Nurture Development

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) come to life


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Beyond Co-production – Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)

On Wednesday, May 21st, David Boyle published an engaging piece in the Guardian Professional. His opening lines read as follows:

“When William Beveridge released his famous blueprint for the welfare state at the end of 1942, his assumptions suggested that the cost burden would reduce over time because welfare spending would progressively reduce need.

As we now know, he was wrong. It wasn’t just him; the same mistake was made in most welfare states. The problem wasn’t that Beveridge failed to slay his ‘five giants’ – ignorance, want, squalor, disease and idleness – but that they came back to life in every generation, and had to be slain all over again. Every time at increasing expense.”

In an attempt to offer an explanation for the current malaise he goes on to say, rightly in my view:

“The difficulty was that Beveridge’s welfare services developed in a direction he never intended: over-professionalised; dismissive and suspicious of the neighbourhood networks which had underpinned people’s lives for generations; undermining informal advice and support; allowing the ties of mutual support to atrophy.

Services developed the attitude that high-tech equipment, sophisticated processes and professional knowledge is somehow all that is required to provide help to the grateful, passive multitude. Two generations later, those informal networks of support have been corroded.”

David Boyle goes on to place the theories and practices of co-production at the centre of the reform agenda. While I believe co-production is essential, I would argue it will not be sufficient to bring about the change he so rightly advocates for. Here are the four reasons why:

1. Co-production does not adequately challenge the larger implicit (and sometimes explicit) and wrongly held notion that people are poor because of personal failings, rather than a result of systems and policies that are structured to maintain a class system that benefits some at the expense of others. What makes the rich richer, makes the poor poorer.

2. It fails to acknowledge that much social change, and that which determines a good life, has nothing to do with institutional reform, or professional intervention, or services of any kind, and everything to do with the urgent need for the radical reseeding of associational and civic life on its own ground separate from institutional life. This is what Ben Barber is pointing to in his recent publication ‘Strong Democracy, as is Harry Boyte, in ‘The Backyard Revolution’. This hyper local civic renewal, while seeking to put citizens at the centre of democracy, also argues that for this to happen, institutions and professionals need to cede significant ground and power.

This is particularly true when the ground does not require professional intervention in the first place, not even co-productively. The point to be made here is this: there are certain things that cannot be done by either citizens or professionals working alone or at cross-purposes to each other. These things lend themselves to co-production. But there are many things that are best done by citizens in their own right, and on their own collective terms. These do not require co-production, or any other service based response. These are not achieved through partnerships between citizens and professionals, but by citizens becoming community. What they require is community building, and a commitment to the nurturing of citizen-led action, and place based investment.

3. Co-production seems to stand back from challenging the legislated poverty inherent / implicit in a social service economy that sees money intended to address issues of poverty not sufficiently going into the hands of the poor, but instead going to paid professionals.

4. It is silent on the issues of distributive wealth, personalisation and economic justice that need to be placed at the centre of this debate. The introduction of a universal basic income and an active movement away from benefit systems that subjugate poor people, would radically shift the current state of play.

If we are serious about co-production of services, and of a life beyond services, then we need a much more radical solution than the current framing of co-production offers.

By the way, I take the same view regarding Asset Based Community Development. We all need to do a better job of speaking on these issues. And we need a more radical understanding of the institutional problem.

Below is an extract from my forthcoming book. It features an excerpt of an interview with Prof John McKnight. Here he is reflecting on the issues discussed above by citing the experiences of Judith Snow.

Judith is primarily an artist. She is also someone that many have labeled throughout her life. She was born with a capacity to physically do very little with her body. She could move her face, and a couple of fingers, and her thumb. She lives her life using a wheelchair and needs 24-hour attendance to enable her to participate.

John McKnight: So in a professional world they would label her as totally and vocationally disabled. They’d have a whole set of labels for her, portraying her as totally incompetent.

She led the fight in Canada to get income instead of services.
And with her circle of support that she built around herself she became the first person in the province of Ontario to get an annual personal budget from the government – maybe $70,000 – to use for her own wellbeing.

Now she also is a wonderful speaker and trainer and enabler, so she makes money that way too. And as she has to have round-the-clock support, she needs more money than most people.

But after she had been on an income system for two or three years I remember saying to Judith:

“So Judith tell me how many services for a disabled person have you used in the last year? Because you are now the empirical proof of what is needed as against what professionals say you need.”

And she said:

“In the last year I have used two services that are unique to me. And one of them I didn’t want. So the first one was my very complex wheelchair. I have it because I don’t walk so it’s related to my disability and so I went to a company of mechanics who understand wheelchair technology and I went to them because I needed them.

The second service was that then every time I want to go somewhere on an airplane they insisted I talk to their disability specialist. I don’t need them but I had to go: to get on an airplane I had to go through them. But as regards all the services that I was dependent on before, I’ve used none.”

And this is a woman who is as physically dependent as you could possibly be.

