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Sunday, 11 November 2007

Mark's model for a civic innovation network

RSA Fellow Mark Gray has been critical of the lack of detail available about the RSA re-invention programme, as you can see from his comments on the RSA Networks blog. However, in a comment on one post there he has provided his ideas for a model of network and project development - and agreed they should be republished here.

Mark writes:

I said earlier that I'd shut up on this topic, but I can't help trying to be positive. Here are some thoughts scribbled down last on a train journey.

For some time now I’ve been calling in a variety of places for some more concrete sense of what this vision of an RSA as a ‘network for civic innovation’ actually means. I can’t, for all the pages of blogs, columns of the Journal or emails from the RSA discern what it is we are being offered as an alternative model for our Society. I keep hearing that Fellows will steer this through consultation – but consultation on what, precisely?

Instead of grumbling I thought I’d try to get the ball rolling by suggesting what I would like to see if – as I’m told is the case – there is a desperate desire among the Fellowship to turn itself into something different. What I’ll present below is my version of what such a network might be. It is not complete, not the final word – but it is a model on which one can reasonably expect others to have opinions and thereby (through discussion, challenge and improvement) shape a better model.

1. The ‘core’

For me, the RSA remains a great network of individuals – individuals connected with and interested in the historic themes of the Society. There are things we may not agree on (for example now that the executive of the Society has deemed that we are ‘working to remove the barriers to social progress’, many of us will have different views of what that little word ‘progress’ means. That broad church, unaligned, multidisciplinary network has real advantages and, at the core of my model, the scope for individual discussion, the generation of new ideas, sharing of best practice and the facilitation of debate remain as key elements. I want these to be supported by the RSA directly – but I recognise that this is the hardest element of my model to put in place. After all, while the RSA might use indirect means of ‘pairing’ off interested Fellows (using a more detailed version of the current Directory to match those with interests and invite them to meet each other at John Adam Street) it can hardly force them to engage in purposeful individual discussion, let alone take that one-on-one meeting to the point of promoting ‘civic innovation’, whatever that might mean. I think that this core of the RSA’s activities needs to be thought about with the Fellowship, but with some concrete options. Here are some of mine for the core:

(a) ‘One-on-one meetings’ as an obligation of Fellowship – to keep your Fellowship you have to make contact with at least one (more?) other Fellows and together propose an activity to an activity ‘pool’.
(b) A seminar (not lecture) programme that fits with the reality of the Fellowships structure – that more Fellows don’t get to John Adam Street than do. That means more non face-to-face meetings facilitated by other means. Webcasting of seminars which would be of shorter length; fewer discussants, and more time for Fellows to exchange thoughts online or by other means (even post, with the results posted on the website after).
(c) A means of disseminating best practice by means of an annual conference – with expert summaries of the evidence for what works in areas related to RSA projects. I am not suggesting here a series of ‘talking heads’ meetings so much as an annual practitioners meeting in which, for example, we review what actually seems to work (globally, based on best evidence) in the area of enabling a capable population. The more refined, focused and purposeful the topic the better.
(d) Open debates based on extensions to the RSA Fellows Forum, which is underused. Methods of improving usage include – better external links to it; more use of the Forum to hold documents from RSA projects and to carry comments on them from Fellows; more project work groups to be offered space on the Forum for open discussion of their projects; more use of the Forum (possibly, but not sure about this) for RSA-affiliated projects to conduct their work and discuss their activities.

I could add a lot more here (slide galleries for PP slides from seminars; data sets from projects; white papers from organisations working with the RSA….) but in essence the ‘core’ element of the model is there to facilitate exchange and discussion. It supports the traditional purpose of the RSA – that is, to network people involved in the development of the arts, commerce and manufacture and the relationship of these themes to the trajectory of society.

2. The ‘satellite’ activities

I envisage four ‘satellite’ activities of this core – the spokes of what will inevitably be seen as a ‘hub and spoke’ model. My spokes here are four in number. Each extends work in the core but does so in greater depth and with specific tools and audiences. They are,

(i) An exchange/’trading’ facility for organisations engaged in activities related to the themes of the RSA

The RSA would create an (electronic) ‘market place’ to enable organisations and individual Fellows to ‘gift’, share, swap or (in effect) sell services that would enable specific projects to get off the ground. There could be, in my view, no room here for commercial sales (although I could be persuaded otherwise) but the sort of exchange I am thinking of would certainly support Fellow A in Winchester who wanted access to data on the number of house-bound disabled pensioners in Hampshire in order to make a case for funding by publicising her need and getting Fellows who knew where such data was to provide it. Equally, though, Fellow A’s charity might be in need of some tax advice on a particular point, which it might be willing to ‘swap’ for some redundant office equipment; it might also offer the skills of its staff for hire at the margin. Clearly there is much to be thought about here, but the idea of a purposeful exchange facility is one that would, in the most concrete way imaginable, support projects, individuals and agencies interested in work in the theme areas of the RSA. The facility might, for example, allow charities or community groups to come together to co-purchase equipment or services and secure discounts thereby.

(ii) A ‘best practice bank’

Modelled on the Cochrane Collaboration and related programmes for the codification of best evidence and systematic review of the evidence of what works, the RSA could work – possibly with the Cabinet Office which has been developing work along these lines for the public sector – to create for 3rd sector organisations and public sector organisations as library of best practice evidence. This would NOT – I repeat not – consist of project reports from every RSA related project, but commissioned and researched (maybe even borrowed?) systematic reviews of the best evidence in themed areas. For example, what seems to work in raising school attendance? What seems to work in encouraging better design in small and medium sized businesses? The range of areas covered would need some definition, but that should be shaped by the Fellows and (very importantly) external collaborators. The venue for discussion of the evidence would be back in the ‘core’ area of the RSA.

(iii) A ‘matching service’ for new projects

The ‘exchange’ facility above would support projects and activities that are in play, but what about the support of new ventures? The need for some sort of match-making service, ferreting out the scope for partnership between individuals, agencies, public and third sector bodies and business to pursue practical projects would enhance the role of the RSA. Such a matching service could begin by asking for Fellows/organisations to commit to ‘clusters’ of activity, and to provide information about their particular skills, resources and capabilities. The ‘service’ would consist of the active and human (i.e. not computer-generated) winnowing of this information and the negotiation of, and support for, projects or project areas. The RSA could then help and assist from the same team by providing information on funding sources, legal and procedural requirements and advice – or call on that from the ‘exchange’ service.

(iv) Solution clinics

The RSA can assist the development, and the longevity, of Fellows’ projects by sponsoring what is in effect a set of face-to-face, online, virtual world or other (posted newsletter?) ‘solution clinics’. For example, my hypothetical Fellow in Bournemouth is now well on her way to providing services to the house-bound elderly disabled in Hampshire, but she has encountered a problem: how does she deal with getting parking restrictions relaxed for her vehicles? She could post/mail/ask such a question and the Fellowship could supply solutions. The solutions would have to be quality assured and checked – and that would be another role for the RSA executive team

Four ‘spokes’ and a ‘core’. The model aims to provide support for all stages of the development of innovative projects – whether they are to design better housing, provide services for disadvantaged teenagers, improve the aesthetic pleasure of urban streets, or network isolated cottagers in the rural highlands.

This is not a complete model, and certainly not the best. But it is a start.

Challenges to it, and better still suggestions on concrete ways to improve it and make it more certain are welcome.

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