Can We Really Trust People To Do The Right Thing?

TLDR: the answer is yes

Believing in the good of humanity is a revolutionary act – it means that we don’t need all those managers and CEOs, kings and generals. That we can trust people to govern themselves and make their own decisions.

Rutger Bregman

It looks like this pandemic is, for the UK at least, coming to end. In terms of a narrative arc the story of Covid-19 started with people stockpiling toilet roll, hand sanitiser and eggs and ended with confirmation of something we had guessed long ago – that those who create the rules for the little folk rarely stick to them.

People really are shit aren’t they? Left to our own devices social order breaks down and we reveal ourselves to be self-centred, selfish and uncaring.

Except there’s little evidence that’s the case.

Whilst the media has delivered us a daily stream of bad behaviour – with even community street parties being weaponised as deadly super spreader events – the real story of the pandemic has been one of mass cooperation.

It’s not just the traditional media who told us how bad we were. Facebook and Twitter were full of pictures of ‘covidiots’ – a term that came to be used by both anti-lockdowners and the proponents of Zero Covid.

How people truly behave is never revealed by looking at the extremes. True – there have been anti-vaxxers intimidating kids outside schools and disrupting test centres. And there have also been mask fetishists who wear face coverings outside when on their own, alone in cars, even in their social media profiles. These people though are outliers, to be used as totems of idiocy by both sides of the argument that Covid isn’t really a big deal/or is a potential destroyer of humanity.

The vast, the overwhelming, majority of people were in neither of these camps. Most of us took it seriously, cooperated and followed the rules as we wanted to look after each other. The jury is out on whether such severe lockdowns were needed as there is evidence that people were modifying their behaviour before many governments introduced restrictions. Sweden, both praised and vilified for its “light touch” stance during the pandemic adopted a mass cooperation rather than mass restriction approach and is , at best, no worse off because of it.

Also the mathematical models that led to the most drastic restrictions have now been revealed to be exclusively bad scenarios based on the worst of us, never assuming that people would self-regulate their behaviour without enforcement.

Many would argue that this approach was necessary in a pandemic, that we couldn’t take the risk – and there is some merit to point of view. However, this is not a sustainable or even ethical way to form future public or social policy.

How Humans Really Behave

According to Rutger Bregman we have a rather pessimistic view – not of ourselves, but of everyone else. Without rules and leadership we are days away from anarchy. It’s been named “veneer theory” – the idea that just below the surface, our bestial nature is waiting to break out.

His research on over 200,000 years of human history counters this and shows that in reality we are hardwired to be kind, cooperative and caring. He has talked about how during the pandemic we have seen an explosion of cooperation and altruism with people organising stuff from the bottom up.

In his book Humankind he recounts numerous examples from history that show disasters don’t cause us to descend a few rungs on the ladder of civilisation, but often bring out the best in us. The media stories of looting, stockpiling are usually true, but selective – highlighting the behaviour of the outliers.

He writes that during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we didn’t see New Orleans descend into complete chaos. In fact in seven hundred field tests following disasters since 1963 it’s never every man for himself. Catastrophe brings out the best in people.

As an explainer he quotes from Rebecca Solnit “elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image” and notes that “dictators and despots all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self interest, just like them”

Exactly that. The people making the rules assumed the worst of us because that’s how they would behave if they were left to their own devices. And behind closed doors left to their own devices that’s precisely what they did.

This isn’t a lesson just for the politicians – it’s relevant to any of us who work with the public. If your job involves you encouraging someone to take a vaccine, to eat more healthily , to exercise more, to look after their home, to pay their rent or mortgage – there are lots of lessons from the past two years.

People can do good things, and more often than not that’s what they do when things are explained to them. The more we impose top-down rules and directives the more we risk paternalism or even authoritarianism.

If all we did was view how people behave slightly less cynically, maybe we’d create a much more relaxed, healthy and happier world.

Moving Beyond Command And Control

The natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

Political language. . .is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind

George Orwell

2020 on reflection, was a great year for hierarchy.

In the early stages of the pandemic the ability shown by organisations to mobilise emergency health care, communicate messages, shift people to remote work, was a testament to the power of decisive command systems.