So if you looked at her you’d think she might need a whole lot of compensatory stuff. But all the system did was justify itself by saying she needed this complex set of services, when what her life demonstrated was that mostly, she didn’t.

The service system needs her. She doesn’t need it.

The Careless Society, Community and its Counterfeits is pretty critical of the service system, so when people say to me, “Well, don’t you think there is some place for them {Systems}?”, my answer is yes; but when people say so.

And for people to be able to say so – what needs to happen? Systems must be prepared to say: ‘you’re going to have the income to make all the choices you need to make in a regular life’, (that’s what Judith’s income allowed her to do).

What we need is what those people need.

We never have the foggiest idea what people need until we give them those unique resources that allow them to be an active part of the community making their own choices. Then we’ll see what they need of us.

And Judith is the best proof of that. As far as she’s concerned she never uses them, (services), at all, right? Yet in the whole architecture she’s the poster child of neediness! So she is the great living example of a huge edifice that for most people is not needed at all – they just need income, access to an everyday community and the relationships there, and of course, choice.

And systems focused on people who are labelled are an alternative to choice. They say: ‘your choice is us’, right? We run the zoo and you’re living in it.’

The point here, is that essentially co-production fails to get beyond professional led co-design, albeit with citizens, but with them in the back seat and largely still as individual clients with service requirements. Co-production regularly falls short of total place citizen led action. Instead its focus is on individuals, tends to be professionally led, and primarily about service design.

Co-production is of course most welcome, alongside:

  1. Citizenship
  2. Democracy
  3. Self directed budgets
  4. Challenge to professionalisation of personal and civic space
  5. Community Building and Asset Based Community Development
  6. Universal basic income.

The solution then to the challenge of exhausted professionals and passive clients, is in the shift from redesigning services with clients to deepening democracies with citizens.


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The rise, fall and rise again of community (ABCD webinar series)

What links Sigmund Freud – the father of Psychoanalysis, Edward Bernays – the father Public Relations and John McKnight – the father of Asset Based Community Development?

All is revealed in the Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Community. This is a journey across 100 hundred years of consumerism, the growth of service based economies and the consequent fall and seeming rise again of collectivism and mutuality.

If you’d like to learn more about the theoretical underpinnings of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), or just hear a radical critique of consumer culture then this webinar should be of interest. Our very own Cormac Russell presents his analysis of the rise and fall and rise again of community.

This is the first of a series of webinars investigating ABCD through a number of prisms. The next in the series is this Friday (16 May) at 7.30pm:

The Art of Community Building

Community building is a craft not an exact science and those taking it forward are artists. Many of the skills required for sustainable community building cannot be learned, they come naturally to people and it is those individuals who make the best Community Builders. Our mission is to help establish a Community Builder in every neighbourhood and so we hope that this Webinar will help you to identify the individuals with the natural gifts around you. During this Webinar we will explore:

  • What is community building?
  • Who can ‘do’ community building and what are the core characteristics of a Community Builder?
  • What are the building blocks of community?
  • How do you identify them, strengthen or build them, and mobilise them?

Book a place today and find out about the rest of the webinar series on our website.


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When we reject the single story we regain a kind of paradise: Why Jubilant Stories matter!

This blog reflects on the dangers of becoming trapped in the single story. This is a ubiquitous risk. From getting trapped in our personal history, to the dangers inherent in how media shape messages for our consumption, we all need the inoculation that a multiplicity of diverse and contradictory stories bring.

“Show a people as only one thing, over and over again and they become that one thing.”

These are the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist who has dedicated herself to writing about the many stories of her life; her country and her continent. Her newest book, The Thing Around Your Neck, is a brilliant collection of stories about Nigerians struggling to cope within a corrupted context in their home country, and about the Nigerian immigrant experience.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Adichie in her TED talk, which you can listen to here, remarks that:

“At about the age of seven … I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: all my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather: ‘how lovely it was that the sun had come out’. This despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria; we didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.”

In much the same way, when it comes to the stories of disability and mental health challenges or recovery from addiction or for people in (or with experience of) prison, there is a lot of stereotyping. A single story dominates: one of deficit and dependency on professional services.

When we take care to ask people what a good life might look like and invite them to share their stories of how their good life has previously manifested in their lives, a fuller truth is revealed. None of them are single stories, none of them stereotype, or diagnose, or fix. They are in sum, the human story, we understand them because of our shared humanity….

Adichie rightly points out that:

“How [stories] are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told — are really dependent on power.”

To illustrate this point further she notes:

“If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”

Similarly when we only hear, record, and tell the single story of people living with disability or mental health challenges for example, and we talk only about need for services and peoples deficits, we take power and dignity away from the people we serve and or love, and we also diminish ourselves. This is exactly what we are working with the Barnwood Trust to mitigate.

Jubilant Stories like this one matter:

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

These stories have tremendous power, in that they testify to the fact that hospitality does indeed exist throughout the county. But they also lay down a challenge to us, to create even greater hospitality, and to set our face against exclusion. They invite us to step over our stereotypes and societal imposed thresholds, to expand our repertoire of stories by coming closer to people with disabilities and mental health challenges or with experiences of addiction or prison. And to listen more carefully and invite more heartily their stories, gifts and dreams into our lives. When we become a character in their Jubilant Story, and they in ours, we will discover the real meaning of community and be all the better for it.

