Technology is crucial to The Big Society, says the Lord of Silicon Roundabout

Nat Wei (@natwei), is a social entrepreneur and adviser to the UK Government on their “Big Society” project. As one of the youngest people ever to have been made a Life Peer of the House of Lords, Lord Wei is the founding and former lead partner of the Shaftesbury Partnership, and a member of the founding team of Teach First. As “Baron Wei of Shoreditch” he is intensely interested in the emergence of the cluster of startup technology companies in the Shoreditch/Hoxton area of London which has come to be known as Silicon Roundabout and which has informed the UK government’s new “East London Tech City” initiative. This week will be the first in a series of guest posts on the use of technology in re-building civic society.

The Big Society is an approach being championed inside and outside of the government in the UK and increasingly in other countries to enable citizens to take more control over their lives, based on the belief that people often know how to solve the problems they care about and improve their communities better than anyone else. Whilst built on centuries old principles, it is also optimistic about the power of technology, and has been inspired by the more open, inclusive, and effective ways of working expressed through the internet, social media, and crowd sourcing.

It has three phases that parallel the way in which the internet itself has evolved. The first phase started mainly in May 2010 after the UK General Election, and consisted in government, and other large institutions, being encouraged to release powers, data, and opportunities that enable people and groups inside and outside government to take more control of public services (such as through setting up of schools, or appointing police commissioners), of the shape of their neighbourhoods (such as through open source planning, or bidding to take over local assets), and of their lives through social action (such as by relaxing laws that prevent people from volunteering, and encouraging norms around giving). In this phase, the black box ‘mainframe era’ of centralised control has started to give way to the early ‘PC era’ of more decentralised power.

The second phase is just beginning, an era in which pioneers or “civic entrepreneurs” analogous to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, whether from business, government, or social sector backgrounds, start to invent and mash up platforms (analogous to Windows and the Mac GUI) that take that power, data, and information, and make them more easy for citizens to engage with, whether to establish that new school based on a pre-existing model or chain, or to interact digitally with neighbours through virtual beat meetings to scrutinise crime data and suggest solutions to their commissioners, or in a million other ways. The third phase will involve citizens using multiple platforms to tailor their lifestyles in ways that fit their constraints, creativity, and passions together with those around them, just as many today design their lives around social media, YouTube, and digital devices. This will be particularly important for those who are excluded, isolated, or less digitally connected currently, as well as for those in the mainstream, who will be trained and supported by a network of 5000 community organisers currently being recruited. Local funding to enable neighbourhoods particularly in deprived areas is also being established to help build confidence and connections where it is lacking partly to prevent a social digital divide from developing.

Many of these civic entrepreneurs and their platforms will use technology, though many will also be analogue only. A social venture capital scene is also likely to emerge to fund them analogous to what we see at the moment in for the profit digital ventures space, stimulated by the launch of a $1 billion wholesale fund called the Big Society Bank. As platforms start to proliferate we will probably see many hybrid forms emerge, which cannot be neatly classified as either businesses, charities, or public bodies, but rather represent a mix or ecology of one or more types taking many different existing and new legal forms. The focus of Big Crunch will be on showcasing these platforms, to put the spotlight on them and their users instead of on the politicians. If you are engaged in creating a platform worth showcasing, get in touch at with information about it.

This week’s Big Crunch platform is called the Born out of founder Ivo Gormley’s frustration with wasted energy generated on treadmills and a desire to reduce the difficulties in recruiting volunteers, the Good Gym was established to channel that potential into social good. The Good Gym offers a new model of volunteering by focusing on the positive experience of the volunteer, in the hope that it will increase the number of people stepping up to give time.

Realising that willpower is often not enough to get us to don our trainers and hit the gym, Ivo considered how people’s exercise routines could be motivated by social action instead. Given that research indicates that 17 per cent of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11 per cent are in contact less than once a month, the Good Gym was set up to provide elderly local residents with a friendly visit, and the runner with a purpose to their exercise.
The scheme works by pairing up runners (athletes) with an isolated member of the elderly community (coaches). During their weekly run, the athlete then incorporates a visit to their coach, often bringing a newspaper or snack, and in return receives some motivational advice. The concept has since been expanded to include other community help; locals can submit civic jobs, via a section of the website called ‘FixUp’ that they need doing, such as box moving in a community centre or shifting soil to an allotment, and the task is completed on one of the monthly group runs.

Good Gym aims to make volunteering easy, and to use individuals’ existing enthusiasm to exercise and get fit. The organization pairs the athletes and coaches up, performs Criminal Record Bureau (CRB) checks, but then allows the relationship between the pair to develop on its own; and thus, whilst once a week is the minimum, runners are then free to decide if they want to go more or make their visits longer.

In fact, one of the biggest issues facing Good Gym now is a surplus of volunteers. The flexible model of volunteering they practice has led to a steady growth of people signing on, while at the same time finding the elderly most vulnerable to loneliness is a real challenge. It is in order to try and solve problems like this that they are currently looking at collaborating with other enterprises, such as those that already operate befriending schemes, but are short of volunteers.

The project is currently piloting in Tower Hamlets in the East End of London, but there are expansion plans including ideas for franchising, in response to interest from people wanting to set the scheme up where they live. They have ambitions for a fully interactive site, where runners can store and access run data, and to provide a tailored service so people are matched with jobs and tasks in their own area, which can potentially be used to generate funding.

The Good Gym model of volunteering which unlocks untapped energy and creates a motivation for social action is an innovative yet practicable example of how to turn social potential into social capital. In future it should benefit as a result of phase one reforms from more streamlined and less onerous CRB requirements, referrals from newly freed up healthcare practices (to boost their pool of elderly coaches), and potentially more diverse streams of funding from local budgets, local authorities, as well as social investment. Ideas such as this will help bring the Big Society into fruition. It will need to do further work to build a scalable funding and governance model and tech platform, but so far I think it deserves an excellent power rating* of 4 out of 5.

(*the cumulative power rating that I am currently beta testing seeks to express the increasing degree in which a platform or initiative takes power from those who currently possess it and puts it in the hands of citizens: 1 = does something good for citizens, 2 = shifts power, data, and opportunities closer to where citizens live, perhaps by reducing bureaucracy, enabling different providers to operate services, or using the web and other means to allow more direct access, 3 = seeks to harness cognitive surplus, presenting tasks and activities in more accessible ways by changing the way we think about them to appeal to our interests and passions, 4 = strengthens social capital (particularly the bridging kind) by encouraging peer to peer activity online and offline, 5 = finds ways to open its governance, funding, and surplus involving employees, members, and users using cooperative or other methods to create a strong sense of group ownership over the venture.)