The following reoccurring ideas helped informed decisions about how to adapt and enhance the Living Room.

Externalities

This idea is drawn from economics. In that discipline price is a function of supply and demand. The demand for goods can be disrupted by externalities, variables other than whether the good is needed. Take collective perception of any good. Some goods achieve what we might call ‘snob value’, meaning a person wants to have it because other people with perceived status have it. Conversely, demand may be diminished because people perceived to be unworthy are buying it.

Some Walworth citizens will use the Living Room because respected neighbours are using it.

By this analysis, citizen use of the Living Room is going to reflect not only whether it offers something that is needed -irrespective of price- but also who else is using it. Some Walworth citizens will use the Living Room because respected neighbours are using it. Some will ignore the offer because less respected neighbours are users.

The concept is especially challenging in the context of a desire to mix populations, to allow for the possibility of say young people bumping into older people as one group enters and other group leaves the Living Room. The mix has to occur without reducing demand.

Affordances

In plain language, experience of the environment can change the way we think and feel.

This is an architectural concept, referring to the signals sent by the ambience created by a building, signals that tell us how we are expected to behave, signals that do not need to be written down. They are most evident in religious spaces, libraries and medical centres. Affordances were evident in Ratio’s collaboration with the Association of Camerados as they placed teepees in public hospitals.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen, a former professor of design at Harvard University, writes about how the environment affects cognition. We experience space, she argues, through the senses: our eyes, ears, nose, hands and mouth. The sights, sounds, tastes, smells and textures our bodies experience affect our non-conscious cognition. In plain language, experience of the environment can change the way we think and feel. For some, just the sight of the teepee was sufficient to achieve this change.

Fixing and Connecting

When a local citizen walks into the office of the settlement building at Pembroke House, the staff are set up to respond to any problems they may have, they are primed to try and fix the problem. The problem may not be solvable, but they will try. When a citizen walks into Walworth Living Room, there is no office and, typically, few staff. The hosts, the Maitre D. is primed to connect, to link up the visitor with others in the Living Room.

Ratio’s partnership with Oxford Trailblazers collaborative of public systems and civil society organisations elaborated on these concepts of fixing and connecting, showing when one strategy trumps the other, the mechanism by which connecting can lead to changes in human health and development.

Prescription to Produce Agency

Questions of agency pervaded discussions about the Living Room. The guiding ethic was for visitors to retain agency. But passive interaction might potentially rob visitors of their freedom to act. If the space, content and timing of the Living Room is organised around visitors, what can they do but conform? The Living Room should be shaped, even momentarily, by those who visit.

The idea emerged of creating prescriptions, in the form of a safe, welcoming, neutral space, that would allow visitors to be everything they could be.

The religious concept of body of Christ became part of these discussions. A local church is part of a global church with Christ at its head. To come to church is to be a member of the body. To be a member is to be transformed. A member has something to give to the church, but he or she is open to be transformed.

Does this religious way of thinking have any relevance for the Living Room? The idea emerged of creating prescriptions, in the form of a safe, welcoming, neutral space, that would allow visitors to be everything they could be. The idea also works in the context of staff, residents and visitors. With clear instruction about the mission, governance, and their role, those organising the Living Room can give their full capabilities to the task.

Permission

Permission is not an instruction. It is an opportunity.

A context or verbal invitation for people to do what they want to do but are put off by anxiety or social convention. Permission to talk to a stranger. Permission to donate.

Ratio facilitated the learning for an innovation called Problem Solving Booths, two chairs placed on the kerbside, with the sign ‘helper’ above one chair and ‘helped’ above the other. Passers-by are invited to sit in the chairs, to share the ‘booth’ with strangers. The work found that people needed permission to sit down, that is to say most people want to join in but they are fighting voices in their head reminding them of a pressing appointment, or fear of the unknown. Permission, in the form a word of encouragement, or by arranging the chairs so that it is easier to sit than walk by, broke through the reluctance. Permission is not an instruction. It is an opportunity.

Third Place

As explained in the Short History of Pembroke, the Living Room emerged from exploration of Ray Oldenburg’s of a third place, separate from two usual places like home and work, “hangouts that get you through the day”. A third place is neutral -there is no obligation to be there; it is a leveller -there is no status attached to turning up; conversation is the main activity; it is a “home away from home”.

This idea was first applied by Pembroke House staff to a proposal for a Public House, the purchase of the Huntsman bar less than 100 meters away from the settlement. When that proposal faltered, the Living Room concept emerged.

Host or Maitre D.

The idea of a host, the person that welcomes, facilities, makes people feel at home, emerged from Oldenburg’s third place work, and Pembroke House’s application of that idea to the Public House proposal. Initially, every staff, resident or volunteer could be a host (it was Pembroke House’s home, so it was natural to think of people who ‘lived’ in that home -literally in the case of the residents- as hosts).

In practical terms this did not work. The Living Room was not a home, and was physically and emotionally removed from the settlement. The Living Room concept was fluid, meaning staff, residents and volunteers had different ideas about what it meant, a handicap when it came to welcoming visitors.

The Maitre D. concept emerged, the role restricted to one person at any part of the day, somebody whose primary role was to welcome, connect, direct visitors to new opportunities, and to actively contribute towards the ambience (accepting that the ambience will change as the Maitre D. changes).