Cormac Russell


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A place to thrive

The following article appears in today’s (8 Apr 2014) Drink and Drugs News Magazine. Download the magazine as a PDF here.

Like recovery, addiction is a social issue that cannot be divorced from broader social, economic and political contexts. These are contexts that concern us all and which, for us at Nurture Development, situate issues of addiction and recovery firmly within the bounds of social justice.

I doubt many would disagree. It is rare to find a discussion about these issues without looking to the families and networks that the individual is part of; the economic prosperity of the communities they have come from; the emotional or physical trauma they may have suffered; the opportunities they have for education, training and employment; or an investigation of their well-being, physical and mental health. And so on.

It is these issues that reveal the catalysts and journey to addiction for people and will often suggest the likely trajectory of their recovery journey. But they are also the same issues that are pertinent to all of our lives and it is through the mapping of these issues over time that people like Bruce Alexander as well as our ABCD colleagues, John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, tell a story of ‘the globalization of addiction’ in a post-modern society that promotes individualism, free market economies, competition and professionalisation.

‘It is the people, caught in this web of counterproductive systems, who must seek survival in the hopeless spaces available. They react in many ways, just as we would. They strike out in anger, as some of us would. They create productive, phoenix-like new ventures and initiatives, as some of us would. They despair and retreat into addictions, as some of us would. They are normal people in an abnormal world, surrounded by expensive, costly helping systems that are the walls that bound their lives. To defy those walls, they must live abnormal lives – often productive sometimes destructive, always creative.’ John McKnight – The Careless Society. Community and its counterfeits

This may seem like an odd way to start a discussion about Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), which tends to err on the side of strength, positivity, and abundance. But it is an important layer of context to what follows. Because as we’re talking about addiction and recovery as issues of social justice, we propose that we must stop focussing on addiction and recovery, in the same way that we must stop focussing on mental health, on rehabilitation of prisoners, on domestic violence, or on tackling levels of obesity. We must move away from siloed thinking, siloed budgets, siloed cultures and siloed practices and start focussing on how we collectively address the weak communities in which these social ills thrive and build the competencies of communities so that they can reclaim their power in addressing them.

Recovery is only possible in healthy communities but our communities need to recover too. We need a whole community recovery agenda, not just a whole person recovery one, that doesn’t simply focus on a single issue and offers a radically different approach to the ‘four pillars’ of traditional responses to drug and alcohol addiction (treatment, prevention, law enforcement and harm reduction) that have ultimately failed.

This is where we suggest that an ABCD approach will add the most value. For us, this approach goes beyond traditional strength-based approaches and it promotes citizen-led community building that is independent of service provision and single issue agendas. The things that people in recovery need to live a full life, for example, are no different to what everyone else needs e.g. positive relationships, job/purposeful activity, somewhere safe and secure to live, and they are no different to the things that are needed to address anti-social behaviour and crime, loneliness and depression or obesity and declining mental health.

ABCD focusses on what is strong, not what is wrong, in individuals and communities. It seeks to enable people to become active contributors to their communities, building relationships and connections with the abundance – both potential and actual – that exists in relationships with their neighbours and in the communities around them.

Our approach to community building is a method for individual and whole community transformation. It is not about building ‘recovery communities’. That is not to say that recovery communities are not important: there are some incredible examples around the UK, especially those that have been built by grassroots groups and organisations. But too often these become part of the service landscape. Something happens when they become professionalised, something that means they begin to conform – often without realising it – to the deeply entrenched thinking of the system they are now linked to.

Despite the mountains of data collected about people within the various systems e.g. benefits, housing, treatment etc., there is still an incredible lack of evidence about what works, at what points and for who when it comes to a number of things including drug and alcohol addiction and recovery. For us, it is not necessarily a question about harm reduction or abstinence. Our money is on healthy, vibrant and hospitable communities that welcome people in from the margins.

Check out our new Recovery & ABCD Training Brochure

It is in community building that individuals in their communities are awakened to their capacity to care for one another, to create safe and hospitable environments, to build resilient local economies and to heal and support people to live fulfilled lives. In doing so, reliance on public services reduces so that their resources are focussed only on those things that people and communities cannot do for themselves.

We’re using an ABCD approach in our ‘Learning Sites’ across the UK to build on the largely American evidence base that demonstrates the power that this approach has across a variety of issues. These Learning Sites are championed by local leaders who are brave early adopters of an approach that challenges us all to think and behave differently, work in different ways and step into our citizenship.

