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Most regenerators, community builders, think tankers and politicians have a touch of the visionary about them.

Each, modestly or not, believes they can help change the world.

And rightly so. If we don’t think we can make a difference, there are far more comfortable ways to earn a living.

But there’s always a tension between how things could be and how things are.

I’ve been entertained recently by Utopia Britannica, Chris Coates’s account of British utopian experiments since the middle ages.

What would Sir John Egan make of communities like The Cloisters in Letchworth, which, according to George Orwell (and this may or may not have been a recommendation), was a haven for ‘every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England’?

Politicians today shy away from promises of heaven on earth, or even homes fit for heroes, but are no less starry-eyed when it comes to strategies and initiatives.

One of the more obscure ones this week was a speech by Lord McKenzie, a minister at the Department of Work and Pensions, calling on government, business and charities to put their heads together to come up with a definition of ‘good work’.

‘We need to figure out exactly what 'good work' is, so that we can ensure workplaces are happy, healthy and productive,’ he told the Work Foundation.

By the time we’ve agreed a definition, made recommendations, issued guidance and put regulations in place, half of us will have retired.

But relatively marginal shifts in thinking about work could improve millions of people’s lives.

The difficulty is that in comparison with the utopian rhetoric of happy, healthy and productive workplaces, the marginal differences look paltry.

Similarly, education secretary Alan Johnson this week set out a ‘parenting strategy’, as if this could be a solution to education, wellbeing and crime rolled into one.

The small differences that may be achieved will inevitably be labelled failures because education, wellbeing and crime will undoubtedly be as great a challenge to us in five, 15 or 50 years’ time as they are now.

In community building as in all other aspects of life, our reach should exceed our grasp.

Not only does it help us to picture the possibilities, it’s also a great antidote to hubris.

But when we denigrate the marginal differences as a result, we risk not moving forward at all.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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