Tag Archives: resilience

Sachs on The Age of Sustainable Development

sachs-sustainable-developmentThe Age of Sustainable Development by Jeffrey Sachs is a good, textbook sort of volume for what I believe to be the general consensus view of the totality of what we are up against, along with potential solutions from a liberal, Keynsian perspective. It is massive, as you might imagine.

Such a simple statement from the Rio Declaration, 1992 — such a basic place to start: “development today must not threaten the needs of present and future generations.” Such a massive failing of ours. The following summits moved to a more practical approach. The 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg looked to accomplish: “The integration of the three components of sustainable development — economic development, social development and environmental protection — as independent and mutually reinforcing pillars (WSSD 2002, 2).” (5)

Sachs adds good governance to this list, and sees this group of four pillars as complex systems — he explains:

sustainable development is also a science of complex systems. A system is a group of interacting components that together with the rules for their interaction constitute an interconnected whole… We talk about these systems as complex because their interactions give rise to behaviors and patterns that are not easily discernible from the underlying components themselves…. Complexity scientists speak of the emergent properties of a complex system, meaning those characteristics that emerge from the interactions of the components to produce something that is “more than the sum of its parts.” (7)

Thus the four complex interacting systems of sustainable development:

global economysocial interactions of trust, ethics, inequality and social support networks…Earth systems such as climate and ecosystems; and it studies the problems of governance… In each of these complex systems–economic, social, environmental and governance–the special properties of complex systems, such as emergent behavior and strong, nonlinear dynamic…are all too apparent. (8)

He is not one to discount the progress we have made or question capitalist foundations. I found it interesting that instead he outlines the history before and after the industrial revolution that has brought us into crisis. Before:

The world before 1750 was a world of poverty; one that could nonetheless produce beautiful treasures for human history, like the Egyptian pyramids, the Acropolis… Yet for all of those grand monuments, most people in most ages lived difficult rural lives, always on the edge of famine, disease, and early death. (73)


New technologies…were certainly vital, but many complex economic interconnections were needed as well. Rural areas needed higher food productivity to produce a surplus for the industrial workforce… Transport was needed to carry food from farms to industrial towns, and industrial goods such as linnens and apparel from the factories to the countryside. New ports and global shipping carried manufactured goods abroad as exports, to be traded for the primary commodities needed for industrial production. A worldwide supply system began to take hold. And these increasingly complex transactions required markets, insurance, finance, property rights, and other “software” and “hardware” of a modern market-based economy. (75)

This is such a curious reframing of past into a technological modernity. I honestly am amazed that anyone could argue that most inventors and scientists are in it for the money, but he does.

James Watts was after profits and the patent; his aims included intellectual property, glory, and riches. He was working in an environment in which he could succeed, because the beginnings of commercial law existed in England, as opposed to many other places on the planet where such property rights had not yet been recognized. (76)

Side note: Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations same year as Watt produced the modern steam engine — 1776.

Just to show he’s down with the left economists, if not the socialists, he quotes Marx and Engels in support of this view of historical progress.

The bourgeosie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls… (78)

He makes a distinction in this linear progression between endogenous growth and catch-up growth, unrecognised in much economic development theory:

The first is based on innovation; the second on rapid adoption and diffusion… (81)

I think political ecology has a whole lot to say about the politics of that small statement – about all of this. At least Sachs does acknowledge that most of Africa and Asia were held in stagnation by colonial powers, thus unable to even start trying to catch up. He also notes that the legacy of conflict and slavery in the Americas continues today, and the high rates of inequality around the world reflect a legacy of conquest. There is no questioning, though, of the beneficial nature of the economic growth emerging from these roots.

Modern economic growth began in the dark green temperate climate of England, and quickly spread to similar locations in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and the Southern Cone of South America (Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay)… We see that modern economic growth diffused not oly according to geographical proximity (distance from London) but also what we might call “climate proximity,” the similarity of a location to that of England. (117)

So to move on from how we got here to the crisis we face. I am happy, myself, to accept the science on the facts of climate change,  I think this is a great chart to summarise the multiple threats — what the Stockholm Resilience Centre calls planetary boundaries:


So I’ll move on to the social pillar, as I confess if the UN isn’t going to go full-on world-revolutionary-and-transformational, this is possibly as good as it gets.  So his definition of social inclusion:

aims for broad-based prosperity, for eliminating discrimination, for equal protection under the laws, for enabling everybody to meet basic needs, and for high social mobility (meaning that a child born into poverty has a reasonable chance to escape from poverty). (232-233)

