Could local authorites be the key to creating social infrastructures to rival themselves?

This week is my last week at Camden. I’ll be continuing this blog, because I find the subject of community resilience really interesting, but it might take on a different colour going forward. This is no bad thing. To mark my last week, here is a self-indulgent post essentially explaining why I persevere with this blog. As always I welcome all thoughts and comments.

When I think about my work on “more resilient and trusting communities who do more for themselves” (yep, that’s the official title in my organisation’s strategic document), I often wonder if the question I’m trying to answer is the one I’ve used to title this post. Not “how do we get people to do more things?” but “how do we make social activity more attractive than public activity?” (and yes I do believe there is a difference).

I think what I’ve learned from my experience to date is that if your goal is to try and make people more resilient, you’re probably wasting your efforts, if for no other reason than people are naturally doing this all the time. Sometimes through informal personal networks and self-development, sometimes through interesting projects, the likes of which I enjoy sharing through this blog. It’s probably the reason we have and accept a society – it just makes sense to find ways to get along and work with each other.

There is a challenge though as to whether we, as individuals, have outsourced the responsibility for connecting and building relationships a little too far. This to my mind is what government (both central and local) is essentially; everyday civil action outsourced to a structure that can do it at scale. First off, I’m not 100% against this – in fact it makes a huge amount of sense given the scale of how our society works. I enjoy being part of something much bigger, be it at a national or international scale, and I also enjoy that we reap the benefits of nice civic stuff, like the NHS.

But I also think that we collectively find it difficult reconciling being part of what is often a global social network, and being part of something very localised (be it a geographical area or an interest/theme). It can sometimes feel like we have to choose between global and local, and I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who finds that choice frustrating.

However, what if we could make that choice a bit less frustrating? What if we could use the same infrastructure we use to help us connect the big stuff, also help us to connect the smaller stuff? What if the relationship wasn’t “one-way” and our governments could give something back to us? What do I mean by that? (ok enough with the questions!)

I think this what people are talking about when they use the term “government as a platform” where everyday citizens can directly tap into the infrastructure our hard-earned trust and taxes go into each month. That said, it’s probably a bit much to ask people to engage with this cold, so it’d be nice if governments were a bit more imaginative in showcasing to people what is possible. I’m a great believer that local government is best placed to do this. In my mind, this looks a bit like councils connecting citizens to new and interesting ways of connecting with each other. When I think of Camden, it looks a little bit like this…

The local council understanding what residents, workers and visitors are interested in doing and how they define themselves. The council using this understanding and its own infrastructure and resources to put people in touch with ways of connecting with each other and showcasing the possibilities – a local social network for people interested in sustainable living to find out about loca projects and source help, like Project Dirt; a way for people to share resources, items and expertise with their neighbours to reduce cost and waste, like Streetbank; a way for people who like running to better connect with their local area, not just other runners, like GoodGym; places for people who like making things and want to meet other people, like The Camden Town Shed; a way for people who like cooking to share their food with people who struggle to feed themselves, like Casserole Club or FoodCycle; a way for groups of people to come together and finance local initiatives that mean something to their area, like SpaceHive; people who enjoy Camden’s music scene but have difficulties accessing it finding people who can go with them through Gig Buddies; people from all walks for life coming together in tenants’ halls to connect around movies through OpenCinema

I could go on and on. The exciting thing about this picture is that to a certain extent, it already exists, but often in a very disconnected way. Truth is, unless you’re a social innovation geek, you’re likely not to hear about these sorts of things. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A local authority’s greatest asset is its address book – we know everyone! I wonder what could be achieved if we started putting that address book to more creative use, actively brokering connections between people and platforms. Would some of our more traditional public services start looking a bit out of date?

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that every time I make a very small connection (in my own limited way) between local people and platforms like these, good things happen. Those good things might not grow exponentially if they happened at a larger scale, but I think it’d be worth a go and finding out if by spending less time delivering services, and more time connecting people, we’d be living in a much more resilient society.

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One Response to Could local authorites be the key to creating social infrastructures to rival themselves?

  1. Lorna Prescott says:

    Hi Alex
    This is a really useful post, and I really must set aside time to read all your other posts. What you say about showcasing the possibilities makes complete sense to me, and has worked in a number of contexts for Civic Systems Lab http://www.civicsystemslab.org (I’m working on the Open Hub prototype with Civic Systems Lab). Another piece of this jigsaw, in my opinion, is to help people to design these sorts of projects and activities. We’ve got the first stage down to one A3 planning sheet (though lots of learning and iteration occur subsequently) and we see ourselves as co-designers, which I think is a little different to being facilitators – though I haven’t thought this through in depth yet.

    Like

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