An amazing day with Chain Reaction: no moans, many assets, a community march. That’s big society – or Our Society

I spent yesterday on the 30th floor of a Canary Wharf tower, with 100 people at Chain Reaction 2011, a hugely creative discussion about the future of East London that we could see below. Our bodies were in the sky, but our heads and hearts were on the ground.

I spent this morning less productively tweeting about the story that Lord (Nat) Wei is cutting back his volunteer time on Big Society, and the follow-ups about How to save the big society and what this tells us about the labour market.

Nat responded that “#bigsociety is about much more than volunteering – it’s about helping people to take control over their lives, however much time they have” … but, without the stories I heard yesterday, that and other tweets seemed mostly abstractions.  Heads in the clouds.

So to counter balance that, I’ll make the first video I shot yesterday that of Lance Scott, one of the young people among a wide range of ages and interests at Chain Reaction talking about regeneration, economic development and growing up in East London. Three workshops on those topics ran throughout the day, so we could all contribute by mapping what we know about what’s working well, how we can join up to do more, and what would catalyse that action. We started with the assets, not the problems, after some excellent warm-up facilitation from Chris Grant to help us get to know each other. As a result, it was a no-moaning day.

We covered walls and windows with sheets of ideas and local knowledge, then ended up with an hour of pitching and discussion on “what next”. Who could make sense of the complexity? Although Big Society wasn’t our stated theme, it set the context: less funding, more expectation of volunteer action and social enterprises, less direction from Government. As I wrote last year, There is no Big Society Big Plan. Not much guidance on regeneration this year either, as Julian Dobson reports. We have to make it up for ourselves.

Fortunately Lance did have a bottom-up plan of the best kind – simple proposal, lots of ways for people to join in. Let’s have a community march to bring people out of their homes, meet their neighbours, lose their fear of the streets, find some common interests – and feel that they can make a change in the world.

Lance said the idea wasn’t originally his, but developed in discussions with other young people. It’s strength is that it wouldn’t cost much, according to Lance … and while a lot of the discussion yesterday was about money, that wouldn’t solve anything without the backing of the community. The march would be a way to start mobilising that action.

There were other ideas, with a lot of emphasis on building connections between networks, and I’m sure Laura Hyde, Richard McKeever, Aaron Barbour and the rest of the team at Community Links will give us a detailed analysis on the site. Meanwhile you’ll find videos, after that of Lance, from workshop facilitators Nathan Roberts, Jonny Zander and Kweku Aacht, with a summing up from Geraldine Blake, plus Julian Dobson on Big Society and Our Society.

My contribution yesterday was to suggest that once the many ideas and actions were collated, we might put together a proposition to the Big Society Network, where my friends Steve Moore, Lucy Windmill and the team are developing plans to Convene, Curate, Narrate. Their aim is bring together people involved in local projects with those at the forefront of innovation, and to help tell the inspiring stories that emerge. It is a great approach … if it connects with those on the ground.

Community Links have 30 years of experience working in East London, running a wide range of community projects for 30,000 people each year.  Their founder David Robinson has written a book on how it has been done, and an open letter to David Cameron. They are experts in Big/Our/Good Society – and willing to share that experience.

My suggestion was that Chain Reaction and Community Links might say to Big Society Network, and those in Government, something on the lines of – we are already building Big Society, but your lack of coordinated policies and cuts will make it extremely difficult to continue to meet local needs. We are planning how to do more with less … or rather more by building stronger networks through events like Chain Reaction. How can we join up with you to learn from successes so far, and to release new ideas and resources for the future? (I’m sure the Chain Reaction team can put it much better, if the idea appeals).

East London is fortunate in having Community Links and a wide range of other organisations who are probably able to keep going through the cuts. Many other areas don’t start from that level of community activity, and don’t have access to the London jobs market, and connections. Events in London, Big Society awards, and featuring a few inspiring projects online, may be useful but aren’t enough on their own.

