The Networked Nonna

This post has been re-blogged from the Nominet Trust Website

One of my favourite things is a picture of my Italian grandmother, my Nonna, when she was 20 years old. The war is over, and she is celebrating in a pleated skirt she had sown herself, whilst brandishing a sub-machine gun. Born in 1925 in a tiny hill-top hamlet north of Venice, her lifecycle takes us from the fallout from WWI, the rise of fascism as a political force, the extreme changes that faced Italy post WWII – from latrine outhouses to more cars than children in under 50 years – and the political jokers that we find ourselves with today.

This is not my Nonna!

The internet is some sort of magic… but it feels a very prosaic type of magic when you are 60 minutes into a trans-European phonecall trying to explain how to re-plug a router!








My nonna has worn many hats. Her dreams of being a teacher or accountant were scuppered at the tender age of 10 when her father died – malaria handing him over to pneumonia in the end.  This daughter of petty bourgeoisie sharecroppers became a scullery maid then seamstress then resistance fighters’ runner then market trader. Despite being very tech-savvy for a woman of her time – good on a typewriter, she had cycled hundreds of kilometres at a time during the war and had learnt to drive very early on as one of the minority of women working after it – the computer and the internet had largely passed her by. Until now.

Now I’m networking my almost ninety-year-old Nonna up to noughties. It’s hard work. She distrusts and finds joy in the internet in equal measure. Each day is a new battle; reminding her where the skype button is, ruefully laughing each time she delightedly exclaims “I can see your face! How funny….” The internet is some sort of magic, granted, but it feels a very prosaic type of magic when you are 60 minutes into a trans-European phonecall trying to explain how to re-plug a router!

London to Milan is a very long way when it is your route to grandma. Whilst I know that she has family, friends and neighbours that support her those 782 miles away, there is always that feeling of guilt when I get up to leave. Beyond my nonna, we all know that more should be done to combat loneliness and social isolation, especially in older people. Scientists have found that feeling lonely over long periods of time can kill you: being emotionally isolated can be as fatal as smoking, and common illnesses that are made worse by loneliness include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, and cardio-vascular diseases.

We try to do our little bit to help out in the Social Mirror project: Social Mirror is a way of linking local people to local activities and groups, using local knowledge. Social Mirror is a bit like an automatic magazine quiz: you answer questions and, if you need it, social mirror can issue you with local ‘community prescriptions’ based on your interests; anything from a walking group, to a photography class and much in-between!

My nonna is something of an inspiration for the Social Mirror project. Working with the wonderful Sue at the Knowle West Media Centre we have been using the magic of the internet to ‘plug’ mainly elderly isolated people into the magic that is local community.  With developer delays and all the usual jazz the project has suffered from some ups and downs, however we all agree that the initial feedback coming in makes it all worthwhile.

One elderly gentleman has even gone from being largely alone to going to multiple walking groups a week. He has been so enthusiastic about the project that he agreed to speak to the Rev Giles Fraser about it for his upcoming series – Communities through Thick and Thin. Be sure to listen out for us on the 15th December, and do tell us what you think!


Original post here 

Gaia Marcus is Senior Researcher with the RSA Connected Communities team, and leads the Social Mirror project.

To find out more, you can follow her on twitter or watch this short video about social mirror.

The image has been taken from this Italian history timeline.

Connecting space, place and democracy at the Library of Birmingham

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Public libraries, a space for active debate?

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

Democracy needs an informed citizenry

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


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


My conclusion?

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

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


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

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

John Blewitt

A Question of Confidence?

October 28, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

 “The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything…or nothing.” – Viscountess Nancy Astor, the first woman to be seated in the British Parliament

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the graduation ceremony for fifteen female entrepreneurs who had recently completed Make it Real – a business support programme for aspiring women run by The Centre of Excellence for Women’s Entrepreneurship (CEWE) at the University of East London. Held in the impressive surroundings of the Museum of Childhood amid a live market place which allowed the finalists to showcase their work, the event saw each winner congratulated with a cheque of £2,000 to grow their business.

The ceremony kicked off with a lively speech from Lisa Burger, Head of Customer Experience at easyJet. Lisa has been with the airline right from its entrepreneurial beginnings and she outlined how this has shaped her approach to life. During her speech she passed on many words of wisdom to the audience, but there was one thing in particular that stuck in my head:

Don’t be afraid to ask the question.”

Lisa Burger is a confident, successful woman but she was keen to relate to her (mostly female) audience and acknowledge the psychological barriers that often stop people from achieving – specifically, the fear of speaking out and being seen to be wrong.