Following that we saw a new era of community innovation begin, reminding us of the power of social connection. People began supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways many organisations simply couldn’t. ‘Let communities adopt a common sense approach’ was the defining narrative.

That seems a long time ago.

How have we have moved so quickly from celebrating the power and ingenuity of communities to blaming those same communities for recklessness and not following rules?

Some of the very same people (I’m talking social entrepreneurs and activists) who rightly attack the disempowering effects of command and control in organisations have begun to support, and even applaud, the politicians and the media in what has essentially become a behaviour of victim blaming.

An element of hierarchical control is necessary in an emergency. It’s what gets things done and keeps us safe. There are people who are naturally good at creating systems, protocols and rules rather than building relationships based on trust. These people are necessary for a functioning society, as without them we wouldn’t enjoy the health, safety, food, construction and consumer standards that we have.

However, what we have begun to see is people , not just politicians, who like rule making a little bit too much.

And the natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

We know from the basics of design thinking that if the rules don’t match up with people’s experience and desires they create another way. Humans are endlessly resourceful and can always find a loophole.

Why do people break the rules?

Firstly, there are those who do not know what the rules are or who haven’t paid attention. These are the kind of people who get caught doing 35mph in a 30 zone. Importantly, when guidance changes over time and in different areas they are likely to get more confused and break the rules without even knowing.

Then there are those that don’t think the rules are important. This group are unlikely to experience a negative impact for breaking the rules. They aren’t necessarily selfish, it’s just if you don’t have personal experience of something, you minimise its importance. If I was 20 and still thought I’d live forever, I’d probably have been partying in Ibiza over the summer too.

The third group, and I’d suggest these are a tiny minority, are the active rule breakers. The kind of people who won’t wear a mask to a make a demonstrable social point. Have a tiny bit of sympathy though, they are merely trying to exert some personal control in a world where they feel they have none.

The vast majority of us are in the first camp. We might have broken the occasional rule but it’s because we are confused, we forgot or we’ve interpreted them to suit our personal circumstances.

Design thinking is all about understanding how people actually behave rather than how they say they do. It’s this that all the Government(s) in the UK seem to have been completely blindsided by.

And this is the weak point of command and control systems – they can never be user focussed and understand life at street level. At no point since March has there been any input from the public. At no point has there been a democratic conversation about what COVID means for our communities and what a proportionate local response should be.

I think one of the big challenges of 2021/22 will be renewing faith in grassroots innovation after a prolonged period of control and risk management. Some of us will resist loosening our grip.

As Simon Penny said on Twitter the necessary task for 2021 is to take forward the belief in the power of communities to look out for each other and get stuff done. Only by delegating resources and decision making to them will we kickstart the economy again and solve problems at a local level.

We need to thank the people who put the rules in place that kept us safe and healthy. But as soon as the pandemic is over we need them to step back. Rules tend to stick around for a long time after they have ceased being useful. Control systems are never easy to dismantle and their proponents never give up power easily.

Thwarting other people’s control is bad for us and society – as ultimately, it limits our own control.

  • Communities are decisive, creative, aware, caring and trusting. They’ll make mistakes but they’ll get along OK in the end.
  • Communities are self motivated, often reckless and need a high degree of control. Left to their own devices they can become a danger to themselves.

Which is it?

In 2021 we all need to get off the fence and state which one we truly believe in, and make that world a reality.


Image by sin won jang from Pixabay

How Can We Move From Demand Led Service In The ‘New Normal’?

In the early hours of Good Friday I found myself undergoing emergency surgery after a complication during an earlier test. Even in the midst of some pretty intense pain I was unwilling to go to hospital – a mixture of fear of contracting a certain virus and some overly optimistic thinking about my super human ability to recover without any professional intervention. It was probably Karen wilfully ignoring my instructions not to call an ambulance that saved my life.

Eleven days later I was discharged from hospital after major surgery and two COVID-19 tests. Family and friends were unable to visit so I had a lot of time for self reflection, and to observe from the inside how systems operate during periods of genuine crisis.

