Hand Made Communities

I settled down this morning to have a proper read-through of my friend Tessy Britton's new book, Hand Made, and feel inspired to write a post about it. In fact, two posts - you can see my thoughts on it from an individual and health perspective over here. Inspired is the perfect word for this book actually: a collection of hand-picked stories from all manner of collaborative and creative projects the world over, which collectively represent an "emergent new community culture". From more familiar examples like The Big Lunch, to lesser-known gems like Maurice Small's Community Gardens project, and one of my favourite projects ever, Jerry Stein's Learning Dreams (disclosure: Mindapples is also included), Tessy has unearthed an amazing set of stories of creative, positive projects that are bringing people together and building connection and community in startlingly effective new ways.

Seen collectively, the projects tell a story of a new model for community-development - or perhaps an old one that we have somehow forgotten. They are all positive, constructive and creative, based on people designing and building the world they want to live in, and finding others to join them in this work. They route around existing systems and do it themselves, using the assets they find in their communities to build and strengthen their communities. And most importantly, they all start from individuals taking immediate action to shape the world around them and change things for the better. Hand Made is a book that reminds us we have far more control than we think over the world around us, and shows us that the best way to engage people is to help them do what they want, and build what they need.

Everyone seems to be talking about "community" at the moment, particularly in the context of the "big society" - and there is much that can be learnt by policy-makers from this humble little book. If the Government is serious about supporting and nurturing community development, it needs to build an infrastructure and a supporting culture for the kind of creative, inspired people - what David Barrie calls the 'militant optimists' - that are featured in Hand Made. We need to build a cultural and economic context in which human-centred, positive, creative projects like these can thrive and grow, without telling people what to do or what they need. This will take a serious reinvention of the culture and mechanics of government. As Tessy observes in her introduction, "our existing systems can supress creativity and [attract] individuals with management mindsets rather than including essential creative or community-building ones". Someone told me recently that the policy world doesn't understand humanity, it only understands statistics, and community-building is human work. It's easy to forget that when you spend all your time looking at the big picture.

I've been reading Visa founder Dee Hock's extraordinary autobiography One From Many, about which more in future posts. His definition of community particularly appealed to me: "the essence of community, its very heart and soul, is the nonmonetary exchange of value. The things we do and the things we share because we care for others, and for the good of place." Community is relentlessly, unapologetically voluntary. It does not correspond to the tools of the state, the mechanics of the economy or the mindset of management. In Dee's words: "It arises from deep, intuitive understanding that self-interest is inseparably connected to community interest; that individual good is inseparable from the good of the whole". You can't build this common interest - this "community" - through top-down commands and centralised management: all you can do is create the conditions for growth and support what people want to do.

This isn't the harsh world of the open market though. This is not a free-for-all in which the state rolls back and a thousand entrepreneurial flowers bloom: this is about creating a nurturing, managed space in which the projects and people who are enriching our lives and strengthening our communities are supported and cared for. Community development of the type described in Hand Made does not take place in the wild, competitive scramble of the jungle; but nor can it be found in the safe, highly-regulated, controlled worlds of the zoo or the factory. Instead, it is found in the garden, the managed space where the conditions for growth are carefully maintained, but growth itself is not controlled. When building digital communities, or developing Mindapples, I have developed a habit of saying to myself: you can't make flowers grow faster by shouting at them. Gardening is not an industrial process: it is far more powerful than that, and much, much messier.

If this Government is serious about stepping back and allowing communties to take more control of their destinies, first it must accept that its role is to support people without commanding them, and protect them without controlling them. Its role is, in short, to serve - and let us lead.