So, honouring her request, here is the question I am slightly fearful of asking: are women inherently less confident than men when it comes to putting themselves forward and creating the career they newspaperreally want?

Are women hiding away?

I am not the only one to consider this question. Since the RSA set up its Catalyst fund, it has supported ventures lead by some inspirational women and many of these have focused specifically on helping other women. Dr Catherine Fieschi FRSA was inspired to set up her enterprise – 50 Foot Women, precisely because she happened to notice a worrying trend whilst recruiting for positions in her role as Director of Counterpoint.

 “While male applicants were more inclined to over-emphasise their skills and ability, the women tended to under-sell them­selves -”

This direct experience was enough to merit the birth of 50 Foot Women, a mentoring scheme that she hoped would boost women’s confidence and their potential. Cooking with Mama is another Catalyst supported enterprise specifically targeting women. Set up by Jennifer Fong FRSA, the project offers cooking classes run by mothers who might otherwise be out of work or not have the confidence to return to work. The classes address both problems by employing and empowering at the same time.

Discovering a problem in your locality and working to address it is the essence of RSA Fellowship. When it comes to tackling inequality in the workplace, things are definitely changing and entrepreneurship is a big part of the equation. Unfortunately, the question of why there are less female CEOs is a highly politicised issue, and my worry is that this will lead many women (and men) who have great capacity to help, to steer clear of the problem altogether.

RSA Great Room Mural | Distribution of Premiums The lesson illustrated by our Fellows is that it pays to ask the question but not get too caught up in trying to solve the whole problem – instead, focus on what you can do, and who you can help, right now. Do not become overwhelmed by trying to change everything at once and risk changing nothing. It was not until 1928 that Viscountess Nancy Astor became the first women seated in British Parliament, yet the RSA has been offering woman a platform to participate in public life and improve society from its inception in 1754. This in turn influenced other societies to do the same and slowly, things changed.

The Fellowship continues this legacy by letting innovative people like Catherine and Jennifer change the landscape for women, one bit at a time.

If you’d like to find out more about the projects mentioned, or would like to apply for Fellowship then contact If there is someone you know who would make a great addition to the network then why not nominate them?

Alex Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordinator at the RSA, @alexandrabarke1


Smartphones make us dumb


Did you see the one about Apple Maps mistakenly directing people to drive across the runway at an Alaskan Airport? The coverage provides an indication of how much we’ve outsourced our intelligence to our smartphones, and how we are likely to erode our own intelligence as a result.

An excerpt from the BBC coverage:

“They must have been persistent,” the airport’s assistant manager Angie Spear told the BBC.

“They had to enter the airport property via a motion-activated gate, and afterwards there are many signs, lights and painted markings, first warning that aircraft may share the road and then that drivers should not be there at all.

“They needed to drive over a mile with all this before reaching the runway. But the drivers disregarded all that because they were following the directions given on their iPhones.”

So here we are in 2013. We can carry in our pocket a device which can instantaneously direct us, aided by a network of satellites we’ve launched into space above our planet, between any two points on earth. When there are glitches in this remarkable system, we appear to be losing our ability to engage our auxiliary senses of navigation. We increasingly trust our smartphones, simultaneously giving our innate sensual systems less trust in connecting to our cognitive comprehension. When people put themselves in danger, we vent anger at the technological miscues they may have received. How did people drive to airports before SatNav? We expect technology to be perfect: an upgrade to our own human fallibility.

There is a broader danger associated with the ubiquity of smartphone use. We withdraw from engaging with the places we are in and the people with whom we share them. Mobile technology enables local disconnectedness through providing a ubiquitous connection to everyone we know (and many we don’t), regardless of where we are (or where they are) in the world. As a result, our other communication skills become degraded. Smartphone users are constantly interrupted and distracted, less present in the place and the moment something that a recent Apple ad celebrates. We are unable to switch off – indeed the more technology enables us to work flexibly the more anxious we are to demonstrate to our work colleagues that we are not slacking, as the latest RSA Animate explores.

Comedian Lewis CK recently noted that constant connectivity spares us from the emptiness and sadness (and subsequent tranquillity and happiness) that we find when faced with overcoming periods of being alone. Taking notice of the world around us is one of the five “ways to well-being”.

Just walked into my neighbours house by accident while texting. I only noticed when someone called out and I looked up and saw it wasn’t my flat. Christ. - From Facebook, 26/9/13

With a phone in hand, we are less likely practice mindfulness (recognising our thoughts and feelings). And inter-personal communication skills are at risk of deteriorating as we avoid talking with neighbours or chitchatting with shopkeepers.

