Can cooperation save the world?

Can cooperation save the world?

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"It’s a very interesting time in history, there are a lot of things going on that are driving people to experiment, explore and hunger for something different. the old system isn’t working not only ecumenically, but ecologically, in human terms. People feel that in their bones. If we were really able to build the foundations of a cooperative world, what would it look like?" starts  Gar Alperovitz in the New Economy documentary.

On 6 April, the Participatory City Foundation enabled conversations about a re-imagined future. A future where people come to work because they feel a sense of ownership, where they can care for each other, nurture their community, and support their local economy. Where opportunities to participate are a part of our everyday lives and everyone has a voice.

A screening of the provocative documentary “A New Economy” gathered interested parties together. However it wasn’t as much the film that created such a raw and lovely energy, as the inspiring people that filled the room and the connections made.

Stories, ideas, visions... hopes and fears were exchanged between a diverse group of attendees. The event attracted members of the Council, the Forum for the Future, the Young Foundation and Unltd. Curious and supportive Twitter followers, local volunteer organisations, residents including children and a neighbourhood dog were all a part of the mélange of attendees. 

It is our human nature to cooperate, and to connect, but as the film notes, we are conditioned to be competitive and individualistic. 

"We’re not taught to cooperate and we’re not taught to trust.” 

The film demonstrates that in an unstable world, community, resilience, and interdependence are the key to survival and happiness. How and what we value is being reinvented. No longer is money alone going to support economic and emotional well-being. 

"Real wealth, is not money, it is fresh air to breathe, family, community.”

A prolific way of viewing our world and its future is trending on a global scale. Individuals are making choices to revert back to basics, to choose quality over quantity, and to invest in local economies, in people.

The screening left viewers feeling optimistic about the possibilities of a new cooperative world. John, a local resident, spoke about his desire to grow flowers and plants in unused and sometimes unorthodox places to attract bees and butterflies. He extended an invitation to visit his houseboat and a desire to get people out of their flats to build friendships. 

“The challenge is to figure out how to switch out engines on the plane while the plane’s still in the air.”

The world we live in is fast paced, and we cannot afford to stop. But we must “switch out the engines” and find more meaningful and sustainable ways of living in community on this planet.

“We are laying the groundwork for a very moving period of history… potentially very big things can happen.” ~ Gar Alperovitz

By Kendra Shillington

How to build a Minimum Viable System

After a week traveling in the US with visits to Detroit (with Kresge Foundation with Carol Coletta and Helen Davis Johnson) to Providence (with Brown University and Rhode Island Design School Enrique Martinez, Damian White and their amazing colleagues and students), Rhode Island Foundation (with Jessica David) ... and in New York where I had some brilliant systems conversations with Rachel SinhaPhilip Silva, Myung Lee and the incredible team working at Cities of Service - after all these fantastic eye-opening conversations I starting thinking about a useful possible framing of our work - the large Demonstration Neighborhood we are planning in particular - in terms of building a Minimum Viable System.

Here’s the starting points for thinking in these terms.

1. The current system has design flaws

Over a long period the whole system has been pieced together by thousands of individuals and institutions.  Like an out of date computer system which has been continually patched. At some point you need to decide if you can continually keep patching (or altering the aspects of the system over which you have some control) or if you want to use all the new tech available to build a new improved system. Many would suggest that not all problems can be solved by patching or altering - problems such as inequality, environment and social cohesion need more fundamental systemic changes - ones that involve different everyday behaviors and cultures from 1000s of people. 

A problem for which the solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behaviour is likely to be a wicked problem. Wicked problems have multiple root causes and are interconnected through physical, economic and human systems.

2. That a re-design process can contribute to changing the long term trajectory

Can we ‘design out’ some of these problems at a systems level? Personally I think we can go a long way towards this.

Most social problems—such as poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness - are wicked.

Wicked problems can’t be ‘fixed’.

But because of the role of design in developing infrastructure, designers can play a central role in mitigating the negative consequences of wicked problems and positioning the broad trajectory of culture in new and more desirable directions.

This mitigation is not an easy, quick, or solitary exercise. Due to the system qualities of these large problems, this design process demands interdisciplinary collaboration, and most importantly, perseverance.
— Jon Kolko Founder and Director Austin Centre for Design

Much of our political efforts are aimed at creating a better balance e.g. Big Government vs Big Society, variations in taxation or redistribution, capitalism vs socialism and so on.  Lots of re-directing resources through big lever mechanisms, not currently resulting in fairness or balance.

