Humbug or Hallelujah? Part six of Connecting Well.

Following on from the Great Get Together in June the Jo Cox Foundation launched the Great Christmas Get Together last week with suggestions for, amongst other things, neighbourhood Christmas lunches, public living rooms and Chatty Cafes. Effective and meaningful projects or marginal fripperies?

First let’s look back. 9.26 million people participated in 96,421 Summer Get Together / Big Lunch events. This is a very big number, even bigger for instance than the 2012 Big Jubilee Lunch celebrations which attracted 8.5m. 59% said that before the weekend they didn’t know many, or any, of their neighbours and 83% said they met someone new.

The statistics suggests an appetite for connection but I think it is when the story moves on to longer term outcomes that it starts to get really interesting: 1 in 8 people report that their children are now playing with others on the street for the first time and, the Foundation say, “a number of new initiatives were started from book clubs and football teams, to new residents’ associations and a ‘meals in heels’ service to support older neighbours.”

This reinforces the hunch that led Tim Smit to establish the Big Lunch. I remember him saying at the time “people need an excuse to connect”. I understood that and I could see why the one off summer lunch was a fun thing to do but I was more sceptical about the longer term outcomes. Then along came the Local Government Information Unit’s report on the first 3 years. This showed that 82% of Big Lunchers kept in touch with one another, 74% felt a stronger sense of community and half now did things together such as joining a local group, babysitting, sharing skills etc.

It impressed me also that nobody seemed to feel that they were participating in an individual act of charity but rather were, to use the phrase from our allotment holders in blog three, “doing what anyone would do” and, perhaps we might add, doing what everybody else was doing. I think an implicit sense of shared endeavour, reciprocity and mutual benefit is vital not only to the short term success but also to long term sustainability and, especially, to wider replication.

I was convinced.

The Barcelonan architect Manuel de Sola Morales coined the phrase “urban acupuncture” to describe the process of using urban design and small scale interventions in the built environment to transform the larger urban context. Examples might include flower plantings, city farms, community gardens, markets, even art installations. Big Lunches and Christmas Get Togethers are a human version of the same idea – in themselves a modest localised pin prick but with the power to catalyse a wider change. We might think of them as a kind of “social acupuncture”.

Of course window boxes down the street could help to build local pride and community spirit but sometimes they could just be boxes filled with plants. Likewise the street party could be just another event on the local calendar for people who already know one another or it could provide a platform for neighbourhood connections and catalyse a wider change. It is early days yet and the Get Together team have ambitious plans for more rigorous analysis next year but findings so far suggest that events which could seem to be as disconnected from the building of serious relationships as is a pin in the thumb to a migraine could actually be important agents of change. It is at this point that a fleeting moment of entertainment becomes something of wider significance and of greater benefit to us all.

What is the public policy response that can support and develop social acupuncture? Generally I want to avoid suggesting things that just involve spending more – too often it is the lazy alternative to the more creative solution but here the creativity is in the local response and I think its justified. 1000 community led pin pricks in London at £1000 each would cost £1m. The total annual social and economic cost of mental ill health here is £26bn (1).

These “platforms” are no different in principle from the physical bumping places like the school gate or the virtual ones like LinkedIn or Facebook. They all offer a place for us to connect and, to borrow Tim’s phrase, an excuse. Crucially they provide the beginning but, of course, not the end. Increasingly in my conversations I am discovering that it is this uncertainty that makes commissioners, business managers, policy makers intrigued by the power of connecting well but also nervous.

My vision of a place, perhaps a city, a school or a business, where meaningful relationships are the central operating principle is also of a place where certainty of outcome is traded for individual agency and control. We can count the numbers talking at the Street Party or the school gate and we can ask about sustained relationships but the territory becomes more uncertain as we move on to think about stronger communities and their impact on obesity or heart disease, crime or social cohesion. How are we to think about attribution (was it really the shelter at the school that enabled us to connect or would it have happened anyway?) And what of the accountant’s fear of “dead wood” – people who weren’t isolated before the intervention and didn’t need the help to connect?

I think such uncertainty is all in the nature of a platform. It is necessary and valuable for some but still just a platform. I would love to hear from anybody who has a different answer. Meanwhile is it really so dangerous to trust to simple truths – we need one another; people not things change lives; investing in platforms for the building of meaningful relationships will bring its own rewards?

(1) GLA (2014) London Mental Health: The invisible costs of mental ill health

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