As Richard Sennett argues, learning to cooperate with different people, outside of your regular networks, is a key rite of passage to adulthood and civility and is contagious in a population. If that sounds too pretentious, then even on a basic level we’ve got to connect the dots: listening to others talk is the most important aspect of learning in early years. My fear is that the rising rates of social isolation, autism and technology penetration are inter-related. On the tube these days it’s becoming rude not to look at your smartphone: we can’t tolerate the gaze of fellow passengers.

I’m not saying we should give up this powerful technology. Many technological applications support local connectedness (such as Streetbank), while other applications support our offline social well-being (such as the RSA’s social mirror). SatNav gives people the confidence to navigate and explore, and mobile phone cameras empower citizen journalists across the world, but we need to know its OK to switch off and unplug. Smartphone adoption may be the most rapid technology adoption of all time – 45% of under-11s in the UK regularly use a smartphone or tablet. We need to understand the implications for public and inter-personal engagement, fast.

Consider those moments where you pause and think to yourself “this is what life is all about”. Its likely you’ll be mentally present. Think of your favourite streets, parks, squares, or bus routes. We can be entertained us for hours watching what Jane Jacobs calls the “sidewalk ballet”: an urban, social, public experience. At the height of our powers of human perception we can learn silently, discretely admiring the athleticism of streetballers and joggers, the daring of skateboarders, and the technique of a street performer. We develop visual literacy to comprehend the age of our buildings, the fashions of different generations, and the processes which clean our streets. Taking a walk, sitting on a bench or at a cafe, we guess the age of a passing infant, the profession of their parent, or simply where someone got those shoes. And we can mindread, discerning the causes of the argument between two lovers and enjoy from the deduction of awkward body language between two people that this must be a first date.

This role (sometimes termed the “flaneur” – the strolling observer) is a somewhat romantic and privileged notion, but we need to protect the time and space for activity which develops our social skills: reading other people’s faces, body language, tone of voice and emotional signals. Indeed our most skilled public servants – social workers, police officers, nurses, school teachers – recognise that inter-personal intelligence is essential in co-producing desirable outcomes, especially with vulnerable people with barriers to verbal or written communication.

The time each of us has to engage with our surroundings is precious, and the design of the spaces which surround us are often disengaging. Several initiatives have shown that often space the looks like public space is not: subject to surveillance, regulation and restrictions on use and participation. A true public space might include a shared institutional setting where we experience a base feeling of equality because we’re all accessing the same thing.

No doubt we will develop better maps, location-based apps and global 3G coverage, but we need to engage in real places to support the development of our capabilities as social creatures.

Jonathan Schifferes is a Senior Researcher in the Public Service 2020 and Connected Communities team (and does use his smartphone for Twitter).

The ChangeMakers we want to see in the world

September 19, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

­­Sarah Osei* moved to London from Uganda a number of years ago. She trained as a social worker, and currently manages a community centre which supports migrants who are at risk of violence and homelessness. She frequently travels back to Uganda where she runs a number of business and charitable projects, supporting girls to stay in education and working with women to maintain financial independence through making and selling cheese. She is just one of more than 500 people who have applied to take part in the RSA’s new Diaspora ChangeMakers programme since the recruitment process started three weeks ago.


Click here to see RSA Diaspora ChangeMaker champion Lulu Kitololo speaking about the project on Vox TV’s ‘Shoot The Messenger’ chat show

Diaspora ChangeMakers, funded by Comic Relief and Unbound Philanthropy, seeks to identify and support a network of people from the African diaspora who are passionate about driving social change in their communities of heritage or countries of origin. The project takes its cue from the original ‘ChangeMakers’ work led by my colleague Ben Dellot in Peterborough last year, which posited that there are key individuals, rooted in their communities, who have an appetite to apply their skills to local issues. We believe that by mapping and bringing together networks of these individuals great potential for positive change can be unleashed.

The new project combines these principles with the international interest in the contribution of people in the diaspora in supporting development in their countries of origin. By identifying key ChangeMakers in the diaspora and supporting them with a programme of leadership development courses, peer support, knowledge exchange, mentoring, project development workshops and networking with our 27,000-strong RSA Fellowship, our hope is that these individuals will be able to achieve a greater impact in their various enterprises which benefit the lives of others.

