Lessons from Sandy: the importance of social networks
Last week I visited New York. Walking around Manhattan, the only visible signs of the chaos wrought by hurricane Sandy were the piles of neatly stacked sacks of belongings from homes and products from shops that the water destroyed.
The city felt as lively and vibrant as it did a year ago. Most New Yorkers had already bounced back and the ones I spoke to were full of praise for the way that City Hall and public services responded to an unprecedented situation.
I say most had bounced back because some areas outside Manhattan were hit particularly hard, and two weeks after the storm, electricity was only just being restored to parts of Staten Island, Rockaways and Red Hook.
Many homes were still without heating and New York isn't warm this time of year. In those communities, the devastation will take a lot longer to recover from and the role of non-profits will be as important as public services.
I met the brilliant Rosanne Haggerty, founder of Community Solutions, just one of the many organisations that were mobilising staff and volunteers to support families, elders and vulnerable people living in grim conditions.
One of Rosanne's insights has really stayed with me. Most of the stories of New Yorkers about their experience of Sandy were about social networks coming to life - no power, come stay at our place; no hot water, come shower at my Mom's; no subway to get to work, borrow my bike.
For those who've stayed in housing blocks with no electricity or heating for two weeks, the all-too-common story was about the lack of networks and connections to rely on in a crisis. Resilient individuals, but without the support networks that most enjoy.
Back in the UK I've been reflecting on that insight and how it applies to our own work to support innovation in public services and civil society. There's now strong research that shows that social isolation is as dangerous for your health as smoking and yet feeling alone and having no-one to call on in a crisis is an all too common part of many people's lives.
In partnership with the Cabinet Office we recently launched a challenge prize to find new ideas for reducing isolation among older people through social action.
The 25 ideas that we've shortlisted show real promise and I am sure that many will go on to have a big impact.
But I'm left wondering whether we need to go even further. What would happen if we looked at all of our public services through the prism of building people's social connectedness and networks?
How might the GP surgery, Job Centre or school be different, what about parks and libraries?
The scale of the financial and social challenges facing public services means that we are inevitably rethinking the shape of our institutions.
Perhaps we should take that opportunity to put them at the heart of a new movement to build much stronger social connections for everyone?
If you've got thoughts on this, post a comment, drop me an email on [email protected] or find me on twitter @philipcolligan