Looking into the Future – how to plan a ‘future’ strategy for your civic society

I recently met with the committee of a long-established civic society to discuss ideas for rejuvenating their society and attracting new members. It was a very enjoyable outing for me: I was able to suggest some ideas that they could incorporate into their strategy and they offered me tea and cake: a fair exchange!

I regularly find myself in conversation with people wondering what the future holds for their societies and how they can keep things going in the medium to longer term, not just for the benefit of their existing members but also as a way of attracting the next generation of committee members.

Now, I make no claims about being able to see into the future but one of the characteristics of successful organisations (and individuals for that matter) is a capacity to consider what the future might hold for them. This allows them to develop strategies to ensure they can cope with whatever the future might bring.

There is a structured technique, sometimes known as ‘Horizon Scanning’, that can be employed by any organisation to plot a course to the future. It’s about looking ahead to see what trends you can identify and how the changes brought about by these trends will impact upon your organisation. There are, of course, books you can buy on management techniques that will cover this concept in much more detail should you wish to read them and they’ll certainly do the subject more justice than I can here in the space available, but bear with me while I outline the principles.

Let’s say you want to work out what might lie ahead for your civic society. Get together a few people who really understand what your society is about – this is most likely to be your committee but could also include people from the wider membership or even people who have recently stood down from the committee.

Now, here’s a tough one. How ‘up to date’ are the members of your group in their thinking and awareness of what is happening in the world at large? Are they trend setters and trailblazers (or do they just tend to wear nice blazers)? Ideally, you need one at least a few people in the group who are knowledgeable or have given some thought to what is happening in the wider world. If you don’t have them, go out and see if you can find them.

Ask them to start thinking about the changes likely to happen within society over the next 10 to 20 years. You can ask them to use a STEP (or PEST) analysis (Social, Technological, Economic, Political and add Environmental if you want to make it STEEP, or Legal and Ethical if you fancy STEEPLE!).

This needs to be done in a structured but uncensored way (we all tend to censor our thinking – or at least what we say out loud, when in groups), by which I mean, encourage people to put forward ideas, however flippant, without evaluating them at this stage. Ask them to think of ‘best case’ and ‘worst case’ scenarios: from the best of all possible worlds to a dystopian nightmare.

Ask your group to write their thoughts of what could happen — best and worst outcomes — under each STEP/STEEP/STEEPLE topic on separate Post-It Notes, then take everyone’s Post-It Notes and see if you can arrange them into themes. The idea is to produce coherent visions for what might happen to society at large, both good and bad.

So, if for example, one of your participants imagined the possibility that there would be a surge in community spirit over the next few years on one Post-It Note, perhaps inspired by government campaigns and initiatives, and someone else had written that people would have more leisure time (because, perhaps, technology will make working hours shorter), you could group these (four) ideas together. Conversely, someone could have imagined that there would be a growing crisis of community engagement as technology enables us to lead more and more individual lifestyles where we don’t need to step outside our front doors; in fact rising crime would make it dangerous to do so. What are the demographic trends in your locality? What’s happening, or likely to happen, to the high street? Will we still need to rely on privately owned motor cars? Etc., etc. etc..

Then, develop these scenarios, perhaps informed by extra research that these days can be done on line. You only need two or three comprehensive scenarios—one very positive, perhaps, one less so and one outright depressing. The chances are that the middle one will be closest to reality but some elements from either of the other two could also work their way into your selected scenario over time, so don’t throw the others away and keep them under review.

The trick then is to work out what these scenarios would mean for your civic society if the predicted outcomes were to materialise and then to develop strategies to prepare your society to respond to what’s coming over the hill.

For example, how would you cope with a sudden influx of new members who all wanted to join the committee? If nothing else, this should get you thinking and talking.

Have fun!

(If you would be interested in hearing my talk – I’ve seen the future and it’s sooner that you think!, which can also be run as a workshop, have a look at my Talks page.)

