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The Big Society – how to keep it social

May 14, 2010

Ok – so on a very positive note, that manifestation of The Big Society which is called Your Square Mile has walked up and grabbed me by the throat. It resonates with so much that I’ve written about (including updated precis via this blog) and striven to do (e.g. via UpMyStreet a few years ago, or via local online consultation communities in my Market Research career).

I can’t wait to find out what the next steps are with Your Square Mile – to be given my clues, tools and connections – and get stuck in to my own square mile.

But hang on. ..

The intro to the idea says that there are about 93,000 square miles in the UK. That’s probably true. But by another reckoning there are about 25 million of them – minutely overlapping of course, but each centred on one of the 25 million households in the UK. I live at the centre of a square mile and so do you. My neighbour lives at the centre of an almost identical one. But other people, near the edge of my square mile, live in one which has only about 50% in common with mine.

This looks like a trivial or nit-picking point. So I won’t even start asking if these are literal squares or if they are circles with an area of one square mile… etc.

But it’s not trivial! The very practical question is – “who’s going to define the square miles and tell me (that’s tell) which one I’m in?” – much as history and civil authority tells me which parish, post code unit, borough, county, constituency, PCT, country etc, etc, I’m in.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could nominate somewhere nearby – a landmark like a pub or community centre – choose that as the centre of my square mile, and others could then sign up to it too, or nominate their own. This is how something like FourSquare works – and, no, I’m not for a second suggesting this should be something which depends on the smartphone-toting GPS-tagging classes. On FourSquare if I go to create a new ‘place’ and find that someone else has already defined one that’s good enough for my purposes, I adopt it instead of defining my own.

What I’m getting at here is that this sort of constructive skeptical thinking, at the very simplest practical level of set-up for Your Square Mile, neatly defines the challenge for the rest of the project.

Are you going to tells us which is our square mile? Are you going to draw boundaries and assign us some rules and objectives and human ‘guides’? Or are you going to give us clues and tools for doing it ourselves in roughly the intended way, and with some scope for metamorphosis and innovation?

Of course, if you turn it into a formal democracy – then you just start to generate new parties, or alternative micro-local assemblies. Our Parish Council is great – with people who turn out and do things – so I certainly wouldn’t want to build a new by-pass round them, or raise extra revenue to do so.

I’m NOT doing a recutio ad absurdum job here. I’m actually highlighting the opportunity to do something genuinely different – where the principles of organisation and coordination are themselves actually chosen to reflect the underlying principles of devolved action and responsibility. That’s the challenge – I think it’s open to some radically creative solutions and, if they work, the impact will feed all the way back into the higher, older, institutions and assumptions. Even if they don’t work, I think some new energy will have flowed into existing, genuinely bottom-up, organisations which, whilst they may have stood the test of time, may also benefit from re-examining how they work together at a hyper-local level.

So – as you can tell from all my stuff about Us, Them, Other People, Local Champions, communal ties, and even “frankness”,  I’m up for it!

What’s next? And when? Can I start yet? Should I even be asking?To save repetition – here’s a quote from the rather long ‘Monkey Motives’ post I wrote last September.

How do I relate this to local, civic, community? [Thereby preventing this post from turning into a small book!] I think it should be the project of every community to foster the sense of ‘Us’ – and not by creating some politically synthesised ‘Them’ as a cheap way of making it happen. The aim of the project should be to make it more likely that the ‘My-clan’ instinct is triggered in any given situation. I think this can be done in little steps, and through both words and actions… but appealing to the instincts and not to complicated rationalisation. I think that the new technology of the internet and social media has a potentially massive role to play in doing this, by making each of us aware of the human face of our otherwise ‘Them’ neighbours and giving us opportunities to support each other and enjoy communal action… and the accompanying sense of security and belonging. I also think that this is a race, a race against those who have already adopted the ‘Them’ stance and who would use the same channels to stoke conflict and feed the more impoverished solidarity that comes from a sense of being besieged. I think that, because this is above all about place and not about communities of interest – the natural leaders of such a project, of turning us into clannish neighbours, are local authorities, local politicians, local government officers and local volunteers.

I think the project begins simply by gaining an understanding of what conversations are already happening online, in a given place, and how these can be brought together, how the positive ones can be supported and how they can be brought to bear on older, more hierarchical, processes and services.

Two last thoughts:

  1. I bet that local public services founded on, and supported by, the behaviours and altruism of an ‘Us’ community are cheaper and more efficient to run than those which are dominated by a withdrawn social ‘outsourcing’ of civic action to that other ‘Them’ – “the authorities”, to whom we have no obligation other than a financial one, and with whom we have no relationship other than demand and complaint. By ‘outsourcing’ I’m not talking about the economic and contractual means by which services are delivered. I mean the ‘outsourcing’ of responsibility, of caring, of connection and, ultimately, of action and intervention. By ‘outsourcing’ I mean a view of the world which is dominated by the interaction of ‘Other People’ and from which we, ourselves, are absent.
  2. I bet that the ‘Us’ community is easier to bring about if local politicians  (in particular) but also public servants and, ultimately, ‘Us’ are prepared to discard some of the bull and be honest about the challenges, the rewards and the commitment (not necessarily money) that is required to bring it about.
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