It’s who you know.

On the Fridays before the main Saturday events, #NotWestminster is an opportunity to spend a few hours working on a single idea, proposal, hack, whatever. The day starts with people pitching ideas for stuff they want to work on — all on theme of making local democracy better.

I joined a group of people discussing those occasions where small groups of people get together to do something for where they live. Those motivated individuals who, without any kind of top-down urging or instruction, Just Do It.

The group didn’t get to the point of creating or building anything — instead we spent our time trying to define the problem.

I wrote loads of notes, and hopefully there’s something useful or thought-provoking here:

  • We’re talking about those unofficial, non-institutionalised community organisations — perhaps with no legal status, which live or die based on those who show up.
  • The kind of thing like local food-growing groups; timebanks (paying for stuff with time, not money); guerrilla gardeners; permaculture; yarn-bombing; local assemblies.
  • You could call these ‘micro-movements’.
  • There is both individual and community benefit.
  • Who takes the first step to lead by example?
  • Who feels like they need or have permission to act?
  • Who or what is needed to trigger the action that kicks off these micro-movements?
  • Pledgebank vs FixMyStreet (i.e. community solutions, rather than asking ‘the government’ to sort stuff out.)
  • So far, so Big Society.
  • The power in existing friendship groups. In ‘neighbourliness’.
  • How is the story of these people and their actions told? How do these stories spread?
  • The virtuous cycle of confidence begets action begets confidence — how do you inject confidence into a place? What creates the spark?
  • What social capital do you need?
  • If the networks of people don’t already exist, how can they be created?
  • Trust. This is all about trust.
  • Does this stuff only happen in affluent areas with a sense of identity based on the local area?
  • Lose the language of ‘volunteers’, ‘officers’ and ‘meetings’.
  • Principle-led org’s over strategy-led org’s.
  • Do micro-movements need micro-funding? Where are the small pots of money for small community projects?
  • Wetherspoons as place to organise — ergo Wetherspoons Community Fund?

For me, at this point, our rambling discussion had really emphasised the power of ‘social capital’ — the power of who you know. I’d only come across this term relatively recently as a late arrival to Laurie Taylor’s BBC Thinking Allowed podcast on sociology, anthropology and ethnography. Highly recommended. The power to do something relies so much upon your social graph (the network of friends you have — and the network of friends they have, etc) — so how do we improve everyone’s social graph? This is Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘change-the-world’ theory — but what about at a more local level? My notes continue:

  • Swarm for volunteering.
  • ‘There’s a facebook page for that’
  • How do you identify the key nodes (the really well connected people) in the social graph? (What if we hadn’t given all our social graph data to closed Silicon Valley behemoths and instead drew local, open graphs?)
  • The key nodes in a community probably aren’t councillors — or they’re important nodes in a particular niche of a community.
  • Who are the people who sit across communities? Who can connect the dog-walkers to the darts-players to the new-mums to the … etc.
  • What if you could build a council by identifying the key nodes in a social graph — and then they become the councillors? Or how do existing councillors increase their social networks?
  • Do local governments try to draw open social graphs in their areas — to help make micro-movements happen? Should they?
  • Donate Your Network? As we can donate money, how can we donate social capital? How can we loan out our network? What’s the JustGiving for social capital? (Please don’t let it be LinkedIn). That ‘trust’ thing again.

At this point, right at the end of the discussion, some light deep in the basement of my brain began blinking and I gradually trawled up the memory the RSA’s Connected Communities report, which was all about social networks. I need to re-read it, work out what they were trying to do or discover, and find out if it made use of Facebook’s social graph (or any kind of social graphing). If not, how would they change the project today?

And what does this mean for the work I do at Democracy Club, which is a lot about ‘what you know’ — what could we do to improve/use ‘who you know’ to make democracy better?

Comments / links welcome!

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