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My own ‘Square Mile’ starts here, now.

August 2, 2010

Just another school-summer-holiday-day, but a big day for me.

Today marks the start of my own ‘My Square Mile’ project. It’s been in my head for a very long time, and recognised as a good fit with My Square Mile, and aspects of the Big Society, for several months. A few people will have heard me pontificating about it.

But today marks a simple practical shift. With the agreement of my employer – GfK NOP (who have been very supportive) – I am reducing my ‘day job’ by 40% in order to spend two days per week working on personal projects… a big part of which will be this necessarily very local My Square Mile project. It also involves taking a deep breath and accepting that I’ve just reduced my income and benefits by a corresponding 40% because, initially and by definition, these will be unpaid projects. Something may emerge which becomes another job or social business, but it is fundamental for me that, at the start, there are no conditions about this… I simply have to do the work and allow the answers to emerge and, of course, for those answers to become interwoven with my local friends, neighbours, not-yet-known neighbours and local institutions. Any thought of this being another part of what I do for a living has to come later and last.

I want this post to be a simple, clear, story about what I’m going to do, and why – so I won’t recap all the stuff about my underlying personal philosophy and its resonance with Big Society ideas or My Square Mile. I’m just going to make some bullet points to mark the start line.

  • Neighbourhoods benefit from an increase in what it has been fashionable to call ‘social capital’.
  • Defining social capital is a popular sport. I think an increase in social capital includes – more connections between people, more hours clocked up by people doing things together and sharing ‘stuff’, more people who are inclined to be involved in the state of their neighbourhood and the well-being of their neighbours, more people spending some time thinking about belonging to a place and, through this, about having something in common with those living around them. Overall I think this may also mean more people joining existing local organisations (in the very broadest sense – and I’m totally agnostic about what these are), participating in them, strengthening and developing them, or creating new groups where they feel that there’s a gap.
  • I believe that the overall effect of such increases is positive – but I’m too old and experienced to be naive about possible bad outcomes too.
  • I want to understand the social capital that my neighbourhood already has.
  • I want to understand the connections therein (offline and online) – and personally to connect with the most active local ‘agents’
  • BTW I also want to avoid lots of jargon like ‘agent’ but I know I’ll fall into this trap over and over again. Professional practitioners… please forgive me when I re/miss-coin a technical term by accident.
  • I then want to start to explore whether, how and why people might like to become MORE connected
  • Then I want to know about how they would use those connections. [Whilst acknowledging the “observer’s paradox” fact that their ideas and inclinations might keep changing as they become aware of more information and opportunities]
  • Then, and only then… I want to start finding ways to create and support that increased connection, and the resulting activities. This is where a lot of people may be starting right now – using their own prior knowledge/experience/beliefs/allegiances as foundations. So I’m sure they will race ahead and I can continue to learn from them. But for me it’s really important that this happens in Phase 2, at the earliest.
  • I don’t want to lead anything – I just want to help things to come out and take shape.  I hope (believe?) that things can ’emerge’ [in the philosophically precise sense of the word] and that they can continue to be ’emergent’ in terms of how they are sustained. So I really do want to avoid becoming yet another of those ‘Other People’ to whom everyone else feels that they can outsource involvement, responsibility and risk.
  • I ought to declare that I believe this sort of emergence is now much more possible because of online services and tools and that I will be paying a lot of attention to how they can help – whilst not letting this define the essence of the project.

Two final principles:

