Posts filed under ‘communities’

Library futures

Andrew Curry and Victoria Ward write:

Last week Francine Houben of Mecanoo Architecten talked about their design of Birmingham’s future library as a “living room for the city”. More than just storage, a dynamic space for movement, openness and exchange. In a blog she calls libraries “the cathedrals of our millennia”, which seemed a useful precursor to Saturday’s National Libraries Day

The future of the library is, in some ways, a paradox. So many long term trends are running against it that it is easy to assume that is an anachronism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Such trends include the rise of digital technologies, and the accompanying rise of audio-visual culture; the long wave of individualism since the late 1960s; the shift from public provision to personal provision; the pressures on public expenditure; the emergence of the e-book and the digitisation of books generally. It seems only a matter of time before the library withers away.

But look again, and some other, emerging, trends come into focus. Rising oil prices and greater work flexibility increase the value of the local; the rise of digital rights management fuels campaigns around openness; the number of books published every year continues to rise; issues of access and equity – and affordability – come into sharper focus as one austere year rolls into another; the relationship between the tangible and the digital object becomes increasingly complex; new attitudes to ownership (using, not having) make the library appear as a pioneer.

Look again, and you can start to think that if libraries did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them. But what sort of library would we invent?


8 February 2012 at 9:28 am Leave a comment

Getting to the Big Society

By Alex Oliver

One of the more-commented on features of David Cameron’s Party Conference speech in Manchester was how little he mentioned the ‘Big Society’. Twice, in fact. You could easily have missed it. But maybe this is less surprising when you learn that the most recent figures from the government’s Citizenship Survey show volunteering and community participation rates at a ten year low.  These are tough times economically and socially. People’s resources are being squeezed. The scope for community involvement is reduced as a result.

However, in our research this year on volunteering, a programme conducted for our public sector think tank the IIPS, we found that belief and interest in the concept of community involvement is still strong.  33% agree “I would like to become more involved in my local area”, a rise of 3% since 2010[1].  People cite a whole range of reasons for involvement – from social benefits, to gaining more control over important local issues to directly self interested motives like gaining work experience to get ahead in a competitive job market.

But the barriers to involvement previously identified in IIPS research remain high: lack of time and energy, low levels of confidence, a fear of being excluded or not fitting in and perceptions of red tape.

And this year, more than ever, we saw a growing suspicion – even hostility – regarding the motives of ‘Government’.  Any suggestion of overt incentives, or even too much encouragement from government in the form of benefits, tax rebates or (heaven forbid) mandation, were roundly rejected by our respondents.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that community members leading local clean-up operations after August’s riots (cited by David Cameron in his speech as a great example of a ‘social movement’), rejected the Big Society label.

So should the government should forget about the Big Society and stop investing in the range of initiatives kicked off to make it a reality? Well, not necessarily.  Our research clearly shows that there is a real need for more facilitation to get a wider range of people involved – particularly beyond the so-called ‘civic core’. The Evening Standard’s Get London Reading campaign is an example of how inviting people to get involved has resulted in large numbers of new volunteers from previously under-represented groups like younger men. And there’s still a need to reduce bureaucracy, create structures and share information to support and enable those willing to get involved.  Government at all levels could have an important role to play here – along with other public service providers and indeed the private sector.

It seems that there might still be life in the Big Society, even if some of the language has been wrong. But it will take some commitment from the government, as well as citizens, to make it work.

[1] The Futures Company Global Monitor UK only, 2011

The image at the top of the post was shown as part of a presentation on citizens and the Big Society at The Futures Company last month. It is shared here under Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

27 October 2011 at 4:45 pm 1 comment

The future’s here – even in Thanet – it is just unevenly distributed…

Eleanor Cooksey writes:

We often use this quote[1] but, as far as I know, have never applied it to thinking about this part of the country. Thanet (the area of Kent made up of Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate) doesn’t tend to crop up in discussions about places that are doing new or interesting things, in the way, that for example, we talk about Totnes with its own currency, or Hay with its literary festival now gone international. Thanet, despite being in the south east, has high unemployment, relatively low income levels and poor health indicators.

However, after having spent a week in Thanet, I am struck by how it does appear to contain elements of what we think will be significant in the future. There are three features in particular which make me think this:

1. Old people make up a significant proportion of the population here. When working on futures projects, we often talk about the ‘ageing population’ with perhaps a reference to the impact this will have on the workplace, but I am not sure we have thought through what it means for general day-to-day living. What I see here is a perhaps a taster. It means that I see many bungalows with neat gardens full of paving stones, gravel and flower pots (meaning no stairs, lawns or flower beds to worry about). I see lots and lots of small cafes offering all-day breakfasts for very good value, where people, who may be living on their own and therefore less inclined to cook for themselves, can get a meal without incurring great expense. On the pavements and in garages, I see mobility vehicles. At the sparkly new Westwood Cross shopping centre built in the area, I couldn’t help noticing that, in addition to M&S, Debenhams, Thorntons and the like, there was also a shop specialising in mobility vehicles.

