I previously mentioned Lord Andrew Mawson as one of the speakers in a talk I attended at the Royal Society of Art entitled ‘Cities and Citizenship’. He made an impression on me that evening because his perspective on community transformation is so grounded and pragmatic. Having spent 25 years directly involved in the transformation of an East London area then best known for its run down housing estates, and one of the highest indices of poverty in the UK he clearly speaks from experience.
From theological training Mawson arrived in Bromley-by-Bow as pastor of a crumbling United Reform church to a small and elderly congregation. During his fist years in the area he witnessed at first hand the difficulties faced by the community and the sorry catalogue of government schemes which had previously failed to deliver any genuine social change to the borough.
Of this 25 year journey comes a success story centring on The Bromley-by-Bow Centre, an integrated health and social care centre which throughout the course of its development has been held up by the New Labour government as a shining example of the fleet of ‘healthy living centres it proceeded to pump £300 million of lottery money into funding.
Inspired by Andrew’s story I wanted to know more and turned to his book The Social Entrepreneur: Making Communities Work which outlines the extraordinary journey he made in founding and developing the Bromley-By-Bow Centre and other social enterprises across East London. Although he brands himself as a ‘social entrepreneur’ the approach and principles he speaks of have a great deal in common with those held up by service design community are particularly relevant to social innovation challenges conducted within and for public sector organisations.
Drawn from the book itself then and his speech at the RSA debate I wanted to share some of the most interesting lessons that Andrew’s experience highlights to me:
The micro as a way into the macro
‘Designing our cities isn’t about ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’ its about inside out, getting on the inside of these communities and beginning to work with the people there. What you see is that its not about endlessly chasing need, but looking for opportunity.’ 1
Working from the ‘bottom up’ and employing ‘joined up thinking’ are concepts that saturate modern political debate but it is rare that these principles are actually applied in the communities that need them most. The distance between the policy making process and their application at the level of local communities is vast, Mawson’s story is one in which government demonstrates expertise competence at turning these ideas into practical reality.
By his own account, there really is no way around first hand engagement with communities and in acting as an advocate for their best interests at a political as well as local levels.
Maintaining a vision and going the distance
‘No ministers ever stay long enough to watch the snake of policy come past their door and in a very chaotic place like St Paul’s Way they add to the chaos of the situation.’ 2
An important aspect of Mawson’s approach is in maintaining involvement and a consistent vision at multiple levels of the planning and implementation process. At the highest level involvement in the political planning process itself, where he made sure he was present in the as a figure who cares about the site and community, picking off the necessary aspects of governments policy which serve the projects core vision.
At the other end of the scale where projects such as the Bromley-By-Bow Centre and St Paul’s Way ultimately have to be embraced and adopted by communities themselves. At this end of the scale an importance lay in establishing a story and a vision for local residents to identify and connect with. Making sure an initiative takes root requires that local people are involved in co-creating them.
We are the environments we live in
‘When we are careful about the way we create a physical environment, when we pay attention to every detail of it, people start to think about themselves and each other differently’ 3
From the hand-made wooden chairs in the multipurpose church and community space (a site which Mawson set up before the centres creation on a modest budget) to the handmade bricks used to create the Bromley-By-Bow Centre and similar to those used in the Glyndebourne Opera House. Mawson’s projects are detailed with design features and fittings which he was routinely called to defend in front of governing bodies such as ‘English Partnerships’ who rejected plans for a restaurant on the Bromley-By-Bow site as ‘far too high quality for such a run down area’. In Mawson’s view these details are not just nice to have extras but fundamentally shaped the way in which people view and engage with the whole initiative. For the Bromley-By-Bow Centre design features such as the brickwork and cloister shaped walkways of the building plan play an integral role in supporting the care services delivered.
1 - 2: Mawson, Andrew, Cities & Citizenship: Surviving The 21st Century, Royal Society of Art, 2009
3: Page 71, Mawson, Andrew, The Social Entrepreneur – Making Communities Work, Atlantic Books, 2008