But we’re not simply looking for maverick ‘community leaders’ as commonly defined. In line with our other work in the RSA Connected Communities team, we’re interested in social networks, and we want to find the individuals who seem to be in key positions of influence through having connections to different groups of people. When people apply to take part in our project, we don’t only ask them about what community work they have done in the past and what change they want to see in the future – we ask them who else they consider to be ChangeMakers. We will then contact these other people who have been nominated by others, and encourage them to apply to the programme too – and ask them to tell us about yet more ChangeMakers from their own networks. Over time, this will give us a good idea of how our potential ChangeMakers interact with each other, how they can influence others to share the burden of bringing about the change they wish to see, and how they themselves might change as a result of working with others as part of a network.

Gandhi is often quoted as saying ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ But there is no specific record of Gandhi ever having said this. It is a misquote and a misconception. If we introspectively focus on changing only ourselves and assume that the world will catch up with us eventually, we are unlikely to achieve much more than misplaced self-satisfaction.

What Gandhi actually said was ‘We but mirror the world[…] If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him […] We need not wait to see what others do.’ The key words of this passage are the ‘if’ and the ‘attitude’ of others. Completely changing the self would change the tendencies of the world, but this is difficult or even impossible to achieve on one’s own as we are but ‘mirrors’ of wider society (for more on the importance of understanding the individual as a mirror of society, read about our Social Mirror project). What the individual can do is to take a lead, without waiting ‘to see what others do’, and gradually change the attitude of others towards him or her. Once the attitudes of others begin to change, then the social world might change too. It is because of this necessity of influencing and cooperating with others that the Diaspora ChangeMakers programme focuses on networks as well as individuals, and relationships as well as leadership.

Pleasingly, we can already see some of those networks and clusters of connected people who have nominated each other as ChangeMakers. The image below is a visualisation of the applicants from the first two weeks of the recruitment period – before we had even approached the nominees of initial applicants.

diaspora network 1909

Each dot is a potential Diaspora ChangeMaker who has completed our application survey, and the lines linking the dots represent connections between those people. Here is a close-up of a few of these groups of people and they are connected:


Some of these people are recent immigrants to the UK who have lived most of their lives in Africa, and some are people who were born in Britain and whose families have lived here for generations. Their careers, interests, and ambitions vary hugely. But all of them feel a personal link to the African continent in some way, and all of them are passionate about achieving social change that benefits African communities, either in the UK or in the African continent.

If you are a Diaspora ChangeMaker and want us to know about your place in this network, or if you’re interested in benefitting from the Diaspora ChangeMakers programme activities, then please complete the application survey and find out more about the programme at


*name changed in line with data protection procedures

What can social leadership learn from design?

Building a neural net of wishes and sharing experience at the #RSARDIsummerschool filmed by Dr James Furse-Roberts

This week I returned from the 2013 RDI Summer School; an immersive, collaborative design experience created by the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry. Held over four days at Dartington Hall, Devon, the Summer School brought together designers and others from diverse, cross-disciplinary backgrounds who could learn from each other and be inspired and empowered to think differently and creatively. During the event, the eminent designer and creative leader Michael Wolff RDI shared his favourite quote by the author and poet, Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Having worked on six summer schools with the Royal Designers, I have observed that each event has had a dramatic or life-changing impact on those who have attended. Some of the designers leave with renewed confidence and are emboldened to take more risks, or start their own businesses. Others decide to change the way they work, become more open to collaborating, or begin a new altruistic pathway.

As we developed the 2013 Summer School, jointly directed by exhibitions and interior designer Dinah Casson RDI, and engineering designer Chris Wise RDI, we proposed the inclusion of more ‘wildcards’ in the cohort; participants who were not designers but were somehow touched by design. They might be commissioners, teachers, or civil servants. Could the summer school be as educative and transformative for them as it had been for designers?

The wildcards that were selected this year all shared a connection with the public realm; a healthcare researcher specialising in quality improvement initiatives, and a regeneration manager of a local council to name but two. Here follows a personal account of the Summer School from wildcard Owen Jarvis, a social entrepreneur and Clore Fellow, who is exploring how social leadership can learn from design:

“During my Clore year I’ve been considering how can social leaders make better use of design-thinking in shaping social and public services.

The Summer School involved a series of curated activities to allow us to meet, network, and collaborate away from work. Challenges were introduced for small groups around themes such as “us and them” and explored meanings and expressions of emotions and how these can be used as inspiration for work. These culminated in the sharing of findings, performances and art works on the final morning, with many groups working through the night to finish on time. Pleasure, creativity, play, discussion, reflection and work were delightfully intertwined for a very rich weekend.

