The Big Society is fast emerging as the Cool Britannia vibe of the new Coalition Government in the U.K.
We know the objectives of the Big Society. Five policies were set down in a Government statement in May to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want.
So how is it going to happen? And who's going to make it happen?
At the moment, all eyes are set on boosting the social enterprise sector - and there is little doubt that entities that merge the profit motive and moral imperative are important not just to establishing 'people power' but also making a social economy, where commercial markets have failed to deliver consumers the value that they want.
There's also a big push on Digital Engagement - finding ways and means by which people can access technology, benefit from it and win ownership of the greatest global commodity of them all - information.
What's great about the push on these fronts is that they emphasize building networks of people through ad hoc structures rather than new formal government structures.
What needs to happen next though is to expand the idea dramatically and practically - daring to assume that people won't just gather behind civic causes because they see democracy as a way of life and that the idea behind the Big Society is to enlist people other than the known cadre of 'militant optimists'.
Here are a few, devoted to democratizing public planning, focus upon place-making and all picture problem-solving alliances of people:
- the constellation of Development Trusts, community land trusts and community interest companies that have been set up in the U.K.
- multi-stakeholder partnerships that have come together around specific themes, such as the Community Capital Investment Initiative in San Francisco, with its link between economic development, environmental quality and social equity
- the community, environmental, faith-based and labor organizations in the United States who have formed coalitions with real estate developers in a direct legal contract known as a Community Benefits Agreement
- area-based land development projects in the U.K.that have gathered diverse communities together, formed consensual objectives and triggered local stewardship of an on-going process of renewal and public participation - see projects of mine in Castleford and Middlesbrough in Northern England
How might we adapt and apply some of the thinking behind these to the Big Society and trigger a new wave of ad-hoc structures in support of change?
How might we tap up for societal gain the ethos captured in this brilliant piece of graffiti:
- focus the new Government's commitment to training community organizers on public sector workers about to be made unemployed by public expenditure cuts
- set aside a proportion of investment granted to Local Economic Partnerships and the remaining Regional Development Agencies and announced in the 2010 Budget to enable the building of coalitions of local community groups and allow those coalitions to enter in to direct contractual agreements with real estate developers on Section 106 agreements and planning gain
- if this is too great a treasure-chest of capital receipts and power for government to give up, incentivise the public and private sectors to put Section 106 monies in to start-up, mutual enterprises devoted to delivering community management, not community centres or multi-surface play areas
- extend the idea of Business Improvement Districts beyond the standard corporate players and embrace all leaseholders and ratepayers, be it cultural organizations, governmental agencies or residents
- include in all 'strategic property vehicles' provision for community/social enterprise re-use of property assets currently held by local government and develop these sites as "mini-utilities" that enable the formation of new community enterprise or co-operatively owned and managed local services, such as healthcare
What's more: build confidence and embrace the private sector. Why?
Because these are the organizations that build wealth and customer engagement and empowerment is now recognized as intrinsic to corporate survival and sustainability.
As the British Property Federation, lawyers Taylor Wessing and PR consultants Spada pointed out in a report on sustainability and the UK development industry published last week:
Investment in these strategies now may be a leap of faith but failure to future-proof a business so as to meet the sustainability challenge will in time become a significant commercial risk.All images courtesy of photographer Yvan Rodic.