7 Starlings – An Experiment in Community Self-Organisation

7 Starlings Logo

How do you get people to organise, when organising carries a heavy regulatory cost – data protection, health and safety, safeguarding and so on?

Here is an experimental answer to this question, formed of some unlikely components – an ancient market town, a public library, complexity theory as applied to flocks of starlings and something called the Value Systems Model.

Let us start with the town. Towns are like everything else: as the world changes they need to reinvent themselves and move on. Otherwise they fossilize and die or, in a way peculiar to towns, sicken and turn septic.

In my town, Shepton Mallet, you can see that reinvention has been going on for at least a couple of thousand years. Down the road is a trading estate in the buildings of what used to be a nineteenth century brewery built on top of what had been a Roman pottery. A short walk from there brings you to the grand eighteenth century houses of the clothiers and the remains of their water driven mills. In the other direction you pass the cottages of the weavers whose hand looms were replaced by the mills.

You can see the traces of historic reinvention everywhere in Shepton Mallet – but it is also very obvious that, in the last thirty years or so, the process has got stuck: empty shops, derelict properties, and so on.

It would be nice to think that the three tiers of local government that look after us could, between them, crack the problem. Without intending any criticism, experience demonstrates otherwise. It is up to us, the people who live there.

Recently we have begun to make progress. The trick seems to be to generate fun, to draw people in, cheer them up and generally breathe life into our town. We now have runs in the Park on Saturdays, Sunday markets, a Lantern Parade, a Snowdrop Festival, a Festival of Dogs and many other events.

This brings us on to the Library. If you are trying to revive a town centre, you don’t want to lose the things that attract people to go there. More than that, the relatively modest cost of our Library is a much-needed investment in our people, particularly our young people. It is not just about the books. It is also about the librarians and the space – calm, supportive, neutral and open to all, free of charge.

So we were very pleased that the result of a review of the Somerset library service by the County Council is that we are to keep our public library in the town centre. We are grateful for the money pledged by the Town Council and the Glastonbury Festivals Ltd to support this. Most encouraging of all, there is agreement to setting up a social enterprise to promote and enhance the way the Library is used by the community, particularly outside of opening hours. So, the 7 Starlings Community Interest Company has been brought into existence.

How do starlings come into it?

Down on the Somerset Levels at this time of year you can see vast flocks of starlings at roosting time. It is a most impressive sight and makes the Red Arrows look like a herd of loosely coordinated elephants, as compared with a Russian corps de ballet. Just search murmuration (the posh word for a flock of starlings) in Youtube and you will see what I mean.

How do they do it? The ornithologist Edmund Selous spent decades watching starlings and eventually, in 1931, published a book entitled ‘Thought-Transference (or What?) In Birds’. It is a charming thought: somewhere in the middle of a starling flock must be a Group Captain Starling, the equivalent of Red 10, who coordinates Red Arrow aerobatic displays, communicating instructions by instantaneous telepathy, presumably on multiple channels, one for each starling.

However, it turns out that thought transference has nothing to do with it. The ‘or What’ is a simple matter of self-organisation. Each starling in a flock calibrates itself against the seven starlings flying ahead or alongside. This was demonstrated in 2010 by Dr Hildenbrandt, Professors Carere and Himelrijk – https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/21/6/1349/333856.

Finally, we get to the Viable System Model. This is an organisational model developed by the British theoretician Stafford Beer as an alternative to the traditional, top-down hierarchical organisational model. The objective is an organisation that can adapt and thrive in unpredictable and turbulent environments. Perhaps we can combine this with self-organization and mutual calibration – the seven starlings idea – to create a multiplicity of groups, undertaking a range of activities, under a single coordinating umbrella, so as to cover the regulatory and other organisational burdens efficiently.

Paul Crummay of Outplacement First came up with the seven starlings idea. Dr Lesley Rowan of Engage South West developed the VSM. Paul and Lesley are founding directors of 7 Starlings CIC along with Kate Lovell and me.

There you have it – what 7 Starlings CIC is about. If it works it will be a good thing for Shepton Mallet and may offer useful lessons for other places and situations. Please watch this space.

2 thoughts on “7 Starlings – An Experiment in Community Self-Organisation

  1. This sounds fantastic. Is it working? Is it surviving, even thriving in lockdown? Really interested in the working out of the idea, I live in a market town too, Thank you


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