Tessy Britton: Civic Systems Lab: Are cities ready for open and creative citizenship?

Today I was very fortunate to be signposted to an amazing article written by Tessy Britton.


Are cities ready for open and creative citizenship?/January 1, 2014 by Tessy Britton

Networks of shared functioning spaces should be our inspiration and our goal for the future.

Thriving neighbourhoods need shared community spaces. Shared gardens, canteens, kitchens, workshops, make spaces, and work spaces can become the focus around which communities become socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.
And  people love living in this way.
From a Sewing Room in Amsterdam, to HackerMoms in the US , the Reading Room in Rotterdam, The Common Room in Norwich, MakeSpace in Cambridge, Mens Sheds in Australia and across the world – people are creating spaces that bring people together to share ideas, grow projects and ventures together and shape their local community as part of their everyday lives.
The UK has some shining examples of community-led spaces but they are rare and outnumbered by empty or underused facilities or community centres delivering services in the old-fashioned way.
Active projects need functioning spaces and equipment. If we only have meeting rooms and event spaces – that is what we will get – meetings and events. Projects that are breathing life into communities are ones where people are growing, making, sharing, learning together – turning imaginative ideas into community projects and enterprises. What do we need?
New financial models for community space
Room rents are single-handedly killing the prospects of a vibrant local life everywhere you look. We charge old age pensioners room rental for the smallest activity — and at the same time worry about their isolation and accompanying health effects. If the financial sustainability of a community space is entirely dependent on its rental income – rather than being viewed as a whole-system tool, as catalysts for creating outcomes and value in the community – more and more will shut as cuts and the economic conditions work through the system.
When local governments give spaces ‘to the community’ they are often just shifting the responsibility to cover overheads. This misses a great opportunity for these spaces to really transform the local area. Cities should resist the trend to push failing spaces onto communities – and instead take shared responsibility for making them work in new ways. These functioning spaces could become the funded centre for generating the collaborative social outcomes between government and citizens we need.
In Rotterdam a whole street has taken the initiative to rent a corner shop – called The Mayor’s Living Room  –  each family pays €3 per month and enjoy the pleasures of sharing a space for community meals, taking care of each other’s children, having cups of tea with local police.
New types of projects and activities
Behind every successful innovative space are a group of social pioneers — often regular people with drive and imagination who help to develop the spaces as platforms for people to bring their ideas and time.
Projects are powerful catalysts for drawing people together – and once people are connected spaces take on a life of their own. It’s the most natural and exciting of social phenomenon – people work together when they know and like each other. Researchers in one study showed that people who spend time together in the space have a 57% greater chance of collaborating. What could that mean for all our young people currently unemployed who need to start making up their own jobs?
What’s so special about these projects is that they are starting to transform how we think about being a participating citizen.  Citizenship becomes something for everyone, everyday.  It shifts us from just being consumers – to makers and co-producers of society on a much wider scale than we have seen before – it even has the potential to re-shape democracy. If outcomes are achieved through co-design and produced projects, then the new types of shared and networked accountability mechanisms needed will change the shape and widen participation of voting systems.
There are currently several experiments being started – including ones I am involved with in Lambeth, Dudley and Norwich – which are aiming to create these new types of spaces systematically and on a larger scale,  accompanied by different participation mechanisms and infrastructures. It is proving a highly collaborative re-design process – bringing together literally hundreds of professionals and local residents together to re-imagine – but also to undertake the complex work of changing entirely what exists already.
In this landscape everyone’s role changes; the councillor, for example, could be responsible for ensuring the healthy functioning of the platform and the spaces, rather than the good delivery of services.
This image of the future is inspiring, realistic and imperative.
Inspiring because this vision is a collective one – being drawn by the activities of citizens across the world. It could possibly one of the most practical social phenomenon in history – how citizens taught the world how to re-design its systems – and the systems learned and responded and made them fit for the future with its citizens.
Realistic because this image is more than possible – we have evidence that it’s here, now.  Every community across the country is bursting with ideas and talents, waiting for the opportunity to bring their ideas to life, and creating those opportunities- while a little complex systemically – is potentially easier than in looks.
Imperative because the alternative is a socially declining city – a landscape made up of rich persons playground living side by side with increasing levels of deprivation through unemployment, a pulling back of crisis services, accompanied by increased levels of dissatisfaction and protest.

Our moment to effect this kind of transformation is now. We have all the resources, ideas and willing hands we need.

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