ColaLife and the UK’s Big Society policy

ColaLife on the iPad – there were no shortage of gadgets at last night’s Big Society Network event. iPad (and hands) courtesy of David Wilcox.

A core theme of the UK Conservatives election manifesto was ‘Big Society’ (see David Cameron’s speech). The basic idea is that government has got too big and that ‘Civil Society’ (ie people like you and me) should be empowered to do more. Whilst government helps by removing barriers to this happening and, where necessary, putting in place enablers, such as new legislation, we would contribute through more active citizenship. So, there is talk of support for parents who wish set up their own schools and to others who wish to take on the delivery of services currently implemented by government at the various levels. I think it is true to say that the detail behind ‘Big Society’ concept is still to emerge and it is up to us to work a lot of this detail out for ourselves and come up with ideas on how the policy might be implemented in practice. The other issue is that government has no money and so critics are saying that this is just a ploy for government to withdraw from public service delivery to leave citizens, some very vulnerable, to fend for themselves.

Last night around 150 people gathered in a very hot room in the Department for Communities and Local Government to talk about how ‘Big Society’ might work in practice. So, why did I go along? Well, for two reasons really. Firstly, these gatherings tend to attract the more creative, enthusiastic and innovative elements of the not for profit sector (at least those who can afford to get to London) and it’s in these sort of places that I get my ideas. And secondly, ColaLife might be a case study for how elements of ‘Big Society’ might work. This is what I said, when I applied to go to the event:

ColaLife is about putting unlikely alliances together to do extraordinary things. To do more with less and to tackle problems that cannot be solved by one particular sector (business, public, civil society) alone. I think there are lessons in the ColaLife experience that are very relevant when it comes to realising the vision of the ‘Big Society‘.

ColaLife would not need huge amounts of new money for it to be implemented. It would not need whole new institutions to be established. It would just need existing organisations to collaborate and operate differently to achieve something quite extraordinary. Obviously, ColaLife needs to be trialled before we can claim any amazing benefits but even our journey so far is quite interesting from a ‘Big Society’ point of view. We have convened thousands of people around an idea and this has:
  1. Given these people power. It’s given us enough power to get the attention of one of the world’s biggest brands – Coca-Cola
  2. Allowed knowledge to emerge from different kinds of people – who might not usually share ideas with each other – and be used for good. In our case it has resulted in refining the basic ColaLife idea and making it better, bringing in expertise from global health, supply chain, designers, non-profits, PR and corporates and so on.
  3. Given more and more confidence, to those involved, that ColaLife is a concept worth trialling

All these things: empowering people; pooling ideas and knowledge to come up with better solutions to the challenges we face, are at the foundation of ‘Big Society’. Well that’s how I see it.