The Big Society Network was launched last week in the U.K. by Prime Minister David Cameron.
The Network is a platform for activating citizen involvement in public affairs, with a mission and modus operandi that is the subject of feverish debate - track it by following the #bigsociety tag on Twitter.
Because the Big Society is associated with the new Government, our economy has entered an age of austerity and You have to keep dancing while the music's still playing - to quote Chuck Prince, former CEO of Citigroup from an earlier age - Big Society is fast becoming a bandwagon.
This isn't a bad thing. Bandwagons attract the private sector and corporates have a massive role to play in building public engagement in society just now. In a low demand economy, community building is a form of market-making and successful businesses need confident, self-fulfilled customers.
But a problem with bandwagons is that they can invite an overdose of social messaging and strategy-think and over-complicate the basic business of fostering and wiring grassroots economy and activism.
As an antidote, here's a selection of ten simple, brilliant initiatives, enterprises and ideas - low-budget ventures with lo-fi marketing - that get on with the job of triggering and networking public association for public good:
An area-based, non-profit revitalization project in Newcastle, New South Wales that over the last 18months has created over 50 new creative businesses, galleries, studios, and enterprises in the fading commercial district of the city. (HT @unsungsongs)
A not-for-profit social enterprise concerned with
3. Open Books
This is another enterprise ripe for replication - a non-profit social venture that operates a bookstore selling recycled books, provides community programmes and promotes literacy not landfill in Chicago.
(My U.K. fantasy: take a dead shop, refurbish it as an informal local library, create a neighborhood book recycling scheme, collect, sell and lend the books from the shop and invest any financial surplus in iPads with pre-downloaded novels, for people to put a deposit down on and take away.)
A new co-operative supermarket in the London Borough of Camden, inspired by the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, New York. [Declaration of interest: I'm involved.] Anyone can shop in The People's Supermarket but in return for a small fee and four hours volunteer time per month, members win a discount on their food shopping - and can save on the usual premium prices charged for healthy, independent or locally-sourced food.
A large disused site next to railway line in Bankside, South London has been transformed in to a garden featuring countless examples of food growing, a zero-carbon pod and a skip turned in to a tennis-table. It's part of a larger programme to revitalize a string of disused public spaces in London known as Bankside Urban Forest and the brainchild of designer Heather Ring.
A membership organization that connects members to each other to share interests and enjoy themselves and members to local, skilled people called Neighbourhood Helpers, who provide flexible help with things like DIY tasks, gardening or Internet lessons. Created by Participle, a social innovation company, the Circle is designed to allow people to be 'each other's solution'.
7. Silicon Roundabout
Not an initiative at all but a road junction where London’s Old Street meets City Road, the grunge epicentre of EC1, a district that is home to hundreds of tech businesses dating back to dot com days. The most famous local hero here was last.fm, the online music community bought by CBS for $280m (£140m) in 2007, one of the largest UK web company buyouts of recent years. This is just an intersection - and a deadly, dumpy one at that. But a thing that shows that association just happens through natural networking and clustering of people and what they are in to, not by putting a gun to their heads.
A community cycle centre in Tower Hamlets, East
London, that offers a range of services including cycle training
courses, rental, repairs, bike-recycling, travel planning and sales of new and second-hand bikes. This is an award-winning social enterprise that sells you bikes of known (not stolen) provenance and is nifty for getting across town to Look Mum no Hands!, a new (and heaving) bike workshop and cafe for city cyclists - a for-profit enterprise that understands people as communities of active interest, not couch potato demographics in a media plan.
Another social enterprise in London, Livity is a youth communications agency that co-creates campaigns and content for brands, broadcasters, charities and local and central government and seeks to achieve client objectives whilst improving the lives of young people. Projects include the award-winning Dubplate Drama, an interactive TV series, Live Magazine and clients include Coca Cola, O2, Playstation and Channel 4 Television. (HT @SamConniff, @MichelleLivity and @gavineale)
This project started in 2007 as a live improvised realtime game and multimedia event in Sydney, Australia, produced by artists Kate Richards and Martyn Coutts. Designed for four performers, four audience groups and passersby, each audience group, using their voices, directed performers to explore and undertake a series of tasks inside a new and largely unknown building, hidden from the audience’s view - and the audience tracked their performer’s progress via streamed video, audio and locative data on large exterior projection screens. The initiative has since grown in to a bigger series of participatory, locative art projects, with the second Wayfarer project taking place in Melbourne in 2009. (HT @lcarroli)
What's exciting about almost all of these enterprises is that they tend to merge the profit motive with a moral imperative - and many directly confront social need through the businesses themselves.
Almost all of these ventures - in a politically non-partisan way - trigger volunteering and social action and act as touch-point for providing a public service, be it care for seniors, healthy living, food security, literacy or managing waste in the built environment.
Most are trading systems. Almost all elicit support by association. All are optimistic.
Images courtesy of 1. Viktor Vauthier, 2. uddin/elsey, 3. Buffalo ReUse, 4. consumatron, 5. Liz & Max Haarala Hamilton Photography, 6. foe, 7. Southwark Circle, 8. moleitau, 9. Bikeworks, 10. Livity website, 11. Wayfarer, MySpace