Social Means Inclusive
It used to be said that charity begins at home. That was then. Now it’s more appropriate to see the place where we live as the foundation of a new economy. An economy that makes no value judgements on the vast array of factors that determine our long term health and wellbeing. After all, who wants to live (or work for that matter) in a place that makes us feel unwell? Today, through the lens of COVID-19 we are living the truth that there can be no shelter without education and health, and that means connectedness.
In many respects, this is the house that COVID-19 threatens to build if we have the courage to sustain recent trends. The question is, can the incumbent organisations and institutions be trusted to make the transformational leap to become space holders for dignity and trust-building as opposed to being the reluctant wolf at the door collecting debt on behalf of a failing social system?
“Our Brain is Designed to be Sociable. Our Housing Should be Too”
Left to our own devices we humans self-organize for good or bad. It’s a natural instinct that we all have. In socio-political terms the bigger the “state” the less likely this instinct will be freely expressed. The 20th-century boom and bust economic cycles with its oscillation between big and small statehood have created an expectation that communities symbiotically grow and shrink as part of the equation. In fact, communities are the constant. Whether states happen to be big or small, the intrinsic value of communities remains the same. It’s the glue that makes us real people in a real place with real possibilities. We’ve all seen the phenomenon of communities coming together at times of great adversity. This latent confidence network is an ever-present phenomenon that tends to become visible during times of need and always, without exception, from the ground up.
So an interesting system challenge post-COVID is how to make it easier for this to happen with or without the top-down institutions. What we can say with some evidence is that digital technology has an important role to play. What remains yet undiscovered even by the towering, glittering cathedrals of the new digital era, is how. The answer to this, one of the defining question of our times, can equally be discovered in the tiny box room office of a freelancer in Abuja, or the bedroom of a teenager in Wales as it can in the Silicon Valley HQ of one of the tech giants.
It is for this reason that we need to look again at the true mission of housing organizations. Wherever people can hunker down to connect in safety, learn and share ideas, anything it possible. So, why not at home? Anywhere we can foster a sense of togetherness, address the wicked issues of today and explore socially cohesive solutions is a place that deserves to be called home.
Inside is the New Outside
The places and spaces available to us shape our psyche, behaviours and ultimately determine our way of life. The design of space also creates the frame for the interactions that are possible inside. So a house with a kitchen situated at the back corner some distance from the main living area runs counter to the idea of food as a shared narrative. In this design, whoever happens to be in the kitchen is cast in an entirely different role from the people in the living room. Much in the same way that our use of technology and digital services can put us in either the role of consumer or producer.
“Would You Have Rather a Small, Safe Space or Somewhere Wild and Expansive?”
In many respects, the penetration of digital services is emotionally remodelling our homes and lives by removing and repositioning the interior walls. The bedroom becomes a classroom or workspace. The kitchen becomes a workshop. The living room is the cinema and window onto an ever-changing vista of possibilities. With all this going on inside, it’s bound to distort how we perceive what is happening “outside”. This is the house that COVID is building around us, and prompts an important question. Would you rather have a small space to play, all cocooned and safe? Or have access to expansive, wild, eco-balanced green spaces where a multitude of flora and fauna are thriving in natural harmony?
Today, the same tools offer us both possibilities. When Voltaire said we should first cultivate our own garden, perhaps he was positing a form of positive social distancing. What would housing provision look like if its main mission was the health and education of the tenants? Wouldn’t that just be running with, rather than against, the grain of 21st-century socio-economic trends?