Building the Big Society

Wilson’s world

David Wilson is editor of Engineeringtalk and Electronicstalk and associate editor of The Engineer

The trees in my garden always produce a lot of apples in the autumn — so many, in fact, that it’s difficult to know what to do with them all.

But rather than throw them all on the old compost heap to rot, I usually take several bags of the beasts over to my neighbour across the road. She uses them to create numerous rather scrumptious apple pies that she then sells for a nominal fee to raise funds to support several local charities.

It’s a move that’s paid off. Because last week, the lady in question invited me to attend a dinner at a local Italian restaurant with several of her friends from the local church, and — in a rather uncharacteristic move — I accepted.

During the course of the evening, it appeared that, through the church, this rather fine lady had engaged her group of colleagues in more than just one or two fund-raising wheezes to support her favourite charities. Indeed, the sheer scale of her activities was quite mind-boggling.

But what was most impressive was the approach she had taken to fundraising. Rather than simply ask local folk for pecuniary donations, she had taken advantage of the fact that she could leverage their time, expertise or, in my case, excess apple-producing capability, and turn it to her own advantage.

It’s not a new idea of course. Decades ago, folks in villages such as mine engaged in all manner of trade with one another simply as an inexpensive means to stay alive. But in today’s fast-paced, modern world, not so many activities take place on such a scale any more. People are too caught up with work, earning money and spending it at large stores to take part in such deeds.

But after drinking more than a couple of shots of grappa — a rather attention-grabbing Italian after-shave fermented from the peels, seed and stems of grapes — I got to wondering whether the same technique that my friend from church has taken to generate cash for her charitable activities couldn’t be applied to generate new businesses here in the UK.

Indeed, could the re-emergence of small-scale activities based upon networking with simpler folk in local communities be exactly what our venerated prime minister, The Right Honourable David Cameron, be alluding to when he talks about fashioning a ’Big Society’ here in the UK?

I think so. And with that in mind, it’s back to the local watering hole tonight to see if any local entrepreneurs have recently returned from a voyage outside the EU with a surfeit of cigarettes that they would part with for considerably less cash than our larger stores here in the UK are demanding for similar goods.

Naturally, of course, you can be assured that the difference between the price I pay for the contraband smokes and the exorbitant charges that I would incur for the same in a local shop will be donated to one of the aforementioned lady’s under-funded cancer charities. After all, isn’t that what the Big Society is all about?

David Wilson

The Wilson’s world blog also forms part of the Engineeringtalk, Electronicstalk and Manufacturingtalk newsletters. To subscribe, go here for Engineeringtalk, here for Electronicstalk and here for Manufacturingtalk