Continued from Social and Creative Capital in London, Orchestra Edition. I meant to address the issue of Rib-Fest and the future of festivals in London but I had to cut that one off: I ended up spending a lot more time talking about the arts than I meant to.
I wasn’t going to write anything tonight but I came home and saw Gord Harrison’s post about Victory Gardens. In the Second World War, such gardens produced about 1/3 of all the vegetables consumed in the U.S. in 1943: ”co-operative human energy produces amazing results.” It instantly made me pick up my earlier line of thinking on social capital.
The book to read on social capital is Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam. If you want to really dig into it you’ll want to start with this primer, which includes a fairly extensive bibliography. If you want something more action- and application-oriented, read Better Together: Restoring the American Community. Notice that all of these links are connected to something called the Saguaro Seminar, an initiative at the Kennedy School of Government:
The project focuses on expanding what we know about our levels of trust and community engagement and on developing strategies and efforts to increase this engagement. A signature effort was the multi-year dialogue (1995-2000) on how we can increasingly build bonds of civic trust among Americans and their communities.
Trivia!: Name the young politician from Chicago who participated in that dialogue… Hint, in January he will become the 44th president of the U.S…
Virtually all forms of social engagement have declined over the past generation, from the time spent visiting neighbors to the number of community projects and close friendships. And these social and civic connections actually lubricate society, helping connected Americans improve their health and happiness and find meaningful work. These connections also strengthen communities.
And Sander has a blog too, called Social Capital. I’ve followed it for a few months, and it was actually this post, which considers whether this moment in history might be ”a civic inflection point for the U.S.” that focused my thinking about social capital and led me to write that essay on Orchestra London, my previous post. Sander’s post wasn’t specifically relevant though (though it is generally relevant to my thoughts on London); it dealt with a very encouraging generational shift:
Since Sept. 11, we’ve witnessed an increase in political interest and voting among American youth who were at or near college at the time of 9-11. We’ve written about these changes in “Sept. 11 as Civics Lesson” describing a new “9-11 Generation” forming. Since we don’t know about voting behavior until youth reach age 18, it’s impossible to know whether 9-11 shaped the political behavior of children who were as young as ages 8 or 10 when the Twin Towers fell, but so far the trends are encouraging. For example, interest in politics among college freshmen was down almost monotonically for 35 years from the early 1960s to 2000 and has turned up almost every year since 2001 (in the UCLA American College Freshman Survey).
Most of it deals with Barack Obama — his importance as a “force” — but also describes some of the “kindling” that was already in place for him, ”waiting to be lit.” The next-to-last bit addresses the importance of emerging social technologies.
I fully intended to write about the slow demise of London’s summer festivals, marked most recently by the announcement that Rib-Fest, which has long been one of the region’s headline festivals, has no organizer for next year and might have had its swan-song.
It’s unfortunate, but judging from Paul Berton’s editorial and the lively discussion on Dan Brown’s blog, there is a strong sense that the city is able and willing to come up with something new. According to Berton, the end of Rib-Fest ”should be seen as an opportunity rather than a loss,” which London is prepared for with ”lots of creative thinkers, an army of organizers and a tradition of putting on excellent festivals year-round.”
Dan’s post started with an editorial he wrote in March arguing London has too many festivals. I don’t think any of the commenters said they’d miss Rib-Fest all that much. Yet even though it started as a case for reduction, by the end they were discussing new festivals again — “some kind of uniquely London celebration.”
The discussion there was tongue-in-cheek, but the best ideas often come when we’re laughing – when we relax our assumptions. Dan joked that a good name for a proposed open, catch-all, undefined festival would be Cool Fest Name to Come (his blog is called Cool Blog Name to Come). It was a good joke in context and I found it amazingly insightful in a more general way.
That festival might not be feasible, but the principles behind it are profoundly generative. Think of how big companies like IBM have reinvented themselves to be service oriented, specializing in the ability to innovate and create new value, rather than just being in the habit of making certain kinds of products.
When I started writing this I was simply going to say, “I realized that conversations like this are important modes of social capital, and blogs are a great way to develop and refine that,” but now I’m thinking more about London’s brand and how we can continue to distinguish ourselves as a community and thrive creatively — and by extension, economically. Unfortunately I need to be asleep two hours ago, so I barely have time for an introduction.
Now I have in mind the famous mid-century workplace experiment (I’m pretty sure it’s in Maslow On Management, and I’ve seen it referred to in maybe a half-dozen other places — I’ll check in the morning or after Christmas), in which researchers changed the way workers assembled somethingorother in a factory (e.g. from linework to teamwork): productivity and morale went up. The researchers tried another arrangement and productivity went up again. Then they tried another arrangement and, yes, better productivity and morale again. Eventually they reinstated the original way of doing things and, guess what: productivity and moral went up. The improvements weren’t because of specific changes but because of the challenge of adapting to change in general, the workers’ excitement of being involved in the experiment — of being important – and the experience of novelty.
So (only partly joking), how about a London festival that we have to re-create anew every year?
We’ve got the technology to converse and collaborate (or at least the technology exists, we might not have it yet — and here is a great excuse to initiate ourselves asap) on a massive project to create a new Civic Holiday Weekend Festival from the ground-up, together.
Such a scheme, by getting the whole community involved from the very beginning of the event’s conception and development, would not only generate devotion (rain or shine) to the festival itself, but to the community as a whole.
No doubt this would occupy immense amount of attention, time, and resources, both private and public, but sometimes we find better ways of using our time and resources when we take on big challenges. It doesn’t necessarily have to take away from anything else. I suspect, if done right, these types of things actually save resources from being wasted.
Cultivating a thriving community and economy is an ongoing, active process — like tending a garden. What we learn and acquire in the process of collaborating on the festival — competencies, knowledge, creative capital and resources, social capital and relationships — could be reinvested in both private enterprise and in the greater civic good. In turn, that would give us more freedom and resources to develop the next year’s iteration of festival. All of this continues to feed back into the system, enriching and growing in a positive loop.
At this point this is a crazy idea. But by entertaining it a little, by talking about it, articulating the principles behind it along with the assumptions, conventions, and supposed reasons that make us skeptical about it – in the process of having that conversation we will discover more valuable insights that are not crazy (i.e. not massive schemes) and really help us make the adjustments needed to position the city for the future.
And that is not a joke.