The term crisis is overused.  Every day the news is filled with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, and oppression. There’s a health crisis, a housing crisis, a climate crisis , and a social care crisis. So many “crises” they have to jockey for position in order of seriousness.

What the COVID-19 crisis has done very effectively is to say “hold my beer” to the others – becoming the defining crisis of the moment.

One of the most interesting things about my experience of hospital was the apparent disconnect between the media reporting of what was happening on many wards, and my own actual experience.

Family expressed concern for the health workers without PPE at the same time as staff told me there wasn’t a problem. People told me the system was in meltdown when my observation was of staff continually adapting to new working practices based upon the evidence and experience of the previous day.  Even if the system was in ‘crisis’, at a local ward level people were pulling together and solving problems in new ways. Freed of some of the usual ‘rules’ people were succeeding despite the system rather than because of it.

The NHS is brilliant at coping with an emergency , both at scale and at the individual human level. I simply couldn’t fault my experience, from the operation to the recovery to the after care. The people ARE heroes. It’s not the time to pick fault with the system , but where it often falls down is in some of the basics. These are often things that are less urgent to professionals , but more important to us as citizens , such as communication and keeping us informed of progress.

This is not limited to the NHS , far from it. It’s a symptom of systems that are designed to be reactive rather than pre-emptive. They tend to be designed from a ‘service’ point of view – managing demand – rather than through person centred design, the principles of which are the opposite of service led design.

During my stay, staff noted how demand had dropped. People simply weren’t coming to Accident and Emergency anymore. The country had either stopped having heart attacks and strokes or were delaying reporting them.  This drop in demand isn’t limited to the NHS. Other social providers are seeing similar trends. The phenomenon has also occurred across the US and in parts of Asia.

So why has the system been able to manage demand, something that’s been a problem for decades, in just a matter of weeks?

Obviously , fear is playing a part. In a lockdown scenario people’s priorities have a major shift. Things that would once be major causes of anxiety get reordered in the face of a common enemy.

That said , there is something to learn from how the latent and underused power of community has been leveraged to protect our most precious resources.

People have begun supporting and caring for one another to an unprecedented extent, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways our organisations simply can’t. It is neighbours that have shown themselves to be the most useful support network in a physically distanced world.

YouGov have reported that only 9% of Britons want to return to life as normal after the end of the lockdown. 40% of people say they feel a stronger sense of community since the virus shut down normal life, while 39% said they had been more in touch with friends and family.

What this seems to indicate is that far from communities resenting a shift away from a passive provider-consumer relationship – they actually desire it. They want a greater say, they want more power to influence local decisions.

There’s a danger here of being overly optimistic as Simon Parker has warned. “Simply willing a better world is not enough. You have to dive into the complexity, dance with the system in its full, messy intractability”.

System change never comes easy. It means thinking beyond individual sectors and requires the whole system to work together, through health, housing, employment and social care. There’s opportunity here if we are brave enough. 

That said , a lesson so far from COVID-19 is that the best currency for change is local. People are discovering their neighbours for the first time, spending less time travelling to soulless business parks , and spending time and money where they live.

Powerful forces will resist any attempt to make this a new normal. It’s not how capitalism works.

However my recent experience has led me to believe that the organisations that emerge stronger from this crisis will be ones who have abandoned doing things to people, and moved to seeing themselves as equal partners with communities.

That requires making a move from telling to listening.

A move from obsessively managing demand to leveraging the skills in the community.

A move from filling the gaps with more services to closing the gaps through social connections.


 

 

Image by Queven from Pixabay 

The Problem With Seeing People As Vulnerable

Now, more than ever, it’s easier to exist within a bubble.

We spend a lot more time communicating through screens than talking face to face.

Our digital social networks are powered by algorithms designed to feed us information confirming what we already believe.

I started writing this post just before dawn on the day of the UK election result but didn’t publish it as I was interested to see what the reaction would be.

Would people accept that this is something that’s been coming a long time?

Or would people, because of the social bubble effect, be surprised? 

Far from being aberrations, or even reactions, the rise of populism and the latest election results are simply the logical conclusion of the path we’ve been on for a long time.

