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.

Feeding Connected Communities

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

One evening last summer, for reasons I can neither adequately remember nor explain, I found myself at the ‘alternative’ 300th birthday party for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the outdoor courtyard of a former squat in Geneva.



Being neither an expert on Rousseau nor a French speaker, I sat awkwardly through the lengthy speeches from local historians and activists, while an English-speaker patiently filled me in on the history of this cooperative-run apartment block; how it had been earmarked to be bulldozed to make way for a supermarket in the midst of the city’s 1980s housing crisis before being squatted by a band of community activists who had, eventually, secured ownership rights to the building.


Finally the speeches ended, and the party switched to an activity I could understand: eating. Heaps of sausages and vegetable cous-cous appeared as if from nowhere, and people squeezed alongside each other on long picnic tables to tuck in and chat. Any divisions among the group were invisible as private tenants and former squatters alike talked and laughed and kept each other’s glasses filled with cheap red wine. Nobody seemed to object to my presence as an uninvited stranger taking far more than my share of sausages, a greedy Anglo-Saxon unacquainted with their continental and collectivist ways. They explained to me that, while this was a special occasion, they often met as a group to share a meal, and that this ritual fostered the community spirit which enabled them to successfully organise and manage the once dilapidated but now thriving property. I remember feeling a distinct sense of warmth, a convivial and exciting atmosphere as people bonded over the breaking of bread.


This is the kind of scene that Tim Smit, the founder of Cornwall’s Eden Project, has been creating all over this country through his latest brainchild, The Big Lunch. He was at the RSA last night, along with the broadcaster Fi Glover, Linda Quinn from the project’s backer The Big Lottery Fund, and Jonathan Carr-West of the Local Government Information Unit, to discuss what can be learned from The Big Lunch project about community building.


The title for the evening’s event was ‘Where Does Responsibility For Community Lie?’, and this is a question that greatly interests me as a project developer on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme. Is it possible for a third party or an external campaign to help build social capital and encourage a community spirit, or can such feelings only be aroused by people acting independently and spontaneously? Does government have a role in creating the conditions in which communities can flourish? What is the role of business and the third sector? And what the heck do we mean by ‘community’ anyway?


Smit and his co-panelists had much to offer on these subjects and much besides. Smit talked about how food, and the British institution of the Sunday lunch, is a crucial element in encouraging people to gain the confidence to knock on each other’s doors and turn strangers into neighbours. This, in short, is what Smit claims an external project like The Big Lunch can do; in his words it can ‘give people permission’ to overcome shyness and take responsibility to act in the community.


Smit said that he hopes that within ten years the pizzazz of ‘The Big Lunch’ branding and publicity won’t be needed, and that a regular, grassroots ‘neighbours day’ will have outgrown the initial project. But he also sees the potential for something much bigger to emerge out of the initial small-talk that occurs over an outdoor dining table. Especially keen Lunch organisers are invited down to The Eden Project for training as social activists and organisers, and are encouraged to develop the confidence to help mobilise communities in new and potentially radical ways. In the modern context of the traditional, hierarchical modes of centralised politics being seen to be losing relevance and influence, Smit says that ‘the potential for a really powerful social force’ lies among horizontally-organised groups of citizens.


Back in the present, Carr-West was on hand to discuss the impact of The Big Lunch to date, following the publication of his report on the project. Headline figures of 8.5 million participants over four years, with 82% reporting that they felt closer to their neighbours as a result, are remarkable, but some of the more qualitative observations are just as significant. Conversations, he said, weave the fabric of communities and allow people to feel better about themselves while also building social capital. He pointed to evidence that an increase in social capital is good for people’s health, it’s good for the economy, and it helps to lower crime. Furthermore it cannot be monopolised – or cut – by governments as it is held collectively in society. And yet the public sector does have a role, he maintained, in helping to connect community activists with one another to run services, provide social support, and enact change, with local councils especially well-placed to facilitate a kind of ‘connected localism’.