Where does that exist I wonder? He continues:

… we must address the challenges of social inequality and human rights across several dimensions. Race, ethnicity, power, conquest, and individual characteristics are all determinants of inequality in society. So too are the political responses, the extent to which power is used to reduce inequality or the extent to which power is used to exacerbate inequalities. (238)

It’s got all the right words in it, you know? Sachs continues to list three of the fundamental forces behind widening inequalities in the

United States, several European countries, and many of the emerging economies around the world.

  • the rising gap in earnings between high-skilled and low-skilled workers

  • the increased use of robotics, advanced data-management systems, and other information technologies, which seem to be shifting income from labor to capital.

  • the political system, which in the United States has amplified the widening inequalities caused by market forces. (239)

He talks about deregulation, the weakening of unions, and throws in this chart on spectacular inequality:


So what is needed?

Education for All:

Yes. He describes the role for universities in:

helping society to identity and solve local problems of sustainable development … Every issue which which we are grappling — poverty, disease, climate change, new information technologies, and so on — requires locally tailored solutions, often based on sophisticated management systems. (273)

So top down. Ah well, he is an expert.

Health for all

Yes. It was way back in 1978 that World health officials adopted the Alma-Ata Declaration — universal health by the year 2000. (276)

We all know how that failed. Sachs can still celebrate the Millennium Development Goals developed that year though.

Food Security:

Yes. Achievable now, but political will? Sadly lacking.

The agricultural sector is in fact the most important sector from the point of view of human-induced environmental change. Many people imagine the automobile or perhaps coal-fired power plants to be the biggest cause of human-made environmental damage. And they are indeed major causes of global environmental unsustainability. Yet it is food production that takes the dubious prize as the most important single driver of environmental harms (SDSN 2013). (339)

Crazy. Another reason to support permaculture, or other locally based, minimal-footprint systems like Fukuoka‘s, or New Mexico’s acequia agriculture, which solve all kinds of problems while at the same time improving the planet rather than destroying it.

Another interesting chart:

greenhouse-gas-emissions-by-economic-sector-ipccAFOLU here stands for ’emmissions data from Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU)’ (342)

Instead of any minimally emitting and socially beneficial and extremely cheap systems, though, Sachs promotes more technology, more GMOs, making crops more drought resistant. Making crops more nutritious. All capital- and resource-intensive. And third, using ‘precision farming;.

Precision agriculture depends on information technologies, on detailed mapping of soil types, and often on global positioning systems that can tell a farmer exactly where that farmer is in the field and what is happening in the soil in that part of the farm. (351)

Soil mapping, testing, localized chemistry… Ugh. Nothing about environmental justice here either.

Resilient Cities

Ah, we turn to cities. Sachs gives a summary of the three major features of urban sustainability:

  • Urban productivity. Cities need to be places where individuals can find decent, productive work, and businesses can produce and trade efficiently. The basis for success is a productive infrastructure: the networks of roads, public transport, power … Infrastructure also includes “software,” like an effective court system to enforce contracts. When the urban infrastructure fails, the city is overwhelmed by congestion, crime, pollution, and broken contracts that impede business, job creation, and forward-looking investment.

Enforcing contracts? There will be no tampering with capitalism here, and cities are for business and development and trade.

  • Social inclusion. … (366) The social stability, trust, and harmony in the society (including political stability and level of violence) will be affected by the extent of social mobility. When it is low and falling, protest, unrest, and even conflict are more likely to ensue. Effective urban planning and politics can lead to cities in which people of different races, classes, and ethnicities interact productively, peacefully, and with a high degree of social mobility and trust. With ineffective planning, lack of civic participation, and neglect of social equity, cities can become deeply divided between rich neighbourhoods facing off against slums.

There is nothing here I disagree with actually, though I think a shift in the whole paradigm of effective ‘expert’ planners needs to happen before we can begin to create socially inclusive cities, never mind everything else that needs to happen.

