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. http://www.participatorycity.org

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

Comment