An era of hyper-consumerism, of seeing billionaires and paid professionals as the ones to solve social problems.

An era in which organisations and brands come first and communities last.

An era in which there’s a lot of talk of giving communities more power but precious little evidence of it. Where the resources that are meant to trickle down rarely do so.

Arguably we’ve viewed citizens only as atomised consumers rather than through the lens of neighbourhoods, This individual consumerist approach has only led one way – to a sense of alienation and frustration with public services and the state.

There’s a positive here – people want change.

There are huge opportunities for our organisations and institutions. However if we fail to respond to people and communities’ desire for change, we’ll eventually lose our legitimacy.

The Problem With A Deficit Mindset

Unfortunately the reaction to the election result , largely but not exclusively from the centre and the left, has shown a profound misreading of the problem.

‘Who is going to look after the vulnerable now?’

‘How will they cope with five more years of this?’

Nobody likes being vulnerable, but our organisations and institutions are all to prone to defining people’s entire lives by it.

They can’t cope.

We need to look after them before they do themselves some harm.

Despite our talk of vulnerable communities and customers we don’t often hear precisely what it is that people are vulnerable to, how this vulnerability is produced, or by whom.

In truth, no group of people is inherently vulnerable. If people are experiencing vulnerability in a particular situation that vulnerability is often produced by other people, institutions or circumstances.

If your organisation defines anyone as vulnerable it’s useful to consider your own role in the production and perpetuation of that vulnerability.

Defining people as vulnerable is the first step to removing their agency and self determination.

Over the past few years in our work at Bromford we’ve been trying to step back from seeing people as problems.

About six years ago we had a hunch – without much evidence at the time – that if we simply believed in our people and took away all of the bureaucracy they’d have conversations with residents and make the right decisions. We switched our model. We retrained our ‘managers’ to become ‘coaches’. A crucial part of that was to stop looking at people as problems to be solved and instead to see their skills and life experiences.

This still emerging relationship rejects the hierarchical and transactional mindsets of traditional service models which all too often bypass people’s assets and capabilities.

The Challenge And The Opportunity

The reason our organisations and our politics will often reject these models is that they threaten the existing order. Hierarchical and status-obsessed cultures militate against relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration. Most of our organisations don’t share power, they accumulate it, often at a very senior level.

If we don’t talk about power and how we redistribute it we’ll just continue to address the symptoms, rather than tackle the root causes of mistrust. We’ll just seek comfortable solutions rather than address deep institutional dysfunction.

Deficit based thinking sucks the life out of communities.

If you were part of a community that other people are defining as vulnerable, as continually needing help, you’d be pretty insulted.

If other people said you were incapable of making the correct choices because you’re not in full possession of the facts , you’d surely vote for something else.

What we’re seeing is a huge desire for something else.

Something different.

We don’t know what that looks like yet but that’s one of the reasons it’s a bit frightening and a bit exciting.

The most important thing all organisations could do right now is simply demonstrate that we see ourselves as equal partners with communities rather than as supreme rulers of the vulnerable and the needy.

There’s a once in a generation opportunity here if we are brave and bold enough to embrace it.

Communities Need A Different Model – And That Might Not Include Us

Last week I was in Sulawesi, Indonesia, a place none of my family had ever heard of – until a devastating quake and tsunami hit Palu, at which point my phone sprang to life with loads of messages checking that I was still alive.

Actually, we were 300 miles away at that point, and in no danger whatsoever, but the trip had already made me reflect on life, death and the role of the social sector in building communities. A role I’m more convinced than ever that we are getting wrong. 

A few nights earlier we’d been staying at the home of our guide in a small village in Tana Toraja, a mountainous region of South Sulawesi. At about 9pm, after dinner, we were picked up and rode on the backs of motorbikes to seek out a big community event – a funeral.

Rather than going to a funeral, it had the feel of searching for an illegal rave in the early nineties. We rode through the countryside in darkness listening for sounds of the ‘party’.  Walking up the hillside definitely had the full festival vibe, you could hear music and singing in the distance and a few entrepreneurial types had set up a stall selling Bintang beer, palm wine, and snacks.

