We need civic operating systems to manage the social fabric for healthy communities – plus a social app store of tools

The idea of civic operating systems , from the Local Trust, provides a model for thinking about how to conserve and develop the social fabric essential for healthy communities. I suggest that to make effective use of the model we need to map social fabric, create a social app store of tools, and develop a network of community and network builders to use them.

Recent reports from the Early Action Task Force and Local Trust highlight the importance of traditional social infrastructure for the health of our communities – the community centres, parks, libraries, public spaces, pubs that both provide essential services and enable social connections and informal support.

Some of that publicly-owned social infrastructure is under threat from spending cuts, while other infrastructure is disappearing as online systems develop. The fabric of our society is fragile.

David Robinson writes in a series of blog posts about connecting in the digital age:

We have hollowed out the heart of our business 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 seven minute visits, retendered every three months. Fake relationships are as ubiquitous in 2017, and just as insidious, as fake news.

We need to take stock of what’s happening both on-the-ground and in-the-cloud, and how they interact. We need both models and methods to do that, and to consider how citizens may help shape developments.

As traditional models and methods we have the planning system and public investment plans to guide development of our physical and economic infrastructure.

These are inadequate for understanding and planning development like Smart Cities, where public and private sectors collaborate to build new services. Some commentators see smart cities following the same path as much physical regeneration:

The rise of the smart cities movement is replicating corporate-dominated power structures in urban planning. The private sector produces the technologies that now define citizen life and has the increasingly sophisticated technical expertise that government sometimes lacks. These advantages solidify the private sector’s position not only as a public service provider but also as a policy driver of the smart cities agenda.

So how should we think strategically about saving and building our traditional and new social infrastructure, and supporting the activities taking place there?

The London context

The next couple of months in London are important, because of the loss of community facilities on the one hand, and uncertainty about how traditional planning mechanisms can help.

On the other hand there are opportunities, presented by the new London resource centre, and hopefully through a people-first approach in our own Smart City. Here are some of the developments in progress:

  • We know that our social infrastructure is under threat. Locality’s Save our Space campaign (RoS) highlights the challenge nationally, and in this post Santa Pedone explains the work of the London Reclaim Our Spaces coalition and the challenge of developing collaborative action among scores of local groups. For the past 12 years Justspace – one of the partners in ROS – has campaigned to achieve a stronger voice for Londoners in official London plans, and here summarises challenges to the current LondonPlan.

  • As I reported here, the draft London plan and Greater London Authority civil society strategy refer to social infrastructure, but it isn’t yet clear how they will be implemented. London funders have helpfully called on the Mayor to give more recognition to the need for community space, affordable housing for people in the community and voluntary sectors, and a stronger voice for Londoners in developing plans.

  • London’s Smart City is putting more emphasis on a “people first, technology strategy” after a listening exercise.

  • The London resource hub that resulted from The Way Ahead initiative has a staff post dedicated to support and develop networks, and apply digital tech for communication and collaboration.

We might hope that the GLA, Smart City London, the resource hub and others put their heads together to consider some joint strategy for on-the-ground and in-the-cloud social infrastructure – but that’s difficult without some shared framework. We need a mental model that covers planning law, public-private digital tech services and civil society support systems.

Civic operating systems

I think that Dan Gregory , in an essay entitled “Skittled Out?” written for the Local Trust, provides us with one possibility: the idea of an operating system.

In a blog post about the essay Dan writes:

Imagine if the government announced plans for new, faster, 21st Century trains to run East to West across London but didn’t bother building any new tracks, tunnels or bridges. Pretend for a moment that mobile phone operators offered new deals for 5G super-fast mobile streaming but forgot to build new antennas, networks or upgraded tech to back it up.

So why do we expect volunteering, social enterprise and community action to flow across the country when we rarely think about the structures and networks that underpin this activity?

The case for economic infrastructure is well established and we spend billions every year on new railways, broadband, the National Grid, our ports, roads and more. But the case for social infrastructure is strangely absent – and then we wonder why our country sometimes feels like its falling apart. We can’t expect to maintain our social fabric without taking care of our social infrastructure.

These are the long-term assets which support the flow of social action, volunteering, co-operation and social enterprise. These are the places and structures and buildings or clubs that enable people to get together, meet, socialise, volunteer and co-operate. These spaces of assembly are often – but not always – buildings. They might be civic, religious or traditional. They could be private or publicly or socially owned. Some are indoors, some are outdoors and some are digital. While others are more occasions than places, like Bonfire night or Halloween.

In the essay Dan argues for a civic operating system to support social infrastructure:

So what exactly is this civic operating system upon which our society is run? Where are these places that foster togetherness? What are these places of assembly? Where are our platforms for co-operation? If you thought economic infrastructure was underappreciated, boy, you should meet social infrastructure. Maybe we should call it Invisible UnderwareTM?
Of course, these places are often—but not always— buildings. They are at least structures of some kind, however, with some stability and longevity.