Joining the dots: how civic societies can raise their game by thinking about the bigger picture

Looking at a planning application for a major new development without regard to its impact on infrastructure is a bit like planning a big dinner party and thinking about the food but not the context: as well as the logistics of food purchase, preparation and presentation, you have to think about the guest list, the seating plan, the ‘mise-en-scène’ and even the ‘choreography’. If you want to delight your guests and have them judge the evening to have been a success, you have to get the details right.

In a similar way, we should look at new development proposals in terms of whether they will delight the people who will live or work there, the people who will make use of its facilities or even just pass by on a daily basis. What will be needed, not just in design terms, but in terms of the associated infrastructure to make the project viable and sustainable? Thinking about the pipes and cables needed to convey water, power and, these days, data. What will be the likely impact on transport networks? Do local roads and rail networks have the capacity to cope with new development? Are there going to be enough car parking spaces (and now, electrical charging points)? Will there be a need for new shops and community facilities such as schools, doctors, hospitals and so on? And as our towns and cities grow, the greater will be the expectations of local residents, businesses and visitors: are there enough restaurants, theatres, cinemas, hotels, conference centres, green spaces, community centres, and so on, to support the needs and demands of people living and working there? It all takes some planning and thinking through and this is where having a clear vision of what the future will bring should certainly help! Sometimes, it’s a question of scale: a few hundred new houses on the outskirts of a large town or city is one thing – but just a few dozen houses in the centre of a village something else again. They will, however, all have an impact on infrastructure – and that’s an infrastructure that will usually be shared with existing residents and businesses.

Now, all the above is important and I’m sure we are already conversant with the arguments and have a good knowledge and understanding of what is happening, or being planned, in our own areas. Sometimes, though, we have to look over the border to see how developments in neighbouring towns and cities might affect what is happening in our own patch. We need to take the ‘helicopter view’ to work out how the dots should be joined up. With the creation of combined authorities, local councils are working together not only to share services but also to plan infrastructure – the West Yorkshire Combined Authority is, for example “Developing an integrated transport network to support people, business, economy and growth” and this work will provide “a twenty year vision for developing a modern, high class, integrated transport system that supports the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership’s Strategic Economic Plan for sustained and healthy economic growth – especially for jobs and housing”. We are likely to see more of this sub-regional and regional planning in coming years – the proposals for a Yorkshire Mayor rumble on but could well lead to Yorkshire-wide planning decisions being made in the future (anyone remember Yorkshire Forward?). Civic societies will have to be alert to these arrangements because decisions made by such regional and sub-regional bodies will impact on us all at local level and it will likely be more important than ever for civic societies to work together in the future.

Now, one way of achieving this closer working and to build alliances on points of common interest is, of course, through attending our YHACS meetings where you can speak to representatives of other societies face to face and hear news from across the region. While we work hard to find interesting speakers to help stimulate your thinking, it is often that the most animated part of our meetings is when people are networking with each other over coffee. Whether you come to our meetings or not, there is, additionally, our newsletter, full of news and views and which we know our members much appreciate.

One final word on infrastructure: with so much going on around us politically, societally and technologically, it would be easy to forget that civic societies have infrastructure needs of their own. Modern communication tools, effective committee and sub-committee structures, risk management procedures, data protection protocols, programme and event management – the list goes on. How much time you need to devote to the infrastructure requirements of your society will depend to some extent on how big and how active your society is, but we all need to give these matters the thought and attention they deserve.

Telling Stories – recording the shared and individual histories of Civic Societies

When we think about culture, we often think about the arts – music, literature, theatre and so on. But it can mean something much wider – from the way we do things to the set of values and beliefs we hold. As nations evolve, the things they do and the beliefs and values they hold change over time, providing the rich continuum that makes for the modern society we have today while also giving us a deep sense of history and tradition. Our heritage is a product, not just of the artefacts human civilisations have created over time, but also the social interactions and conventions as well as the principles and tenets that have guided them in their development and evolution.

