During these challenging days of lockdown, society is becoming introspective, contemplating what it is and what it might be. Maggie famously said that there was no such thing as society. She went on to say, “There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us is prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.” Society is a concept which does not look out for us – people are real and they should look out for each other.
The coronavirus has indeed stimulated many parts of our communities to look out for each other, whereas before there might have been only a passing recognition of the community in which we live. This places the spotlight not just on those who require support, but also on the capacity we have within communities to provide that support. That capacity delivers vital goods and services, and makes us feel good about the community in which we live. This is social capital and we are being given a lesson as to why social capital is important.
What can we learn from this lesson? Certainly that we value social capital and that it has enormous untapped potential. Our social capital is based on a loose structure of key institutions, community organisations and personal relationships which offer “specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks”. What if that structure was re-imagined over the coming months to consider how a society which valued the concept of community could create the resilience we need to withstand the external shocks of pandemics, climate change, economic recession and so on? How different would a community look which adopted a fresh approach to social capital?
Here is a thought. One of the main advantages of having social capital is that it provides access to resources on preferential terms. What if it was possible to create a local mechanism where those in control of economic capital where able to prime local market activities in order to stimulate social capital? That trickle-down process would have the potential to mobilise networks of householders and small businesses to work collaboratively in order to make their communities more resilient and more sustainable.
Take an existing scenario. An energy company works with a community ‘carbon’ organisation to incentivise local householders to install solar PV panels. The energy company is able to better manage demand, the community organisation is able to promote social capital and the householder sees a reduction in energy costs whilst knowing that they have made some contribution to the fight against global warming. Now scale that up just ten-fold and think about the greater impact our communities could make.
Maggie would be proud.