2. Renewable energy is very visible in the form of the Thanet Offshore Windfarm. On completion this year it is scheduled to have 100 wind turbines, making it, according to the website, the largest operational windfarm anywhere in the world.

3. There are new ways of growing food. Kent has traditionally been regarded as the ‘garden of England’ and the new Thanet Earth greenhouse complex represents a way of achieving this in a resource efficient and technologically enhanced way. Thanet Earth grows salad vegetables hydroponically (meaning the roots of the plants are in a type of rock wool as oppose to soil). Everything in the glasshouses is computer controlled – from the blinds in the ceilings to opening the windows, the liquid feed make-up, the heating, lighting and carbon dioxide levels.

So if you want to experience the future, or at least parts of it, go to Thanet.

[1] The quote is actually ‘The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed’ and is from William Gibson.

The image is of Thanet wind farm and is from Warwick Energy, used with thanks.

2 July 2010 at 6:03 pm 1 comment

Recession 2.0


Giles Powdrill writes:

“A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter-and getting smarter faster than most companies.” So said the Cluetrain Manifesto almost exactly a decade ago. The prescience of the work lay in the authors’ clear understanding of the connective potential of the web and the shift in power from companies to individuals which would accompany its growth.

However, despite witnessing this shift in power, the majority of organisations still haven’t adapted their business practices to embrace the internet. They are not making use of the networks, the empowerment or the easy conversation and collaboration made possible through the social media technologies broadly described as ‘Web 2.0’ to help create new types of relationships with their customers. For many, the internet is still just another channel.

But maybe this is beginning to change: perhaps the current recession, the first of the truly digital age, will be looked back upon as being the spur to growth of new types of online commerce. We are already witnessing the growing success of online shopping, price comparison websites and digital advertising in the downturn, but these are only first steps – doing old things in a new way. The real challenge is about greater engagement; working with and for consumers in an open way. It is about companies demonstrating that they know enough about customers and their behaviours to deliver a benefit. Combining transparency with networked data and new technological infrastructure can create situations where all gain, customers and companies alike, but if companies don’t work out how to use these new networks, they may find themselves bypassed as people decide to do it for themselves instead.

A good example of a company getting it right is Zopa, the social lending site set up by banking professionals on which people lend directly to borrowers online. Borrowers bid for funds, and lenders choose whether to respond. Lenders get good returns, and borrowers get lower cost loans. Zopa makes its margin by charging both parties a fee. Default rates are low and lenders can see their borrowers and follow the progress of the their loan. Zopa has disintermediated the banking business by adding social networking and a human touch. In terms of Recession 2.0 it’s a sign of the times. As the Cluetrain Manifesto said: markets are conversations.

The picture, ‘the garden of Zopa’, is from a digital campaign by the social lending site to demonstrate the benefits of personal involvement and mutual help.

26 March 2009 at 9:44 am 1 comment

Repairing the material world


Emily Pitts writes:

Demos’s recently launched ‘It’s a material world’ argues for the social value of heritage conservation, at a time when budgets for conservation courses are being slashed and the future of the discipline seems threatened. It calls for a national conservation strategy that includes education in schools, involves local communities in preserving the public realm, more support from government and a call to arms directed at professionals in the conservation and cultural sectors. If we don’t make the effort to be inclusive in how we look after the public realm, they argue, and make choices collectively about what to conserve, then social capital also declines.

An increasing interest in preserving social capital and a renewed vigour in community life is something we have been tracking for a little while, and early signs are that the economic downturn is increasing the extent to which we think of collective good. According to Yankelovich Monitor, 41% of American consumers define being a good citizen as ‘Not buying a home that is larger than you really need to help reduce energy usage’ compared to 34% just a year ago. Our data from the UK, whilst not directly comparable, hints at a similar sense of personal empowerment and responsibility, with the majority of consumers agreeing with the statement ‘I feel that I can make a difference to the world around me through the choices I take and the actions I make’. Interest in community life is also strong; according to our Planning for Consumer Change survey, since 2005 more people agree that the quality of life is better improved by looking after the interests of the community than those of the individual.