  • What is my neighbourhood? I am wilfully and intentionally centring my own square mile on Me, here, at home. In fact I’m placing the point of the compasses on the manhole cover in the middle of the road outside and drawing a circle of radius 993 yards (feel free to check the maths). There are a couple of reasons. First, I challenge the Big Society Network’s notion that there are 93,000 square miles in the UK. This is only true if  ‘Other People’ draw the grid for us, leaving us to discover which box we are in and cope with their boundaries and rationale. [I know they didn’t intend this kind of precision – but the underlying principle is actually rather important].   I see 24 million square miles in the UK – each centred on a unique household. Adopting this mentality sets us very free, and makes this as bottom-up as you can get. But it leaves us with the problem of how we connect and aggregate all those overlapping square miles. Rather than retreat into analysing this paradox I’m plumping for the household square mile and I’m going to record and deal with the practical issues and challenges as they arise. I’m sure that  ‘why should I have anything to do with your square mile?’ will be one of the first. So I’m going to be glancing from my own square mile to bigger projects, Big Society assistance, political debates etc, and back again – over and over again – and reporting on how the big stuff is showing up on my patch and what impact it is having.
  • Which leads to the final point. The essential part of the first phase of this project is to listen, capture and share… with as few pre-conceptions as practically possible to become amongst other things, and using the insightful term coined by David Wilcox, a ‘Social Reporter’. initially that will be my voice, but I hope to then add other local voices as time goes by – so I imagine there will soon be a multi-author local blog. This kind of sharing itself becomes part of the local social capital, as shown by people such as Will Perrin via the Hyperlocal principle… another source of inspiration that I should acknowledge.

And so the TODO List?

1. Write and promote kick-off blog post. Done.

2. Find ways of capturing, mapping and visually representing My Square Mile. [Any tips on how to use online mapping tools in simple ways to do this most welcome BTW – I’ve found an add-on to draw and tag a circle within Google maps.] This is going to be called ‘Oakfield Square’ btw since that’s a nearby park/school/hub which doesn’t opt for a divisive choice of place name such as Wilmington, Dartford or Tree Estate… all of which partly intersect with my circle. For the present – if you want to find my patch just search for DA1 1PS.

3. Identify (confirm prior research on) some of the most active individuals and groups in that space and make (increase) contact with them. Set up some meetings, phone calls, and send some e-mails.

4. Produce a very simple manifesto for what I am doing which passes the ‘rambling nutter’ test. i.e. if I was to pick a random house within that area and knock on the door, how would I explain what I am doing, and what sorts of responses I’m seeking from people, in a way which makes sense and gets me a cup of tea and a chat rather than an invitation to “***,  or **** off” along with all the other cold callers, politicians, religious evangelists, ‘curtain twitchers’ or con artists that people are conditioned to send on their way. Done – twice – second time being in June 2011

I’ll be back tomorrow with the first draft of 4.

Meanwhile – maps, crayons, e-mails and phone calls.  ;0)

[Footnote – even at the risk of embarrassing them, it’s worth re-stating my gratitude to GfK NOP, and in particular to my boss, CEO Richard Jameson, for being flexible enough to give me the means to scratch this itch. I know that evidence suggests my 3-day-per week focus will result in much more than 60% of my past priority objectives being met, and that we will all benefit from the influx of energy and creativity that I undoubtedly feel this morning… but it’s still an experiment and one which has invested faith in my ability to balance these different ways of working and being. Without that agreement this just wouldn’t be happening at all – and there are maybe some lessons in this for the bigger Big Society.]

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2010 12:16 pm

    Hi Nicdk – thanks for the mention. I’m really excited you are taking on this challenge both for you, and because (a little selfishly) I know your insights will be an enormous help in shaping the Social App Store which I’m starting on for the Big Society Network – discussion here.
    The store should provide good stuff for you and other local agents, activists, organisers …
    So what do you need? On mapping see
    http://www.mappingforchange.org.uk
    and
    http://www.thersa.org/projects/connected-communities

    Can we research together?

    David

  2. njbdartford permalink*
    August 2, 2010 1:22 pm

    Absolutely – it would be great to try things out and give you feedback, I’ll head over and join in,

    best,

    Nick.

  3. August 4, 2010 11:05 am

    Its easy to talk about Big Society, another to commit to exploring/living it. Though you are pomp averse, I feel the town band should have been summoned and some bunting draped as you stepped onto the ceremonial manhole cover. Like sending explorers off to find the north west passage. Here’s to a fascinating oddyssey. I note how the conversation about community tends to focus on problems and (ugh) issues. I hope you will find community is alive and kicking in your locality – in a way that is invisible to a global media scanning the distant horizons for more and more fear-inspiring portents.
    Inspired by you the Pearls have decided to focus on local giving in the year ahead. Zachary is thinking about donating Star Wars figures to the local poor (which is a hell of a start for an 8 year old).
    Go well, local gladiator. We who are sofa prone, salute you!

