Benchmarking Big Society events

There are scores of events about Big Society in prospect around the country, as you can see from the admirable calendar started by Paul Webster on the Big Society in the North forum (my earlier BS posts here).
Last week I was a guest at one organised by the Transition Network in Bristol – and I think it  sets a standard for the design of any other events that aim to give participants an in-depth understanding of the issues, and the way they may be reported.
You can see a conference report here, written by Rob Hopkins, together with a full set of materials posted by Ed Mitchell.
I’m not suggesting that the conference produced a definitive perspective on Big Society. It was viewed through the lens of Transition initiatives, as defined on their site:

“A Transition Initiative (which could be a town, village, university or island etc) is a community-led response to the pressures of climate change, fossil fuel depletion and increasingly, economic contraction. There are thousands of initiatives around the world starting their journey to answer this crucial question:
“for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly rebuild resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil and economic contraction) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?”
You would come up with different views on Big Society depending on your objectives.

What was impressive was the care given to a briefing presentation by the chair Philip Lipman (above), followed by other perspectives under Chatham House rules, so people could speak freely, and then well-facilitated discussions. (There’s no video, because that wouldn’t work under the non-attribution Rules).
We looked at issues from national and local angles, and both organisational and personal. I was particularly interested in one group discussing the idea of “change literacy”: how do we become better able to deal with unexpected change … or change that is substantial, expected, but uncertain in its impacts. That’s certainly peak oil, and climate change. It may also be Big Society policies. What’s needed, we decided, was a simulation workshop that enabled people to explore change and what it would mean for them and their community.
There were equally thoughtful discussions on social enterprise, social justice, funding, and more.
If much of the analysis in the reports seem challenging to Big Society, I think that is because people in the Transition movement have spent a lot of time refining their core values, developing ways of understanding highly complex issues, and figuring out possible solutions. They expect similarly thoughtful approaches from others.
The main conclusion – I thought – was that the Transition Network should take Big Society seriously, and professionally. It should be analysed on a daily basis for emerging policies, and critiqued against a Transition manifesto and programme.
Big Society is a context and set of policies which should not be ignored, and the extent to which it offers threats or opportunities cannot be determined by broad-brush assessments. It requires the sort of analysis provided by the event in Bristol.
What would also be very helpful, in the face of the deluge of Big Society articles, blog posts and tweets, would be some means of organising very dispersed content. For practical insights into how to do that,  I recommend a careful look at the Transition web site, developed by a team led by Ed Mitchell. It doesn’t look fancy … but it is smart in the way that it pull information from many different places.
And should you be thinking of a “what works” toolkit for your bit of Big Society/Good Society/Civil Society, the section on patterns suggests how you might document possible approaches and solutions.
It seems to me that the Transition Network are benchmarking how to understand and engage with Big Society – but that’s just my limited experience. Who else is doing this well?

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