In the UK the public demand for honesty, fairness and a much better balance, economically, socially and environmentally is getting louder and louder.

In summary many people believe that: 

  • The current systems are unsustainable long term 
  • We can start to re-design these systems for a better balance and social impact
  • We need to redesign carefully, in situ, with real people and institutions -This is not a re-design process that can be done in an office with a pack of postit notes - it has to be designed in a live context.

Minimum viable product vs minimum viable system?

One of the biggest shifts in thinking we prototyped in The Open Works was to move from thinking about single ideas, entities and activities - to a thinking about systems of ideas and activities. This meant supporting an ecology of mutually dependent and supportive collections of activity - rather than simply stimulating and supporting single ideas and entities.

Currently in neighbourhoods the responsibility for institutional infrastructure (constitutions, bank accounts, committees) and sustainability of the activity is placed on individual ideas.  In The Open Works we tested the strategy of moving both these responsibilities into a collective environment.  How could we support an ecology of projects through a platform approach with shared institutional infrastructures? How could we raise the question of sustainability from the individual idea to looking at the sustainability of the whole system? (See Marc Ventresca on  Don't Be an Entrepreneur, Build Systems)

What does this shift towards whole system re-design change?

- It moves the thinking towards a collective framework - towards 1000s of people and institutions working in concert, as mutually supportive and interrelated, rather than as individuals or single entitities. 

- It creates an ecology where all creativity, ingenuity and resource can find a home - a free flowing, growing and evolving environment which everyone has a place, a way to plug in and contribute to the health, wealth and resilience of the whole system. In effect, the platform works as a neighborhood level incubator and accelerator for achieving system-wide outcomes - not for incubating and accelerating linear specified outcomes and outputs.

- It changes the mechanisms for achieving balance in the system and builds in resilience to the system - its less rigid (more flexible), less cumbersome (more responsive), less linear (more networked) - and so on.

- It can design in long term public good, inclusivity and sustainability that will produce a much more sustainable system by embedding design principles and processes - as the system is redesigned - rather than trying to retrofit these vital principles into existing systems which have become too ossified over time, and sometimes actively resist change.

As mentioned in the last post, it was highlighted in the work that the Mayor and team are working through their Urban Commons project in Bologna. Where government is too dominant with services it is unsustainable financially, and where too much is asked of local residents that is unsustainable because people get exhausted.  It this new collaboration mid-point,  a new type of societal co-production melting pot - neither top down nor bottom up - which needs to be redesigned for achieving healthy neighbourhoods that are sustainable long term.

Massive re-design requirement

What The Open Works did was build a prototype that worked successfully on building a new intersection of the overall system in a particular neighborhood - creating a new type of collaboration space for local government, citizens, local organizations and businesses - a new center of gravity. All of these different actors worked together on the development of the 20 projects.

The larger Demonstration Neighborhood we are planning will go much further — it intends to build a Minimum Viable System that includes all aspects of the system and will incorporate the ideas and resources of 1000s of people.

We anticipate that when the fully developed collaboration matrix is ready to start the system re-design and build process it will look something like this:

10 - 20 funders and social investors

10 high level knowledge partners

20 educational institutions 

50 specialist advisors as project faculty 

40+ local organisations

100+ local businesses

1000s of local residents

1 bold and ambitious local government 

The Demonstration Neighborhood aims to raise the ambition and concentrate our efforts - and that involves a large scale re-organisation and re-design process.

For more examples of the types of projects that would make up this ecology of co-produced and co-designed projects please take a look a the new Community Lover's Guide website


Why we are taking the time to build a large Demonstration Neighborhood

Princess Garden Berlin

Princess Garden Berlin

Participatory City is working on an ambitious idea - to build a large urban Demonstration Neighborhood. By large we mean a small city or a city borough of around 300,000 people.

Over 5 years we aim to use a platform approach to transform the lives of the people living and working there, using mass participation as a key building block for that transformation. Through the participatory ecology created, a neighbourhood will be re-organised not just for practicality, but also to be inspiring and exciting places to live: expanding our horizons, growing ideas and projects, inventing new livelihoods.

