Friday, 23 March 2012

Comfortable Chaos

Cities, places and neighbourhoods are social networks that operate through the social media of homes, streets, spaces, shops and facilities.

Like any network there is a variety of actors and characters within it which have certain kinds of network behaviours and characteristics. Some like to observe and play around the edges; dipping in and out of the activity according to their specific needs and interests. Some on the other hand are prolific; connecting an esoteric and diverse range of others and interests. There are amplifiers, operating as nodes broadcasting information and news to others and collecting information across other networks. Then there are influencers whose activities, ideas and behaviours can change the shape and direction of a network and stimulate a diverse range of others.

In any given place, at any given time, we are all participating in this social networking whether we realise it or not. In the conversations we have with other people, the decisions we make and the things we do. These transactions and flows of activity are governed by a multitude of things; love, habit, belonging, money, convention, belief, morality, trend, ego, curiosity, envy, friendship, impatience, need, want etc, etc.

How much of them are to do with direct government intervention? How much of them compel us to do something for the benefit of others or our neighbourhood? What is the government’s role in enthusing and encouraging people to get involved in their neighbourhoods?

Yesterday afternoon I spent three fascinating hours with some familiar and new faces at DCLG talking about how to mobilise neighbourhood action and engage people to take more of a role in their local area. An issue close to Mend’s heart. So a bunch of us ranging from urban designers, community workers, housing trusts, voluntary organisations, networkers and think tanks took it in turns to give our insights, experiences and theories on what works at a neighbourhood level.

There was a lot of consensus around the need for trust, bottom-up approaches, flexibility and patience. Also some words of caution about what the government’s role in mobilisation should be and what consequences and context around mobilisation are (see Julian Dobson!/2012/03/why-mobilise-neighbourhoods-clarity.html )

Here’s mine for what it’s worth…..

Unfinished business: Networking is an on-going process, as is place-making and community building. You don’t get to an end point and say “tick”. As such, the network is always unfinished, full of gaps and holes. These can manifest in problems such as a gap in service provision or social tension. This is where some network actors come in; they have identified a gap or rip and they want to mend it. They try to mobilise resources and activity in order to draw attention and address the gap with varying levels of success and support.

Mobilising mobilisers: A key success factor is their ability and capacity for engaging others, demonstrating the common interest and relevance and communicating the shared benefits and meaning to them and others outside the network to participate. But this is not a role for everyone. Some people just don’t want to get involved – and that’s fine. There are plenty that do and will. But there is a group of people on the cusp of participation and mobilisation who need a nudge and a bit of convincing. They may lack the confidence to participate, or do not fully realise the value they can give or that they are needed. There needs to be a way to match need with action. And this will be different in different places?

Comfortable chaos: What we need at place level is “comfortable chaos” where government put the bones of support in place and let communities and their partners in to play and do what they know works. Transplanting what worked in Place A and embroidering it on Place B is not good enough. Place A has a different network, experience and everyday reality than place B.

We need to acknowledge the importance of mess – the unfettered, unplanned, unpredictable and idiosyncratic-ness in a place. This is what gives it its unique feel and identity. Therefore implementing macro-level programmes and policies that do not respect the mess of a place and require them to shoehorn themselves into an alien and remote box do not work. There needs to be space in a local approach to place and mobilisation that allows room for comfortable chaos and letting relevant and meaningful local interventions crystallise out of its mess.

This requires a degree of trust on the part of government that communities (their actors, supports and resources) know what works and will address the gaps in their area effectively and rewardingly. Mobilising people is one thing – but squandering it by giving them a bad experience, taking advantage or by not making the most of their support is worse. Do it well, and you may mobilise someone beyond the issue in hand and well into the sunset.

It also requires an element of risk because things may not work. But that should be ok? Places and communities are complicated. They don’t follow scripts, things change and people move about. Snapshots of snapshots. Therefore what might have started out to work could seem wildly ridiculous over time….and let’s face it bidding processes, evaluations and appraisals take time. But this is where we learn, by trying things, seeing what works, tweaking and trying. I appreciate there is scant funding resource but there is an abundance of local knowledge and experience and creativity at local level. We need to be using that to punch through and inform local action.

Making everyday life better: When we come down to it, what do people mobilise locally for? It’s to essentially make everyday life better or address an injustice that ensures everyday life remains an unattainable luxury for some over others. It’s not sexy; it’s mundane but that’s why it’s important. Because if the backdrop to our everyday lives and experiences was a constant blur of white-knuckle excitement we would keel over and make a bid for ordinariness. We mobilise more because we want our everyday lives to be less crap than about it being a festival experience. That means, services that are responsive and effective, spaces that are well looked after and used, decisions that are authentic and responsive and development to be about the people that love there and not just that make money out of it.

Local logic: So if you want people to get involved than you need to ensure there is strong attachment to place in the first place. You do that by providing opportunities and spaces to meet, share and have good experiences; foster local identity through recognising the value of informal things people care about not just the things the council or business say you should, listening when people are making a noise and celebrating the mess that makes a place unique. It’s not about being told to do it, putting a snazzy label on it or creating a new programme.

If you support the spaces and people that mobilise, neighbourhoods will mobilise themselves. You make it fun, creative and authentic about that place – not somewhere else or a remote view of that place. You engage young people with their limitless energy to do and think, unrestricted by policy, convention or that it won’t work. You are flexible about when and how money can be spent. And you trust local people to be the experts on their own places. Which are themselves reflective of the social network, relationships behaviours going on there. Fund the glue that holds those networks together and that builds new connections and you will make them, ultimately, more resilient.

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