As part of the development of this evidence base, we’ll shortly be embarking on an exciting programme of work across 9 prisons and 15 communities in the north-west alongside Mark Gilman, PHE Strategic Recovery Lead, and a range of experienced partners from the criminal justice and recovery fields. ABCD provides the ethical and theoretical framework for this innovative programme in a way that is radical and transformational and corresponds with wider PHE and public service reforms; moving beyond a narrow focus on service / system reform. As such it recognises that it is in strong, connected and inclusive communities that recovery thrives and sets out a community building agenda which reaches into the prisons, through the gates and into the heart of communities.

We share our learning regularly through our website and blogs and invite you all to join our journey and be part of the ABCD movement and contribute to our growing understanding about how we can collectively improve social justice.

In addition to the work at our Learning Sites, we provide one and two day training workshops for anyone interested in learning more about the ABCD approach and the tools needed to bring ABCD alive in their communities. Download the Recovery & ABCD Training Brochure here. Find out more about What We Do.

If you would like to discuss any of the ideas discussed here, please contact Rebecca Daddow, Recovery and Justice Lead on rebecca@nurturedevelopment.org or visit www.nurturedevelopment.org.


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Allopathy, recovery and rehabilitation

As a historian cum anthropologist cum criminologist, it will come as little surprise that I am drawn to historical perspectives of the development of behaviours, cultures, norms, attitudes, practices and policies as much as I am to the behaviour, culture, norm, attitude, practice or policy, itself. The journey to the endpoint is almost always a fascinating combination of factors that are wholly revealing about why we – as a society – are in the predicament we are, especially when we investigate issues of addiction and recovery or crime and rehabilitation; the focus of this blog.

Notwithstanding the range of important events and developments that have had a significant impact on these areas, lately I’ve been interested in how allopathy and allopathic models have shaped, and continue to shape, the conventional wisdom that underpins how we think about and address addiction and recovery and crime and rehabilitation. This is something that John McKnight looks at in The Careless Society in relation to ‘rehabilitation services’ and which, although the language is different, Bruce Alexander points to in The Globalization of Addiction.

Allopathic medicine emerged as the primary Western medical model in the mid to late nineteenth century as scientific progress gathered pace and produced a number of vaccines for particular diseases. Its basic premise, as McKnight points out, is that ‘the malady is in the person and the cure is achieved by professional intrusion into that person’; that the problem is within the person and needs to be treated by an expert, with medicine and / or some kind of treatment.

Quote for allopathy blog 1This ideology was a comfortable bed-fellow of the prevailing social, cultural and political interests that defined the ‘late-modern’ era, with politically charged drives for greater individual responsibility and a smaller state towards a globalised free-market economy. And it is this ideology that has led us for so long, to look to professionals, services and systems for a cure or a solution to what are now, politically charged issues of crime and addiction.

But times are a-changing and the conventional wisdom no longer fits as comfortably as it once did. There isn’t the money to be pumped into systems – which are ultimately failing – to keep them afloat. And the importance of strong positive networks in vibrant communities is once again at fore of almost every agenda, from tackling poverty to mental health, addiction and recovery and crime and rehabilitation.

Quote for allopathy blog 2The challenge is that, whether you’re looking at addiction and recovery or crime and rehabilitation, we are all still struggling as ‘allopathic captives’ and even as our understanding about what works develops, we will find it difficult to move beyond the deeply entrenched systems or the false dichotomies (e.g. is addiction a ‘medical’ or ‘criminal’ problem; are people who commit crime ‘out of control’ or ‘acting of their own free will’ etc. etc.) that are ‘irresolvable debates that dissipate intellectual energy, hindering progress towards the paradigm shift that is needed’.

‘Despite the increased focus on recovery in recent years, the evidence remains patchy around what works best, at what points and for who. Combined with this, addiction is still largely considered and treated as a health and criminal issue with allopathic responses seen as the primary solution. Even with the broad understanding of recovery as a social process, this places the fundamental challenge on the individual’s shoulders, focussing on a ‘malady within’ and seeks to bring ‘recovery capital’ to bear in mending the problem. It does little to identify and address the deeply entrenched socio-economic and political conditions that may have led to the substance use in the first place.’ An extract from our new Recovery & ABCD Training Brochure

What we need is something transformational that can navigate the limitations of the allopathic ideology and its consequences. We believe ABCD offers just that. Since the beginning of the year we have been developing a training package* for those involved in the recovery sector, in particular, who are interested in finding out what ABCD could do in their neighbourhoods, for all those affected by addiction and recovery in their communities and through the services on offer. We want to help to build a strong evidence base about what can be achieved together through ABCD and be part of the movement that shifts us all away from a careless and dislocated society.

*Training packages will shortly be available for those interested in Policing, Prisons, and the wider Criminal Justice System.

Download the Recovery & ABCD Training Brochure.

Rebecca Daddow


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Power from the People. Power to the People.

This is the third and final blog within the short series: Connectors, Conductors and Circuit breakers. You can read the first instalment here and the second, here.

In the first two blogs of this series I have argued that small must become the new big. Not a new argument it has to be said; E.F. Schumacher cogently argued the same in Small is Beautiful during the 1973 energy crisis and emergence of globalisation. In those blogs I also attempted to make a case for a way to do it, inspired by an idea of “smallness within bigness”: a specific form of decentralisation developed by Schumacher, which involves connecting energy and growing it into new community-led power that proliferates without losing its local integrity.

