What is 'participatory culture'?

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The idea of developing an approach based on participatory culture started with the observation that some innovative local projects were achieving inclusive participation. They appeared to be attracting many different types of people.

A common attribute of those projects was that they were social, practical and productive - and the experience of participating looked and felt different to many existing volunteer, campaign or charity activities.

Taken together, the pattern across these dispersed innovative projects showed a new model of participation emerging - with different characteristics to the existing set of opportunities available for citizens to participate (see diagram above for details).

New participation culture projects involve activities which are intrinsically appealing to more people. Often with what we now view as ‘common denominator’ activities such as cooking, learning, making, trading, sharing, growing. They provide an experience of co-producing something tangible as a group of equal peers.

One of the key differentiators of this model compared to other models is that these projects create mutually beneficial experiences. Participants contribute and benefit equally in the same act, as neighbours and peers, without being targeted or labelled.

They offer opportunities for individuals to live more sustainably by creating collective experiences such as repairing and sharing resources that could become part of everyday life. The experiences are enjoyable and sociable and people want to repeat them regularly.


The 12 month research project - The Open Works - turned these features into design principles and developed a universal approach.


Participatory culture projects attract a diverse range of participants. This creates opportunity for building bridging social capital between people normally outside of each others direct social networks - not just bonding social capital between similar individuals, which is common across other forms of participation. Bridging social capital and the diverse social networks are needed for social benefit and mobility.

Mutual model
The co-production design of the projects means that people contribute and benefit in a single action. This is very different from charity and representative models where efforts are made by one group to give or direct resources to another group with needs. A mutual model creates a very equal platform that avoids labelling and stigmatisation. This model also helps to bring together resources from across a community, which is particularly helpful in areas where areas of deprivation sit in close proximity to more affluent areas.

The action is between peers working together - the key relationships are between equals. Many other models enable relationships between individual citizens or groups and institutions.

Productive activity
Participatory culture projects are often based on simple common denominator productive activities such as cooking, making and learning. The dynamic is about what people can produce together, unlike many other models which are about influencing what other people produce e.g. representative, challenge or consumer.

All participation models would describe themselves as ‘open’ as a general principle. In practice we know there are a lot of barriers. In The Open Works project the concept of making participation open included making all efforts possible to be genuinely open to all by paying attention to the smallest details of visible and invisible barriers.