The Royal Designers were incredibly open and generous in offering support and mentoring. Often provocative, they demanded honesty, sharper thinking and attention to detail and standards in exercises. Challenges and insights were received and respected in turn. As we moved from discussions to making objects and performances the magic started to happen. The final pieces were surprising and engaging and remarkable given the short time we had together.

So what can be taken away with reference for the social sector? Many of the challenges designers face are familiar and not specific to their profession. How big do you get before you lose the essence of what you are, how do you attract and keep talent? How do you avoid selling out to the agenda of investors in the process of growth? Over the weekend we were called upon to move away from these important but day-to-day issues to ask other broader questions.

In the same way the social sector comes back to a question of social impact, designers are also constantly returning to a question of quality and attention to detail in the pursuit of beauty. This raised some important questions for me. What is in the beauty, design and elegance of a social service and in achieving social change? Is there an aesthetic? How can organisations be designed in their own right to be things to admire? In addressing these questions, do we make a greater impact?

‘Life can be evaded, death cannot’, our final session considered. Everyone faces some apprehension and anxiety in presenting views, ideas, creations. We feel surrounded by judgement yet our real adversary is our own self. Talent that doesn’t fulfil its potential is a tragedy.

The Summer School has been one of the most extraordinary learning opportunities of my career. It has reminded me of the courage needed to step-forward and step-out and embrace the risk of failure. This has lessons for us all to reach our potential and live life fully. That is also a mark of leadership.”

Melanie Andrews is the Manager of the Royal Designers for Industry at the RSA

You can follow her @Melanie_Andrews

Event twitter hashtag #RSARDIsummerschool

Are you ready for an extraoRDInary journey?

What do the iPhone, the Millennium Bridge, Harry Potter film sets, and the World Wide Web have in common? They were all designed by the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry (RDI), a cross disciplinary collective of designers who have shown sustained design excellence, work of aesthetic value, and significant benefit to society.

The Royal Designers are planning a Summer School which will be held at Dartington Hall, Devon from 5 – 8 September 2013. This event will give 24 young designers and 12 wildcards the chance to work with them in an intensive 4-day collaborative design experience.

Designers of any discipline with between 5 and 15 years’ experience, and wildcards – people who intersect design, as commissioners, public servants, users – are invited to apply for a place. We are seeking applications from people whose work has the potential to be an instrument of beneficial change, from whatever field. If you are up for a bold new challenge, and would like to be one of the designer or wildcard participants, you still have a week in which to submit your application.

Set up in 2000, the Royal Designers’ Summer School brings together a group of people from diverse, cross-disciplinary backgrounds who can learn from one another and are inspired to think differently and creatively. Open, conceptual challenges are set to mixed groups which are discretely choreographed by the Summer School Directors. Exhibition designer, Dinah Casson RDI, Master of the Royal Designers for Industry, and Millennium Bridge engineer, Chris Wise RDI, are co-directing this year’s programme:

“The summer school is both touch-stone and touch-paper, reassuring at first, and then a fuse is ignited. Flashes of insight come when nurse, designer, economist, engineer and neuroscientist face each other openly. It is a well-spring for understanding how ideas are born, and why design is at the core of our being.”

Click here to apply and submit to the RSA by Friday 28 June.

Melanie Andrews is the Manager of the Royal Designers for Industry at the RSA

You can follow her @Melanie_Andrews 

Event twitter hashtag #RSARDIsummerschool

The internet fridge: how technology will (and won’t) change retail

June 19, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

How does technology shape the future? We’ve just started our project on 2020 Retail. Funded by Asda, our objective is to understand how changes in retail will both necessitate and generate changes in the social relationships between customers, retailers, other businesses and civic institutions.

Its a fascinating conversation starter: everyone seems to have a view on how technology is changing their engagement in shopping, and by extension, influencing the nature of the places they live and work. But its often futile to predict in advance how new technology will find its most effective application. 14 years ago Wired predicted that we’d be grazing from an “internet fridge” which would monitor and automatically re-order our groceries. One 2008 study futures images of robots patrolling shop floors with tablet computers in hand.