In this the third and final blog in this series I want to build on this argument, by describing what that power looks like and why it matters. Essentially the first two blogs were describing how connectors, conductors, circuit breakers, spare fuses and dynamos could create power through the people. Here I want to build on this to show how ‘power from the people’ can grow to become ‘power to the people’, and hence, how when power flows through and from people it positions them (us!) in real terms at the centre of democracy. Leaving us as local people perfectly placed to assert, our rightful place over anyone who would seek to disenfranchise us, and to freely express our citizenship. Thereby ensuring collective power to ALL the People.

Power to the People

One of the most familiar rallying calls for social change is: ‘Power to the People’. Yet in Power from the People (2012) Greg Pahl notes:

“More than ninety percent of the electricity we use to light our communities, and nearly all the energy we use to run our cars, heat our homes, and power our factories comes from large, centralized, highly polluting, non-renewable sources of energy.”

Do we really want such power coming to the People?

Of course power comes in many forms, and there are also many ways of viewing power and growing it. Two perspectives on growing power that seem to dominate are the competitive view and the cooperative one.

Competitive vs. Cooperative

The competitive view sees power as finite; therefore, if my boss has power, I don’t, and to that extent to have power I must get it from him/her. If I can’t, I am powerless. Essentially he/she has power over me and I must compete to get my rightful share of that limited power base. It is a zero sum game. In this model of power I am essentially a consumer.

The cooperative view by contrast sees power as infinite, it considers everyone to have some power of one variety or another, and it is by connecting disparate slivers of power together that power grows. Hence ensuring that cooperation beats competition. In this model of power I am essentially a producer, or co-producer.

As autonomous adults living in a democracy, we can choose which model we will operate from. Which is to say we can measure the depth of democracy by the relative freedom to choose between cooperation and competition. Cooperation is far more likely to flourish in a civic context, than in a corporate one.

The contrast between competitive and cooperative approaches is clearest in how people interact with land and other people. Bill Mollison, co-founder of Permaculture, reminds us that resources are typically mediated through two questions:

1. What can I get from this land, or person?

or

2. What does this person, or land, have to give if I cooperate with them?

He goes on to say: ‘of these two approaches, the former leads to war and waste, the latter to peace and plenty.’

There are those who strip our assets and those who help us discover, connect and mobilise them. We need strategies to engage both.

To deal with competitive greed and dominant forces, those that are oppressed often use cooperative tactics among themselves to build solidarity, so that they can use more powerful competitive tactics to wrench power back from their oppressor. The prize for that effort often comes in the form of additional consumer rights: the right to increased access to services, better provision of services, change in legislation to ensure better programmatic offers etc. But these kinds of social movements are not just about consumer rights; they are also about human rights, and social justice, the right to vote, end apartheid, fight against totalitarian regimes, the right of women to have autonomy over their bodies. In this regard they offer a very important process for change and a highly effective one too. These are examples of campaigns that cry: “Power to the People”.

But, in the same way that I would not chose to use a saw to open a tin of beans when I have access to a tin opener, ‘Power to the People’ campaigns are not always the best tool for the given job. There are some things that they simply cannot do. Added to this point, wrenching power from a common nemesis is not the only reason people grow collective power, people also use collective power to educate their children at home, care for each other, have fun, celebrate and sustain their culture, protect their environment, grow local economic opportunities, and respond to natural disasters. This is what some describe as Power from the People.

Power from the People

I believe Power to the People and Power from the People approaches are the estranged twins of social change. They have become separated, even polarised from each other. Those in the ‘Power to’ camp, see those in the ‘Power from’ camp as naïve, feeding into a ‘right-wing’ agenda of ‘self-help, small state’, while the ‘froms’ see the ‘tos’ as naively feeding into a disabling, over bearing state, and market force.

I believe that unless we find a way of reuniting them we will not achieve enduring social, economical, political and environmental change. John McKnight would say that doing one without the other is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. I would add that sequence matters, and ideally growing power from the people as starting point, will lead to greater impact and deeper democracy for a greater mass of people. That’s not to say that Power to the People is not a legitimate starting point, but that I’m not convinced it’s the most inclusive one.

One of the reasons for the estrangement lies in a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the ‘Power to the People’ folks about citizen-led production. To them they see it as ‘soft power’, if they are not outwardly opposed to it because they fear it feeds into a ‘cuts agenda’ or ‘letting the government off the hook’. They consider it to be limp and ineffectual in changing major societal issues, a ‘nice to do if you have the time, but not likely to lead to change where it matters’. I’d like to gently suggest to those who take such a view that they are cutting their nose off to spite their face.

Energy expert Pahl argues communities can plan, finance, and produce their own local, renewable energy that is reliable, safe, and clean. This expression of power shifts the narrative considerably from one where citizens and communities are consumers of energy that is produced outside their communities, to one where they are ethical producers of energy from inside out.

