Giving form to the future

www.nesta.org.uk/feature/giving-form-future/
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We would like to take a moment to hold space for and recognise the scale of loss communities all over the world have been facing every day during the COVID-19 crisis: lives that weren’t numbers on a spreadsheet or headlines to be politicised without care, but loved ones gone too soon. We stand in grief and solidarity, hoping to find joy and strength to fight for the future together.

“The pandemic marks the end of an era and the beginning of another – one whose harshness must be mitigated by a spirit of generosity. An artist hunched over her sewing machine, a young person delivering groceries on his bicycle, a nurse suiting up for the ICU, a doctor heading to the Navajo nation, a programmer setting up a website to organise a community: the work is underway. It can be the basis for the future, if we can recognise that things can and must change profoundly, and if we can tell other stories about who we are, what we want and what is possible.” – Rebecca Solnit, The Way We Get Through This Is Together

In crisis and tragedy, both the best and worst of us are revealed; as Theodore Rothke wrote, “in a dark time the eyes begin to see”.

Here in the UK, COVID-19 harshly exposed broken structures, oppressive systems, and a society ill-prepared for the great transition we are amidst. Many of the inequities and injustices exposed during this time have been struggles that movements have been fighting against for many decades: government failings, a decade of austerity that has left our public services and social infrastructure in tatters, structural racial injustice and an epidemic of isolation, depression and stress. We don’t need to look far to understand why we find ourselves in such divided times, more aware than ever of the threats ahead for us, and we are struggling to move quickly or boldly enough to collectively imagine how we face those challenges in an age of risk, uncertainty and long emergencies.

This, however, is not the only story. Every day, through our families, communities and cities, COVID-19 has shown us the incredible power of people and of joy, hope, collective care and endeavour. From mutual aid to increased support of a green economy recovery, it is here that we find the hope for a new world and can see the foundations upon which to build it.

Here in Birmingham B16, where CIVIC SQUARE is based, years of deep relationships and people on the ground rose to the challenge. B16 became the home of the community-led emergency food response for the city; revolutionaries on the frontline of the Black Lives Matter movement reimagined Black future(s); our Department of Dreams’ Re_ festival saw more than 100 speakers share their utopian dreams and visions with 2000 attendees; and we hosted an outdoor cafe for neighbours to connect safely. From new community projects to emergency responses by faith organisations, we are seeing the interconnected relationships that the future requires spreading and growing before our eyes. We are witnessing the seeds of a new reality being sown.

“We are at a crossroads right now. It is our responsibility to make sure that the enormous potential of the next golden age will not be lost.”

Carlotta Perez

But with rising rents and house prices, deeply designed racial injustice and the erosion of our social and civic infrastructure, how could a green, participatory revolution at the scale and size required ever happen at all, let alone equitably and fairly, centring those most marginalised? Working alongside our partners at Project 00, Open Systems Lab, Dark Matter Labs and Doughnut Economics Action Lab we realised that the structures and stories just under the surface need as much revolution and reinvention (if not more) as the ones we see, feel, and build more tangibly above it. In fact, these are crucial to everything.

Let's take a look at just one example: land, which some argue is the single most important reform we need to make this century. Despite the pioneering work of social entrepreneurs, civic activists, charities and communities, our broken urban development models impact everything: social resilience, health, climate, the economy, democracy. In England, property rights are steeped in a dark colonial history. In order to address this, we need to completely rethink our relationships with the rules, codes and contracts we’ve designed on top of earth beneath our feet.

There is a lot to this reinvention. Alastair Parvin talks about the need for a new social contract, Anab Jain reminds of the need for a More Than Human Politics, Centric Lab of centring equity and health justice in our built environment. Kate Raworth gives us the tools to build a regenerative economy, indigenous leaders lead the way in sharing the knowledge for us to be in relationship with the land, and the scholarship of Black womxn powerfully helps us imagine more just futures with care at their centre.

“We have to connect our imaginaries of preferred urban futures to experimentation in the here and now. What really matters is the evolutionary potential of the present rather than waiting for some cognitive consensus of the future.”

Mark Swilling, Imagining Urban Futures

Given the sheer scale and pace of the challenges we face, positive change cannot result from any single actor acting in isolation – be it government, councils, big business, start-ups or social movements. ‘Business as usual’ is increasingly incoherent: from the health time bomb of air pollution to the millions of jobs changed by or lost to automation, we can no longer design without intention. It is time to be bolder in our investments into people, places and infrastructure. We need to create capacity for experimentation; to use collaborative, action-led research tools and propositional methods that enable people to engage, allowing space to fail safely; and to formulate a series of coherent prototypes that resonate with people, forging a path towards systemic change.

The question then becomes: who has the right to experiment in such a formal way? Which experiments should we focus on? Who should they benefit, and how do we answer such questions in a way that is legitimate locally and inspirational to others? How do we enable adoption and adaption of new models in different contexts so that systemic change spreads more easily?

This is at the heart of our work and vision as we transition from Impact Hub Birmingham to CIVIC SQUARE, a layered, embedded connecting project that looks to support the everyday participation and activity of our neighbourhoods, putting them at the heart of reinventing the codes, rule and regulations we face. We want to democratise the knowledge of complex, intractable social infrastructure systems: talking about them, dismantling them, and not only imagining a new future but giving form to it that we can see, touch, and even taste in the everyday.

In 2021 we will embark on bold new work looking at a neighbourhood-scale resident and people-led project that looks at land, housing and deep job reskilling. This will be the first step in a connected, layered approach to changing the rules – rolling up our sleeves, supporting each other and our everyday realities, and working on the housing crisis through a green, regenerative lens.

“We need each other. I love the idea of shifting from ‘mile wide, inch deep’ movements to ‘inch wide, mile deep’ movements that schism the existing paradigm.”

Adrienne Maree Brown

More than ever we must now act quickly, boldly and with imagination, centring care, equity, love and justice. It is true that people power is a transformative force, but our relationships beyond the human also matter: the underlying structures and our ability to come together through collective missions, visions and action to change them. At the same time, on the ground projects will continue to help us experience those beautiful, small moments of revolutionary care and love every day in our communities that we need to keep going.

To truly move forward we need to understand and respect that someone else will be able to see a bit further, or from a different angle within the system; that none of us alone will ever be able to do enough in our lifetimes; that we are all conditioned within colonial processes; and that our priority is to move quickly towards a massive movement of many, many people underpinned by continual open sharing of learning, tools and frameworks. This combination would unlock people power to meet the growing and urgent crisis we face as humanity. But we have to get smart, put the old models out of business and make them defunct. We must work together. Extraction, stagnation and extinction does not have to be the future.

Accepting an invitation for an essay like this, where a single person or single organisation gets credit for work which is never built alone, is always difficult. At CIVIC SQUARE, our work and communities benefit from from generous knowledge and resource sharing particularly from: Dark Matter Laboratories, Project 00, Open Systems Lab, Doughnut Economics Action Lab, Snook, Centric Lab, Superflux, Winnipeg Boldness Project, MAIA, Eat Make Play, WikiHouse, Evolve Oakland, Detroit Food Lab, CREC, We Can Make, Kiondo and many more.