This paper is an account of the first of three years of the RSA Connected Communities project. The paper is focused on ‘real world social networks, as opposed to online interactions’. It is, therefore, something of a contrast to the common understanding of ‘connected’ as to do with the Internet and other online interactions.

Online interactions are recognised, nevertheless, by the authors as in some cases playing a part in real world interactions. The authors state that the paper was produced in the context of depleted public sector funding for community development and regeneration in the UK. The authors also state that, ‘A major objective of this report is to inform practical steps through which the coalition government may attempt to turn their vision of the Big Society into constructive policy interventions.’ Promotion of the social networks approach as a policy tool for the roll-out of the Big Society reads, indeed, in places as the primary purpose of the paper.

Drawing on RSA members’ experiences with community policy and practice, the authors recommend ‘a fresh approach to developing communities, based on mapping local social networks in as detailed a manner as possible…’ For some readers, the authors call for a complete rethinking of ‘community’ will be the more interesting aspects of the paper. The authors are on especially thoughtprovoking ground around the limitations of viewing communities in exclusively geographical terms. They also, usefully, make a distinction ‘between two concepts that are often conflated: social property and social capital.’

For the authors, it is social networks that we best focus on. They offer graphic modeling as an approach to making possible the necessary detail – and sensitivity – for the mapping, development or support of social networks in communities. They also offer descriptions ‘of the structural attributes of social networks as a “law” of connectivity to aid understanding’ of social networks.

As can be expected of the RSA, the paper is well structured and written – and well referenced. It draws extensively on projects with a community in London and another in Bristol. The paper does, however, read very much as written by professionals for professionals.

The authors also seem a little over-ready to generally dismiss the model and history of area based initiatives. It might have been better if more recognition had been given to the shortcomings of the various actors in dealing with communities as part of area based initiatives.

For example, evidence on how the New Deal for Communities (NDC) programme in England failed to improve levels of social capital in target communities is cited by the authors. But it is also reported that the NDC model, like many other models of area based initiatives, was ‘dogged’ by ‘shallow and unrepresentative local engagement [with members of the communities]’.

‘Shallow and unrepresentative engagement’ will fatally damage any approach to community regeneration or community development work – including a social network approach. It would be welcomed by many if the next two years of Connected Communities programme included investigation of the reasons or causes by the common and enduring failures on community engagement across many fields of policy and practice.

Connected Communities: How social networks power and sustain the Big Society. by Jonathan Rowson, Steve Broome and Alasdair Jones. Published by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). September 2010. Available from the RSA as a free download (pdf).