As well as using this narrative to navigate towards a post-fossil fuel/carbon era, can we not also leverage this line of thought to move towards a deeper democracy, and economic justice? The primary site of power from the people is place, or neighbourhoods effectively.

Connected neighbours are more economically vibrant

My impression is that many people see neighbourhoods as benign, and are therefore lukewarm about local approaches to social change. While Neighbourhood based change movements have their place in most people’s minds; it’s a small place. The general view is that it is good for the purposes of creating mutuality, and who doesn’t love the ‘be good to your neighbour, you’ll need them some day’ idea?

Neighbour power is also great if you want to stop unsightly development; who wouldn’t mobilise to protect their homes and neighbourhoods? But the notion that neighbourhoods are a central locus of wider socio-economic change, where economic growth, health and wellbeing, justice, and democracy can be produced? Now that’s a step too far! But is it? Let’s look at the evidence.

The Soul of Community

According to a multi-year study by Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the answer to the question ‘can communities produce power that creates economic dividend’, is yes. After interviewing close to 43,000 people in 26 communities across the US over three years, the study found ‘attachment’ is an important metric for communities, since it links to key outcomes like local economic growth (GDP).

In the face of serious budget cuts, traditional strategies for economic stimulus like tax incentives for new business, have been taken off the table. In their absence a lot of Local Councils are left scratching their heads as to what to do instead to stimulate local economic development.

There are a few ‘outliers’ who, inspired by the findings of this research, are investing in ‘attachment’ with a view to stimulating new economic potential. So effectively some cities are investing in community building not just to improve health and wellbeing across the life course and promote community safety, but as a means of increasing local GDP.

The driver is hard-edged economics, not the soft spongy stuff like quality of life or community development. The research evidences a relational – if not a causal – link between inclusive communities and economically vibrant communities. NESTA’s Mass Localism discussion paper provides yet more evidence, this time from a UK perspective, that shows that local action can also impact on big environmental issues.

These are big thoughts and democracy like economy and environmental issues is typically thought of in equally large scale, hence as with economy, talk of democracy very quickly becomes a discussion about the functions of a nation state, matters of social contract and the relationship between citizen and state. Before we know it, discussions about active citizenship are corralled into limiting discussions about voter participation, and activism at one level and volunteering at another.

Scale really matters here, because if people are to experience ‘citizenship’ then that needs to register at a personal and associational level, and then emanate from there. One of the finest thought pieces I have read on the power of local people to influence democracy from ground up was published by DEMOS, Start with People. How community organisations put citizens in the driving seat.  The big message of the report is summed up here:

“Community involvement has a recognised niche as a small but well established area of government policy. But in reality, whole swathes of public service reform depend on whether or not people can be engaged in this way. Policies to improve public health, reduce fear of crime and boost people’s skills – now central to the promises of every major party – cannot succeed without the active involvement of millions of people. As our research shows, this involvement comes through practical relationships with certain kinds of organisation, not through some more abstract decision or form of communication.” [Pg.13]

In his TEDx talk, Why Mayors Should Rule the World, political theorist Benjamin Barber argues that Mayors are the ones that hold real power for change, not those in Ministerial positions of power, because of their capacity to influence locally led action; and by implication that they and the cities they serve will shape our futures.

The introduction piece on the TEDx site sums up his presentation nicely:

“It often seems like federal-level politicians care more about creating gridlock than solving the world’s problems. So who’s actually getting bold things done? City mayors. So, political theorist Benjamin Barber suggests: Let’s give them more control over global policy. Barber shows how these ‘urban homeboys’ are solving pressing problems on their own turf — and maybe in the world.”

Deepening this point further, Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, believed that great cities are, at their best, a federation of neighbourhoods. Twenty years ago in Seattle a Mayor came into office who, in my view, understood the potential of this kind of ground up democratic power.

In 1988, Mayor Charles Royer appointed Jim Diers (now Director at Neighbor Power; world renowned author and speaker, as well as being a senior associate with Nurture Development) to direct Seattle’s new Office of Neighborhoods. The subsequent mayors, Norm Rice in 1990 and Paul Schell in 1998, reappointed Jim. By the end of Jim’s 14-year tenure, the four-person Office had grown into a Department of Neighborhoods with 100 staff.

The Department’s mission was to decentralise and coordinate city services, strengthen communities and their organisations, and work in partnership with these organisations to preserve and enhance the neighbourhoods. Until recently the Department managed 13 Little City Halls that provide basic services to citizens and serve as meeting places for neighbourhood organisations. It supported about 400 community self-help projects each year through a $4.5 million Neighborhood Matching Fund that was recognised by the Ford Foundation and Kennedy School of Government as one of the most innovative local government programs in the United States. Another programme of community empowerment involved 30,000 people in the development of 37 neighbourhood plans. The Department also manages the City’s historic preservation program, a P-Patch Program of 75 community gardens, and a leadership-training program.

