For a year and a half (until March this year), I had the pleasure of starting and running a website, raising funds for the arts. I’m going to blog a bit about my experience later- including why it worked, why we merged with a competitor, and what mistakes I’ll try not to make again- but suffice to say I met a bunch of people and organisations who I think are doing great things, and I want to use this blog to discuss what they and others can do to grasp what I believe is a pivotal moment.
Put simply, I think that we’re seeing a really exciting convergence of innovation and consumer demand at a time of great social need, creating new ways of giving people power to solve big problems. I’m fascinated by the opportunity that technology creates to bring increasingly connected global communities together, and am not sure that we’ve fully understood yet what can happen when we do so.
But why ‘bridges and fences’? Well, the title for this blog comes from a beguilingly simple phrase I spotted in ‘The World of Goods’, a book by Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood setting out an intruiging defence of moral ‘consumerism’ (have a look at a free excerpt here– thanks to Google books):-
“Goods are neutral, their uses are social; they can be used as fences or bridges.”
Though writing in the distant past of 1979, Douglas and Isherwood make a point which I think resonates ever more loudly today. For those weaned on social media, we can see every day how the quality and quantity of social connections that a brand or campaign can generate is at the heart of its success, with brands seeking to build ever-more intimate ‘conversations’ with their fans, and advertisers desperately chasing the gold dust of peer-to-peer recommendations, retweets, and likes. Products and services describe themselves in terms of the value they will add to their consumers’ lives- or the degree that they will meet their consumers’ aspirations (have a look at this list of company slogans for a smattering of examples). And the openness and accessibility of the modern innovation process – as I found out when I managed to start a web business off savings from a meagre few years in the public sector- means that the consumer has more power to innovate on their own behalf than ever before (and for more on this, check out Charlie Ledbetter’s excellent TED talk).
Socially orientated businesses have a killer head-start here – their very purpose is to inspire their consumers (and supporters) to be ‘better people’ and participate in realising a shared social goal, either by undertaking direct social action, or something more indirect like philanthropic giving. Social enterprises are by definition better aligned with their consumers’ aspirations- as both are principally concerned with achieving their social mission- in contrast to companies who exist to solely deliver value to their shareholders.
So where are these social game-changers, and if they are so well geared to making our lives better through connection to social good, why aren’t they everywhere already?
This is the point of this blog- to seek out those people, companies and movements that can be true bridges and bridge-builders, connecting concerned and hopeful user communities with inspirational leaders and movements who have the ideas to make a big difference. Got any suggestions? Comment below and I’ll have a look!
And later this week I’m going to start with the RSA, and a few thoughts about how they could energise its 27,000-strong membership base…. More soon!