We expressed this ambition last September, without knowing if this idea would be possible. The Demonstration Neighborhood is about making a big investment in prototyping a future way of organizing ourselves on the sort of scale we aren’t that used to talking about. In a context of cost cutting and political short-termism I did wonder how realistic this plan was … or if we should be adopting a more modest plan instead.

Nearly 6 months on … and around 250 meetings, visits and conversations later I am sticking with this idea … 

Here are 5 good reasons why I am doing that:

1. People are ready

Taking a long hard look what is being achieved has made many people working on social transformation dissatisfied. In an effort to distribute funding fairly, we have ended up diluting our efforts, with minimal long term impact, even in places we care about and know need the effort. No amount of clever evaluation techniques for individual projects and programmes will change the fact that what we are doing collectively, and the way we are doing it, simply isn’t enough.  

In summary that is what the seminal 2011 article on the idea of Collective Impact was saying: raise our ambitions and concentrate our efforts.  And in Montreal they are well on their way to doing that - with a new collective funding of $22m they intend to transform places long term. Innovative funders in the UK have started talking in these terms too.

2. We have the know how

Many ingenious people have been working hard for years on pieces of the puzzle - highly specialized elements on some cases e.g. technology based frameworks for sustainable living, better designed services, new organizational structures and cultures … projects and community business ideas that can change places completely. We have a lot to work with.

In addition to individual tools, methods, ideas and projects there are several initiatives who have been working on larger systemic platform ideas - and we intend to work with these all these other initiatives, learning with them and making sure we bring together every ounce of available tried and testing thinking developing the Demonstration Neighborhood.

Examples of these platforms include PlaceLab, LabGov, Cities for People, The Young Foundation, Granby Workshop, Better Block, Sustainable Everyday Project, Lankelly Chase Foundation Afrikaanderwijk Collective, Bloomberg Mayor's Challenge, 100 Resilient Cities, Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland, Kresge Foundation .... and many others.

3. We need the melting pot to bring those ideas together

We have both the ideas and many highly developed individual elements - every single one of them we believe is incomplete taken in isolation. Put them together in one place and we could have a potent mixture of new ideas that could revolutionize how we organize ourselves for a really wonderful future.  The Demonstration Neighborhood is how we bring this ideas together — fusing and bonding new methods and tools in a collaborative melting pot - working through the nuts and bolts, bringing to life a new emerging field. There is no other way to do this well except in a living context.

4. The concept is proving to be a talent magnet

Everyone I speak to wants to be involved in making this happen - either as a possible place, as an institutional knowledge partner, or as a team member ... people have even indicate that they are willing to uproot long term careers to be part of this project. 

If you removed the funding element our experiences and conversations indicated that there isn’t a city in the UK (and perhaps elsewhere too) that wouldn’t jump at the opportunity of being the first Participatory City - and the degree to which that enthusiasm and optimism has been expressed to us tells us we are on the right track.

5. We need to show what is possible

How will we ever know if this positive future is possible if we don’t build it - somewhere? We have to show what is possible when we pool our ideas, resources and expertise, and we need to commit to it.  On a visit to inspiring Bologna this month I had the good fortune to interview Luca Rizzo Nervo - one of the city's Deputy Mayors (thank you again Christian!). The city has recently changed their regulations to allow for more citizen activity through the Urban Commons. Their observation was that when the city was very active in a neighborhood the citizens were less active, and visa versa. Bologna leadership, like us, believe that building new infrastructures for greater collaboration between citizens - and between citizens and government -  is the only way we can change places long term, and that participation is key to this. The current tug of war - citizens and government asking each other to do more and more - is not a collaboration - its an attempt at redistribution of limited financial resources, at worst an attempted redistribution of chores - rather than a genuine and creative effort to find new ways to bring the best together collaboratively.

Alex Steffen raised £75,000 on Kickstarter last week — for a live documentary series about reimagining the world of tomorrow. As Alex say’s ‘we can’t build what we can’t imagine’ … we would add to that ‘we can’t believe it unless we build it’.

And so I am sticking with it - it might take another 6 months for all the many pieces to come together - the place, the people… the resources - it could take another 18 months. But I’m committed … and enjoying every week meeting so many others who are feeling equally bold and equally excited about working on something that could have substantial impact.