  • environmental sustainability. … Cities need to make two kinds of environmental efforts. The first, mitigation, is to reduce their own “ecological footprint,” for example, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by urban activities. The second, broadly speaking, is adaptation, meaning preparedness and resilience to changing environmental conditions, for example, rising temperatures and sea levels (for coastal cities). (367)

On Climate Change

Ah, the energy sector, such a money maker! 7 of the 10 largest companies in the world in 2013 as ranked by Global Fortune 500, are in the energy sector

1 – Royal Dutch Shell
3 – Exxon Mobil
4 – Sinopec Group
5 – China National Petroleum6 – BP
7 – China State Grid (396)

and then of course, 8 is Toyota, and 9 is Volkswagon — very closely related. I looked up the list for this year, not much has changed:

Fortune's Global 500 2016

The consequences of climate change are, of course, terrifying. There’s lots about that. And once again, Sachs’ solutions are more of the same — capital- and resource-intensive top down solutions that don’t really disrupt business as usual. He gives three. DESERTEC — a network of renewable energy production that links North Africa, the Middle East and Europe into a single grid (you can guess where most production happens, and where most consumption happens).


Second, to tap the wind power along the US coasts.

The third — finally destroying the Inga Falls in the DRC to build the great Inga Dam Project. Surely we can do better.

There is carbon capture, Sachs writes (and this is so damn revealing I think):

If carbon capture and sequestration (abbreviated as CCS) proves to be successful, then there is a wonderful way to reduce CO2 emissions without having to change out current technologies or energy mix! (431)

Yes! We can just keep on keeping on! That somehow really does seem to be the fatal flaw in all of this.

On to the loss of biodiversity. My heart breaks as we lose species after species. I suppose I care about the economic cost of that, but, actually, no. Not really.

So to summarise:

This chart is illuminating if nothing else…

ecosystem-services-and-wellbeing-wriIt sort of lays it all out there, at least. I will have to go to the source for a deeper critique, but I kind of hate one-way arrows.

At Rio 20+ there was a shift from MDGs (not achieved) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 10 of them proposed in 2013  by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) — there are now more.

Goal 1: End Extreme Poverty Including Hunger
Goal 2: Promote Economic Growth and Decent Jobs Within Planetary Boundaries
Goal 3: Ensure Effective Learning for All Children and Youth for Life and Livelihood
Goal 4: Achieve Gender Equality, Social Inclusion, and Human Rights for All
Goal 5: Achieve Health and Wellbeing at All Ages
Goal 6: Improve Agriculture Systems and Raise Rural Prosperity
Goal 7: Empower Inclusive, Productive, and Resilient Cities
Goal 8: Curb Human-Induced Climate Change and Ensure Sustainable Energy
Goal 9: Secure Biodiversity and Ensure Good Management of Water, Oceans, Forests and Natural Resources
Goal 10: Transform Governance and Technologies for Sustainable Development

The 17 SDGs now visible at http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/:


He ends with a salute to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Kennedy and the English Abolitionists. I suppose that is symbolic of this whole book given those last two were so flawed and highly problematic, yet none-the-less helped win some politically admirable goals. Some good stuff, and some not-so-good stuff all mixed together, very carefully, so as not to really shift any of the broader structures or the profits to be made from them, just share the dividends a little more equally. Until we all die as how can this really stop the environmental crisis already at hand?

[Sachs, Jeffrey D. (2015) The Age of Sustainable Development. New York: Columbia University Press.]




Transition, or The Power of Just Doing Stuff

the-power-of-just-doing-stuff-160x246This book is an invitation to explore a new approach to how our economy might work, how we create employment and wealth, and how we live and work in our local communities. (9)

I’d heard about the Transition Town stuff, I’ve even been a member of the Brixton group on facebook for quite a while now, but it never seemed very active and I wasn’t entirely sure what it was all about… This book was lying around the office, brought in by Claire I expect, and reading further down the first page I found:

I hope that this proves sufficiently inspiring that in later years you might look back at the moment when you picked up this book as having been one of the seminal moments in your life, beyond which you never looked at things in the same way again. (9)

As if for all of us there’s some pre-packaged red and blue pill a la Matrix with the same content, the same deconstruction (or reconstruction) of reality that some dude can give us to swallow and thus change everything.

I really hate that shit.

That said, looking at content over style and the point of this book as a simple introduction to energy descent and what are mostly permaculture principles as they might apply to building local community and resilience, well that’s all good. I understand the idea is to inspire. So I won’t quibble too much over style, just note it didn’t work for me and won’t work for anyone else with a bit of a chip on their shoulder from having been regularly informed of what to think because you’re a woman, or poor or any of the other multitude of reasons like being a person of colour or an immigrant or disabled or elderly or… all those things.

