Recently two books have been published that will have a significant impact on the next phase of the Big Society. They both point to enormous changes and trends taking place right now in the UK and around the world, despite coming from quite different perspectives, and offer in my view a sneak peak of what we are about to witness in the coming years.
Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things, is the result of three years of painstaking study by Henry Hemming, during which he sought through surveys, research and observation, to understand the nature of association and civil society in Britain today. He makes detailed and entertaining commentaries on the at times eccentric, often historical, and now fast growing British love for the club, the Women’s Institute, as well as other more informal gatherings using technology. He compellingly draws out a few insights: that Big Society has always been a feature of our country’s landscape, that recently technology has led already in the past five years to a huge growth in associations (mainly through the power of group email that makes organising them easier), that most growth recently has tended to be in informal association in contrast to traditional ones (more sports and arts, rather than churches and Rotary clubs), and that having somewhere to meet up or gather is key and that the costs of doing so are mounting (take for example the recent business rate charges imposed by Camden council on the People’s Supermarket). He critiques Robert Putnam’s favouring of bridging versus bonding capital, arguing that bonded groups with rules that can sometimes exclude people, are so for a reason, and their rules give them an important distinctive character. My own reading of Putnam suggests that this is not the key distinction, that the “bonded” group to most be wary of is the one that excludes based on qualities that you are born with and cannot change, and that the “bridging” group does not, or where it does it still allows others to “enter” and take part, whilst preserving the rules that give it it’s unique flavour. A cricket club for example, which in Hemming’s definition would be a “bonded” group in my book could either be the sort that is “only available for those from a particular background” or a “bridging” kind, open to those from all kinds of backgrounds, but united by at least one thing in common: the love of cricket. This issue is however a small one when set against the general themes and insights which read like a non-political manifesto for Big Society – one I would highly recommend.
What’s Mine is Yours: the Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman, another great read, would seem to take the completely opposite approach to that of Together. If Hemming’s world and picture of Britain is one that seems familiar and aligns with that sense that “we are already doing Big Society” then Botsman’s seems less so, but exciting nonetheless. Botsman highlights the dramatic shift that is taking place as more and more people seek to move away from hyper consumerism towards a more sustainable way of life fuelled by the internet and peer to peer business models in particular. She highlights hundreds of examples of people increasingly sharing rather than owning, taking control over the lives, and through the greater use of digital products and services reducing their negative impact on the environment because we now no longer need to travel so much and use so much packaging (for example to rent a video). She highlights four conditions that are needed for a collaborative consumption model to work: critical mass (enough people getting involved to create a sufficiently large menu of choices), idling capacity (an under-utilised asset whether physical such as garden space or immaterial such as time), belief in the commons (a set of self-governing rules as documented by the likes of Elinor Ostrom), and trust between strangers. The sheer range of new models emerging is bewildering but gives a sense of the Big Society that will emerge alongside that which exists already: “Swap trading, time banks, local exchange trading systems (LETS), bartering, social lending, peer-to-peer currencies, tool exchanges, land share, clothing swaps, toy sharing, shared workspaces, cohousing, coworking, CouchSurfing, car sharing, crowd funding, bike sharing, ride sharing, food co-ops, walking school buses, shared microcreches, peer-to-peer rental – are all examples of Collaborative Consumption.” To name but a few of the 5000 examples of “civic apps” or tech-driven platforms for collaborative consumption she has collected over the years (my current favourites are If we ran the world, AirBNB, and Etsy.
So two very different books. But they offer a similar set of conclusions from a Big Society perspective: 1) the shift towards a less monolithic one-sized-fits all world with citizens at the centre is happening already 2) technology is a key driver of this shift which makes digital inclusion vitally important so that nobody is left behind 3) blending real and virtual is key – you cannot replace face to face interaction and the web is at its best when it facilitates this 4) the way forward is to be more open and move away from closed groups in which outsiders and eccentrics might get persecuted (especially closed communities of place) 5) the Big Society will comprise a mix of old and new/unique and replicable. Government can help play a part to accelerate these trends, for example by making it easier for people to interact with their peers (e.g. making CRB checks less onerous, providing incentives for giving), or by giving communities greater powers to configure local spaces better for the things they want to do rather than based on top-down and less popular categories of activities (e.g. turning over publicly owned space to community use and/or ownership), or by reforming public services so that they can integrate better with both existing groups and harness their collective insights, as well as the new peer-to-peer ones that are now springing up (e.g. by enabling surplus public assets and space to be harnessed by those groups, providing data for groups to mash up for their own purposes, or by commissioning groups such as those involved in sport or arts etc to be rewarded for the positive outcomes they produce on health, crime reduction financially and otherwise). But the real actors in this old/new world are what I have previously called the civic entrepreneurs – citizens from public, private and social sector backgrounds who make it their calling to create platforms that make it easier for the rest of us to take part – whether “taking part” means getting involved in the local football club or book swap, or setting up and running a school. Time and time again in both books we hear tales of ordinary citizens who stepped forward to be civic pioneers, establishing and extending models and movements that enable other members of the public to join in. As this dramatic growth in civic association inexorably continues, they will be the ones who we must support and recognise, for it is they moving forwards who will be the builders of the Big Society.