The Toraja people have some of the most complex funeral arrangements in the world.  For them, a funeral is a great celebration of life, much like a going-away party, and is an occasion in which the entire family of the deceased, and all the members of the village take part. During their lives, they work extremely hard to accumulate wealth. But unlike in the West, they don’t save their money to buy consumer goods, rather they save for a good send-off in death.

This was a funeral unlike one I’d ever attended. No-one was crying,  Tea and food were served by the family of the deceased. People danced and exchanged cigarettes. Teenagers huddled in groups and took selfies.

The next morning we were invited to the formal funeral ceremony. Rather than being mere spectators we were asked to join the funeral procession before being advised: “you’ll get better pictures from over here”.

This was the best-organised community event I’d ever been to – but there were no signs of any community organisers.

The community itself was self-managed and autonomous – and free of professionals. 

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The Problem With Professionals

The UK social sector is hooked on a deficit model. A model that believes that communities are best served by people in positions of authority administering services on their behalf.

It’s a transactional, rather than a relational model.  Services are rationed according to need, with those capable of ‘looking after themselves’ left to their own devices, as if it has been designed by accountants.

Paternalism exists — we are always hearing talk about ‘turning people’s lives around’ and protecting ‘the neediest and vulnerable’, a phrase that’s used endlessly.

We focus uniquely on what’s wrong rather than seeking out the skills and inventiveness of local communities.

Proponents of this system will tell you that this works, that this is efficient, it avoids over supplying to those who don’t need it. Digital self-service is the way forward, so don’t give anyone access to a human if you can avoid it.

I frequently attend conferences and hear senior executives opine that we should be more like Apple or Amazon. As if a new iPhone every year is the pinnacle of self-actualization.

This rationed model – mostly unchanged for nearly 100 years -is demonstrably failing.

We are seeing an increase in the number of people experiencing chronic and severe loneliness, there is a sense of alienation and mistrust across communities. The past model is unfit for the challenges of the future.

The answer lies not in more professionals, more experts to be listened to. This exclusive club, populated by those in the know, who are using their exclusive access to design services on behalf of others is part of the problem.

The way forward for the social sector isn’t to be more professional – it’s the exact opposite. We need to transform our organisations to reconnect with our roots and cede power to those closest to the problem. Social purpose organisations need to be rebuilt around the dignity of people, with a modern sense of trust, solidarity, and compassion, not just focused on efficiencies and being strong and stable. 

A Tana Toraja funeral can go on for days, involving hundreds, sometimes thousands, of members of the community.  If big consultancy firms got their hands on it and ran it through a lean processing review they could probably get it down to a few hours.

Cry, bury the dead and get back to work. 

You don’t strengthen communities with a business plan and you don’t build trust with spreadsheets.

Alternative networks and platforms are gathering pace and are challenging the traditional role of our institutions.

For the sake of our future community we should not try and halt this disruption – we should embrace it.


 

 

You can learn more about the Tana Toraja people in the Grayson Perry Rites of Passage series.

Even better – why not go yourself? I can recommend this as a truly amazing place to visit – here’s a link to the webpage of our local guide Daud Rapa who also offers accommodation options at his home. Thanks Daud! 

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Reshaping Organisations Around What’s Strong – Not What’s Wrong

“ECONOMICS ARE THE METHOD: THE OBJECT IS TO CHANGE THE SOUL”

This (pretty chilling) quote comes from Margaret Thatcher in 1981 – and ushered in an era that promoted the belief that social progress is achieved through the accumulation of wealth or status.

Earn more, consume more, and you’ll be happy. 

The legacy of this is still with us today, with our value to society often seen in purely economic terms.

In the social sector, many of our organisations have been unwittingly shaped by this philosophy.

The less you own the more likely you are to be a problem. The lower your educational attainment, your income, the more insecure your background, the more likely you are to be a drain on services.

This is called deficit-based thinking, and it is rife.  Our organisations support it without even knowing.

  • We talk of the ‘ageing crisis’ – which is only really a crisis if you believe that people have outlived their economic usefulness.
  • The talk of a ‘housing crisis’ invariably means people being unable to get ‘on the housing ladder’. If you don’t own – you aren’t on it. You’re not progressing.

