RSA shows how social networks can support Changemakers

Over the past few years the RSA’s Connected Communities project has developed methods for mapping who knows who in neighbourhoods, and how they can form a social network. It is fascinating to see the maps that emerge … but how can this approach be turned to the advantage of the community?

Social network analysis now forms the basis for an innovative programme in Peterborough, where the RSA’s Citizen Power project has used SNA to identify Changemakers who could work together for the benefit of the city. Their recently published report says:

Among those we identified were members of the clergy, artists, head teachers, social entrepreneurs, housing officers, charity workers, police officers, businessmen and everyday council officers. The results of our surveying indicate that such individuals are adept at driving positive change in their local areas. They appear rooted in their communities, have an impressive repertoire of capabilities, and are instilled with an appetite to apply their skills and knowledge to address local issues.

As Ben Dellot explains here, it is particularly important to identify people who can drive change at a time when public services are being cut back. Some will know each other – but many won’t have connected across public, private and voluntary sectors.

Together they should be able to achieve more than they could without the benefit of wider network connections.

The network is already meeting, as you can see from this report on the Citizen Power online community site. In true networky style, they ran the event as open space session rather than a committee

The aim is for the network to be self-sustaining, as the RSA withdraws. The initiative has been supported by RSA Fellows (members), and this makes it easier to replicate the process in other areas and eventually build a network of networks through which Changemakers can find others with similar interests.

I think it is going to be fascinating to see how people from different organisational backgrounds work out how to organise within a networked context … and how any projects teams they form on a peer-to-peer basis can then work with more formal organisations in the city.

Will they operate on a purely voluntary basis? If they do need funds, how will that be handled? How are application to join the network made? Will they be criticised as an elitist group? How will decisions be taken?

All of these are issues that I think we’ll have to face more widely as we try and make the most of the human and social assets in our communities, and move beyond, or re-invent, the civic structures developed over the past century.

Of course, there have always been social networks in civil society. What’s perhaps different here is the attempt to develop ones that deliberately connect across sectors and disciplines. As the RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor blogged recently:

It is in spaces and processes which bring together people with different interests, expertise and resources that innovation is most likely to occur. It is also here that we can identify ‘the hidden wealth’ (a capacity for creativity, generosity, trust and solidarity) which often lies dormant trapped between specialisms and hierarchies and crushed by narrow incentives.

The Changemakers network in Peterborough looks as if it will be an excellent test of just what is possible through this approach.