Community Development and “Nudge Theory”

This post is a quick response to a recent post by Mike Chitty, 32 (Tentative) Beliefs About Community Development.

As usual, I agree with 95% of what Mike says. Actually, that’s not usual, nearly all the time I agree with everything Mike says. This time, however, I depart slightly from Mike’s point of view, or at least I think I do.

You see, Mike argues, very persuasively, that community development only works if people are allowed to identify their own self-interests and that what produces collective social progress is when people with similar and compatible self-interests find each other and work together to achieve change (at least this is what I think Mike believes, I hope this very brief summary doesn’t distort it).

I couldn’t agree more with this, but it does beg the question, how do you encourage the process to start? In an ideal world, everybody would understand where their self interest lies and would know how to find others with like minds. But, it is obviously not like this, so how far do you go to encourage it to start, and where is the line between encouragement and corralling people to follow visions that bear no relations to their lives. The latter is where most community development and regeneration has ended up, producing one of two results. Either all the poor people are displaced from an area and are replaced with those with the resources to live in the regenerated landscape, or nothing changes except for a few new shiny buildings and jobs for outsiders.

So, the self-interest approach has to be better. But, what about the argument that poor communities are a drag on the resources of the taxpayer, and that it is therefore in all of our interests to “nudge” them towards regeneration. Can we get this right?