A Community Make-Over? – or Take-Over?

Recently, I was very privileged to be in Amsterdam for a conference organised by the Social Innovation Exchange grandly titled Co-creating Democracy: Citizen Passion in the 21st Century. It was a relatively small conference with people from many different nationalities. Thankfully, all the discussions were in English, putting the British to shame because of the fact that most of us (including myself) cannot master any other language other than our own. However, you may be pleased that this is not a rant about my own inadequacies, many though they are. It is about the learning that took place and the shoots of change that are beginning to take place.

The change taking place is global with ‘things happening’ in all parts of the globe. We learnt more about the change taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. This change is been driven by the citizens and in the case of Egypt and Tunisia by the young people with social media playing a significant to ensure connectivity. Where it will all end nobody knows, although the role of young people is significant with social media also playing a key part. What was stressed was that this was not an overnight event but a ‘rebellion’ that had built up over the years, which allowed diverse groups to connect throughout the country and region.

We can look at the pictures of the ‘uprisings’ taking place and look smugly at what is going on and ignore the dissatisfaction that many people have in our own country. This is part political in that in many communities there is a disconnect between people, elected politicians and local authorities; a form of democratic deficit. New Labour recognised this with the setting up of the social exclusion unit and initiatives like Sure Start, and the coalition acknowledges this in its discourse about the ‘Big Society’ and localism. Acknowledgement is one thing but action is another.

The ‘stirrings’ in the U.K. taking place are currently small and perhaps to describe them as a movement is a bit premature. I detect, however, a sense of dissatisfaction in some and in others a questioning of how services are delivered. The personalisation and person-centred approaches being used in many social care services have shown there is a need for services to involve the recipients much more fully in the design and development of services. This potentially changes the role for local authorities becoming more of a facilitator rather than a provider making connections between the recipients and service deliverers.

I am not advocating the abolition of local authorities, far from it; in my view their role is crucial, particularly at a strategic level making the connections between individuals, providers in planning, supporting and co creating the development of services. The successful city regions in the world are the ones that have developed strategic partnerships between all sectors of the economy. All too often the current political discourse is to see the public sector as the villains of the piece (somewhat ironical given the agenda is set by public servants, i.e. elected politicians) rather than a potential source of ideas.

The conference explored how you involve people in the creation of services, neighbourhoods and communities. We heard examples of the power of people in building communities and governmental institutions. I was particularly interested in a project in Rotterdam’s Pendrecht University. This is not a conventional university but a community development programme in which the residents are the experts and professors who teach the professionals what are their problems; they are the experts who have knowledge of their own lived experience.

The project is located in a very deprived area of the city of Rotterdam and is empowering residents to find a voice, build their skills and improve their neighbourhoods. Such an approach provides the residents with a sense of hope, helps them to co-design services they want and connects them to their local services and councils, facilitated by two paid community development practitioners. This is not a project that is solely based on volunteers but requires paid staff to make it work.

We heard of the power of residents to influence developers and a willingness of people to share their expertise, skills and knowledge. Through the wonders of modern technology we were able to listen to a presentation from colleagues in Australia. They talked about a project called Family by Family which aims to “…to enable families to get more from each other, their communities and life, whilst reducing the need for crisis services”.[1] This is a preventative project that is being supported by the Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI). Again this is a project that connects families together but within a clear framework that is supported by a child protection expert who facilitates the connections and learning.

Many of the projects had been started in response to a crisis. In all cases a spark is needed to light a flame but success and sustainability will be dependent on their social impact. From a resident’s or citizen’s point of view success will be seen if they continue to feel part of a movement, if they have a sense of belonging, trust and connectivity to a cause.

[1] http://openarchitecturenetwork.org/projects/fbyf and also see http://www.tacsi.org.au/our-projects/family-by-family/ (accessed 26/5/2011)

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