I've been re-reading the RSA report on the 'Connected Communities' project. I can recommend it and applaud the RSA for its work.
The Connected Communities project is built around the idea that the key to more empowered communities is to bring people together. The RSA argues that people’s social networks are the key to increasing their communities’ resilience, and that community regeneration attempts need to engage with and build on the problems and assets in these existing networks. In its most recent paper on the topic, Power Lines, the RSA argues that “the government’s efforts to build the Big Society” were “too focused on citizen-led service delivery”, and that they should be more oriented towards “helping foster broad sociability and connections” at a community and neighbourhood level.
The announcement that the Community Development Trust’s delivery of the Community First programme aims to “help communities come together […] to identify their strengths and local priorities, plan for their future and become more resilient”. is to be welcomed. The plans, announced today, incorporate many elements long argued for by the RSA’s Connected Communities programme. These include an emphasis on increasing local people’s connections and agency, especially in areas with ‘thin’ social networks, the importance of mapping and visualising networks in order to uncover hidden potential, the importance that the private sector can have both as ‘hub’ and as source of mutually beneficial funding and support.
I think the study of social networks is important and it is clearly emerging as a dominant policy and governance paradigm. Paradigms emerge and must be contested, and the social network paradigm is no exception. I would commend Jonathan Davies' work on the subject. It is always important to acknowledge that some agents and actors choose to work outside of existing networks - something Davies refers to as the 'exit action strategy.' Organisations that choose to inhabit the spaces outside of social networks can include radical, dissident or marginal political groups that exist to challenge normative values in society. As such, we must recognise the complexity of the social sphere and the inherent messiness of social interactions. I'm not arguing that social networks are not important to community governance, but they are not the only way social change is achieved. Matthew Taylor himself has recognised this - drawing on the work of Mary Douglas to identify the different psychological motivators of community activism. There is an interesting debate to be had here - I would like to get Rod Rhodes, David Marsh, Jacob Torfing, Henrik Bang, Eva Sorensen, Helen Sullivan, Jon Davies, Chantal Mouffe and Stevie Griggs over for dinner and have it all out. I wonder if the RSA could make that happen?