Article 1: The Southwark Circle



Not all aspects of quality of life and well-being depend on “big” issues such as health or income. Getting an electrical appliance fixed, learning how to use Skype or picking up the shopping and meeting someone with similar interests make a big difference. The trick is to bring these wants and needs together with the capabilities in the community, and to make it possible for someone who helps with some things to themselves receive help with other needs. That is what Southwark Circle was designed to do, fulfilling everyday needs through a social support network and in the process reducing social isolation in an inner-London borough.

Southwark Circle was the result of a unique partnership between the service design practice Participle, Southwark Council, the Department for Work and Pensions, and Sky that started in September 2007. In order to understand better the community’s needs and aspirations, it was developed with the active co-design of more than 250 older people and their families over the course of 18th months, before being launched in May 2009 as a community interest company. News of the launch was spread via local newspapers, word of mouth, and by a temporary stall set up in front of a super market to create awareness of the scheme outside existing social networks.

Description of the context

In common with much of the south bank of the Thames, The Borough has seen extensive regeneration in the last decade. Declining wharfage trade, light industry and factories have given way to residential development, shops, restaurants, galleries, bars and most notably major office developments housing international headquarters of accountancy, legal and other professional services consultancies, most notably along London Bridge City and More London between Tooley Street and the riverside. The area is in easy walking distance of the City and the West End. As such it has become a major business centre with many national and international corporations, professional practices and publishers locating to the area. The elderly population is growing at a much faster rate than other groups.



For 10 pounds per year, Southwark residents over age of 50 can join the Circle, which is mediated via telephone and internet. Membership offers the opportunity to contribute to, and participate in, a lively social calendar, and to buy tokens giving access to the active network of GRB-checked ‘Neighbourhood Helpers’. Helpers may be Circle members who also volunteer, or non-members who are paid the London living wage for their time. Each token is equivalent to about an hour’s work and the help provided ranges from gardening and cleaning to computer lessons and general advice. The scheme thereby caters to otherwise unmet needs of the community, adding to the public service offer and strengthening local social networks. Members who are struggling with small everyday problems can get them fixed without having pay large sums to commercial providers or turn to relatives or social services.  Helpers can choose to be either voluntary or paid, which enables retired or unemployed people as well as active professionals to use their skills in a productive and appreciated manner.

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The monthly member calendar is composed of many events that are suggested or hosted by members and helpers and helpers. It also features discounts on products and services. The calendar is a “continuation of life” for many members, offering opportunities to meet people learn new skills and share their interests. Helpers are also encouraged to socialise whilst and many have already created long-lasting professional relationships and friends.

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Souhtwark Circle has been designed as a social enterprise that can be fully self-sufficient by its third year as it reaches its target of 2000 members. At this point, Southwark Council will withdraw its funding and the Circle will be financed solely through membership fees, booking and private donations. In its first year, it beat growth targets by 15%, it continues to grow both in the borough and across the country as an innovative model.

Numbers after 1 year

cifras de 2010


After a year, Southwark Circle had 700 members, and had been growing faster than expected. Although the financial benefits are still to be proven, early evidence suggests that for every pound invested, Southwark Council will save three pounds. This is achieved by reducing the day-to-day services that the council has provided, through helping residents gain employment and by improving members’ well-being, thereby reducing GP visits. Now that early success is becoming evident, Southwark Circle’s infrastructure and organizational structure can be replicated in other areas. New schemes have already started in Suffolk and Hammersmith & Fulham. The model allows for customisation in accordance with local needs and resources.



Chronological Development 

leyenda desarroyo6 mayo 2007 unico

5 septiembre 2007 unico

21 marzo 2008 unico

6 nobiembre 2008 unico

80may 2009 unico

250enero 2010 unico120july 2011 unico


Who ‘owns’ Circle?

Circle is led and developed by the people it serves: our Members.

Each Circle is a legally constituted organisation, registered as a Community Interest Company with its own Board, governance structure and Steering Group (which includes a representative of the original investor).

Participle Ltd, a social enterprise, developed, and continues to power each Circle. As such, it owns the IP of Circle. Each Circle operates within a specific Network Agreement, meaning that it is governed by boundaries of practical, ethical and cultural behaviour designed by Participle.

Key lessons


User-led service design (economical, environmental and cultural strategy)

One of the primary factors behind the Circle’s success is the fact that it was created with local residents. This has allowed the scheme to provide services that are tailored to local needs and has ultimately helped boost the project’s popularity and usage. Many services are, moreover, provided by people from the neighbourhood, about the third of the helpers are also members, thus creating a user co-production model. The quality of the user interface is crucial for this model to succeed.  In this case that has been achieved through the co-development of an easy-access, low-barriers platform combining online and offline communication.

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Connected entrepreneurs (cultural, economical and social strategy)

Southwark Circle was initiated by Participle’s internationally recognised social innovation experts, who were able to organise significant support from across the public sector both locally and nationally. Their reputation encouraged Southwark Council to participate in the project even when its benefits were yet unproven, and despite its reliance on qualitative metrics and evaluation types beyond those normally employed in the public sector. Equally, their involvement has enabled relatively rapid scaling beyond the original pilot towards a series of other locations.



Unleashing people’s strengths (economical, environmental and cultural strategy)

Fundamentally, Southwark Circle is based on the premise that many of the everyday social needs in an urban neighbourhood could be met by the time, skills and energy of others nearby. The fact that this does not normally happen could be perceived as a gap in the market which the venture aims to fill through an easy-access network that brings both together. The Circle strengthens a sense of neighbourhood interdependency by both enabling and celebrating the favours that people can offer each other, in a way that prevents people from becoming on mainstream services.


Circle is designed to move away from a system that is:

  • Transaction based (providing the cheapest ‘acceptable’ service) to one that focuses on relationships and social connections;
  • Financially focused to one which adopts a broader definition of resource that includes the capacity and power held within our communities;
  • Needs only focused to one that looks at people’s capabilities, what they want to achieve and how they wish to live their life;
  • Adoptive of a national delivery model with branches to one that focus on local dynamic models within a national framework;
  • Focused on managing crisis to one that is preventative, but is present when the inevitable crisis unfolds. Circle works with people earlier (50+) rather than later (70+) regardless of levels of need or income.


Their capability focus can be seen as an inversion of the current ‘needs’ based approach in which the state (and the services it provides) defines a person based on what they can’t do rather than on what they can. Circle is different.

IN conclusion 

Successes and Failures


How do we create platforms and institutions that help people support each other, and become more self-reliant through mutual interdependence? Southwark Circle focuses on what people can offer one another and unlocks frequently ignored resources for often unmet needs. This investment is essential across our neighbourhoods: it allows us to strengthen the unseen virtual and social networks that will enable our physical places to prosper and be more resilient.

However is necessary the economic support of the council to start the project.





One comment

  1. Leon Kreitzman

    Despite the injection of very large amounts of public money via the local council, there is no evidence that Southwark Circle has had any effects commensurate with the amounts spent. Indeed, there seems to be some doubt whether Southwark Circle can survive now that the money supply has been closed off.
    It is also true that the expenditure on Southwark Circle was detrimental to other charitable organisations whose own funding was cut. Many of these charities provided for more vulnerable, poorer and indeed older old people. It seems that Southwark Circle was attractive to 50-60 year olds of some means who nevertheless benefitted from what was in effect a subsidy from the local council. It is not clear that this was a socially equitable transfer.
    As I am sure you know, it is very easy to make claims, much harder to substantiate them. |It seems that Southwark Circle came nowhere near the hype it generated. That may be where the lessons lie.

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