Iona Lawrence
6 min readMar 24, 2021

How ‘an infrastructure for relationships’ could unlock the collective action we need to accelerate progress towards a world designed for and around relationships

Infrastructure as ‘telephone operator’: spotting connections, plugging people and organisations together and then getting out of the way (Photo: Cortlandt Exchange in New York City, Hulton Archive)

The viral video of Jackie Weaver’s experience at the Handforth Parish Council meeting touched a nerve for the millions who viewed it in February because we’ve all been in Jackie’s shoes at some point: at the hard end of isolating, bad or toxic relationships.

Jackie’s experience of aggression and thinly veiled prejudice shone a light on how so much of our shared life has too little space for tending to the thick and thin ties that bind us together.

Done right, relationships foster common understanding, they hold space for healthy conflict and disagreement, they provide the foundations for purpose, solidarity and shared action. Relationships are a critical component of all social justice work stretching across poverty, inequality and climate change.

The shape of a good relationship changes depending on context of course — the thin ties we might have with local supermarket check-out staff looks different to the thicker bonds between a carer and the person they tend to. But across all relationships some common qualities surface when we consider what good looks like.

Good relationships elicit some core emotional reactions: I belong, I feel safe, I feel cared for, I feel supported, I feel understood, I feel purposeful, I feel valued, I feel respected, I feel seen, I feel loved.

In short: our thick and thin bonds with one another help us through thick and thin.

Over the past year, with the help of Immy Robinson and David Robinson at The Relationships Project, I have had the pleasure of speaking with over 100 people about simple, ordinary, human relationships. From policy wonks to community organisers, from academics to local authority people, from philanthropic funders to business leaders, I was interested to hear what relationships mean to people, why they matter and whether they feel part of wider networks of others who share a commitment to relationships and working to tilt the world and its people towards one another.

These conversations have illuminated a set of shared concerns around the state of our relationships across a diverse range of people.

Our shared and uniting challenge is that while relationships might be one of the things that makes us human and therefore simple common sense, fostering good relationships is all too often considered ‘going the extra mile’.

This means that from GPs surgeries to schools, from workplaces to high streets, we all too often end up in situations like Jackie Weaver found herself in: lonely, disconnected, cut out and cut off from one another, and talking (or too frequently shouting) at cross purposes.

Our shared and uniting goal is to build a world that is designed for and around relationships: a world where relationships are the first mile, not the extra one.

I heard that a range of factors get in the way of greater collaboration and collective action in pursuit of this shared goal.

  • We tend to focus on the things we disagree on, rather than focus on what we have in common: a commitment to building a world designed for and around relationships
  • We don’t know how to best measure relationships, or whether the game of measurement is futile
  • We use different, sometimes alienating or confusing language
  • The field of relationships reflects inequalities and inequities in wider society

This last point needs some careful explanation: the privileges of time, resource and power meaning that a relatively small handful of actors define and dominate the language, stories, power and resources available. Meanwhile for others relationships are just as important but without the time, resource and power to engage more broadly and influence others, they don’t feel that their perspective is represented in some of the mainstream and prevailing wisdom around relationships — by which I mean the policies, the funding available, the prevailing narratives and stories that shape our imaginations of relationships across civil society and wider society.

A world designed for and around relationships requires an intersectional and inter-sectoral field that draws on the widest and deepest experiences, expertise and perspectives to craft hopeful, ambitious narratives and networks to shape and drive change. And a useful contribution to this could be to experiment with creating ‘an infrastructure for relationships’ to connect all those who share this conviction.

I’ve written more about these emerging reflections in: ‘Through Thick And Thin: How ‘an infrastructure for relationships’ could unlock the collective action we need to accelerate progress towards a world designed for and around relationships’.

Now is the time to start exploring what this means in practice. So The Relationships Project, Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire, The Jo Cox Foundation and Connection Coalition, The Roots Programme and a growing list of others are coming together to experiment with approaches stronger networks and an infrastructure for relationships. And we’d love for you to join us.

To borrow the words of Joe Mitchell and colleagues who are experimenting with strengthening networks for democracy: Our game must be to support and strengthen what exists, make connections across practices/issue spaces, help build trust and space to work together, help everyone see where they fit in the space, who their allies are, who they can draw on for support, where they might connect well with or create other shared projects, where they might risk duplication, what they can learn about previous projects, and where these projects can be most effective for the sector as a whole.

The infrastructure we need would act like a telephone operator: proactively spotting connections, plugging people and organisations together and then getting out of the way.

The next stage of this work will exemplify the culture desired from the field: we will be relational, open, generous and effective. We will adopt an experimental mindset: test what works, but give efforts sufficient time to either bed-in or to clearly fail. As we go we will continue to listen to and learn from others in other fields who are experimenting with what stronger networks and the infrastructure we need is.

We would love and very much need you to join us.

An invitation to join an experiment to connect the field and explore an infrastructure for relationships

The Relationships Project, Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire, Civic Square, The Roots Programme, The Jo Cox Foundation and Connection Coalition would love you to join us as we test the belief that stronger connections between those who share a commitment to relationships would be a valuable starting point to create the conditions for collective action and greater impact. In the coming months we will:

1. Surface inspiring ideas: We will create open, welcoming, stimulating events for people from across the field to gather together to share, listen to and discuss the big ideas and vision for a world built for and around relationships. Stay tuned for a line up to stimulate, inspire and challenge you whilst giving us all the chance to gather and meet new people.

2. Gather around shared challenges: We will create space for discussion and practical action on shared questions and challenges. We’ll start with the following:

  • Valuing and measuring relationships: How can we articulate the value of relationships authentically and effectively? And how can funders, commissioners and skeptics engage in a more nuanced approach to measuring and valuing relationships — or is this a fool’s errand?
  • Starting on power: Is a commitment to relationships a necessary part of the need to shift power, or do they sometimes undermine or get in the way of the fight against poverty and inequality?
  • Making relationships everyone’s business: What are the best ways of building and unlocking relationship-centred high streets and city centres?

3. Weave and connect a wider, deeper and stronger field: We will experiment with the best ways to provide network weaving and strengthening.

  • We will work with networks like the Connection Coalition to support them to weave together their work with other networks to foster closer, deeper and more collaborative ties with others who share a commitment to relationships.
  • We will work to develop a way to shine a light on the field, perhaps create a network map. This is so we can help people illuminate their work, find collaborators, spot patterns and feel part of and supported by the wider networks.

As we engage in these short term experiments, we’ll continually be holding this question: What ways of working or infrastructure could provide the catalytic energy needed for greater connectivity and a stronger field of relationships? In ‘Through Thick And Thin’ I share one idea for a Relationships Collective which could do this to provoke discussion and encourage others with alternative or similar ideas to come forward and share them.

Get in touch to tell us what you think. Or let us know how you’d like to be involved by filling out this quick form here.



Iona Lawrence

Iona is a freelance strategy consultant. Previously she set up the Jo Cox Foundation, worked in the Calais refugee camp and campaigned for Save the Children.