All of this may sound like a lot of lofty talk when placed alongside Big Lunch photographs of people wearing face-paint and cutting Victoria sponge cakes underneath lines of bunting. But the culturally ingrained custom, built up over millennia, of people coming together around food in an atmosphere of sharing, warmth and safety, allows for social connections to form. And as the RSA’s Connected Communities programme helps to show, our social networks go a long way to determining our wellbeing, our employability, our health and our ability to get things done in society. And that is something that my erstwhile dining companions in that housing cooperative in Geneva are living testament to.

Bursting the Twitter bubble

April 17, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

Yesterday I was interviewed by a researcher from the University of Manchester who is working on a collaborative research project examining the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. The project aims to explore how people use social media in their daily lives and the extent to which people’s use of social media reflects local issues, events and concerns. It is part of the Manchester eResearch Centre which exists to explore how the recent explosion in social media and the interactive web opens up opportunities for understanding societal issues and concerns. So far so interesting…

Image via
Image via

Having already interviewed a community forum, the police, city council and local MPs, the researcher is in the process of recruiting and interviewing individuals who live in South Manchester and are ‘well-networked users of Twitter.’  She’d got in touch with me via someone she met at a networking event, who had given my name as someone who he thought would fit the bill. I was slightly surprised – I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati‘. Aside from that, I don’t use Twitter all that much to share information about or discuss local issues, so I wasn’t convinced I was quite what she was looking for.

I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati’.

Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed, not least because I was keen to hear more about the research project, and mindful of potential connections or overlaps of interest that might emerge through having the conversation. I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from anything else, it was interesting to be on the other side of the voice recorder for once – there’s a lot to learn from being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing.

Answering questions on my use of Twitter, the role it plays in my professional life, my personal life, and the connections between my use of Twitter and the community in which I live made me think about all these things in a particularly reflective way.

I was asked questions relating to how I use Twitter to provide information to other people, to organise debate and discussion, to gather support and interest and to portray sentiment in relation to various local issues, concerns and events. Like I’ve said, I don’t really think of myself as someone who really knows how to use Twitter to great effect, so it was curious for me to discover that I had at least something to say in relation to each of these lines of questioning.

On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised.

In answering the questions, I began to give examples and the discussion turned to the inclusiveness or otherwise of the Twittersphere. On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable some members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised. Aside from those members of society who do not have access to an internet enabled device, there are those for whom Twitter simply doesn’t appeal. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and why should it be?

My interviewer mentioned one member of the community forum she’d interviewed who was deeply negative, resistant, and unable to see any potential benefits of using social media to engage with the local community. We talked about  professionals such as teachers, nurses and social workers, whose day jobs are are structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to be tweeting all the time alongside doing the job.

They may also already be part of existing communication networks that they are used to and that work well for them, or they may feel that using Twitter is a quasi-work activity that they’d rather not get involved in after hours. There’s the public bodies for whom it is very difficult to use Twitter in the organic, instantaneous way that it needs to be used because of the need to adhere to policies and have all public communication formally approved and signed off. And there are people for whom Twitter is confusing, off-putting, boring or simply not their medium of choice

I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Twitter is a sort of bubble – a group of relatively similar people talking to each other about the things that matter to them. It is easy, when you’re part of that bubble, to imagine that all the important voices are being heard, that anyone who wants to be included in the debate will be. It’s also easy to feel – if you find yourself amidst a storm of retweets – as though you’re really making a difference, that the important people are listening and that you’re at the heart of the action.

But there’s also a world out there that doesn’t live itself out on Twitter. For all the unique opportunities and connections that Twitter may facilitate, there are plenty of people outside the Twitterverse who may be doing really important and valuable things without tweeting about it, or whose voices are easily overlooked. The research I took part in is due to be published this summer and it will be fascinating to find out more about the ways in which Twitter represents, enables or excludes people from participating in community life. In the meantime, I’m very happy to hear any thoughts. Use the comment function below, write me an email, post me a letter (wouldn’t that be novel?) or, if you really want to, you can even send me a tweet.

Communities: a solution to the ‘global mental health crisis’?

