• The Social Thermometer

    by  • July 19, 2010 • Everything Else • 2 Comments

    In the 1990s if you could get a sales guy, a designer and a programmer to work together for three months, you could get venture funding. It was not always quite that easy, but the money was fast, the skills were rare, and the whole thing felt like that most quintessential American phenomenon – a Gold Rush.

    There’s a model for thinking about situations like that which I call the Social Thermometer. It’s a way of thinking about how people see each other and how we see our environment. It is a very simple but very useful way of taking a quick index of how people (and organizations) are seeing each-other. The Social Temperature has five grades, A through E.

    A> Individual Transformation.
    In periods of (A) individuals are doing so well that they do not need to form tight groups to move forwards. An example might be 1950s America when jobs were plentiful and promotion was often archived by changing companies, or rare examples of super-talented individuals like David Bowie who become stars in their own right.

    B> Collective Transformation.
    In periods of (B) tightly woven groups form and move forwards together. A good example of this is The Beatles. Individually they were good, but together they were transcendent. During the dotcom years it was like this for most technologists and web-literate designers. Small teams could form, get venture funding, and often get rich. People formed communities to locate partners to move forwards with.

    C> Opportunity and Risk.
    In periods of (C) people don’t make a special effort to form communities, and do not generally do well enough to transform. But there are no threats to their stability, so it might be called the ordinary way of things – keep moving!

    D> Collective Stability.
    During (D) periods, if we stay on our own, life is a struggle just to keep up. During these times, sharing and cooperation are required to maintain our current ways of doing things. People share housing, companies open their books to each other and make more equitable deals, consortia form and put aside their competitive tensions with each other to bring in larger deals. Communities form and achieve mutual support and if things do not get any more difficult, that counts as a success!

    E> Individual Stability.
    During (E) periods the centre cannot hold. Consortia fall apart. Friends squabble over money. Each additional person you depend on is one more set of troubles, and people begin to think that going it alone is a better plan. This position is often caricatured as Mad Max, and indeed in human history it’s rare indeed that things get this bad.

    The Big Society movement is a very interesting thing. It’s sold as a (D) response, as a way of having people pull together for collective stability – to ward off damage from the economic condition (and the cuts!) by more effective cooperation and collaboration at the local level.

    The criticism of Big Society is that Big Society is actually an (E) strategy – rugged individualism for each community rather than for each individual, but still rugged individualism. The argument goes that the real (D) scenario, the real Collective Stability comes from a strong welfare state, healthy government spending, and a “we’re all in this together” attitude. I think this is a strong case.

    I remain neutral-but-disquieted by Big Society. So much will depend on how it is done but, the fact that it is done may tell us much of what we need to know about the next few years.


    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


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