Over several hundred years a series of great nationwide infrastructure projects were successfully accomplished.
Canals, railways and tramlines, bridges and roads and motorways, seaports and airports made travel and transport incomparably faster and easier. Hospitals and health centres and libraries and schools and colleges and universities made possible enormous advances in health and learning. Overground pylons and underground cables and pipelines brought power to our businesses and to our public facilities and to our homes. Telegraph wires and telephone exchanges and radio and television transmitters and internet cables and broadband technologies delivered ever faster and fuller communications.
How were these astonishingly ambitious projects achieved? In some cases by private businesses, seizing commercial opportunity. In other cases by national government, or local government, acting in the public interest. Often a combination of all of these.
This is the infrastructure which made possible the industrial revolution, and the welfare state, and which in recent years has created the foundations for the digital revolution.
But what kind of infrastructure will we need for the future? Yes, we need an industrial strategy, but what about a social infrastructure strategy? And in particular a strategy to bring about a society which connects us better, and which humanises the way we do things, and which allows more people to exercise more influence and take more control of the things that matter most to them.
I believe the next big infrastructure project must be to establish a national people-power grid, operating universally across the country but owned and controlled within our communities. What might it look like? Here are some ideas:
- People who connect people. Nothing can substitute for the personal touch. In every neighbourhood we need people who are really, really good at encouraging connectivity to flourish. This could include ‘community organisers’, skilled at listening, at igniting the impulse to act, at helping people come together to improve their lives and their neighbourhoods and bringing about the changes they want to see. Also ‘community connectors’, people who are ready and willing to pick up a conversation with someone who seems to be struggling, tell them about social activities or support organisations, and encourage them to play a fuller part in community life. Training and co-ordination is needed for such schemes to flourish, but they often work best when delivered by people who don’t see it as a formal ‘job’ but rather as part of everyday life.
- Sustained effort. Community, like trust, is something which can be damaged quickly, but which can take many years to grow strong. Locally-embedded institutions which feel welcoming and attractive to all sections of the local population, and where associative life can flourish, can play a big role. These are sometimes described as ‘community anchor’ organisations. Pubs and coffee shops and libraries and schools all have a part to play, as do community health centres and locally-run housing associations, but what is really needed is a revitalised version of a community centre or hub, lively, entrepreneurial, energising, community-owned and led, driving connection and collaboration, building pride and possibility in the here and now while also playing the long game. There are many great examples, but investment, including an accelerated programme of transferring land and buildings into community ownership, will be needed to universalise this, so that people in every community can benefit.
- Digital platforms. Our future will be increasingly digital, and a national people-power grid will need to embrace this. Social media in particular will play a big role. It seems to be especially well suited for enhancing transparency and exposing injustice. It is good for engaging with very large numbers of people, and can sometimes help to shift public debate and behaviour in dramatic ways, but also lends itself to campaigns which require little effort and which are often soon forgotten. It can attract public support and funds to worthwhile causes and is an immensely powerful tool for connecting people who share distinctive interests and identities – within place and beyond place. But where the online world is less developed is in helping people come together to generate constructive solutions, and to learn from the experience of others, exchanging skills and knowledge across communities. This can probably never be achieved simply online – often it’s the combination of online and in-person connection which turns out to be most powerful. But what might help – a social Wiki perhaps, as recently set out by Matt Kepple from Makerble?
- Self interest. We will never build a truly connected society if we rely on altruism alone. As Jess Steele has described in her proposals for ‘self-renovating neighbourhoods’ we need to tap into the great grassroots virtues of thrift, impatience and sociability and work along the grain of real motivation, the desire lines carved out by love, anger, fear and hope. It is the give-get relationships which are most likely to work most of the time for most people. We can find this in time-banks, where the contribution people can make to supporting each other, and what they can expect back, is measured in hours – a great equaliser. We can find it in the ‘micro-providers’ schemes pioneered by Community Catalysts, where local people can earn income by acting as care providers for their neighbours. We can find it in community shares schemes, where people are invited not to simply make a donation, but rather to buy a share in a project they care about, extending and democratising ownership of community assets. With careful nurturing such schemes could be extended to many more communities across the country. And there is potentially something more, as Jess Steele and others have suggested. What about a series of resource banks – operating locally, regionally, and nationally, where investment (money with skills) can be pooled and held in trust, and to which communities can contribute and from which communities can draw down?
- Solidarity. Within communities we need to discover and rediscover the art of solidarity, taking steps to understand why some people are left out, becoming curious about what others are thinking, making time to talk about tensions and disagreements, discovering unexpected shared interests. Sometimes this requires expert facilitation. But often things begin to change as soon as more people spend more time with one another, eating together, playing sports together, exercising together, campaigning together, making things together. And beyond individual communities we need platforms which make it easier to find inspiration, share support, and drive change, from Hartlepool to Hastings, Penrith to Penzance, building a national solidarity network. Some of the architecture for this already exists, and in the social enterprise sector we have seen how the connectivity achieved by organisations like the Plunkett Foundation, Locality, Co-ops UK, the School for Social Entrepreneurs, and Social Enterprise UK, has built momentum and confidence. We simply need to grow this further, so that all communities can benefit, and can become part of a bigger collective effort.
In all of this, we are not starting from scratch. There is a great deal to build upon. Let’s celebrate the best work of the councils of voluntary service, volunteer bureaux, rural community councils, community development trusts, and many others. But the real question is whether we can we bring the same level of ambition and creativity to bear, which has characterised the great infrastructure advances of the past?
Furthermore, these steps, ambitious though they are, would be only one phase. If we can create the foundations for a national people-power grid, in a way that allows its development to be open-sourced, and populated by all the individuals and organisations and groupings which want to be part of it, then a great many people will have the opportunity to build further, bringing their own ideas, insights, energy. So that the national people-power grid continues to grow and develop, and becomes so much part of our lives that eventually, as with the rest of the infrastructure which makes our modern lives possible, we almost take it for granted.