April 11, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

Mental health is a globally pressing issue. Conservative estimates suggest that 400 million people worldwide suffer from various mental illnesses, while the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the world’s leading cause of the burden of disease, with mental health problems already exacting a greater toll than tuberculosis, cancer, or heart disease.


Yet look at this global picture more closely, and to some observers it appears as though this burden might not be spread evenly around the world. With recovery rates for schizophrenia and depression in the USA, UK, and other wealthy countries worse than those in Nigeria, India, and other developing nations, it looks as though the poor world is outperforming the rich when it comes to dealing with some mental disorders.

Theories as to why this may be abound. These range from the perhaps outdated and stereotypical idea that there is a greater tradition of family and community solidarity in economically developing nations, to the social anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s theory that a combination of greater stigma and “disgraceful” normative care practices in the West often mean that sufferers of devastating mental disorders like schizophrenia concurrently experience a range of other afflictions – ostracism, homelessness, poverty, substance addiction and a set of humiliating interpersonal experiences that she calls ‘social defeat’.

Last night, in his RSA lecture entitled ‘The Global Mental Health Crisis: What the rich world can learn from the poor’, Professor Vikram Patel of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine offered a slightly different perspective. Focussing on access to care, he gave examples of the relative ingenuity of mental health care practices in countries like India, where he has done extensive work.

There is, he said, no shortage of psychiatric professionals in wealthy Western nations; for example California alone has more psychiatrists than the whole of South Asia. Despite this, some 60% of people with mental illness symptoms in the USA do not access any form of psychiatric care. The UK, even with its free-of-charge National Health Service, only performs slightly better, with 40% of sufferers not seeking or receiving treatment. As explanations for this he pointed to the sometimes alienating, over-complicated professional culture of DSM-influenced approaches to mental illnesses in the West, and the remoteness of psychiatric practitioners to their patients in both lifestyle and outlook as reasons for people not knowing about or feeling they can access services.

By contrast, he presented a model of public health in India that, with limited resources in the form of professionals or pharmaceuticals, utilises lay community health workers to provide collaborative, locally appropriate community-based care. Specially trained lay workers operate under the direction of psychiatric professionals to provide outreach services, ‘psychiatric first aid’, and social interventions based in the home, in a Wellcome Trust-funded controlled trial, documented in a series of documentaries available online.

Back in the UK, the RSA is looking to draw upon a similar approach as part of its Connected Communities project, which seeks to explore ways of building resilient communities in which people’s wellbeing and life satisfaction benefit from social connections with their peers. Working with Nicky Forsythe of Positive Therapy, we shall shortly be launching an innovative Talk For Health peer support programme which will train key members of community networks as lay counsellors, giving them the confidence and knowledge to take the therapists’ skills of empathy, non-judgemental listening, and conversational support out of the doctors’ surgery and into the hands of the community. In Bristol, we’ve just launched an innovative tablet computer app called Social Mirror, which volunteer health champions will use to help people map their social networks and, where necessary, receive suggested social prescriptions. Simultaneously, we are working with Talk To Me London to launch an exciting pilot project in New Cross that seeks to encourage Londoners to engage in conversations with strangers, with participants identified by their ‘Talk To Me’ badges which show that they are friendly and willing to chat. The designers of the project promise that it will “be the most innovative, culture-changing campaign of our times”, so stay tuned for more on that.

With ever-increasing strains on public health and social care budgets, and worrying research that demonstrates links between social isolation and the risk of mental illness and death, it is hoped that we can learn much from Professor Patel and others in the ‘poor world’ who are demonstrating that innovative, ingenious social interventions can help manage the burden of mental illness by supporting connected communities. Keep checking this blog, follow #RSAConnected and @SocialMirrorApp on Twitter, or email and ask to join the relevant email lists to keep updated with how this work progresses.

Care about care? Come on then, do some caring!

February 22, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Matthew Taylor has recently written several blog posts about the need to reconsider care. His suggestion that secondary school pupils should be required to do 100 hours of caring as part of a compulsory work experience programme seems like a good one for lots of reasons.

