In the last year the headlines highlighted large-scale, sometimes violent, rejections of the status quo. Tessy Britton FRSA argues it was also a year in which citizen-led creative and collaborative local projects came into their own.
As regular citizens, we have a number of well-established routes to participating in society. We participate through being consumers, supporting the economy, circulating money while trying to provide valuable livelihoods for ourselves and others. We participate through generosity, giving what we can spare and volunteering to help others, both at home and abroad.
Many of us choose to get involved in social governance. We may take on formal roles and responsibilities, become school governors, stand as a local councillor, act on committees and community forums. And, of course, we can vote. Less formally, we may also get involved in public consultations and - when we feel our concerns have not been are sufficiently listened to – we can challenge decisions more directly through campaigning and protesting. So, with so many opportunities to participate, why are we seeing people engaging in their communities in new, more collaborative ways, and what can we learn from this?
An example of these new creative behaviours might broadly be described in this simple scenario: a person has an idea of how their street or community might look or feel different. They might think that a few benches in their street would create new opportunities for neighbours to get to know one another better through informal contact. Historically, they could take their idea to the local authority or their ward councillor, where it would be supported or not.
But if that person knocked on their neighbours’ doors, described their idea and managed to collect some donations and, together, they bought a bench or two - or even designed and made their own, then this would be a significantly different approach. They would not be acting out of charity, or representing anyone, or campaigning. They had a creative, socially informed idea and, working collaboratively with neighbours, they made it happen.
This same pattern is emerging around the world, from community fruit collections and skills sessions, to resource sharing and many projects relating to food, growing, cooking, making and learning. What we are seeing is not nostalgic and is culturally structurally very different from what we have witnessed before.
Knowledge about systems, the social connection needs of people, the ideas and methods of making these social projects work, is slowly becoming more widespread, making these innovative projects more sophisticated in their design. Some professionals are deploying their expertise in their own communities voluntarily. There is a much deeper and wider appreciation of the idea of waste; whether of people’s talents, ideas and energies, or physical resources. Collectively, these strands of thinking represent opportunities to act in clever and successful ways that have the potential to transform how we live day-to-day.
People are rediscovering the pleasures and benefits of common activity: neither as passive consumers, nor as needy recipients of charity, but as active makers and designers of the social, economic and physical infrastructure of where they live. There is a new sense of agency emerging, of optimism and of control, and it is revealing itself through positive activity on a human scale.
For some years, I have been working on a project called Social Spaces, concentrating on understanding these phenomena as they have emerged. We now have 45 collaborative books in production –The Community Lover’s Guide to the Universe –collecting stories about these new types of local projects from around the world, projects often characterized by their powerful ability to gently bridge widespread social divides. Last month in Rotterdam, I spent the morning in the Living Room, a beautiful space that is funded by members of the community, each paying three euros a month, and managed by volunteers. In Israel, the practice of communities renting a shared house for community activities is becoming commonplace in some areas.
Over the past 15 months, Social Spaces has worked in around 80 communities, asking over 2,000 people what they would like to see more of in the places where they live. We have worked in all types of communities, including less privileged places, and the answers are the same everywhere. Not a single person has asked for more restaurants, clothing or jewellery shops. Instead, people in the UK said they want to live in communities where the divisions between age, culture, wealth (and lack of it) are bridged. They told us that they want to live in beautiful places and, very importantly, that they want new types of common space, places that can help to build more sociable communities. They want to create a sense of community, to pool their ideas, talents and to build on their innate resourcefulness and resilience through simple activities.
They believe that these activities, added together, can start to make significant steps towards transforming their communities. Research confirms this. What has emerged from this work is an amazing collective vision: a homemade vision that is not being imposed by social theorists, the media or Hollywood.
So what impact could this new type of creative and collaborative participation have on the body politic? It is often happening without the need for state funding or permission and has the potential to seriously disrupt many of our existing systems. If local people can connect with one another easily, improve their neighbourhoods through collective activity and deploy sophisticated and strategic thinking – improving health and wellbeing, reducing employment and crime, for example – without so much as a nod towards politicians, what happens to political power and vested interest?
In some respects, these patterns of activity chime with the stated ambitions of today’s politicians: citizens getting more involved, relieving the state of financial burdens, generating positive, networked effects that no linear, direct government intervention could ever hope to achieve. Yet, despite this, it may turn out that a significant shift in politicians’ behaviours is needed, if they want to stay relevant.
Take one example involving a small but impressive group of people in Cornwall. They have successfully negotiated with an energy company to create a large community fund. This would make it possible to become collectively self-sufficient in generating green energy. The fund will be managed by the community, for the community. Not a single line of responsibility or credit for the project originally passed through the existing local democratic system.
If you are a local councillor, you might fall in love with all this place-shaping and making; you have vegetables popping up all over the place, more people riding bicycles, perhaps even more people smiling. New projects are blossoming, there are new children’s nurseries co-managed by parents, young people are involved in creating and managing intergenerational spaces and people are sharing their stuff. As a result of all this sociability and industrious activity, crime is going down, unemployment is going down, the local economy is improving, without you, the councillor, making a budget decision or lifting a finger. So how exactly do you get re-elected, if there is no direct route of attribution between you and this transformation?
The penny finally drops for this councillor. While there will always remain a need for all types of participation she or he is going to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in more energetically than before, because they realise that it is the only way to remain relevant. Before you know it, they are digging up vegetables and painting walls, removing administrative barriers to community progress, and connecting people, ideas, expertise and resources both in the community and in the council, helping to create more collaborative cultures, as though their life depended on it.
So, next time someone asks you to plant carrots, build a bench, transform an empty space, or bake a pie, share a skill, anything in fact that creates relationships and builds trust, don’t think of it as trivial. It could turn out to be the most politically radical thing you could do.
Tessy Britton is Director of Social Spaces and previous Chair of the RSA Fellowship Council. Social Spaces is a project working to develop new knowledge about innovative community-led projects and has been collaborating with Zero Zero to develop The Civic Crowd, a civic project mapping platform.