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Last Updated: Friday, 12 January 2007, 12:31 GMT
Re-writing the rule book
Matthew Taylor
If we are going to create the world we want by making our own contribution, we need a different set of rules
Matthew Taylor, RSA Chief Executive

There are some important things most of us say we want.

A safe, pleasant environment, good public services, a strong and tolerant community, healthy democracy.

But we are not going to get these things unless we do something to make them happen.

We could just ask the government to tell us what to do, but most of us think the government already interferes too much already and when it does tell us what to do, we often do the opposite.

If we are going to create the world we want by making our own contribution, we need a different set of rules.

Not laws or regulations made by Government, but things we decide to do together to make our world a better place to live.

Maybe, if we can agree these rules, we will also choose to stick to them.

One of the first important steps we need to take is to learn to engage with strangers - not just tolerate each other but to learn how to live together.

Surprising research

Coffeehouse Challenge participants
People in Crouch End came together to brew up fresh ideas

Research carried out last year by the RSA revealed that Britons' involvement in their local communities is surprisingly low.

More than two thirds (68%) of people admitted they do not take part in any local groups or activities, in spite of over half (53%) saying they would probably be happier if they were more connected locally.

I want the RSA to spend the next few years working out how citizens can write their own rule book.

It's a radical idea - it will require a different kind of politics, different kinds of public services and a huge shift in our attitudes.

And the RSA is well placed to lead the way.

Challenging the public

Since 2004, we have been running the "Coffeehouse Challenge", an annual initiative bringing people together in coffee houses to talk about the issues they care about, engage with fellow citizens and take action to find their own solutions to local problems.

Coffeehouses have long been places for discussion, debate and ideas; places where people meet and engage in conversation.

Many innovative ideas have originated from discussions in coffeehouses - the RSA is one of them.

Local projects

Coffeehouse Challenge participant
South Tyneside students scoop the 2006 award in the Coffeehouse Challenge

But, through the Coffeehouse Challenge, local people are taking this one stage further... rather than waiting for government or other people to take action people are doing it for themselves.

Take one example. In 2006, a Coffeehouse Challenge in Richmond, Surrey, agreed there were not enough places for old or disabled people to stop and sit when out and about.

So they set up a charity and started designing and reserving seats in streets, shops and public buildings.

The 2006 research showed that 28% of Britons are already meeting up in their local coffee house or pub and taking an interest in their community, so it is building on a drive to get involved that already exists.

On Monday 6 November 2006, we hosted the second annual Coffeehouse Challenge Awards.

The sponsors, Starbucks and T Mobile, provided 21,000 in awards for some of the best ideas generated in the year's discussions.

They ranged from a scheme to improve employment rates amongst ethnic minorities in East London, an initiative to engage disaffected youth in Llandfechell in Wales, to a conference to define best practice when in after-care treatment for people with addictions in Nottingham.

Each of the winning projects will use their share of the prize-money to give their ideas a kick-start and make a real impact in their local area.

Taking ideas forward

Coffeehouse Challenge participants
People from Southwark discuss how communities can make themselves heard

The Challenge's success proves that if you give people the opportunity to change things, they will take it.

Facilitating a Coffeehouse Challenge does not mean having to organise a project.

The discussion could be a catalyst for an idea or ideas which others in the local community want to take forward.

In 2007 people everywhere will once again be invited to organise a Challenge in their area.

Keep watching the Politics Show for more information about how you can sign up to get involved in your community through your very own Coffeehouse conversation, and start writing your own rules.

Join Jon Sopel and guests for the Politics Show next Sunday 14 January at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.

What do you think? What sort of things could we do for ourselves without the need to involve politicians in the process?

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