Nurture Development

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) come to life


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



Getting better at being human together

We live in a world where most believe that the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens and communities is determined by how well their needs are addressed by outside agencies. In asset-based community development the belief is that well-being is determined by how well strengths are expressed; and not by how well needs are addressed.

This topsy-turvy thinking goes further in arguing that if citizens and their communities are treated as being the sum of their needs their individual and collective well-being will be damaged.

Forming relationships that are reciprocal is at the heart of what makes us, as human beings, well; and a relationship where one holds all the expertise and the other all the neediness is not reciprocal.

Today Rebecca, my colleague, and I are in Cairngorm National Park with the Health and Happiness team who work in communities throughout the Highlands. On a daily basis they form reciprocal relationships. Over the next few days we will hear their stories and learn to tune into their ‘way’; and we’ll share what we learn here as we go (although this may take a day or so as Internet connections are hard to come by).

Today, (now it’s early and the sun is finding its rightful place for an August morning) will start with a short input from me and then a day of ‘show and tell’. My input will be simple. I will present what I call the ‘dependency cycle’ and contrast it with the ‘reciprocity cycle’, and suggesting one causes harms and the other, liberation.

The cycles look a bit like this:

The reciprocity cycle is at the heart of ABCD community building. Here the liberation of the helper is intimately tied to the person they are helping to identify, connect and move their strengths into productive action.

Where a community builder, or anyone for that matter, starts to seek the value, not the neediness, of another person they are starting on a well oiled path towards mutual benefit. But hang on… Weren’t we all taught that professional helpers should not be looking for anything from needy people. Maybe we were, but that lesson needs leaving behind if you’re serious about ABCD community building.

That’s what Health and Happiness are doing; working to a different script. The lesson (which is counter-cultural) that they teach us is that there is nobody that is not needed when it comes to building community. If you start with people you want to help from the position that they have huge value for themselves and the wider community and that much of that value lies hidden behind labels of need, like ‘learning disability’. When people are valued they feel self-worth.

It was Kenneth, a man labelled with ‘learning disabilities’, who started Health and Happiness. He is with us today as a Director, along with Uisdean. Both re-tell how 11 years ago they started H&H and they are very clear about what is at the heart of this endeavour. They were living lonely lives trapped inside an institutional definition of what it means to be helpful, where they had little freedom, poor services, few friends and were separated from their communities.

Make no mistake in a world where programmes and services are the dominant offer, Health and Happiness stands not as a model of best practice but as a better way to be human together.

Last night I sat with Kenneth, Uisdean, Pete, Ellie, Mike, Bruce, Carrie, Sheena, Michaela and Rebecca, we told stories, laughed, shared moments of sadness, thought of George (an absent team mate), and were the better for it. There were no experts or clients, only friends.

This is the site of the social care and Health care revolution. The shift is simple from service provision to community building. From dependency to reciprocity.