Can you have a story of place without a corresponding story of person?


Civic space:  online and offline

A lot of my thinking about place has been shaped by social geographers like Doreen Massey or more recently by economic thinking about how to drive place based growth. In considering how to build digital civic infrastructure I leaned heavily into the idea of a story of place and the need to find or create places where we can help different enclaves or smaller networks come together to connect to a shared conversation and civic dialogue. I have slipped into thinking and talking about people who are being ‘left behind’ as we move into the network society (something which is looking more like a network revolution than evolution right now).

But Brexit and the recent Trump victory are making me look at this more closely because something is nagging me about the emerging liberal narrative about this – have you noticed how ‘left behind’ has come to mean left behind economically? But what if that is not the whole picture? Is economic pain the only thing that is causing many groups to start to fear or even hate the ‘other’ their worlds?

This excellent piece of analysis by Martin Sandbu in the FT (paywall warning) crystallised this for me where he suggested that we need to talk about an alternative analysis – one of nativism and, in my words, ‘othering’ of communities where the rejection of globalism is not economic but social.

When we talk about place shaping we talk about the need to understand the story and history of that place – Jo Miller talks about it eloquently in her essay in the recent NLGN publication of place leadership. If ‘space becomes place through narrative” as Massey suggests then we have to listen to these stories with much more open minds.

Globalism is an easy thing to love if you are the person getting to see it first hand while travelling the world – less so when it is the thing which takes opportunities away from you. However virtual this world gets there is a visceral difference between being the person who travels for work and the person who sees their work travelling away from them. The impacts of globalism have been described in economic terms but the impacts of the changes it has brought are social.

We can see this very starkly in this analysis of voting patterns around Brexit which draws out the correlation between locations of lost industry and leave voters.

My frame* for all of my work is the epoch scale shift we are undergoing from the industrial to the network society – lets call it our network revolution as it doesn’t feel like evolution right now. This network society will be built around the networked individual, their lives and their work, and if we want to ensure that people are not ‘left behind’ in its fullest sense then we cannot continue to treat social and economic infrastructure as being logically separate.

Social infrastructure** is a slippery concept but can be seen as a combination of access to skills and information with the opportunity and facilitation to help connect people together across different groups or networks. It operates at human scale – back to the dunbar number that suggests that however good we are at social media we really have no more than 150 friends. How then do we reconcile this human scale infrastructure with the planet sized scale of globalism?

Wellman and Hampton coined the phrase ‘Glocal’ to suggest how people want both to be connected at human scale within their community and be part of the global experience. For him it makes perfect sense that you would want to be part of community of place locally as well as community of interests globally.

Its the nation state*** that suffers in this scenario and this is perhaps one explanation for the increasing prevalence of nativism that Sandbu is referencing. A crisis of the nation state causes a crisis of identity for the individual – we need to know where we belong to truly know who we are.

If we are trying to shape places and develop our narrative of place to do so then we need to consider this idea of glocalism and the way in which we can connect the human scale local sphere with the epic scale of global activity. We cannot create a narrative of place without creating a narrative of person and these stories need to be both human and epic. If we want to avoid ‘othering’ then it is important is that these stories connect local and global issues – that they become glocal.

Part of those human scale epics will be to think about how we better value – not just financially – the work that happens in places. If you chose to work in small city or rural area rather than a big metropolis where does the applause come from? Where do the thanks and rewards flow from? Certainly not from the media. We are trained to believe that success can only happen at an epic scale – 5m followers, 10m views – but what if we focused more on celebrating human scale success?

In the debate about how to drive greater economic growth you often hear the phrase ‘lifestyle business’. The term is used in a slightly pejorative way to refer to businesses which are not going to become huge and tick along.

What is wrong with that?

The story of a place or person is rarely defined just by work – and where it is defined both people and places lack diversity and richness of experience. Lifestyle businesses can add huge value to place and can shift the narrative from one of being global dependence to glocal strength. Lifestyles can add huge value – just read the beautiful tribute that Nick Booth has written for his much loved, much missed colleague Steph Clarke.

Building social infrastructure can sound like an abstract, dry and technocratic idea – but its really about creating a mechanism for helping people tell their own stories and listen to others so that they become us and not other. Once you have that then a story of resilient and hopeful place can emerge.  We have already discounted the mainstream media’s ability to do this and the discussion about fake news on Facebook and the toxic behaviour of anonymous trolls on twitter is not creating the environment for a public sphere which encourages these kinds of relationships.  We need to build civic spaces online and offline where people can come together and make those human connections.  Without it we continue to be fractured and other.

 

 

*I use the term frame more deliberately after reading this piece in the guardian on the use of frames to steer political dialogue 
**The inclusive growth commission from the RSA is looking at this and in its interim findings indicated a need to invest in social as well as physical infrastructure in order to ensure ‘good growth’ which benefits everyone.

*** Check out this years Reith lectures for some fascinating talks on this subject

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