Increasingly though there’s evidence of a disparity with wealth, achievement and happiness. The UK is one of the richest countries in the world – but also one of the loneliest.

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Finland is now top of the world for happiness, according to the World Happiness Report 2018. Nordic countries take four out of the five top spots – and some of the world’s richest nations appear much further down the list.

Finland has a high GDP but also high taxes which fund social programmes. There’s less competition at work and better support for those without a job. There’s a strong culture of strengths-based thinking , and of encouraging communities to identify and mobilise existing but often unrecognised assets. The services that do exist are organised around the user.

As Andrew Humphreys has written – public services in the UK are often compartmentalised along lines that bear no relation to the needs they are supposed to meet or the value they are meant to deliver. If public services aren’t designed backwards from the value that people need from them, then they will have been designed forwards from the aims and objectives of those in charge of them.

It’s nearly seven years since Bromford began its journey from a pretty paternalistic top-down service to focus on strengths and what’s working in our communities.

When we began, one of the most common challenges we had from colleagues was “Why are we expecting our customers to contribute to communities? I don’t do anything in mine.”

Our language wasn’t very nuanced- as people saw organised ‘volunteering’ as the only way someone contributes.

Obviously, this is nonsense. If you live in any community that depends on the interaction with other human beings (that’s all of us – right?), you by definition must contribute to that community in some way.

That contribution cannot be viewed solely through categories of age, health, or wealth.

A few years ago I met an older guy in the Philippines who told me he was the most sought-after person in his village – even though he hadn’t ‘worked’ for over 20 years and lived a very frugal existence.

His strengths were his age, his experiences and his connections which could be brought together to help people. The Fili culture has a word for this mindset – “Bayanihan”. The word came from the tradition where neighbours would help a relocating family by literally carrying their house and contents to a safer location.

More generally the word has come to mean a communal spirit that makes seemingly impossible feats possible through the power of unity and cooperation.

The term bayanihan has evolved over time – being incorporated in many projects that depict the spirit of a cooperative effort involving a community of members.

At Bromford we are focussing on the ‘irreducible core’ of service that our communities must receive from us.

The services we currently have that replace, control or overwhelm unity and co-operation will become obsolete. One of our organisational design principles is that we should think community first, services last.

There’s a lot of talk of strengths-based thinking but I see comparatively few organisations who are having these difficult conversations and beginning to cede more power to communities.

There are things individuals need and that communities can do that are irreplaceable – that can never be done by organisations or Government.

Building our organisations around communities, around what they truly need rather than what we want them to need, is truly disruptive.

It means moving away from focussing on what’s wrong, taking a very different view of our purpose and being a lot less essential than we think we are.

 


Image via Pen Mendonca

How Organisations May Stifle Community Creativity

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One of the many challenges for the public sector is that it must start believing in people and communities again.

We know that many organisations are out of sync with technology , but there’s an argument that they are increasingly distant from an economy where sharing and collaboration trump paternalism and top down protocols.

One of the most interesting comments on my post How To Kill Creativity was from John Wade. In it he wondered whether the organisations that limit the creativity of their employees also inadvertently stifle citizen and community strengths.

I think the answer is almost certainly yes.

It’s well established that meetings, emails and design by committee suck the creativity out of a business , so surely this would trickle down to the end user?

If you have a risk averse culture surely you also contribute to risk aversion in communities?

One of the more damaging ways we can stifle creativity is just by not listening. Of leaving the thinking to the ‘experts’.  If it was an idea worth having, the experts would already have thought about it. They have all kinds of qualifications and can write reports and they tend to use very long words. When there’s a problem they really can’t solve they will often bring in a consultant or make an appointment to their board.

We can also – without meaning to – make communities defer to authority. Everyone is a manager or an officer. This indicates that someone is in charge and is important. The people in charge must know what they are doing, or they wouldn’t hold the positions that they do. They don’t need any ideas on how the service could be run differently.

These behaviours are out of kilter with networked communities and the way we share information and resources.