Online shopping – food shopping in particular – is booming (and it’s clear that blu-taking your iPad to your fridge door would be cheaper and more effective than buying a device which tries to integrate the two.). But convenience food chains, independent cafes and delis are also booming. Changes on the High Street are driven by numerous factors and technology is just one of them. The newspaper headlines – “online shopping is killing the High Street” – are too simplistic. A fairer assessment might consider:

  • Retail is only one element of business on the High Street. Hairdressers, cafes and nurseries are taking up units across the country. The vacancy rate for shops has stabilised in recent months in part because shop units are already being converted to other uses.
  • Independents are doing better than multiples. Among chains, a total of 12,511 stores closed in 2011 and 2012, while 10,652 opened. However, over 31,000 independents stores opened in the same period: a net gain of over 3,000 (sources here and here) – though the last few months have been less positive.
  • The fortunes of shopping streets are becoming increasingly divergent, in part following widening inequality nationally and locally. Although every region had fewer shops in 2012, DCLG’s own analysis of ONS data (Slide 15) shows that each household in London have on average £190 more to spend each week than households in the North East and neighbouring streets feel increasingly distant from one another: one classic example in London being Chapel Market and Upper Street in Islington.

Yes, access to technology such as smartphones will change the way we shop. Yes, these changes will have profound impacts on physical retail environments. But these conditions represent opportunities for our villages, towns and cities, not just threats. This week Bill Grimsey’s argument made headlines: in the online age, let’s stop pretending we can save a High Street model which relies on attracting struggling chains and belt-tightening shoppers.

To critically analyse the changes that technology is supposed to be unleashing on retail we need a definition of technology. Most dictionaries agree it involves the practical application of knowledge to solve a problem; Wikipedia’s entertaining summary starts with a picture of an astronaut and ends with a gorilla using a stick to cross a river.



So if technology could be anything from a system to a device, a spaceship to a stick, then of course technology will drive change in retail. (Indeed…what isn’t technology?). Ultimately, technology is only possible through collaboration, and our ability to collaborate sets us apart as a species (language being our primary innovation). As Michael Tomasello put it in the New Yorker recently, you’ll never see two chimps carrying a log together at the zoo.

In the broadest sense, to remain an innovative and civil society, we need to have places where we live and learn together, developing skills to navigate neighbourhoods and cities, becoming comfortable and competent in the presence of strangers. Shopping has the potential to connect us: to places, to memories, to each other. Many people had their first memory, first kiss and first job on the High Street. All are social rather than individual experiences. The Portas Review realised this; ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi and consultancy Flamingo have recently echoed this. Connectedness will never go out of fashion.

2020 Retail will need to ensure technology doesn’t alienate people. Socially productive retail spaces, whether malls or High Streets, would enable and inspire visitors to  share experiences, engage in and build their social network, and contribute to society in ways which aren’t possible online. As Manuel Castells argued 20 years ago: face-to-face interaction will likely become ever more valuable, the more ubiquitous digital connectedness becomes. The future of retail will therefore be low-tech, as well as high-tech.

Jonathan works on the 2020 Retail project at the RSA’s Action and Research Centre@jschifferes

Fellowship Partnerships – we’re scaling up to help further our charitable mission

June 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

It’s been a while since my last blog post, and it’s been a busy 6 months for the Partnerships team!

London UpRiser's & RSA Fellows meet to discuss Social Action Campaigns

London UpRiser’s & RSA Fellows meet to discuss Social Action Campaigns, at our Catalyst workshop in January 2013

I have been leading on Fellowship partnerships for two years at the RSA (my ‘RSAnniversary’ was in May), and I’ve seen big changes, big challenges and gained insight into the value of the RSA as a convener of networks.  My colleague Adam, wrote a great post in February that outlined our general approach to partnerships, which we strive to keep to whilst allowing us flexibility when working with such a range of organisations – my key aim, is to ensure that we can develop collaborative partnerships that use our resources efficiently and can support the charitable objectives of the RSA and the organisation we’re partnering with.

So what have we been doing?

1. Messing around with a new database…

Don’t worry, I’ll keep this brief! Trying to get to grips with a new database is many things, if not challenging.  However, with the implementation of this new system of administrative delights, we’re beginning to recognise the exciting possibilities of having all of our partner administration in one place; easily accessible.  This will eventually feed into all of the work we do with our Fellows from partner organisations and how we report on the impact our work is having.

2. Forging some new relationships…

Legacy Trust UK:  LTUK’s recent report on the impact of Olympic and Paralympic Games on the country’s next generation, was recently launched at a fascinating panel debate held at the RSA, which was hosted by Jonathan Edwards, CBE.  You can watch it here.

Following this, we have begun the process of creating a Fellowship partnership, whereby we hope to connect with the present and former programme managers that LTUK has supported across the country.  There are some fascinating projects and we hope that Fellowship can further support them through the skills we hold within our networks.

