berlin, and kitchens filled with new friends learning to create authentic home cooked meals. Best of all – we have been able to empower women, our Mamas, with confidence and work-readiness skills through training and paid opportunities to lead cooking classes in communities across London.
CWM is taking shape at a critical time for women. A report from the Fawcett Society earlier this year showed that women’s unemployment has risen to a 25 year high, with almost three times as many women as men having become long-term unemployed since 2010. This is a context within which social enterprises like CWM can help fill a critical gap. As ‘conventional’ full-time jobs become increasingly rare, people are acquiring work experience in more creative ways. And, if you’re a great amateur cook, you can pass along your skills and knowledge to a curious and committed audience with CWM.
Beyond our cooking classes and supper clubs, CWM recently held a ‘Mama Training Day’ dedicated to our Mamas’ personal development, professional goals, and building a strong community of women with whom to learn and grow. A focal development area was the importance of storytelling and developing the skill of bringing cultural content to life during the classes.
For our official launch party, CWM also gathered a diverse mix of individuals from the foodie and social enterprise spheres to showcase our Mamas’ culinary talents and celebrate our achievements for the year. See a video highlighting the moments here:
How you can get involved
CWM is thankful for its supporters! As we continue to grow and develop, our goal is to serve our existing Mamas by providing them with access to opportunities to gain food industry experience and continue to support as many women as possible. Based on the feedback we have received in recent months, the encouragement and motivation provided by the RSA’s Catalyst Award, and our genuine love of yummy things of all kinds, we believe the future is bright. Our future is looking very tasty indeed!
If you think our idea sounds delicious, there are many simple ways to get involved!
- “Like” us on Facebook and “follow us” on Twitter
- Sign up for a Cooking Class or Supper club
- Let us plan your next group team building event with a Corporate Class
- Contact us to join our mailing list to learn about upcoming events and news
- Volunteer with us – we’re particularly looking for people with expertise in partnerships, recruitment, social media and websites. We are also looking for legal/tax advice. Please get in touch if you think you can help us!
Find out more about Cooking with Mama at www.cookingwithmama.org.
If you would like to support some of the fantastic projects run by RSA Fellows – such as Cooking with Mama – please sign up to RSA Skills bank and join a growing network of individuals inspired to share their knowledge, time and expertise to deliver social change and enhance human capability.
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”.
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.
The Big Idea: The New Cross area of south London could gain a new arts space. A previously closed public library has re-opened as New Cross Learning, inspiring and uplifting thousands of local users. Catherine Shovlin FRSA has launched a crowdfunding campaign to develop a creative arts space working with the local community…
Over the last 10 years we, Artmongers, have been stirring things up in Deptford and New Cross, South London with thought-provoking public art that changes the way people relate to space. Now we want to create New Cross’s first public artspace: a giant 3D lightbox on the ceiling of New Cross Learning. We will work together with local groups, running workshops to create multimedia artworks that change every six months. Central to our aim, we will be collaborating with emerging artists in our local community as well as school children, community groups and Goldsmiths students. To do this, we need to raise nearly £5k.
This is where we need your help. Through RSA Catalyst we have launched a crowdfunding campaign, Looking up in New X, to raise the funds needed to bring a much needed art space to the New Cross area – and we have ten days left to go!
The story so far
Since it opened in 2011, New Cross Learning has quickly developed into a vibrant community hub. Locals go there for books of course, but also for computer access, street dance, poetry group, baby bounce, community meetings, training sessions, Chinese dragon making workshops and much more.
The front of the building got a great facelift in 2012 (thanks to RSA Catalyst and the Funding Network) with a participatory artwork that marked the beginning of community ownership and involvement. Now we want to do something about the inside. New Cross doesn’t have a public art space so we are raising money to make this happen.
Last year’s flash mob on the A2 (for those outside London, the A2 is a major road connecting London with Kent) highlighted the challenges pedestrians face getting from one side of New Cross to the other. We didn’t break any traffic rules but we definitely caused a stir. And this year’s campaign to plant 1000 sunflowers has involved hundreds of school children, Goldsmiths University, local businesses and community groups. It brightened up the place and more importantly it encouraged people to realise the possibility that it is our environment and we can choose how it is. Then recently we worked with another RSA supported project – Talk to Me London to create unexpected creative interventions at bus stops in New Cross including a disco.
Taking back ownership of public space encourages all sorts of social benefits – not least the improved sense of well-being while you’re taking part.
Taking back ownership of public space encourages all sorts of social benefits – not least the improved sense of well-being while you’re taking part. Enough downcast acquiescence, people in New Cross are ready to LOOK UP and improve their public spaces for themselves. Backers get to be part of the creative process, and some will even get a piece of art for their home. Most importantly, those who support this project will know that they are part of transforming an area and empowering local residents.
How you can get involved
Those living around New Cross will know how much community spirit there is in the area. We want to give something back and give local residents the chance to express themselves through art – and in a local space everyone can enjoy.
We need your help to make this happen. Please visit the RSA crowdfunding page and find our project - Looking up in New X – and help us to reach our target. If you would like to get involved in the project or would like to visit us in New Cross, you can email me at email@example.com or follow us on Twitter.
Catherine Shovlin FRSA
New Cross Learning and Artmongers