If we approach public service purely as a one to one consumer transaction we’ll view the world through the lens of efficiency, reduced contact, metrics and performance indicators.

In an economy moving towards sharing rather than just transacting we need to build a new set of behaviours based on trust, fondness, habit and traditions.

Huge parts of the public sector have designed services around what people can’t do for themselves rather than nurturing what they can.

At Bromford we are in the process of reshaping our organisation around the latter.  A move away from managing to coaching and connecting.

Every individual and community has assets, talents, skills and abilities. Better to focus on helping to develop and release these, rather than treating people as a series of ‘problems’ that need to be solved.

If we think of our organisations as platforms to enable people – rather than just as service providers – it fundamentally changes how we seek out ideas.

Yesterday we hosted a discussion in Bromford Lab kicking off a 12 week period looking at the problem , or opportunity, of loneliness.

What struck me more than anything was how the conversations we have are completely changed. Very quickly the contributors stopped talking about loneliness and starting talking about community connection. About amazing examples they had seen of people doing things together. Of Bromford leading by stepping back. Of the organisation no longer feeling it has to be omnipresent.

Believing in what people can do means being brave enough to admit that we won’t always be needed.

Many of our public services are actually products of failure. They only exist because things don’t work.

Planning for obsolescence may sound suicidal, but it’s actually the most enlightened creative state your organisation can be in.  

 

How Connected Citizens Are Mobilising Social Movements

This post is long overdue and has been sitting in my “must edit” file for a couple of months. The prompt to finish it has come from events in the past few days where online campaigns and watershed moments in the media (traditional and social) have again found our politicians wanting. 

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In June I was on holiday in Greece, my first time back there in about seven years. The country was on the edge of a precipice – calling a referendum on the bailout deal proposed by its creditors, and recommending its rejection.

You wouldn’t know it of course – unless you read the news. Yes – tourism was down slightly as people panicked at the idea of cashpoints running dry (they didn’t) – but the locals were as hospitable and hardworking as ever.

In a tiny harbour in the picturesque town of Molyvos there was a new concern  – a steady trickle (not yet a swarm, horde or influx) – of Syrian and Afghan refugees arriving on shore in rubber dinghies or being rescued by the coastguard as they sank.

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Contrary to the images that I’d seen in the mainstream media – there was no begging, no ‘harassment’ of tourists, no sitting around in doorways looking forlorn. They were simply looking for a bit of respite before the next leg of their journey.

I never photographed them – as it felt too intrusive. I now regret that as the past few days has shown the power of imagery to change public opinion.

Most mornings I said “Hi” as I walked around the harbour snapping stuff. It was my phone that initiated most conversations as most of them hadn’t seen an iPhone 6 Plus before. Some of the young people had rigged a temporary charging station for phones onto the side of a street lamp which , though probably illegal, I found pretty cool. I gave them a couple of safer power adaptors for their onward journey!

Smartphones are a lifeline for the refugee. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has given out 33,000 SIM cards to Syrian refugees and 85,000 solar lanterns for charging.

Far from being a luxury these keep friends and family back home up to date. WhatsApp is used to allow easy and instant communication. GPS helps people cross dangerous territory. Facebook groups help facilitate border crossings and keeps people in touch through a vital information exchange. And never has the power of citizen journalism been more powerful than as demonstrated by people such as Maziad Aloush, a former school teacher fleeing the Syrian war, who led his band of refugees through five countries using his Instagram to document the journey.

In Molyvos – as the EU abjectly failed to deal with situation, social media was being used on the other side – by the local Greek community to provide emergency assistance. A Facebook group and crowdfunder was in place to help facilitate support.

One resident had turned a bit of land behind her restaurant into a temporary campsite. Every day her kitchen team at The Captain’s Table went to work preparing food for the refugees, using supplies donated by tourists and locals.

In our civic life we are beginning to see a new kind of bottom up social movement. Connected citizens are using digital media to mobilise people into action in a way Government and authority simply cannot fathom.

It seems future solutions are less likely to come from national policies and more from communities finding their own way to solve issues through local innovation.

The devolution of public spending to the third sectors and private sectors seems inevitable, and it’s vital we enable community connectors and influencers to ultimately decide what that this looks like.