Acquiring the skills of caring early in life can only be an advantage, and raising the profile and status of care are important likely benefits of such a scheme. In general I think working with young people in schools is a valid way to try to achieve cultural shifts across a generation.

 Shouldn’t offering care be something that we all do, in some form, and continue to do throughout our lives?

But I also think that it can be an effective strategy for sidestepping our own responsibility to contribute in areas that we recognise as important, but might not want to engage with directly. For those of us who left school years ago and are busy working full time, developing our careers, or in Matthew Taylor’s case, running the RSA, the idea of doing a bit of hands-on care as well might seem unfeasible, not to mention unappealing.

If we are in broad agreement with Matthew’s arguments, shouldn’t offering care be something that we all do, in some form, and continue to do throughout our lives? It occurs to me that there might be scope for companies and organisations to set up schemes in which employees are encouraged to offer their time as voluntary carers during work hours.

There is at least one precedent in which a company has decided to donate employees’ time to charities. The housing association, First Ark Group, has recently made the decision to donate 500 days of staff time to volunteer in local good causes. In the Guardian’s report, published on Monday, First Ark explain that they see their responsibility to the community as extending beyond doing their ‘bread and butter’ work in the best way possible. Being a force for good and building genuine connections with the community are also key priorities and donating staff days is one way of making these things happen.

There is plenty of evidence to indicate that volunteering is good for us. It’s not just good for our communities and for the organisations, individuals and groups who receive voluntary help, it’s also good for the volunteer. In addition to the fact that volunteering brings the opportunity to learn new skills and build different kinds of relationships, it’s also good for our overall wellbeing. It has the feel good factor.

So, if an organisation were to introduce a caring scheme, what would it mean for the workplace? I suspect it would be likely to increase morale amongst staff, raise pride in the employer, develop a reputation for being a socially responsible organisation. If staff throughout organisations, from chief executives to managers to cleaners were all expected to participate, it would give the entire workforce a shared experience and sense of solidarity.

What about the likely costs? How could any company afford to donate staff time to offering care? What would the impact be on individuals’ time management and workload? According to First Ark, these problems are easily ironed out quickly, and all it takes is a bit of adjustment. Tot up the amount of time staff waste at the water cooler, and we already know that being present at work 100% of the time doesn’t amount to 100% productivity.

It will be interesting to see how First Ark’s scheme works out, and whether they continue with it beyond this year.  It seems to me that if we really care about care, we should be prepared to demonstrate that by actually getting involved ourselves. The way working life is structured makes it a tall order to expect people to volunteer to care in their spare time, but I wonder how prepared we would be to do it if it became part of our working lives.

Can partnerships help the RSA Fellowship go from good to great?

February 21, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

As Matthew Taylor noted in an earlier blog post “it is often said that the Fellowship has the potential to be the RSA’s greatest and most distinctive asset”. Two key questions for staff in the Fellowship department are:

1)      How can we support Fellows and provide them with new opportunities to help further the RSA’s charitable objectives?

2)      How can we recruit new Fellows who have the potential to help us deliver the RSA’s mission?

A large number of Fellows are willing to donate their time and expertise to help others with projects that aim to have a positive social impact, and many organisations that share similar goals to the RSA would welcome the opportunity to access this expertise. By partnering with these organisations the RSA can:

  • Provide new engagement opportunities for Fellows
  • Help further the charitable objectives of our partner organisations and so in turn further the charitable objectives of the RSA
  • Raise our profile within new communities of individuals committed to positive social change, and recruit new Fellows from amongst these leaders and thinkers
  • Contribute to the growing sense that the RSA Fellowship is made up of people with the inclination and the tools to intervene when solutions are needed.

Given the increasing value of partnerships I thought it would be useful to outline the RSA approach to collaborative working.

Photograph: Ania Mendrek FRSA, @AniaMendrek

Selecting the right partner

Selecting the right partner is important and before moving forwards both organisations need to give some thought to the following questions:

  • Can we create something we wouldn’t be able to create on our own?
  • What do we want to gain from the partnership and how realistic is it that we will achieve our aim?