 NCVO: As a champion of the UK’s voluntary sector, NCVO provides its 10,000 members with key advice and support for nearly all areas of organisational operation.  We met with NCVO to discuss the natural connection between our organisations, and soon recognised this may be an opportunity to make RSA Catalyst support more visible to NCVO’s members.  We are also working to discover how RSA Fellows can get involved with NCVO to offer their expertise.

3. Developing our work with existing partners…

Winston Churchill Memorial Trust: The past two years have seen some great developments with our partnership, thanks to key RSA Fellows and staff that have really driven this collaboration.  My colleague Vivs, recently wrote about the advising scheme that is bringing RSA and Churchill Fellows together in Wales, East Pennines and the South West (do have a look at her blog).

We are also hoping to do this in an international way too…

The RSA Fellowship extends across the world to more than 80 countries. In many of these countries we have an RSA Connector. RSA Connectors are a new and growing network of RSA Fellows worldwide; acting as a first port-of-call and a ‘friendly face’ for new RSA Fellows who want to find out more and get involved. As part of the RSA’s continuing partnership with the Churchill Trust, we are piloting a facilitated introduction between selected Churchill Fellows with an RSA Connector in the country they are visiting.  We hope that this will be a valued connection, and may help Churchill Fellows link up with contacts on their travels that will enrich their research.

UpRising: In January we ran an event to bring together London’s UpRising participants and RSA Fellows, giving them advice from Fellows and making them aware of the expertise and support that the network can offer.  The 36 UpRiser’s in London that attended are working on some important Social Action Campaigns: crime, food waste and affordability, education (behaviour management), partnerships and communication, young translators, safeguarding young women, bringing politics to people and housing.

We’re looking forward to running something similar Bedford and Birmingham for the new cohorts this year, as we had some good feedback from the London group:

Find the full Storify here:

Find the full Storify here:

So what now?

Updating our partner web page, measuring our impact and looking regionally…

Two immediate areas of focus for me, will be to re-vamp our Partner page on the RSA Website, (which will reflect the lessons we’ve learnt over the past few months and give a clear, transparent picture of how we want to work with our partners) and to start along the journey of impact measurement (now that’s a whole different post right there!)  It’s easy to get lost in the smog of emails, phone calls and events, without stopping to reflect and explore exactly who is gaining (or losing) from this, and in what way.  As yet, reporting on the impact that our work with partners is having for the RSA, and RSA Fellows in particular, isn’t something that we’ve done.  However, it has become clear that this is a really key thing to do, not only to for the various stakeholders at the RSA, but also for staff motivation and learning.

 I’ve found  that some of our most rewarding collaborations exist because our Fellows have connected RSA staff to amazing organisations, and put a huge amount of effort into driving these relationships forward. 

For the moment, there will be a few things that I will be focusing upon to draw success stories from our partners.  I’m keen to show how existing and new Fellows are benefiting, so story- telling will be just as (if not more) important than the number crunching.  Two immediate examples come to mind; firstly, as I mentioned earlier, through our work with WCMT, RSA Fellows that are getting to use their time and expertise to help with Churchill Fellows’ research across the country.  Secondly, a relatively new Fellow that joined the RSA through our partnership with the Emerge Venture Lab, Juan Guerra FRSA, was awarded Catalyst Funding and mentoring from the Fellowship Council for his crowdfunding platform, Student Funder.  Juan’s project recently made it to the final 10 from 600 entrants to the EU’s Social Innovation Prize.

One continual theme that runs through our partnerships, is the central role that Fellows play to develop these relationships.  I’ve found  that some of our most rewarding collaborations exist because our Fellows have connected RSA staff to amazing organisations.  They also put a huge amount of effort into driving these relationships forward, and I very much look forward to updating you about the regional/national work with partners in the coming months.

Finally, interested in becoming an RSA Fellow or partnering with us?

Then contact us on +44 (0)207 451 6904!


Then get in contact with me via

Jo Painter is the Partnership Development Manager at the RSA.


Co-producing theory and practice: new Centre for Citizenship and Community launched

May 21, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

The Centre for Citizenship and Community, a new collaboration between the RSA, the University of Central Lancashire and the Royal Society for Public Health, was formally launched at the RSA House yesterday. Grounding academic and social research in community practice, the Centre will bring together researchers and practitioners from universities, public bodies, voluntary organisations and business to implement community projects and guide social policy using a Connected Communities approach to social and community networks. The launch consisted of key-note speeches from the Centre’s associates followed by a series of discussion groups held by delegates from numerous professional backgrounds to debate the policy implications of the Centre’s early perspectives.

Co-production: a connected communities approach to social policy

Prof. David Morris, UCLan.