  4. August 17, 2010 11:37 am

    Hi, Nick. Good to meet you at Finance Lab and to find this post. How’s it been going since this initial start?
    Three thoughts:
    1. I’m working with Bournemouth, since it endorsed the Earth Charter, with 166,000 people. And I’m an ‘outsider’, but I feel oddly connected with your project. I wander around Bournemouth, its schools, neighbourhoods, organisations, trying to make sense of what I am doing with a global Charter about sustainability, justice, peace. But, oddly, things do seem, every now and then to make sense, and cohere.

    2.I have found museums to contribute an extraordinary source of understanding and sustainability. I wonder what might exist of that sort in your square mile? Maybe it is in the memories of those who live there? I am reminded of Ian Sinclair’s extraordinary books; and look our for Rachel Lichtenstein.

    3. Finally, just an odd additional thought, perhaps for the very long term future: http://www.theconvergingworld.org started by a visionary friend of mine in Bristol, John Pontin. Though this is far from your present starting point, it is essentially based on ‘Contraction and Convergence’ – that the west will need to contract its energy use and there will be, hopefully, a gradual convergence with the ‘developing’ (?) world. John uses Bristol, and still more, one village – Chew Magna – as a ‘local base’ and has linked with an area in Tamil Nadhu, India. Just a thought…but that is the Earth Charter’s purpose…

    All good wishes, for this exciting work.

    Jeffrey

  5. September 16, 2010 11:21 am

    Nick

    I was really drawn into your story, of reducing the day job and setting out on a journey, with plenty of unknowns but a underlying desire to make something worthwhile happen locally. Aristotle said something about ‘starting is more than half of the whole’ which to means, that simply making this kind of commitment is huge.

    I wanted to put a few reflections down about other things that jumped out to me

    Re social capital – there really is a lot of nonsense talked about this mixed with some valid common sense assertions. What I am mindful of is the tendency of experts in government and academia experimenting on communities rather than really listening, creating genuine opportunities and devolving power. I get the impression that social capital is a bit too clever, hence the RSA stuff on social networks and nudging is based on a pessimistic view of human nature – people are selfish and need to be manipulated towards certain outcomes.

    I like the idea of your square mile but I am worried that there is a massive hidden agenda of social control – getting people to do something for nothing and not really living up to the rhetoric of changing the relationship between citizen and state to a more healthy interdependent one.

    I’m sure most community groups, local volunteers and citizens won’t really care if government really means it, if it is a ruse or ephemeral political fashion etc, because the motivation to do good locally transcends all of that, but on a wider point, part of getting people engaged, whether via your square mile or any other big society themed project is about checking out who is really serious and in it for the long haul.

    Wher eI live in Lewisham, what I find unwholesome by way of example is the way party politics can corrupt commuity activity – hence the local party captures a ward, they get to chair the local nieighbourhood forum, give out grants to local groups, watch the votes come back as a result, and little real independent sustainable community activity takes root. So I guess how small ‘p’ politically aware people are is crucial given any local person who becomes able to make things happen locally will almost inevitably become drawn into a political arena.

    Hope this is making some sense; final thought would be how the lcoal voluntary and community sector do or don’t fit into resident led action. Given that there are around one million civil soceity groups in this coutnry and most of them are not charities, but small unfunded community groups – how does Big society and related endeavour connect with this constituency? To date I don’t think Govt or Big Society Network have an answer – instaed they’ve tried to rebrand it – community groups are not micro social enterprises and a new set of American style organisers will sweep in. This ideological reconstruction of the voluntary sector will of course fail but my sense is that government will carry on regardless, because every minster wants to their own new big thing, which lasts approximately 18 months then another person comes in as minister etc

    I wish you every success with your neighbourhood project – I applaud the big society idea of not leading or imposing plans and very much like your desire not to lead anything but allow things to be emergent.

    all best wishes

    Matt

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