I've spent a lot of time lately talking to people about the economic crisis, how it's starting to play out in people's lives - and what the things we've learned from social media over the last few years might contribute, in regards to lessening the hardship and shaping the world that comes out the other side. Following from those conversations, it feels like it's time to start sketching some of this out in a meaningful way.
Looked at very simply: hundreds of thousands of people are finding or are about to find themselves with a lot more time and a lot less money than they are used to. The result is at least three sets of needs:
- practical/financial (e.g. how do I pay the rent/avoid my house being repossessed?)
- emotional/psychological (e.g. how do I face my friends? where do I get my identity from now I don't have a job?)
- directional (e.g. what do I do with my time? how do I find work?)
With a huge wave of unemployment breaking on the system, public services are likely to be overwhelmed - and yet need to be more responsive than under normal economic circumstances:
"Time is of the essence. The newly unemployed are not usually a focus of government policy because most will find work quickly. This is not true in a recession... Decisive government action now will prevent a temporary slide in employment becoming a permanent slump." Charles Leadbeater & others, 'Attacking the Recession', NESTA
During last week's new media breakfast at the Foreign Office, I was struck by a remark from a UKTI official: if this recession is to be different to previous recessions, he said, our industry has a crucial role to play in that. I guess he may have had in mind the way Finland's tech industry pulled it out of a deep recession in the 1990s, but it also set me thinking about the way the internet has been changing society at large.
Arguably the biggest thing that has changed in countries like the UK since there was last a major recession is that most people are networked by the internet and have some experience of its potential for self-organisation (whether through a myriad of internet dating sites, or through group social interactions such as Facebook, Meetup, Bebo, MySpace, and others - all carry the potential to connect people, both in the virtual and in the physical space). There has never been a major surge in unemployment in a context where these ways of "organising without organisations" were available.
As my School of Everything co-founder Paul Miller has written, London's tech scene is distinctive for the increasing focus on applying these technologies to huge social issues - rather than throwing sheep! Agility and the ability to mobilise and gather momentum quickly are characteristics of social media and online self-organisation, in ways that government, NGOs and large corporations regard with a healthy envy.
So, with that, the conversations I've been having keep coming back to this central question: is there a way we can constructively mobilise to respond to this situation in the days and weeks ahead?
Some ideas on what this might look like
One principle to keep in mind: access to tools and provision should not be limited to the unemployed. It is possible to design tools and offer services which are open to all, but have particular value to those with more time and less money. However, if these are walled off as exclusively for that group, this is stigmatising - and, more important, will stifle creativity by artificially restricting the range of possible interactions and connections. (This valuable approach towards open access is something I experienced first-hand over several years hanging out at Access Space in Sheffield, the UK's longest-running internet learning centre, where I as a (then) BBC journalist found myself learning to build my own website alongside guys who in some cases had been on the dole for much of their adult lives, and for whom the centre offered a route to starting a business, getting a skilled job, or getting funding for their creative activities.)
What follows is not a particularly structured list, though there are a few themes. The basic idea is that we're talking about digital resource-maps for people who have lost access to the market as a source of resources, with an aim to be an enablement tool for all levels of the participant community:
- Information sharing for dealing with practical consequences of redundancy or job insecurity. You can see this happening already on a site like the Sheffield Forum.
- Indexes of local resources of use to the newly-unemployed - including educational and training opportunities - built up in a user-generated style.
- Tools for reducing the cost of living. These already exist - LiftShare, Freecycle, etc. - so it's a question of more effective access and whether there are quick ways to signpost people towards these, or link together existing services better.
- An identification of skills, not just for potential employers but so people can find each other and organise, both around each other and emergent initiatives that grow in a fertile, socially-networked context.
If the aim is to avoid this recession creating a new tranche of long-term unemployed (as happened in the 1980s), then softening the distinction between the employed and unemployed is vital. In social media, we've already seen considerable softening of the line between producer and consumer in all kinds of areas, and there must be lessons to draw from this in how we view any large-scale initiative.
As I see it, such a softening would involve not only the kind of online tools and spaces suggested above, but the spread of real world spaces which reflect the collaborative values of social media. Examples of such spaces already exist:
- Media labs on the model of Access Space or the Brasilian Pontos de Cultura programme, which has applied this approach on a national scale
- Fab Labs for manufacturing, as already exist from Iceland to Afghanistan
- studio spaces like TenantSpin, the micro-TV station in Liverpool based in a flat in a towerblock - and like many other examples in the world of Community Media
Again, if these spaces are to work, access to them should be open, not restricted to the unemployed. (If, as some are predicting, we see the return of the three day week, the value of spaces like this open to all becomes even more obvious!) In order for this to work, such spaces would need to be organised with the understanding that hanging out can be as valuable as more visibly productive activities - both because of the resilience that comes from building social connections, and because of the potential for information sharing and the sparking of new projects. There would also be a need for incubator spaces for projects that emerge from these spaces and are ready to move to the next level.
These are some ideas that have come out of conversations with Vinay, Colin, Kalam, David, Mamading, Mike, Josef and others over the last couple of weeks. I'm keen to broaden those conversations, because I'm sure we can build on and better these ideas. I'm also keen to get some action going on - so a group of us are getting together at the School of Everything offices in Bethnal Green tomorrow night (Thursday 29th) to work on a first version of a site. Get in touch if you'd like to contribute!