In brief

“Working for social progress isn’t about waiting for all the stars to align; it’s about making change for ourselves, by the light that we have.”

In this essay, David Robinson considers the state of relationships in 2020 and how to do better in the new decade  

2020 and how to do better in the new decade

How are we to heal our divided communities, to trade or to care for the displaced, to treat the sick or share the natural world on which we depend? How are we to live together?

Perhaps it was ever thus but at the start of a new decade the big questions are, more obviously than ever, all about relationships. Their substance and character will determine the quality of our lives over the next ten years and also frame the future.

Where are we now?

I am a community worker. Over the last 45 years I have worked with families and individuals in a variety of circumstances – homeless adolescents, people leaving prison, lots of children in, or on the brink of, care. Repeatedly unpeeling these problems revealed relationships that had either broken down or never existed to a meaningful degree and, equally consistently, the building or rebuilding of good and meaningful relationships has been a big part of the answer.

Relationship building, in different forms and contexts, had been a consistent thread in my working life but, at the same time I have observed how meaningful connection has been increasingly designed out of the services we need and the places where we live and work.  

We network and transact more than ever but being well connected is not the same as connecting well. Meaningful time together has been systematically displaced by fast and superficial connection

Organisations, systems and structures have got bigger, more remote and less human. Wherever we look from job centres to shops, hospitals to banks, organisational structures and management protocols  have been redesigned  to effectively depersonalise. We have hollowed out the heart of our businesses with call centres, our high streets with cash points and self-service checkouts, our neighbourhoods with design that strips out interaction and our public services with carers commissioned for 7 minute visits, re-tendered every 3 months.

By better understanding individual need we could be learning to segment, to humanise, to be capable of meeting different needs at different times and delivering better outcomes for everyone.

By offering choice, taking out relationships where, or for whom, they are least important and replacing elsewhere, and by doubling down on the technologies that bring us together, we could maximise the benefits.  

Rapid advancements in machine learning in particular, offer both great opportunity and significant threat but on the deepest questions our democracy is ill set to judge and decide. Politics has shrunk into a street fight as the national discourse has traded respect, even truth, for blame and brutality. We don’t talk anymore, we intimidate. The towering shadows of inequality and climate change cry out for collaborative resolution but whilst scapegoating and raw divisions characterise our politics, in the UK and across the developed world, there is little hope of accelerating progress. More likely it seems that in the years ahead, further movement of people will aggravate the discord.  

These individual trends, at once both global and personal, have reinforced one another, diminishing the quality of our lives, eroding our collective capacity for mutual support and stretching relational poverty into the kind of broken caravan scenario with which we are already familiar on material poverty: The camels at the front moving so much faster than those at the back that it ceases to be one caravan, one society.

Our lives, communities and nation states are built from the aggregation of personal relationships. When these bonds fail entire communities are left behind, adversarial, distrustful and polarised. 

And yet we hobble on, blinded by  a narrow path dependency – we did this, so now we do that; constrained by what President Obama called “the smallness of our politics” – we  see no other way; and still drawn, in the absence of compelling alternatives, by the political and economic orthodoxies that champion self-interest and competition and have dominated every aspect of our lives for half a century.

Relationships between people, rather than between people and the state or people and the market, must become the way in which we think about the world. 

We have the capabilities in 2020 to do extraordinary things but a binding narrative that focuses on individualism, speed and scale rather than meaningful relationships, collaboration and the common good is at best an inadequate response to the biggest challenges of our time. Going forward, relationships between people, rather than between people and the state or people and the market, must become the way in which we think about the world.

We can build a better society, a favourable and equitable economy, effective government, flourishing businesses, successful services, happy, healthy and thriving communities by building better relationships.

This must be the story that we tell ourselves, the challenge that we meet, in the next ten years.

Telling our own truths

Stories are the secret reservoir of values…change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves, and we change the individuals and the nations… if they tell themselves stories that are lies they will suffer the future consequences.  If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths they will free their histories for future flowering

Ben Okri

We might talk about how improving social connection in Frome has correlated with a 17% reduction in hospital admissions at a time when they were increasing elsewhere by 29%, about how the Buurtzorg  relationship centred approach to health and social care in the Netherlands generated client satisfaction scores 30% above the national average, and about how  97% of Scottish social care provider  Cornerstone’s  service users welcomed the introduction of these principles into their provision.

We could speak about how Timpson have built a successful business with a relational approach. 10% of their workforce are ex-offenders, just 3% reoffend. The national average is 60% and the saving to the public purse, in excess of £80m. Or about how the John Lewis  approach to relationships has enabled the business to outperform the FTSE by 10%, creating jobs faster, achieving higher customer satisfaction and keeping staff for twice as long as the industry average.

And we must make the big point repeatedly, implicit in each of these stories:

Strong relationships are not just a nice to have, a fluffy extra in an outstanding school, an effective criminal justice system, a successful health service, a flourishing business or a just democracy, they are the making of it all.

