“It could be that the neighborhood, not the individual, is the essential unit of social change. If you’re trying to improve lives, maybe you have to think about changing many elements of a single neighborhood, in a systematic way, at a steady pace.”

– David Brooks

Our primary unit of change is the town of Athenry. We want to reframe the relationship between residents, associations and institutions and find new ways to collectively build resilient communities.

The graphic in below shows the current model:

In this top-down system, institutional power controls associations and residents which creates a dependency on services that is debilitating and counterproductive. This approach also amplifies the case for ‘the individual’ forcing people to compete over housing, education, and employment. The rest get labelled as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘marginalised’ and are left to struggle over scant social services. Labelling people in this way hides the gifts that each person can offer to support their neighbour.

We see the impact of this everyday through our work in Athenry. The projects we have initiated to date have had a good impact but the reality is that most community efforts are speaking to the same core group of people. Among the wider community there is a sense of apathy or alienation which has contributed to the dereliction and decay that is so evident as you walk around the town.

This complex cycle of events continues on a downward spiral and erodes social capital. Social capital can be defined as the features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit. Without this valuable resource we will continue to see decline in our towns and villages. We believe that the root cause of this problem lies with our over dependency on the state and institutional power.

This is not to dismiss the role of the state and the services they provide. Rather, it is an acceptance that the current model is imbalanced and unsustainable. The crippling costs associated with pushing people apart calls for new strategies and relationships to bring people together.

We can see a change in recent years with a shift in institutional practices and policy decisions towards more co-production. Also referred to as a partnership, co-production aims to transcend ‘doing to and doing for the community’ by promoting more equal and reciprocal relationships.

We argue that we can take this a step further and not just go beyond top-down “doing to and for”, but also go beyond “done with” approaches. The “Done-By” mode of change, advocated by author Cormac Russell in his book Rekindling Democracy, in contrast moves beyond the service paradigm, and into citizen space.

Citizens space is the domain where citizenship deepens and citizen-led action, ranging from neighbourliness to non-violent protests, and includes volunteering, voting, organ donation and a myriad of other civic acts, occurs.

By flipping the paradigm in this way, as illustrated in the graphic above, we will include more voices in the conversation in Athenry, this in turn will build social capital and trust across the community. When residents take ownership over their own neighbourhoods the multiplier effects will transform the lives of everyone living there. This is the key to unlocking the hidden assets that can revitalise the town from within.

You can see how we are working to implement this theory of change – socially, economically and enviornmentally – by taking a closer look at our projects.