I am a Denmark-born, English sounding, Italian, Londoner and the arrival of the Olympics to this city has made me even more proud of being a Londoner.
Proof that the foundations for building a Big Society exist - at least in the neighbourhoods across London – was evident this weekend. Firstly, simply watching the Opening Ceremony in the comfort of my own home with Norwegian, English, Italian, Turkish, French and Polish friends – who all see themselves as “typical” Londoners – was testament of social capital linking different cultures in a Big Society. The emotion, pride and respect for what London as managed to pull off was palpable in the room and felt even truer as different nationalities jumped up and down, cheered with joy and splendidly waved flags when their countries paraded around the Olympic Park on TV.
Secondly, I went to see some Olympic Badminton very early on Sunday morning at Wembley. (No I am not an avid Badminton fan – my only exposure to the sport was when I tried out for the squad in secondary school and didn’t make the cut.) As soon as I stepped out of the tube at Wembley Park I was welcomed by a swarm of friendly volunteers greeting you with ‘Good morning’ and offering their assistance in every way possible – directions, event information and even taking pictures. Once in the venue we were directed by various military personnel who were also there lending a helping hand. I then queued up to purchase some hot drinks and even there my experience with the staff - voluntary and paid – was exceptional. Simply ordering warm milk led to a neighbourly enquiry about whether it should be hot or warm and whether I wanted it in a special container (e.g. a baby’s bottle). Even the sponsor representatives lurking around the venue talked to you in an affable manner and did not attempt to simply sell you things – a true rarity in my experience. On our way out after the event we were met with the same helpfulness and friendliness directing us to the tube by all personnel. The staff working in the tube stations also came across as more amicable than usual – almost as if they too felt part of something bigger, something to be proud of – being a Londoner during the 2012 Olympic games.
In Tony Hsieh’s work on Delivering Happiness,Vision/Meaning (being part of something bigger than yourself) is one of four pillars of happiness. So while part of all this sentiment could be me seeing things through rose-tinted spectacles, some of this experience is genuinely how people interact when they feel part of something bigger, something they are proud of.
This leaves me thinking that there must be some lessons here for how we could build a Big Society and grow social capital. The idea that volunteers are willing and able to run public services seems more doable. Whether they should is a whole different story.