Examples like these local Facebook crowdfunders are in themselves grassroots alternatives to welfare – and we’ll see more emerging. The rise of food banks arguably demonstrates this trend towards self-organisation. 

At the moment these local social entrepreneurs are largely disconnected from the political establishment – which is fuelling the disillusionment with mainstream politics. (By the way if you’ve never done it , try explaining to a 15 year old why you can’t vote by SMS and why you can’t switch that vote at will if they don’t keep their promises.)

On our last night in Molyvos there was a huge thunderstorm. The owner of The Captain’s Table did something very special. She asked us if we minded moving our table and bunching together so that the refugees could seek shelter with us.

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The one photo I did take: refugees shelter from storm at The Captain’s Table

The locals sang them Greek songs of good fortune and they reciprocated with a song of their own. As the (crowdfunded) bus arrived to take them to the capital and their ownward journey to Athens and beyond, they drew a round of applause to wish them luck.

I don’t know where their journey ended or even if it has.

But I hope they and others like them continue to share their stories , connect with like-minded communities, and help us build a very different type of democracy.

Can I Borrow A Cup Of Wi-Fi?

2013-01-09 10.58.38 I’m on holiday. I’m flicking through Twitter and sipping a beer in a village bar. Outside, some Thai kids are playing a game on the smartphone they’ve borrowed from their Mum. Locals pop in every so often to sit down , catch up on gossip and read their emails.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Here I am – on a small island that’s nearly 50% rainforest. The roads are awful and it’s only accessible by a boat. It has no 3G. And it has better publicly available wi-fi than parts of Birmingham or Manchester. Pretty much every residence , every bar , every business. Kids with no access at home sit on the steps of neighbours to use their phones. At any one time you can pick up 2 or 3 networks – without any painful email registration.

Why doesn’t it work like this back home?

Of the last three places I visited in the UK one had no wi-fi at all, one had a pay system (criminally – £15 for 24 hours) and one offered a “30 Minutes free” service. The latter, Manchester Airport, then provide a registration procedure so user-unfriendly that you could spend 26 of your free minutes negotiating it.

If the internet is the fourth utility – why are we making it so difficult for people to get online? IMG_0395 Last week saw another report that mentioned the high number of Social Housing residents excluded from the internet. (As an aside –  I reckon every Housing Association tenant must have filled in at least 3 Digital Inclusion questionnaires in the last two years. We could have solved this ages ago if we’d used all the money for the surveys to buy people a smartphone each instead.)

Seriously – one part of the solution to exclusion is to make freely available wi-fi ubiquitous. And really easy to log on.  That is important. My Mother, and others like her who are not confident online,  will never use any service that requires registration. 

It’s time that all service providers , not just Housing Associations , realise they have a role to play in improving mobile connectivity.

Do most businesses really think of the Internet as the “fourth utility”? As important as water?

If you walked into a business and they asked you to register your email account and set up a password just so you use their tap water you would be surprised , yes? But that’s what many businesses expect us to do to get online.  And some still have no access at all. It’s becoming unacceptable.

Barclays have just announced a roll-out to all their branches.  Many of our larger supermarkets have turned their cafe area’s into Wi-Fi Zones – which can then double up as vital community hubs. But not all have embraced this – Sainsburys recently announced they were dropping their plans. Some have said this is because businesses can’t work out how they can properly monetise internet provision. But why do we feel the need to monetise access to the internet any differently to other utilities?

A new study entitled – Can I Borrow A Cup Of Wi-Fi? – looks at the emergence of a very different mobile customer. It reveals 40% percent of mobile device owners are “community” users—people who use their device in a friend’s home on regular basis. Like borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbour – connectivity is now shareable. If a friend came to yours for dinner and asked for your Wi-Fi , you surely wouldn’t ask them for a couple of quid as contribution?

Businesses should take note before we start turning away.

In that small village in Thailand they had solved the problem of digital exclusion. It was achieved not by commissioning a report about it , but by engaging businesses , sharing resources and working together to get a solution for the community.

Sometimes it just doesn’t need to be complicated.

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