With changing attitudes towards community in evidence, the time might be right for the cultural sector, and conservation in particular, to push away from the individualistic outlook of the early ’00s and emerge in the schoolrooms and town halls of every community as a mainstay of our society. But is it possible for conservators to be more professional and more inclusive of the public at the same time, as Demos asks? Resolving conflict between public priorities and those of the experts could prove tricky, but rather than seeing these clashes of opinion as either/or tradeoffs, can we instead look to them as latent energy areas for future innovation?

The image is of the filming of the final of the BBC series ‘Restoration’ Village‘at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. More images can be found on their Flickr site.

22 December 2008 at 8:30 am Leave a comment

Inequality and public services


Rebecca Nash writes:

‘Public facing’ and ‘academic’ are two personal attributes that often don’t go together. But the IIPS was fortunate to host this rare breed at a breakfast briefing this week. Professor Danny Dorling both conducts groundbreaking research on patterns of place and social change, and makes sure it gets covered by the media (here and here and here.)

Danny’s presentation at the IIPS was on the evidence of the strong links between poor public services and local inequalities – part of the IIPS’s ongoing conversation about what role research and public services play in improving people’s lives. Worrying as much of his evidence is, his talk was also a hopeful call to action. Despite the correlation between local deprivation and poor services he argued two points:  First, if we take a look at recent data from The Futures Company, there is public will for social change and social action – and permission for radical change. Second, government has the tools to improve things on local levels and to stop inequalities from continuing to spread on a national scale.

BMRB Social Research’s Head of Methods Joel Williams argued that research can support the policy and service delivery changes that Danny urges – and looked at some different research methods. He identified new research strategies for the places that most need them: for example, opening up administrative data bases in their original forms, targeting surveys in areas with the greatest variety of life outcomes, local authorities working together on common policy interventions, and more facilitation of local area modelling by those conducting national surveys.

Danny’s assumption that government could provide most of the solutions was challenged by Professor Paul Wiles, Head of Government Social Research. He raised questions about  the persistence of long-term, local inequalities, and the way in which these shaped long-term social and cultural perceptions of poorer areas. In short, there are limits to government power and policy making, especially in the face of other powerful agents of change (communities, families, the housing market, and more).

Big questions about government, community, and public and social capital at 8.30 in the morning. But as we only begin to see the effects of economic crash, these issues are only going to get sharper over the coming year – or more.

The picture shows Diego Rivera‘s mural, ‘Contradictions between Rich and Poor 01″. Sheffield University’s ‘Changing UK’ report, co-authored by Danny Dorling, can be downloaded as a pdf from here. The IIPS is a co-venture between The Futures Company and BMRB which develops and promotes the use of citizen insight to support the transformation of public service delivery in the UK.

4 December 2008 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

We are what we do

Anouk Van Den Eijnde writes:

With increased mobility and growth of individualism in British society, the sense of community spirit is in decline. As part of our biennial Planning for Consumer Change survey, we have seen a decrease in community in the UK, with only 41% of Londoners feeling that there is a sense of community where they live1. As Alessandra Buonfino and Paul Hilder have noted,

“The most common walk in British neighbourhoods today may well be the short distance from the front door to the parked car”.

The government is trying to strengthen communities and find local solutions to the rise in social problems. In a recent qualitative study for Communities & Local Government, we spoke to a wide range of citizens across the country and without fail there was nostalgia about the good old days of leaving your doors unlocked and neighbourhood street parties. For most of them, having a sense of community and being friendly with your neighbours was the ideal, but often not the reality.

I recently did some volunteer work for We Are What We Do, best known for the ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ tote bag and Change the world for a fiver. Their aim is to inspire people to use their everyday actions to change the world – we’re talking manageable things like ‘write a letter to someone who inspired you’, ‘recycle your mobile phone’ or even ‘smile, and smile back’. It got me thinking: do we really need a book to tell us to talk to our neighbours or have more meals together? Isn’t that common sense?

What I did with WAWWD was to help train 200 young people across the country to become public speakers , so they can spread the word to their younger peers in schools about the social and environmental actions they can all do. You always get something back when you volunteer, and I was lifted by their immense enthusiasm and their belief that they are capable of making the world a better place. At HCHLV we have done a lot of work around the Millennials generation and one the biggest themes that has emerged is the importance of ‘making a difference’, of ‘actions, not words’. Maybe we do need a book to remind us that we are what we do, that the fading sense of community won’t just come back by magic. Or maybe the Millennials will discover that individualism isn’t the way forward and maybe, just maybe, they will change the world. Which action will you do today?

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12 August 2008 at 9:44 am 1 comment

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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.

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