Radical Thinking – the play ethic, transition towns, social capital, and community development trusts.

Posted on 07/12/2009 by


So, who’s radical ideas have I heard so far?


Pat Kane, author of the play ethic, doesn’t think that modern life and technology has to make us unhappy. Choice and complexity and diversity should be a good thing. But he does think we should be working less – he’d like to see a 35 hour working week (like France used to have) and that the state should fund us to do a lot of cool stuff when we’re not working.

Work itself should unleash the kind of creative energy that we have when we play.

“we are our own gods, and might as well get good at it…”

Pat, out of everyone I have spoken too, is the least reserved about the benefits of the information society. Rather than drowning in the information deluge, he’s thinks we should grow gills and swim.


Alan Caldwell is a board member for the Comrie Development Trust, and a community development trust consultant himself. Comrie has one of the most active local communities in the UK – with a population of only 2,000, 700 people are members of the development trust, and it has 56 local groups.

Alan Caldwell's Community Words...courtesy of http://www.wordle.net

The big project they are working on at the moment is Cultybraggan, a 96 acre former army camp, which the community bought in 2007. They’ll be developing the site on a zero carbon basis to provide resources and income for Comrie – through ,for example, eco holiday homes. An old nuclear bunker there may even provide up to £1 million a year as a data centre. That income can then be ploughed back into the community for housing, insulation, and long term economic and cultural benefits.

Comrie clearly already has a wealth of resources and social capital. The working group for Cultybraggan includes a civil engineer, a lawyer, an accountant and an architect – not bad for free labour! But Alan believes the model can work for less well-off area. He’s been working with the Southhouse community in Edinburgh, where even the cost of photocopying and the time volunteering can e a major burden for enthusiastic community members. But funding that activity is far better, he believes, than other forms of top-down support.

Eva Schonveld is part of the transition towns movement – both in her work for transition Scotland, and because she lives in Portobello, near Edinburgh. Transition, in a nut shell, is about going on a carbon diet – developing local food, transport, energy and employment solutions that make communities more self-sufficient. The Portobello community were galvanised into action by the threat of a Tesco supermarket on their high street in 2005.

Eva Schonveld's Community Word Cloud - http://www.wordle.net

Eva thinks we can live fulfilling, creative lives with less resources, but our options will have to become more limited – the freedom to fly anywhere for work or fun will be a historical blip, for example. But conversely, we’ll have more time for the things that really matter, like family, friends, culture, and good local food.

David Greig is a playwright from North Queensferry – almost a classic example of a mono-culture community, in that it was dependent on the life of the ferries. David told me about the ways in which NQ is trying to reinvent itself, by developing its own plot of land as a community asset. He thinks that communities are incredibly undervalued by decision makers – because although they make us happy, they don’t make money. But on the other hand, we shouldn’t look at them with rose tinted glasses, because getting community decisions is really hard work – harder, in fact, than top-down solutions from Government.

His coolest idea – schools shouldn’t be just for kids or teenagers, but should be hubs for life-long learning and community integration.

Colin Campbell is the director of Assist Social Capital. But what’s social capital? Here’s one of the definitions on his website;

Social Capital has been defined as ‘features of social life, networks, norms, and trust, that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives. Social capital in short, refers to social connections and the attendant norms and trust’.

Speaking to Colin, a metaphor comes to mind – social capital is the fabric of a community or a society, the myriad threads and connections between people that allow them to get by or thrive, without money having to exchange hands. It’s everything from babysitting your neighbours kids to volunteering in the local community radio station.

Academics have been banging on about the importance of SC for a while. But the problem, Colin says, is that this fabric is being ignored by policy makers.

“Social capital is like oxygen. You can’t see it, but you miss it when it’s gone…”

Colin thinks that Governments, both local and national, need to be considering SC impacts right at the start of policy decisions. But they are reluctant to do so, because it would involve a shift in power to those on the ground. People would become active citizens, rather than just workers and consumers.

Nick Wilding works for the Carnegie Trust UK. His work is all about building more resilient communities, able to deal with the rapid and disruptive change that we can expect over the next fifty years.

As well as advocating asset transfer to local communities, Nick thinks we should be using social media to create online communities which can share knowledge, expertise and resources – and in fact, he’s done exactly that with the fiery spirits website. Nick calls it a community of practice – a shared resource for activists and professionals all over the UK who are trying to develop their communities.

Nick thinks that we’ll need to make a philosophical leap to deal with changes to our world. Big, vulnerable systems – like the national grid, or the stockmarket – will have to change. We’ll need independent, “modular” supplies of energy, food and resources, so that if one source goes down, it doesn’t impact every community. But he says it’s more than just decentralising – “resilience” means making the right decisions at the right level.

One radical idea – paying your local farmer £20,000 up front for a years food supply.