He says that they might be:

  • civic—village halls, music venues, libraries, art galleries
  • religious—churches, synagogues, mosques and temples;
  • traditional—working men’s clubs or the WI, sports clubs and scout groups;
  • digital—Facebook, Google groups, Freecycle, Mumsnet, Wikipedia, the press and the BBC;
  • private—pubs, cafes, markets, shopping malls and bingo halls;
  • public—schools and colleges, health centres;
  • outdoors—sports pitches, parks and gardens, allotments and village greens;
  • routes—footpaths, cycle paths, canals and waterways;
  • occasions—bon re night, car boot sales, carnivals and Halloween;
  • associations—CVAs (councils for voluntary action), PTAs and babysitting circles.


What do we know about this social infrastructure? Where is it? Is it thriving? Or dying? Is it old or new? Is it crumbling? Or being refreshed and renewed? Is it shifting? Who owns it? Who runs it? Who maintains it? Are these places open to all? Are they loved or hated or taken for granted? What happens in them or because of them? How often are they used? How do they stack up nancially? What does the future hold?

Dan reviews how three Big Local areas, supported by Local Trust, are faring, and how social infrastructure across the country is disappearing. The current civic operating system mainly relies on public investment that is being cut, or private ownership that may not put the interests of poorer communities uppermost. He says:

We must surely start with strengthening what already exists—investing in upgrades to a renewed, open-source operating system; investing in charities, social enterprises and community groups and the assets they make available
to society. We must start from the bottom up with the organisations we already have in our communities, which for too long have been seen either as too fragile, too dependent on private benevolence, or as adjuncts of the state.

Dan suggests:

  • grant-makers, trusts and foundations must start to think about social infrastructure, overheads, assets, capital grants and maintenance, and shift away from disproportionate focus on innovative new projects
  • community groups must ask themselves serious, hard-nosed, hard-headed questions about the efficiency of managing multiple assets and the potential for rationalisation.
  • more research is needed into what new models of social infrastructure might look like in future—perhaps hybrids of community foundations, the Big Local teams and development trusts, each with a local, social purpose and community ownership, underpinned by a mix of commercial revenue, endowments, public money, grants, asset appreciation and more.
  • For the private sector, it is time to explore 21st-century versions of New Lanark and Bournville, building new social infrastructure into their science and business parks, shopping malls and tech hubs.
  • In the meantime, digital entrepreneurs could develop new solutions to make it easier for us to meet up at each other’s homes. We need an Uber for going to the pub or an AirBnb for a Tuesday night in front of GBBO, making it easier for us to meet up informally in each other’s front rooms or kitchens. Someone might finally even invent the new library, despite—not because of—all the words that have been written about it.
  • Most of all, policymakers just need to start thinking about social infrastructure. Someone—anyone!—in Whitehall should give it some thought.


Turning ideas such as community resilience, self- sufficiency and self-management into practice will become increasingly important if communities are to thrive over the coming decades. If communities are to step up and take on some of the responsibilities of the state then they will need broad shoulders—assets, networks, capacity and capability. The state cannot simply withdraw and expect society to pick up the reins.
Encouragingly, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, rebuilding social capital is back on the agenda. As the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, says, “Prosperity requires not just investment in economic capital, but investment in social capital”. This is the case for investment in a 21st-century infrastructure that can support successful social action and replenish our joint stock of social capital. This is the case for social infrastructure that also underpins economic performance. The case for 21st-century infrastructure that can support successful social action, social enterprise and co-operation. The case for new platforms for collaboration, enabling people to take greater responsibility for meeting their own needs, supporting emerging models of welfare reciprocity and mutual support.
This is the case for community control, ownership, maintenance and renewal of our invisible infrastructure.

Maps, apps and a network of builders

Dan Gregory’s essay sparked three strands of thinking for me:

First, I like the idea of a civic operating system because to chimes with the notion of a social app store that I and other developed with John Popham and othersback in 2010. There’s a series of blog posts here. The idea was that community activists need a set of methods and tools – some traditional, some new – to enable community building. These should be designed to work together within a framework, or operating system.
Second, one way to understand the social infrastructure that we have, both on-the-ground and in-the-cloud, is to map the assets both geographically and in terms of networks. More on that in papers here, including one on social ecosystems.
Third, to put any of this into practice we need a network of people from different backgrounds, with a range of skills – whether practitioners or activists. More here on steps to develop that network.
I’ll develop each of these strands in future posts. Meanwhile, thanks to Dan and Local Trust for a framework that could help us all develop some common purpose in addressing the challenges to our social fabric.