Honesty is the key to success. In most cases, it is useful to have a broad conversation at the initial exploratory meeting which covers what both organisations would like to achieve in an ideal world, and then work back from this to reach more realistic objectives.

Honesty is the key to success. 

Getting it right at the beginning

Once both organisations have identified some potential areas for collaborative working, a number of steps should be taken before moving forwards. They are:

  • Establish clarity of purpose – ensuring both organisations are clear on what the common purpose is as well as the shared objectives. It is easy to put in place very broad over-arching objectives; however these should be teased apart to be short, simple and specific.
  • Establish roles and responsibilities – complex partnerships with different strands of work often have several people involved and so clarity of individual roles and responsibilities is important.
  • Operational plan – put in place a plan which outlines what will be happening when, and who is responsible.
  • Measures of success – ensuring that there is some system for measuring success against each objective.
  • Review – agree an initial date to review the partnership to discuss progress against each objective.
  • Memorandum of understanding – before commencing with the partnership a document outlining all of the above should be agreed – note this does not necessarily have to be a formal contract. This document is essential to ensuring the on-going success of the partnership and should form the basis of future review meetings.

Give and take

Partnerships tend to fall along a spectrum with more transactional partnerships at one end contrasting with much closer working relationships at the other. Partnerships are not static, and so there needs to be some flexibility regarding governance and processes. As a general rule, the more transactional the relationship the more you need strong governance (e.g. a contract for a reciprocal advertising arrangement across several forms of media), whereas more collaborative partnerships need to have greater flexibility built into the governance and processes.

Partnering with the RSA

If you would like to discuss partnering with the RSA please do get in touch.

Further reading

For more guidance about partnerships and collaborative working, please do take a look at “Collaborative Leadership: How To Succeed in An Interconnected World” by David Archer FRSA and Alex Cameron. This publication is available from the RSA Library.

Adam Timmins is Deputy Head of Fellowship Partnerships at the RSA, you can contact him on or @Im_AdamT. For more images please visit

The Power of Fellowship Connections

February 5, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

I was struck by just how powerful the work of a few individuals can be to create and sustain an idea following a meeting recently with Ian Jamie, a Fellow and School Governor at Whitley Academy.  Through personal experience and insight of the local situation he has begun to work with the Academy to help support Year 12 students as they begin to consider their next steps.  Having experienced the power of support from a network of alumni and family friends as he developed his career he has seen the value of connectivity.  Ian and the staff that are working with the 6th form are keen to take the best from their experiences to offer similar opportunities for 6th form students at Whitley Academy.

As students move into 6th forms, colleges and work the need to focus their minds is increasingly encouraged.  Choices and decisions are looming and it is school, families and friends that offer support and advice.  Recent work from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has highlighted that young people and families rarely suffer from a lack of aspirations but what if students families and friends have limited experiences of the wide career options available?

At Whitley Academy Ian Jamie and the Academy staff will be offering further support to Year 12 students.  He has worked with the school to create a programme to help students explore where they want to go after Whitley Academy.  As Temi Ogunye notes in his blog about school networks it is important to “provide opportunities for [students] by creating the conditions within which useful connections can be made and enriching experiences can be had.”

This is the overarching aim for the work in Coventry.  The Academy has identified career connections for all its Year 12 students.  Through personal and community networks the staff and governors have begun to draw up a list of supporters to offer advice, encouragement and links with the world of work.

On Thursday 21st of March they will be taking the next step by hosting a targeted careers session for the 6th form to help foster these connections. Ian is hoping to encourage further support from another powerful network that we all know about.  I have been tasked with seeking out a number of Fellows from our 27,000 strong network to offer support and time to students, so if you see or @pickfordrich in your inbox you know what might be coming next.  If you have any of your own ideas for supporting students across the RSA Academies then please contact me.  The RSA will be running open roadshows at each of the sponsored schools across the next two terms.  The first was held yesterday on Monday, 4th of February at RSA Arrow Vale and Ipsley Academies.  Watch this space for a report about this event.

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