It is with these everyday examples that our story must begin because, as David Fleming wrote “Large scale problems don’t need large scale solutions, they need small scale solutions within a large-scale framework”

In this theory of change the Fromes and Timpsons, Buurzorgs and Cornerstones are the trail blazers, but sweeping, societal transformation needs many, many more “small scale solutions”. Happily, we don’t have to wait, we can make them for ourselves, learning from and drawing on existing practice.

Relationship-centred design

Most places – hospitals, supermarkets, classrooms, job centres, neighbourhoods – don’t work well when relationships are undervalued, or, at the very least, they don’t work as well as they could.

We have created structures so determinedly consistent and, in the narrowest sense, efficient, that they lack the sensitivity to respond to individual needs and assets.  Mostly they have been planned for a smooth process, planned for most of us, most of the time, not designed for all of us, all of the time. Systematic transactions are plannable. Responsive and reciprocal relationships cannot be so easily reduced to recurring algorithms.  We can only unleash the potential here by designing or redesigning from a different, relationship centred perspective. We call this “relationship centred design” and we do it for ourselves.

Imagine a place where relationships are the central operating principle – a relationship centred classroom, business, council, surgery, city,  neighbourhood …. Think of your place. What would change? 

The “place” could be a physical area, a building, an organization, system or service. It is only important that it is important to you.

Consider, for instance, my local GP practice where patients can book online or use a simple console on the wall. Some still queue to talk to the receptionist and all have a similar explanation “I like a little chat with Maureen”.  The Practice Manager wants patients directed to the technology but I notice that some people who have the “little chat” are satisfied and don’t need to speak to the GP. Precious doctor time is saved. Suppose the practice went further and set up a coffee morning every day, led by a regular community worker.  Over time she could be facilitating the “little chat” between perhaps a dozen patients at any one time. Relationships formed here would be more likely to lead to real reciprocal friendships than an encounter with the doctor, GP time would be released for the patients that need it most and results would improve because we know that the quality of the relationship has a significant effect on the outcome for the patient.  

A series of steps would lead to this redesign of the service…

1. Observation: Understanding patterns of behaviour

2. Segmentation: Distinguishing between different needs

3. Offsetting: Taking out relationships where and for whom technology is sufficient or even preferable and re-investing where they are needed most

Applying such a barefoot  approach to re designing “our place” whether it’s a classroom or a business, an organization or a service, a city or a street, isn’t a novel idea.

Go with the people, live with them, learn from them, start with what they know, build with what they have… with the best leaders, when the work is done, people will say we have done this for ourselves

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu wrote this more than two and half thousand years ago. Like all the best principles, this one is timeless.  

The Relationships Project is making it even more straightforward with the development of a new marketplace for ideas and practical tools. It is rarely realistic to take successful practice from one place, drop it down wholesale in another and expect to get the same results. We don’t believe that you can industrialise good relationships in this way but we do believe that deep and well considered experience can be distilled and used to prompt change in other places. We are building a body of knowledge on relationship-centred practice and design and developing methods and models for applying that learning, place by place. It is a route to scale that doesn’t build an empire or rely on rigid replication but liberates a set of ideas.

The sum of the parts

Seismic changes in the way the world is run rarely begin with governments and ministerial statements. They start with the Fromes and the Buurzorgs  – small acts and distributed players.

Think about the battle for civil rights in the US, the fight against apartheid in South Africa, the destruction of the Berlin Wall brick by brick by brick, and even, unfolding today, the shifting of attitudes on climate change and the environment. The future is ever more likely to be imagined, shaped and negotiated from the ground up.

Redesigning one GP practice won’t do it all, any more than one march or one school strike, but each sends forth, in Bobby Kennedy’s famous phrase:

A tiny ripple of hope crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring … (building)…. into a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall

Bobby Kennedy

In the work of organisations like Grapevine  and The Cares Family we can see the  benefits of the relationship centred community . Businesses like Timpsons and John Lewis, and local authorities like Preston and Wigan, prefigure the first principles of  a relationship centred economy and in the ground breaking consensus of the Irish Citizens Assembly or the inclusive rhetoric of Jacinda Aherne  we glimpse the promise of a relationship centred democracy. The “large scale framework” is the sum of these parts and many, many more.

To help to join the ripples the Relationships Project and six partners started a simple blog last summer. A series of Seminars and Podcasts begin in February 2020. Popular and enduring movements cannot be imposed but we can open up the possibility with shared, egoless action on the ground and the sustained, collaborative evolution of an honest narrative.

Making the change in 2020

Working for social progress in 2020 isn’t about waiting for all the stars to align; it’s about making the change for ourselves, by the light that we have.

A new decade is a time for renewed hope and bold ambition. We know that we can build a better world by building better relationships because, in parts, we are doing it already. Now is the time to do it more.