In 2001, the Municipal League of King County named Jim Public Employee of the Year. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law from Grinnell College.

But while Mayors can giveth, Mayors can also taketh away. The current Mayor has a different view on how to administer the cities dwindling budgets, and his ‘back to basics’ policy is seeing a significant rolling back of Little City Halls and neighbourhood coordinators. ‘Back to basics’ seems to mean, taking power and resource out of neighbourhoods and back to City Hall. Listen to Jim Diers recent interview where he expresses his concerns around the direction the city Mayor Ed Murray has chosen.

Oops! Seattle Mayor mourns death of local official who’s very much alive, was the headline of a recent CNN blog sharing the gaff from the Seattle Mayors office that mistakenly reported the demise of Jim Diers, confusing him with another public servant that worked for the City. It’s an understandable error, after all, institutions that large can’t possibly maintain personal connections, and sometimes that means they simply don’t know if we’re dead or alive. But isn’t that why local government strengths civil society, and why the principles of subsidiarity are so critical? Institutions produce service, communities produce care. Communities are the place where others know if we’re dead or alive. Decades of disinvestment in Communities and Community Building has meant that is less likely than it could otherwise be.

Many of our local government institutions have become too corporatised and distant from their core business, which is not the provision of services, but the stewardship of local democracy. Their mandatory/statutory functions have meant that many no longer see people as citizens but as customers and ratepayers. Local Government has become a business and accordingly people have become their clients or customers to one degree or another.

Local democracy is not a product to be consumed, but a way of living that must be co-produced with citizens in the lead. The more you provide services for things that people can do themselves, the more you diminish social capital and democracy. People are transformed from citizens into clients, and the consequences for civic power are devastating. While I take it as a given that people should have as a right the ability to say of their place:

  • The necessities are here, they are inexpensive and they are close at hand.
  • Services are available, but not overpowering.
  • You can contribute and participate, and truly make a difference around here and beyond.
  • Here you can feel accepted, people have empathy.
  • Here people work for social justice and inclusion.
  • Here the sense of community is strong and our state institutions to keep it so, support us.
  • Here everyone can find the resources to have enough to live a good life.
  • Here our views and actions have an impact beyond our community.

I believe as well as universal right of access to such things as listed above, we need the right and power to produce as well as the right and power to determine the outcome of what others produce in our name. The right to produce is at the very heart of our right as citizens, and it is intimately wedded to freedom of expression and free association.

“The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.” Jane Jacobs

If we care about participatory democracy we will go to where the connectors, conductors, and circuit breakers can constructively steward energy in a way that is inclusive and supports people to generate disparate energy into collective democratic power.

That place is local, hence democracy is not just an ideal, it has a location, and that location is our communities of place. The act of building democracy is therefore an act of homecoming that extends outwards to govern the health, wealth and justice of a nation. And so it is, as well as occupying Wall Street, we must come to occupy our street.

Cormac Russell


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Does social change always need a great leader or innovator?

This is the second in the three part series of blogs: Connectors, Conductors and Circuit breakers. You can read the first instalment here.

All too often we assume social change just needs the right leader or innovator, and that somehow, that alone, will determine whether change happens or not. And so we spend time awaiting the next galvanizing event, great leader or crisis.

Movements of great leadership, while important in their own right, exist on a continuum of social change; they are often emblematic of the efforts that they manage to convert/precipitate into more widespread change. Sometimes these moments of leadership conceal what comes behind to fuel and sustain enduring change.

At the front end of this continuum for social change is a significant but seemingly invisible build-up of energy through the work of connectors, conductors, and circuit breakers that I call community building. It is their energy that provides the necessary momentum to precipitate change. To borrow from Malcolm Gladwell, the precipitous act is therefore co-terminus with the ‘tipping point’.

Social change does not launch itself from a standing start, it does not hatch itself fully formed from the ‘I have a Dream’ Podium. Its wellspring is much closer to home; its nest is associational life. Behind iconic leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr are millions of so-called ordinary folks in thousands of neighbourhoods, who, like spare fuses, are invisible to the unintentional eye.

Leaders lead with great vision and/or innovation; people follow with great energy. That’s what we have been brought up to believe, that parents make their children, teachers make their pupils, bosses make their employees and so on.

Asset Based Community Development reverses those equations and argues the opposite is the case.

People organising and community building in their neighbourhoods, towns and villages were the ‘cause’, and the ‘I have a dream speech’ was their ‘effect’? The speech was a precipitous act. Words don’t making meaning, people do.

Leaders and Innovators: Dynamos

This engrained view of leadership, and how social and economic change happens, has meant that far too much attention has been given over to traditional leadership at the cost of connectorship. In the same way that a dynamo’s capacity to generate electricity is contingent on a critical build-up of kinetic /mechanic energy, leadership that results in enduring social change is fundamentally dependent on connectorship.

The dynamo is a useful metaphor for this style of ensemble leadership: it is a simple generator that is used to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. As well as converting sweat equity to light, it also provides us with a very useful metaphor for thinking about social change.

