Ten weeks ago I set out to develop some ideas around tackling isolation. I wanted to do it in plain sight, involving others in unpicking the issues and designing a response. I have written a blog a week, this is the last for the time being. 35 people read the first one, by the end of November readership passed 1500. Still tiny numbers of course but, without any marketing, evidence that the ideas might have traction. I began to discuss them more widely last month at London Tedx, at an open meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group and in many smaller meetings. Here to mark the tenth blog are ten tentative headlines from my various conversations:
1. Loneliness isn’t the problem, it is the consequence and symptom of a problem. We network and transact but meaningful time together is being systematically displaced by fast and shallow connections. We are increasingly atomised and isolated.
2. Responding only to loneliness would be the Food Bank solution – a humane reaction to symptoms and consequences and a necessary response to a crisis but not an attack on the cause. We need also to dig deeper, act earlier.
3. This isn’t only about how we feel but also about how we are. Our long term health and ultimately our life expectancy, are significantly influenced by the quality of our relationships. In aggregate the strength of our connections significantly determine local crime rates, economic and educational performance and much else besides.
4. Connecting well is good business for us all. The quality of our relationships also shape agency outcomes and determine cost efficiency across a huge range of activities from the purely public to the strictly commercial.
5. Social technology isn’t exclusively to blame for our increasing isolation. Any response needs to understand a multiplicity of shifts – economic, cultural, political and technological.
6. Rewinding the clocking is not an option, even if were possible it wouldn’t be desirable. Equally however we should not accept a devaluation in the value of our relationships as the price of advancement.
7. Kindness isn’t enough. Narratives, true and false, incentives and structural barriers shape our behaviour. Charity helps but real progress requires challenge and change, everywhere.
8. We can only tackle the causes of social isolation by fundamentally rethinking how Britain works, our communities, our cities, our public services, our businesses, everyone and everything. Imagine a place where meaningful relationships run through all that we do, they are the central operating principle, what would change? This is the question we must answer. I know this will seem preposterous and this tiny initiative will achieve very little on its own but it doesn’t help to misrepresent the scale and reach of the challenge. Every journey, no matter how long, starts somewhere.
9. The future is beyond our current frame of reference, that’s why it is the future. Too often social innovators, especially in the third sector, reduce the scale of an issue to the dimensions of the funding programme. The world doesn’t need a new charity in this field, maybe not even a new app but a different kind of entity helping us all to reimagine and rebuild, generating momentum and catalysing mass. More Airbnb than Travel Lodge, more Lego than Airfix, more MeToo than Trade Union.
10. There are 65.5m people in the UK. How can anyone be lonely? The question isn’t difficult, nor are the solutions: I have begun to put together some sets of activity.
• Because everything starts with intentions we need to create, test and scale an open framework for relationship centred design.
• Because government rules and systems shape so much of the context for individual behaviour we need to develop and deliver an understanding of an environment that nurtures meaningful relationships, not one that rules them out.
• Because relationships are intrinsically personal there are no blue prints. We can only tackle the causes of social isolation by fundamentally rethinking how we work, – our communities, our cities, our public services, our businesses. We need to support the lighting of. a thousand fires, each in our own small place, and see how they burn.
• But just because there are no blue prints doesn’t mean that the experience in your small place can’t help me in mine. We need to find ways of understanding and sharing our learning in ways that don’t involve lifeless case studies on a deathless website. Again I am drawn to the sharing economy, to customer feedback, crowd sourcing intelligence, interactive engagement.
• And because behaviour change is caught not taught we need to fan the flames and ignite a wider change. We cannot impose a movement. We can open up the possibility for movements.
Within each set I have begun to sketch out the action, big things, little things and also sticky fixer things that hold it all together. In the second half of this journey. I will be testing and developing all the above. Then, on March 12th I’m doing a public lecture at the LSE. Here I will be talking about the idea of places where “meaningful relationships are the central operating principle”, and setting out some plans. Hilary Cottam and Jon Cruddas will be responding and starting the discussion. I hope very much that you will come along and join in. Please note the date now – 6.30 March 12th, Old Theatre, LSE. and let me. know if you would like to know more.
I am very grateful to everyone who has taken an interest in this work over the first ten weeks. I hope you feel that the emerging ideas reflect your contributions. Please do keep them coming!