Strengthening Bottom Up

Whether it is more ‘civic enterprise’, community engagement or ‘Big Society’, people with power, but increasingly little money, are looking for new ways to get things done.

The large capital infrastructure projects have not given us more inclusive communities and now we can’t afford them any way, so in some quarters at least interest is shifting from old school top down strategy to a more emergent process of bottom up development.  To processes where large numbers of people can shape their own futures and as a result the futures of the communities that they live in.

But making the shift from top down to bottom up is far from easy….

Over the last few years I have been developing low and no cost approaches to economic, personal and community development leading to new projects such as:

These are my best efforts to provide an infrastructure that allows the private, public, third sector and those of ‘no sector’ to give and get the help that they need to develop enterprising projects and people, and for the development of ‘community’ by building relationships and networks around local activists.

To bring ‘bottom up’ development to life.

Top Down: Bottom Up

Top Down Development

Top down development is characterised by usually a small number of people recruited or elected to develop a ‘strategy’ that will lead to progress.

The ‘strategy’ is usually accompanied by a ‘plan’, where costed elements are prioritised and scheduled for delivery in the full expectation that things will, as a result, get better.

The strategy and its associated plans are usually supported with evidence and feasibility studies showing just why this is the right course of action and how benefits will accrue and to whom.  In recent years it seems we have stopped worrying about ‘to whom the benefits will accrue’ and accepting that the trickle down fairy will ensure that any wealth and wellbeing created by the plan will be enjoyed by all.

Top down development is also characterised by:

  • delegation down a chain of command to manage implementation – this is not always well managed
  • fierce discussions about the correct allocation of scarce resources – this can divert us from real issues and burn millions
  • disputes about chosen methodologies and the viability of alternatives – as everyone tries to get a piece of the planning budget
  • piloting and subsequent rolling out of schemes and plans – a belief that what worked elsewhere can also work here, and there….
  • attempts, with varying degrees of honesty and legitimacy, to encourage participation in the top down planning process – phrases like consultation, co-production and engagement are used liberally.
Top Down Development is really the only way to manage large infrastructure development projects.  It is a characteristic of electoral democracies where we vote in a small group to develop our strategies. It is also a characteristic of feudal and despotic states.

Bottom Up Development

Bottom Up Development is characterised by people using their power to develop their self interest. Remember self interest is not selfishness but means ‘self amongst others’. One of the important lessons from top down development is that often the best way to develop ones own self interest is to look after the self interests of others.

Sometimes bottom up development is also characterised by groups of people coming together when they have shared self interests.  In bottom up development this coming together around common cause requires little engineering. It sometimes just happens.  But it can be supported and encouraged. It is often discouraged.

Bottom up development is characterised by:

  • Individuals working in their own self interests in the way that they see fit
  • Individuals looking for  the resources that they need to make progress
  • Individuals pondering their options
  • Individuals coming together around common causes – forming associations and organising in order to increase their power
Bottom up is the only way to really get large numbers of people engaged in their own development and developing agency in their own lives and communities. Bottom up is about life in a participative democracy.

Bottom Up AND Top Down

Both bottom up and top down processes of development are necessary in a modern society.  Top down to plan and provide the infrastructure required and bottom up to allow individuals and groups to use it effectively.  Nearly all development work is done in a top down way.  It is my contention that we need to invest significantly in bottom up development and its relationship to top down, if we are to build communities full of active citizens.  If we are to encourage civic enterprise.

City of Dreams

I’m a street sweeper in your city of dreams
Yeah, I’m a street sweeper in your city of dreams
Sweepin up the paper cups between the limousines
Street sweeper in your city of dreams
Thousands of windows, I’m scared of what I see
Thousands of windows, I’m so scared of what I see
People wired up to telephones, plugged into tv screens
Thousands of windows, I’m so scared of what I see
Lookin at the sky above, higher than these neon names
I’m lookin at the sky above, higher than these neon names
You can’t buy and sell the clouds, they aint among the commodities we trade
Lookin at the sky above, higher than these neon names
I’m waitin for the city of god
Yeah, I’m waitin for the city of god
When what is will be what was
Waitin for the city of god
I’m a street sweeper in your city of dreams
Yeah, I’m a street sweeper in your city of dreams
Sweepin up the paper cups between the limousines
Street sweeper in your city of dreams

Enterprise, community and complexity….

Enterprise, community and complexity.  Slippery words.  But behind the slippery words are concepts that offer the possibility of progress.

Lets start with ‘enterprise‘.  First, empty your mind of all those misconceptions that I must be talking about ‘business starts’, ‘cash flow forecasts’, ‘profits’ and ‘Dragons’.

I am not.

I am talking about enterprise as a measure of ‘agency’ in one’s own life.  The extent to which an individual is able to recognise what ‘progress’ (another slippery word) means for them and to take action in its pursuit.  This is what I mean by enterprise.  It is the product of clear self-interest (I know what I want) and power (I have the confidence, skills and knowledge to take organised action in its pursuit).  An enterprising person is one who is clear on what they want from their life and actively pursues it.  An enterprising community is one which has many such people – because they are valued and supported.

Being enterprising does not make you a good person.  It just makes you someone who is acting in, what you believe to be, your own self-interest.  If self-interest is ‘enlightened’ then it is likely that the resulting ‘enterprise’ will make a positive contribution to community.

If we are serious about developing ‘enterprise’, rather than managing the outputs that most enterprise funders are looking for, we need to concern ourselves with the development of self-interest and power.   We are in the realms of person centred facilitation and education.  Not business planning.  This is an enormous shift both in what we do, and how we do it.   Helping people to clarify their self-interest and find the power to pursue it requires very different structures and processes to a typical business start-up programme.

It is worth noting that if you have money, there is a fair chance that at some time you will have hired a coach to help you with the difficult and personal work of clarifying self-interest and gaining the power you need to pursue it. And if they were a good coach they would not have manipulated you towards their preferred outputs – but would let you work on your own personal agenda.  If you have little or no money the chances of you ever having access to such a potentially transformational relationship are slim to none.  The relationship that you have with various ‘helpers’ is likely to be one where they try to manipulate you ‘back to work’, towards a ‘healthy diet’  or some such policy goal of funded output.

Over the last few years I have spoken with many enterprise educators, policy makers and practitioners and they have all accepted that this conception of enterprise has merit.  Not only will it help us to get more business start-ups, but it will also help us to get large numbers of people acting in pursuit of their own wellbeing – however they define it.  But, this is not the work that gets commissioned, at least not by enterprise funders.

How does this concept of enterprise  fit with ‘community’?

I choose to think of ‘community’ as a property that emerges when people and groups learn to negotiate their self-interest with the self-interests of others.  Community is what the world of complexity science would call an emergent property.  If this is correct then it raises serious questions about approaches which attempt to offer short cuts to community (building community centres and one stop shops for example) without addressing the preconditions necessary in a complex adaptive system (such as society) for its emergence, namely, lots of folk whose self-interest is properly understood and who have the knowledge and skill to use networks, associations, mutuality, reciprocity and generosity to pursue it.

Community emerges when people learn how to associate and collaborate in pursuit of mutual self-interest.  When they recognise that the best way to achieve their own self-interest is to help others to achieve theirs.

A beautiful by-product of this is a raised awareness of the importance of difference.

If I learn how to associate and collaborate with someone who has different skills and knowledge, or a different cultural heritage to my own I am likely to gain more opportunities than if I associate with people who are pretty much the same as me.  Associations across race, gender, age and so on often provide the key to opportunity and are a precondition that will allow strong communities to emerge.

With difference comes both opportunity and resilience.