This way of thinking about generating energy and converting it into power is the opposite of how centralised big energy providers/generators think. They do not see local people as generators of energy, but rather as consumers of it. It is not in their immediate economic interest to enable people to produce their own energy.

The primary purpose of big energy providers abjures the ethos of local and personal energy production and exchange, instead promising mass universal impact. By contrast the dynamo commits to convert existing local energy to useful power in a way that is driven by the owner; it’s a very local, personal and fundamentally reciprocal relationship.

The business case for this is compelling. Economic growth and the well-being of the nation cannot rest on a dynamo; we must have the appropriate infrastructure to be a nation state. And that means a centralised power base from which emanates a national network/grid.

Arguments for the use of centralised power are effective in paralysing most counter argument. To argue against it is to be anti-progress, and parochial, and in some instances even unpatriotic. But still surely it is reasonable to ask: how can we possibly know what energy we require from outside, until we know what energy we have ourselves first?

Notwithstanding I will happily concede that the world is better for centralised power grids and associated infrastructure, but if citizens are to remain the most powerful people in democracy, then as well as consuming energy and power from external sources they must be able to produce it too, right? There are certain things that are best fired up mechanically through connectors, conductors, circuit breakers and spare fuses, and then converted by dynamos into useful power that illuminates the path ahead. Moreover if we’re going to wait to resolve all of the world’s major challenges until such time as the necessary national infrastructure is in place, we will consign billions of people to enduring poverty and disease.

Innovation is a climate change

Most intractable social, economic and political challenges we face will not be resolved by centralised power, and in fact, are often made worse by such top down intervention. I believe that many enduring social challenges will succumb to more localised connected efforts especially when those efforts are nurtured and stewarded wisely and inclusively by citizens themselves. This doesn’t mean that help won’t be required from outside. But helping can harm as well as assist.

So how can we help in a way that doesn’t transform people from productive active citizens into consuming passive recipients? The key is in the dynamo.

My work in East Africa brings me face to face with two of the world’s most significant challenges: malaria and AIDS/HIV. Clearly retro viral drugs have been of central importance in addressing the ubiquitous spread of AIDS/HIV in Africa, but they alone will not succeed. So what will? What is the equivalent of the dynamo here? Here’s where Trevor Bayliss and Manu Prakash can help I think.

Social Inventors as Radical Conductors

Trevor Baylis and Manu Prakash are two innovators I consider as having a lot to teach us about offering help from the outside in a way that does not create unhealthy dependency and ultimately sap citizen energy to produce change and grow power. They believe the people who use their innovations are the landlords and they are the servants.

Trevor Baylis, a British inventor is best known for inventing the wind-up radio. The user winds a crank for several seconds, hence removing the need for batteries or external electrical sources, and powers the radio. Having seen a TV programme (1991) on the spread of AIDS in Africa, which emphasised the importance of spreading information and education, he immediately went to his workshop and developed the prototype for the radio.

Like all great inventors once he truly understood the question, the answer came quickly. He needed to invent something that could carry information across a continent with poor infrastructure in general, and poor energy infrastructure in particular.

“The key to success is to risk thinking unconventional thoughts. Convention is the enemy of progress. As long as you’ve got slightly more perception than the average wrapped loaf, you could invent something” Trevor Graham Baylis OBE

And what of malaria? The 50-cent microscope 

Manu Prakash invented the Origami-based paper microscope – a bookmark-sized piece of layered cardstock with a micro-lens – which only costs about 50 cents in materials to make. You can find out more about it, here.

In this TEDx Talk given by Prakash, you can see his “Foldscope” being built in just a few minutes. Prakash’s ambition towards an ultra-low-cost microscope will someday be distributed widely to detect dangerous blood-borne diseases like malaria. While his ultimate goal is to end malaria, like Baylis, he believes the best means of doing so is to put the technology -in as low-tech format as possible- in the hands of people themselves.

“I wanted to make the best possible disease-detection instrument that we could almost distribute for free,” said Prakash. “What came out of this project is what we call use-and-throw microscopy.”

These inventions provide us with a wonderful metaphor for the kind of innovation we need to address many of the social challenges of our day:

1. Low tech by comparison with other ‘gadgets’ available to communities

2. Reliant on the energy of local people to function

3. Do not disturb local autonomous led action

4. Can channel an important message/information for change e.g. community grows from inside out

5. Cost effective relative to the proliferation of more complex solutions that do not engage the energies of the community

6. Mobilises existing energy in a way that generates more connections and more power over time

7. Remains accountable to the people

8. Can be switched off or thrown away

9. Does not claim to speak on behalf of the people to outside agencies or act as an interpreter of external messages

10. Enables people to see and hear the facts without telling them what they should see and hear

I would contend that the equivalent of the wind up radio and foldscope, in social innovation terms, is Asset Based Community Builders working at neighbourhood level. They are the conduits of local people power and help to create the channels through which energy can flow and deep democracy can result.

This is something I will be exploring in the next, and final, blog in this short series.

Cormac Russell

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