A little participation is not enough

First published in New Start Magazine on 23 November 2015

Open Works aimed to encourage and expand local levels of participation. Tessy Britton examines the results and finds that neighbourhoods need more than a scattergun approach

If we want to build new types of inspiring neighbourhoods, wonderfully vibrant communities that improve the lives of everyone living there, we are going to need all the energy and creativity we can get.

Our current collective efforts to draw together this energy and creativity have indeed made a positive difference to the lives of many people. However, among the successful ventures and initiatives that have been undertaken so far, it has been rare for these projects to work together effectively to transform neighbourhoods in the long term.

We discovered that the issue is not that people are naturally reticent or apathetic about getting involved in their local communities. Nor do they lack the commitment to try and live more sustainably. Many people clearly do.

‘There aren’t enough opportunities available to

participate in activities that are practical and sociable’

Nor is the issue the lack of new and exciting project ideas, designed to inspire participation and improve the lives of people living in a particular locality. There are hundreds of brilliant creative and innovative ideas being developed and adopted in communities all round the world.

The answer turned out to be much simpler that we expected.

We believe now that there just aren’t enough opportunities available currently to participate in activities that are practical and sociable, that co-build neighbourhoods together as equals and that fit within the fabric of everyday life.

The Open Works

In 2014, Lambeth Council and Civic Systems Lab started a project with an ambitious goal: to test new waysthat can improve the lives, environment and opportunities for residents living in West Norwood through raising the levels of practical participation.

A ‘platform’ approach was devised that tested whether it was possible to scale-up the new ‘participation culture’ that has emerged in the last decade. The aim was to see whether a high density of individual projects was possible and if this created the potential to achieve long lasting change both for the community itself, and for the individuals within it.

Together with 1,000 local residents an open project team was formed that designed and tested 20 practical projects over a 12-month period.

The Open Works project aimed to re-imagine the local neighbourhood in a way that would be of benefit to all the local residents. The individual projects were inspired by ideas that had been successfully implemented across the world and offered the potential to support a new and more sustainable way to live. These 20 projects created new and engaging opportunities for sharing knowledge, spaces and equipment; for families to work and play together; for bulk cooking, food growing and tree planting; for trading, making and repairing and for suppers, workshops, incubators and festivals.

What we’ve learned from the Open Works prototype:

The results from the Open Works project were inspiring. The project provided compelling evidence that a new participatory model, redesigned civic infrastructures and a ‘platform’ approach – when combined – could potentially have a huge impact on this local community when fully developed over a three-year period.

1. Size matters

One important conclusion from the Open Works project was the importance of scale. It is widely recognised that one of the key strengths of new participatory models is their small scale. Typically, activities initiated in local settings and in small groups have a proven record of success. These highly personal, peer-to-peer experiences are increasingly shown to both build relationships and to generate mutual benefits.

However we believed early on, and continue to believe, that scale matters. The research that led to the design of The Open Works initiative indicated that participatory projects are unlikely to be effective in transforming places in the longer term if they remain scattered, unsupported and isolated.

We have witnessed decades of energy, creativity and funding

sinking into the ground through sprinkling approaches

Innovative participatory projects, however imaginative and effective they may be, are unlikely to fulfil their promise and potential over time if they remain isolated, under-resourced and under-scaled. Any initial surge in community interest and participation cannot be sustained – and will not grow – unless the whole process is coordinated and facilitated over an extended period as an integral part of our commissioning, funding and investing systems. We have witnessed decades of energy, creativity and funding sinking into the ground through sprinkling approaches, and it’s this realisation that has led to the significant traction that Collective Impact ideas have gathered in the US and Canada.

Scale matters to many social investors and commissioners – even if it’s become unpopular in some areas because the idea of ‘scale’ often brings up images of the formulaic and the impersonal. This historical/traditional reluctance to invest in new types of institutional infrastructures in order to build out embryonic platforms and projects needs to be confronted as alternative methods are tested.

The results of The Open Works project have shown that the platform approach has the potential to be effective in scaling the levels of outcomes – and that these can be achieved by developing larger, denser, networks or ecologies of activity, without losing the smaller, personal settings.

