Mumbai brings out the night owl in me. Of course my night owl might not resemble yours, or most people’s for that matter. I do an uncanny impression of a baby sloth during most times of the day and in most conditions, but in Mumbai I regularly managed the near impossible task of staying awake (and reasonably cognisant) beyond 12am.
The thing is, I was on holiday (of sorts) so such nocturnal shenanigans aren’t scandalous.What is noteworthy is that in the same period I collected more phone numbers than I can remember. In a few cases this was the result of networking at formal events, but mainly it’s happened socially, informally, almost accidentally. Almost every conversation I’ve had in the city resulted in the exchange of phone numbers. It’s as though every conversation is a planted seed, the prelude to future meetings.
Contrast this with my experience of our neighbourhood in Southampton. Nazneen and I moved into our new house in June. Until Christmas we only know one neighbour by name, a lovely elderly woman called Elaine who lives a few doors down. To remedy this, Naz wrote Crimbo cards to all the neighbours in our immediate vicinity, addressing them to house numbers rather than their residents – because we didn’t know their names – but signed with our own. Over a few days we had cards posted through our door signed in the same way, so we know a few more of our neighbours through the ritual of Christmas card exchange. At first, I was pleased with our haul of new names. But then it dawned on me how bizarre it was: neither we nor our neighbours actually knocked on our doors to introduce ourselves in person. Robert Putnam would call this evidence of social capital poverty. I think it’s probably a little more complex than that; we’re not talking about a quantitative depletion of social “connectedness” but the erosion – or possibly historical absence – of a culture of conviviality.
David Cameron and other Big Society ideologues have made heavy weather of insisting that civility has to be the bedrock for a reimagined civil society (and, by, necessity, a reimagined State). What Mumbai – and India at large – always reminds me is that it is conviviality and not civility that makes a difference. It’s only when you step outside Britain’s stultifying bubble of social wariness that you realise there is another way to interact. To be meaningful, social innovation should not only meet social needs where the state and market (alone) cannot, but should also be able to extend civil society and thereby create new social relationships from which other forms of innovation are enabled. How can we expect to create new social relationships when our existing ones are so weak, and how can this happen without a culture of conviviality?