Human connections matter

Ben Thurman from the Carnegie UK Trust looks back at what happened on Let’s Get Real 7

We know that human connections matter. The everyday relationships and interactions we have with people in our community are fundamental: they contribute to a sense of belonging, and make other things possible. They are at the heart of our wellbeing.

Although these experiences of everyday relationships are often unnoticed and taken for granted, we know that there is an ‘infrastructure of kindness’ that makes them more or less possible. The places and spaces that we have to gather and meet, the nature of the opportunities for social connection, and the stories we tell about the values we share: all of these contribute to kinder communities.

Cultural organisations already play an active role in sustaining this infrastructure of kindness, by providing welcoming places where people can bump into each other, by using these physical spaces to foster opportunities for connection between people and communities – by being a ‘living room’ or ‘meeting house’ for the city (or town). But as the distinction between online and offline becomes increasingly blurred, could they be more active in building ‘digital meeting places’?

However high the footfall through a museum or gallery, it will communicate with a great many more people – all of whom have potential for meaningful human engagement – through its digital channels. If we accept that the work of cultural organisations is building understanding, human connection and wellbeing, then there is a strong argument for spending time to consider what this looks like in a digital space – not as something that is separate or an add-on, but as something that complements ‘analogue’ activities and forms a core part of how organisations deliver their social purpose.

A values-based approach

One way to explore this is through the lens of values, and over the past four years, the Carnegie UK Trust has been exploring the value of kindness as a way to redesign public policy. We have found that this focus shifts our thinking away from what we do towards how we do it.

Over the last forty years, public policy and organisational decision making has increasingly lent on what Julia Unwin calls ‘the rational lexicon’ – the language of rules and procedures, targets and metrics, value for money. And while all of this is important, there is also another language: of relationships, human intuition and kindness. We know from evidence and also personal experience that people do better when they experience meaningful human connection; but we have also seen these relationships being squeezed out by systems and structures that prioritise efficiency and accountability.

Working in partnership with a range of organisations to embed kindness into practice identified a number of barriers. Our attitudes towards risk and professionalism inhibit kindness: an array of rules and regulations and a culture that prizes a clinical and dispassionate approach leave little space to focus on what really matters to people. And our approach to performance management, focusing on measuring narrow targets and outputs, rewards transactions rather than relationships.

Kindness, then, far from being nice and ‘fluffy’, is disruptive: it demands challenging systems and structures and rethinking the way that things are run and managed. Adopting a values-based approach to digital communication similarly challenges attitudes and established ways of working. It asks us to think beyond branding and footfall, to develop something more human and engaging – and to assess ‘risk’ and measure ‘value’ in a different way.

Values-based design may not be new to organisations with a defined social purpose. But because ‘digital’ is often viewed in isolation, there is space to explore how cultural organisations can align their digital activity more closely with values-led practices that happen in physical spaces – and because of the unique ‘amplifying’ capacity of technology, embedding values into digital practice can feel risky and radical.

Radical digital

Nine months of digital experiments in eighteen different organisations elicited a number of themes – both where integrating values into digital had enhanced organisations’ social purpose, and where it highlighted challenges and gaps between values and practice.

  • Creating space to consider how to build values into digital communication enabled organisations to change the nature of engagement with people and communities. Experiments were rooted in simplicity: asking people ‘what makes a great day out’ (Tyne & Wear), or sharing photos and stories (Tiverton). These approaches used digital tools to create space for a conversation that allowed organisations to engage with and involve people in a much less linear way – and which diffused with and influenced how organisations seek to use their physical spaces.
  • Shifting the purpose ‘from promotion to representation’ (MERL), however, sharpened the focus on ethical dilemmas. Issues around privacy and safety, and the ethics of co-production, have to be navigated in the analogue world; yet they feel more complicated due to the mass sharing capacity of social media platforms.
  • One way of countering this was to engage with people using different digital spaces (Bristol Culture). However, if cultural organisations do wish to use existing social media channels to drive human connection, there needs to be flexibility and ‘permission’ to sometimes get things wrong. Encouraging people to ‘stop talking as a representative and start talking as a human being’ (Barnstaple) brings certain risks. In some cases, concerns about organisational reputation prevented participants from translating the sorts of conversations they routinely have in physical spaces onto digital platforms.
  • Partly, this is because the way we currently use digital tools ‘feels different’ to face-to-face engagement. However, the process of integrating values and human connection into digital practice also highlighted instances where organisational rules actively inhibited organisational values – where ‘policy is incongruous with values’ (British Museum). Digital experiments, then, opened up space to debate and challenge organisational cultures.
  • By ‘holding up a mirror’ to the organisation, LGR7 participants came full circle. Having set out to embed values and deliver social purpose through digital projects, six months later they were often challenging and questioning the organisational structures and procedures that prevented them from doing so. Rather than being discreetly ‘digital’, conversations became about system change.
  • This realisation led to participants taking on projects that were too ambitious – indeed, the most successful experiments (in terms of delivering outputs) were those that were tied to existing projects and slightly narrower in focus (Bletchley Park). Changing the way a whole organisation uses digital tools to foster human connection is about more than simply enhancing outreach: it requires breaking down silos and developing a ‘digital mindset’ (V&A Dundee; Wellcome Collection). While this change may not have been achieved, many organisations had opened up the conversation and begun the ‘process of in-reach’ (Manchester Art Gallery) that is required in order to develop a more joined-up approach to engagement.

Looking through a ‘digital lens’?

In the final reflections, the barriers to developing a more human approach were not ‘digital’ but structural, bound up in organisational processes and cultures. Themes of safety, risk, ethics and complexity – and the tension between values and practice – resonate with experiences working to embed kindness into organisational cultures, and the shift towards a more relational approach more generally.

In particular, people spoke about fear. The shift in focus from transactions to human relationships is challenging; it demands taking a risk and, crucially, it requires being allowed to get things wrong. LGR7 participants talked about the difficulties of negotiating this within risk averse environments. Perhaps because digital amplifies people’s voices, it is sometimes held to different standards of success and failure. Yet, if organisations are serious about embedding relationships into digital practice, then there needs to be a different approach to ‘risk’, predicated on greater trust of those working within digital channels to ‘be human’, and a different response to negative feedback. This in turn is based on a reassessment of the way that we measure success – not in terms of clicks and ‘likes’, but focusing more on the quality of engagement and how people feel.

Another key theme was time and investment. Recognising the challenges outlined above, digital teams cannot be expected to ‘do’ human connection as an add-on, within existing organisational structures. There needs to be an investment of time and support to experiment with and deliver what is a much more complex offering. Equally, digital tools are one part of a much broader approach to connecting with people and delivering social purpose; and it therefore needs to be integrated across the organisation, rather than treated as a silo and ‘addon’ to relationships in physical spaces.

These themes of time/investment and risk/fear in many ways are not about digital at all, but rather about (radical) organisational change. In this way, LGR7 highlighted the potential for digital to be a lens to explore the tension between values and practice. At the same time, it taught that the size and scale of the challenge should not cause inertia: even small tests of change can act as a catalyst for bigger conversations.

Embedding values and human connection into digital practice is certainly not easy, but it feels like an important journey of travel for cultural organisations. Whether approached from a values or a digital perspective, it is one where every step has the potential to improve the way that cultural organisations involve, engage and represent people and communities; and more broadly, to inspire a more socially responsible and more relational digital culture.


Ben’s article appears in our Let’s Get Real 7 report. Download the full report here.

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