We believe the challenge is two-fold. The first is to improve the lives of people living in communities, to develop a culture of participation and collectively and to build upon the successful initiatives existing today. The second part of the challenge is to commit to sustaining the investment for these changes over time, to nurture the improvements and participation that the initial projects have ignited and to realise the long-term goals we all work so hard to attain. If widespread participation in public life is a vital building block to creating sustainable and inspiring places, and many people are convinced that it is, then we need to approach it with the scale, seriousness and urgency it deserves.

2. To achieve long-term goals a long-term commitment is needed

We hope that the results of the Open Works project will be useful as a foundational evidence base for councils, housing associations, community foundations and other institutions that share a keen interest in the long-term wellbeing of the people living in their local communities. We hope that it will encourage these institutions, and more particularly the many individuals and teams that work within them, to be bolder, and to think bigger and more determinedly about how they can change and strengthen their role to supporting practical participation.

We have been fortunate to work with incredible collaborators and leaders in the course of developing this work, in every layer of public facing organisations. People that believe for example that a housing association’s job isn’t just to provide housing, but rather to work collectively to end poverty and achieve equality. People who think that councils have a moral imperative to ensure that while cuts are implemented that the council works collectively to innovate to still ensure they are helping to build thriving communities. People that work tirelessly to support the thousands of people living on the edges of mainstream society, who believe that its everyone’s creativity and energy that is so vital for building these vibrant places we would all like to be part of.

Huge credit must go to Lambeth Council who not only embraced the ideas behind The Open Works project, but who also had the courage and commitment to implement the plan. And credit also to Lankelly Chase Foundation who enabled and supported such a detailed and rigorous research process.

What Next?

Our next project is called ‘Participatory City’.

Over a five year period, our aim is to transform an entire community (approximately 300,000 people, or the size of a London borough) into a Demonstration Neighbourhood. The new project will build on the lessons and successes of the Open Works project. Our intention is that this new community will become a model for wellbeing, sustainability and equality, all nurtured by the effects of high levels of activity in countless everyday projects and activities.

If you are interested in developing the collective investment framework with us, would like to partner for the demonstration neighbourhood, or would like your borough to be involved, please contact us.

A set of Frequently Asked Questions about the project are here.



Creating equitable, livable cities - one place at a time

Theaster Gates is a potter living in south Chicago, in a city with lots of abandoned plots. Starting with one building, using re-purposed materials and an empty candy store, he worked with neighbours to turn it into the Archive House and the Listening House - which include archive slide and record collections, a micro library and a soul food kitchen. More and more people came to take part, and when they ran out of space, they went on to create the Black Cinema, the Arts Bank and the Housing Collaborative. 

Each project is designed to create opportunities for neighbours to meet and collaborate, to take part in cultural activities, and support emergent project and enterprise ideas. And to re-shape how people imagine the area, and what they collectively think is possible.

Knight Foundation and the University of Chicago are now working with the Re-Build Foundation on the Place Lab - to understand and spread this new practice. "Creating a national platform for propagating a groundbreaking model that uses imagination and culture-driven community engagement to transform and revitalise communities".

See Theaster's TED talk

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16 streets transformed into collective spaces by residents

For 2.5 months over the summer, 16 streets in Gent are closed to traffic, and the residents work together to create collective spaces for living, playing, and meeting. Each Leefstraat (living street) is transformed into a shared outdoor space including planting, play areas, pop-up cafes and bars, picnic tables, and chicken coops. And each space is different, depending on what residents want to create together.

The project was developed by Lab van Troje - an independent network of collaborating citizens, businesses, governments and organisations. They use strategic Lab experiments like the living streets, to create practical experiences and show that structural changes are possible.

Original posting: Pop-up City

Project founders:



The Open Works - local residents collaborating to create a sustainable future


The Open Works was an experimental project aimed at creating new ways that Lambeth Council can work with residents to develop a sustainable future for West Norwood: socially, economically and environmentally. It ran for 12 months between February 2014 - February 2015.


Everyone in West Norwood was welcome to join The Open Works for free, and be part of a growing number of projects from communal cooking to urban gardening; teaching 3D printing or languages; joining a shared making workshop; taking the opportunity to test trade in a shared high street shop; or borrowing and lending tools and equipment between neighbours.


Together with residents, The Open Works project developed a network of 20 projects, and live tested the potential of a new form of participatory culture to transform neighbourhoods. Thank you to partners Lambeth Council and Lankelly Chase Foundation and everyone in West Norwood.

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