Research released today by the Third Sector Research Sector studied the role of the estimated 600,000 community groups in the UK, what part they might play in Big Society, and questioned how far the top-down policies developed so far would work. Conclusion: they won’t connect.

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Big Society as a trawl through the Twitter-stream and blogs show. The Wall Street Journal blog by Iain Martin says “you couldn’t make it up” … and while much of the comment on Nat Wei is unfair (he has done an enormous amount to explain Big Society thinking as well as develop policy, and still volunteers two days a week) there’s a danger that Big Society will disappear under the weight of satire.

The communication problem (aside from the cuts) is fairly simple. The best of Big Society is about devolution of power, and supporting bottom-up action across the country – but all the messages and policies are top-down from London. As PR expert Jane Wilson says, Big Society Needs a Local Voice, and its advocates need to engage and to help people tell their own stories.

There’s an old adage in community development – go where people are, don’t expect them to come to you. Community centre and pub, homes and groups, not town hall meetings. Listen and respond, don’t preach. It’s what Tessy Britton is doing with the Travelling Pantry.

If you can’t make it to Sheffield, at least take the Jubilee Line to Canning Town. Give some backing to a community march – don’t wait for the anti-cuts riots.

And if you just want to do the trip virtually, join us in the Our Society forum.

Update: Lord Wei has posted a polite and thoughtful response

One comment

  • February 3, 2011 - 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for reports from Chain Reaction, although seems like things are far more middle class with I live in Brighton as we have a street party here, so no need as yet to march in order to reclaim the streets.

    Neighbouring Hollingdean and Stanmer is, however, a recognised area of deprivation. Given the size of the area there’s a huge amount of community-based activity, although the challenge seems more about actually engaging the most disadvantaged rather than the willingness of those better off to try and make a difference. As such, I think it would make a great mapping project.

    So it would be good to hear about some simple to use mapping methodology/tools as well as understand how the mapping process is sold in terms of the benefits to those being mapped and also what’s in it for those doing the mapping … given that Nat Wei is not the only with kids who’s faced with there only being 24 hours in a day and a need to make ends meet 😉

    Perhaps another way of putting this would be along the lines of what are the ends to which mapping is the means?

    Seeing that you are such a champion of Social by Social, how about setting up (and finding funding for) some kind of collaboration facilitated by social media that helps determine which mapping methodologies/tools can be used for what depending on what resources are available. Isn’t that one way of moving things forward to get feet back on the ground?

    Thought I’d also add some comments I left on Nat Wei’s blog because I think you and others that are either in or on the periphery of the Big Society Inner circle(s) might have got too close to be objectively reporting his resignation.

    The problem as I see it is that the so-called myths surround Big Society, or at least as Nat sees them, have arisen because it was oversold as the Big Idea. In reality it’s still an embryonic one, which sometimes seems little more than a Stone Soup despite all the enthusiasm for the intent:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_soup

    As such, it’s not altogether surprising that Nat’s resignation and his reasons for doing so are seen by many as something you couldn’t make up. They have a point given his desk in Cabinet Office, seat in Lords and all the access that entails.

    Nat shouldn’t be too surprised either given I don’t think it’s any great secret that that there’s an admission within the Big Society inner circle(s) that the ‘story’ hadn’t been successfully communicated/sold.

    I don’t think his resignation is going to help maters much either, which is a shame as there does seem to be some consensus across the political spectrum about devolving power to citizens.

    What doesn’t seem very well thought out though is the delivery of the Big Society, in terms of how a big idea that’s been developed from the top down is going to be activated/delivered from the bottom-up.

    The important bit which seems missing is any clarity about who is going to do what for what and why, with a huge question mark about funding particularly if there’s more to the Big Society than just volunteering as Nat argues on his blog

    Perhaps the Big Society story would have been or could be better sold/told with something more tangible; like a comparison between what’s already happening in what some call ‘Our Society’ and what this might look like in terms of similarities and differences within the envisaged Big Society.

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