Prof. David Morris, UCLan.

In a plenary speech David Morris, Professor of mental health, inclusion and community at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and the Centre for Citizenship and Community, spoke about how the Centre will promote a vision of the ‘social value of empowered communities’ being integrated into public policy, with a culture of co-production emerging in public services. He stressed the need for policy makers to recognise the complexity and potential that lies within communities, to build innovations around shared community assets, and to use Connected Communities-inspired research to inform the production of community owned, networked social interventions.




Steve Broome, RSA

Afterwards, RSA Connected Communities director of research Steve Broome criticised what he described as the standard ‘deficit model’ of viewing communities, which focuses exclusively on their problems rather than their assets and potential. In contrast he demonstrated how social networks approaches help us to understand communities using an ‘attribute model’ which reveals which assets in a community help people interact and support one another. He emphasised the prominent role that public services play in supplying or supporting these community assets, and went on to highlight the danger that ill-considered spending cuts present to social networks when community assets are not mapped or recognised. A forthcoming RSA report will develop these themes further, focusing on the viability of community assets and social networks in the context of government austerity.


Theory into co-produced practice: Murton ‘mams’ and ways to wellbeing

Mary Chivers, Mersey Care.

Mary Chivers, Mersey Care.

Examples of such projects were presented by Mandy Chivers of Mersey Care NHS Care Trust and Lyndsey Wood of the East Durham Trust. Both organisations are working in partnership with the RSA and UCLan to implement co-produced, network-based community projects based on findings from Connected Communities research. In Liverpool, Mersey Care is training volunteers from the BAME community in the principles of the New Economic Foundation’s ‘five ways to wellbeing’, while in Murton, a former mining town, the East Durham Trust has helped set up a new social group for single mothers called ‘Murton Mams’, in which the activities and programme are led by the members of the group themselves to help combat the widespread isolation among this group that the Connected Communities findings revealed.

Challenges ahead: austerity, tolerated harshness, and championing social networks

Following the introductory talks, attendees split into discussion groups to debate the implications of the presentations for public policy and community practice, and to begin to think about what the Centre can contribute to such debates in the future. Some key points that emerged from these discussions included:

Attendees at the Centre for Citizenship and Community launch.

Attendees at the Centre for Citizenship and Community launch.

i)                    The need for the Centre to promote and build the status of social networks in a context in which the very existence of ‘communities’ often seems to be doubted.  The evidence base for a networked approach to public and community policy must be vigorously argued.

ii)                   The need to be conscious of the risk of ‘making a contrivance out of ordinary connection’. Co-production, in other words, must avoid the pitfalls of regularising informal, reciprocal relationships, or exposing what David Halpern has called the ‘hidden wealth’ of communities to overly harsh light where they would be better preserved by remaining hidden. An example given was the ‘spontaneous expression of citizenship’ of a train ticket saleswoman who enjoys smiling at her customers and once decided to give Easter eggs to her regulars; if a statutory system of formalised gift-giving on public transport was initiated, the spontaneity and charm of the exchange would doubtless be compromised.

Other challenges were also discussed. Morris and Broome both highlighted the dangers posed to sometimes fragile networks by austerity, growing inequality, and ‘externally enforced fragmentation’, while it was elsewhere noted that cultural norms are becoming less social, along the lines of what Hugo Young described as a growing ‘tolerated harshness’ in society. Other attendees urged that co-productive services must be genuinely co-produced with public services taking an active role, rather than simply deferring responsibility or ‘outsourcing by another name’.

The mood was on the whole optimistic, however, with numerous attendees stating that they welcomed the opportunity to network and debate issues in this way, and praising the new Centre as a valuable line of communication between community-oriented actors from the academic, public, private, and third sectors.

Based in the School of Social Work at UCLan and the King’s Fund offices in London, the Centre for Citizenship and Community will meet regularly over the coming months and offers organisations dedicated support for community engagement through:

  • Strategies and integrated programmes for social and community- based commissioning
  • Service development and redesign, based on economic modelling and cost-benefit analysis, organisational, leadership and workforce development

This is backed up by:

  • Bespoke programmes of accredited learning and professional development
  • Programme evaluation and research evidence.

Its associates will be posting regular updates from varied perspectives on the RSA’s blogging platform; in the meantime, more information on the Centre including contact details can be found on the RSA website. If you would like to be notified when the forthcoming RSA report on the impact of austerity on communities is published, or to be kept informed of the work of the Centre for Citizenship and Community, email and request to be added the the RSA Action and Research Centre mail list.

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