In a recent book review in the New York Times, Amanda Schaffer drew attention to how eminent neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga has shifted his ideas on the brain from the duality of “left/right thinking” to “multiple minds”, from the value of “national planning” to “local gossip”.
In recent years, products, services, strategy and management have been dominated by dualities of Cathedral and bazaar, of “top down” and “bottom up” strategies and actions. There is the ‘grassroots’ — and then ‘the elite’. There are activists — then the incumbents.
However, join a new social media network in the name of bottom-up empowerment — and simply add your ha’peth to a Unicorn valuation. Sign up to a grassroots sharing scheme — and help build a market for professional realtors. Attend a local community event — and find youself co-opted into a scheme that makes the neighbourhood unaffordable for your grandchildren.
One person’s ‘empowerment’ is another’s marketing strategy. Grassroots is often cited as sanctuary and salvation but then watch how easily the promise of empowerment and collectivisation can be dashed.
For those who want to drive prosperity all the way through society, Gazzaniga’s change of thinking has meaning. Its message: initiate a multiplicity of processes and value the jursidiction of the local, beyond the whispers, butterly touches or backward bigotry of the hill village.
We have just come to the end of our first year of operating a new ‘business angel’ investment network in central London, England — supported by the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea — and the value of the local, in terms of both ‘gossip’ and action is becoming clear.
Since the end of March 2014, we have built a new community of almost thirty private individuals who are interested in investing in entrepreneurs and enterprise connected to the economy of West London in general, and Kensington & Chelsea in particular.
Members of Wild Blue Cohort have invested approaching £200,000 in early-stage ventures. We’ve looked at well over 200 businesses. Investments by our members have formed part of larger rounds that companies say will generate over 25 new jobs.
When I’ve created neighbourhood renewal programmes or for-profit or non-profit ventures in the past, those initiatives which ‘take’ have tended to be those that appeal to people’s sense of self and need to belong.
It’s important to create a thing that delights, but ensure that some of it feels like old familiars.
It’s also important that initiative works different beats of daily life in a larger confederation of action: be it physical infrastructure, the local school curriculum, using waste ground as a plinth for pop-ups, or turning derelict shops into new business channels.
Our investment network in West London is just one medium devoted to collectivising people and creating value in our part of the city.
In real estate, there’s new business ‘incuabtor’ spaces coming to White City run by Imperial College London and huge new residential, retail and commercial districts in Earl’s Court, Bayswater and Paddington.
In enterprise, there’s a new cluster of creative business being cultivated by entrepreneurs Charles Dunstone and Peter Simon in Notting Dale, or new social enterprise, such as Sew Portobello or the Goldfinger Factory.
In social care and civic action, there’s new ventures such as the West London Zone, modelled on Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, and Westway 23, a new advocacy group against the development of ‘Portobello Village’.
Of course, national planning plays a crucial role in creating a framework for all of this to take place: be it the setting of interest rates, economies of austerity, creating incentives for fostering social business or initiating Big Dig transport infrastructure development.
But multiple centres of activity with multiple ‘minds’ also matter, especially if they assume what Gazzinga calls ‘a psychological signature’.
People often try to construct this with branding and marketing. I think that it’s more durable and sustainable to support things that connect, link and foster activities and networks — be they groups of individuals like entrepreneurs, layers of enabling provided by technology, or liquids that fill the veins of local life and grant it energy, such as private capital.
David Barrie is founder of Wild Blue Cohort, an angel investment network in West London that connects investors with entrepreneurs close to home. As a civic and social entrepreneur, his work includes co-founding The People’s Supermarket, London, large-scale neighbourhood ventures in Sheffield, Middlesbrough and Castleford, and advising urban development projects and programmes in the U.K., Canada and Russia. @davidbarrie
Image courtesy of Nicole Nodland: Farrow & Ball street, March 2014.