Guest blog: The need for a new social capital agenda
To accompany podcast #9 Andy Green, Director of Grow Social Capital, expands on the topic of social capital and calls for a new social capital agenda.
It’s brilliant how you can enjoy takeaway food delivered to your door, order anything you want off the Internet, enjoy the latest film on your phone, or drive to wherever you want to go.
Yet there’s a hidden cost and price to pay however for most things that make life more convenient or comfortable.
It’s called ‘Unsociable Capital’ – and it’s anything that chips away at the need to connect or be with other people creating a crisis affecting the very heartbeat of our communities.
Fewer people are devoting themselves to the communal good. Less of us are getting involved in doing things, running things or just hanging around with each other – how we help each other to help each other.
It affects our capacity to connect, co-operate and collaborate on our common cause. It is not just a nice thing to have but critical to how well we live and work together.
It was evidenced by the EU membership referendum revealing a UK divided into two tribes, who increasingly have less to do with each other.
It’s called social capital – and we need to do something about its decline.
In his seminal 2000 book Bowling Alone’the guru of social capital, Robert Putnam identified how bowling alley attendances in the United States are rising yet bowling alley leagues have dramatically declined – hence we’re increasingly ‘bowling alone’: a metaphor for a decline mirrored in every aspect of communal and civic life.
The equivalent book title for where I live in Barry in Wales could be Skittling No More. Over the last 20 years, for example, half the skittle alleys in Barry have closed.
Yes, this reflects changing social habits, the decline in numbers of local pubs, and also the changing nature of employment, evoked by the names of many of the alleys that have closed such as the ‘Dockers’ and ‘Railwaymen’.
People however, have not replaced this activity with another that nudges them to get out of their homes more, mix with people they may not normally have social contact with, or collectively work to common goals. As a result we have a social capital deficit.
The core assets for existing social capital, the hubs for communal activity are being destroyed or are in significant decline – whether it is a skittle alley closing, declining local newspaper circulations, the local record shop or other community retail closing, or fewer milk deliveries – anything where we help each other, to help each other.
This is not about restoring or keeping alive what may be commercially or socially unviable or unsustainable, but rather recognising the social capital consequences of these trends. We need to invest and create new activities to offset the deficit.
Yes, there are those who argue that we are not witnessing a social capital decline but more of a social capital transformation; we may be playing skittles less, but many of us are now, for example, doing park runs or taking part in online forums.
Yet, despite these changes, the broad picture is of changing levels of social capital with a negative impact on our society.
Local public service providers and community groups need people to do more for themselves and collaborating to tap into a wider potential within our communities.
We need to create new ways of bringing change makers, activists and anyone wanting to contribute together.
Technology on the one hand, facilitates greater social isolation, engagement, but also offers greater connectivity, collaboration and co-creation.
There is new thinking in how off-line networks operate. How narrative and values underpin change. There is greater understanding of how we can harness emergence and emotional engagement for change. These can all work to address the decline of social capital and work to rekindle and nurture its growth.
Yet there are significant shortcomings with our current thinking around ‘social capital’: how can it be measured? Do we need a national scale, a national social capital quotient to identify shortfalls or gaps? What new tools and processes can we establish as a better way of doing ‘social capital’?
Even the very brand of ‘social capital needs to be addressed.
The thinking within Putnam’s Bowling Alone was quickly adopted by political advisers like Steve Hilton, using it to frame the launch of the late 2000s Conservative Party-led ‘Big Society’ in the UK.
Soon social capital became tarred with being a smokescreen for politically-led public services retrenchment and austerity. The nascent social capital’s potential and momentum for change quickly dissipated. ‘Big Society’ became a toxic brand.
Yet, is all lost for the cause of social capital?
It’s not a puritanical-like plea to not order the next takeaway curry, online shop, or not use your phone for films. Yet, we can all start thinking and taking action to boost social capital in our communities, to counter-balance the tsunami of ‘Unsociable Capital’.
We need to come together to achieve a common goal of tackling the growing social capital deficit in our communities. We don’t need a ‘Big Society Mark II’. Instead, we need to seriously address how we can encourage as many of us as possible to become ‘Bigger Citizens’. Think bigger, respect how each and every one in your communities has something to offer, value people contact, and act local, small and now.
Declining social capital is not inevitable.