Organisations also have their own cultures within this wider social context; this is revealed in their rules and working practices, what they stand for and the way their people interact both with each other and with their stakeholders. Organisational cultures also change over time – and sometimes more quickly than in society at large: a new leader or new management team can wield a new broom and make very sudden and, indeed, sweeping changes to the way an organisation behaves: whether these changes are always welcome is, of course, another matter.

Sometimes, both at national and organisational level, the pace of change can be forced by external factors – political pressure or a sudden downturn in finances, for example, might require an urgent response – but these responses need to take account of what has happened before; those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, etc., (although, conversely, there’s nothing more irritating in this respect than when someone says “We tried that once and it didn’t work”!)

So what does this have to do with civic societies? Well, our civic societies often play an important role in celebrating culture and heritage in the widest sense. Many civic societies organise commemorative plaque schemes or lead guided walks, while some will also produce leaflets and other publications about the buildings, people and events associated with the history of their local community. In doing so, civic societies are telling the stories that keep local memories alive. This sort of activity can also prove a useful membership recruitment tool for your civic society because, if well-managed and executed, these activities will capture the attention and interest of people outside your society’s immediate membership. It is an essential part of what we do and long may it continue.

However, we can be so busy recording the history of our places that we may overlook another part of our social history. By this, I am referring to the history of what our civic societies have done. Committee members come and go, so it is important to ensure that the story of our civic societies is written down somewhere. I know that some societies (my own included) have traditionally deposited their papers with their local archive service. Doing this should ensure your paper (and even digital) records survive – copies of meeting minutes and annual reports and so on. Yet that’s not quite the same as telling the story of what you have done over the years. For that story to emerge, you need people to add their personal memories – but what if there’s no one left in your society who can remember the early days? Many civic societies have been going for over 50 years now and it’s not always possible to find someone who can recall how things started back then. Hopefully, your written records will be available, even if on deposit with an archive service, but that does require someone to commit time and effort, to do some research, to dig around in the archives, and to produce the narrative.

A few years ago, I visited Lincoln Civic Trust and was presented with a booklet that told the Society’s history. It was entitled “Lincoln Civic Trust – The First 50 Years” which, if nothing else, showed a certain upbeat optimism for the next fifty years. More recently, Civic Voice published a short history of the civic movement, so there is certainly a precedent here.

Wakefield Civic Society celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014. I did think at the time that it would be a really good project to produce a history of the Society to coincide with that milestone anniversary but we were so busy organising events to celebrate the anniversary that the project never got off the ground. (There’s a lesson here, of course! Don’t plan to write the history in your anniversary year – write it beforehand and publish it in your anniversary year!) I still think, however, that such a written history is needed. I’ll try to explain why.

Civic societies are part of our social history yet they are often overlooked. Having been a committee member for over 25 years, I am aware that Wakefield looks rather different now from what it might have looked like had it not had a civic society. There are projects the Society got involved with that helped to shape the city and letters of objection written and campaigns mounted that prevented much-loved historic buildings from being demolished. But who else now remembers what the Society did and what we achieved? Some of us on the committee have been in post for longer than many of the council officials and councillors at Wakefield Council, so our collective memory goes back further than the ‘official body’. At the Society, at least some of us can remember why certain things were (and were not) done and the way they turned out and why. If nothing else, we deserve some credit for what we have achieved for Wakefield – but if we don’t tell our own story, who will? And when those of us who have been involved for a long time finally retire – who will remember what the Society did? I only know about the very earliest days of the Society myself because people who were involved in setting the Society up told me their memories or because I have read some of the earliest papers from the 1960s.

What if a civic society closes down – where is the history of the society recorded? Does closure mean that the memory of the society dies also?

Perhaps all civic societies need to make the time and effort to tell their stories, and to keep telling them, to ensure that history doesn’t forget them? If you’ve already produced a history of your society, I’d be very interested to hear from you.