The idea underpinning this book is that local action can change the world. Between the things we can do as individuals and the things that governments and businesses can do to respond to the challenges of our times, lies a great untapped potential, what I am calling ‘The Power of Just Doing Stuff’. It’s about what you can create with the help of the people who live in your street, your neighbourhood, your town. (11)

That’s all good. The aspiration that local action can change the world. I like too that it’s tied in to big problems that neither austerity nor any proposed new deal is talking about — peak oil, climate change, an economy in crisis that can’t just keep expanding forever.

I’d like to suggest a third approach, a new Big Idea for our times, which could prove to be one of the most essential and pivotal shifts in thinking in recent times. It is the idea of local resilience as economic development. It is the idea that by taking back control over meeting our basic needs at the local level we can stimulate new enterprises … while also reducing our oil dependency and carbon emissions… (27)

Resilience — I am still not sure what I think of this term, in many ways it has always seemed to me an academic appropriation of what poor people have doing for thousands of years to survive, and something to admire in that sense, but surely we should be aiming higher. Still, I’m willing to look at it as a construct. He quotes Lewis and Pat Conaty’s The Resilience Imperative on what generates resilience

  • Diversity
  • Modularity (leave a gap in that line of dominoes)
  • Social Capital (another word I quite hate, but ‘social networks and vibrant communities’ are all good)
  • Innovation
  • Overlap (no siloes, no one is isolated)
  • Tight feedback loops (the real point of evaluation — get better as you’re going along)
  • Ecosystem services  (real understanding of our impact) (34-35)

Thinking about how to build that into community work is important I think, and useful when actively thinking about how to knit together different people and projects to make the whole stronger. These terms used both to plan work and to evaluate how well you are doing seem very useful indeed.

The point that ‘We are the cavalry‘ is an interesting one…no government, big business, wealth benefactors or billionaires are going to bail us out. We have to do it. Am I sure about this? Frankly not so much because those are the guys really causing climate change and taking the whole world to hell in a hand basket, but I am sure that communities working together like this is a vital part of the solution. How does he argue this works?

If you can get a group of people together where you live and you can start practical projects on the ground which demonstrate this new approach, then what starts to happen is that the story that place tells about itself begins to shift. (47)

A good insight that practice shifts discourse, shifts the way we understand the world through our narratives. What Re:imagining Change talk about, but a more organic way of creating a counter narrative built in positive change rather than all the many important campaigns that stop all the bad things from happening.

Transition is an idea about the future, an optimistic, practical idea. And it’s a movement you can join. There are people near you who are optimistic and practical too. And it’s something you can actually do. Actually, it’s lots of things you can actually do. Lots of things.

The Transition approach is self-organising and people-led. It looks different everywhere it emerges, yet is recognisably Transition…It’s a social experiment on a huge scale. It’s also great fun.

You can think of it as being like Open-Source software. Everyone who gets involved picks it up and tries it out where they live, and is part of its ongoing evolution. Their additions refinements and insights are available to others who are also trying to figure it out…You can think of it as a self-organising system, driven by people’s enthusiasm and ideas. (49)

There’s a whole lot of this happening everywhere, which is so inspiring, and not all of it is Transition of course. The internet has made it possible for stories to spread so quickly, for people to learn from one another. There are multiple different networks, another one growing out of the Community Lovers Guides done by Civic systems labs, and their even more intentional approach to how the growth of a thickly networked participatory community might be facilitated (see thoughts on their marvelously detailed report on a year’s work in South London here). But networks are important, feeling part of something bigger is important. Hopkins answers the question of why label things as Transition — it allows for a more joined up approach, can be a catalyst and idea incubator, provides a network. As long as there’s no proprietorial feeling over such local efforts, that’s all good too.

Transition of course builds on the permaculture principle that we are moving into energy descent, having to scale back everything as deeper crisis approaches (Holmgren writes about this, as well as Bell and Mollison of course). The vague outlines of it as an economic approach are interesting. Hopkins argues Transition:

proactively sets about creating a post-growth economy from the bottom up, contributing to the ‘Big Idea’… It doesn’t just accept that we have to grit our teeth for five more years of ever-more-soul-crushing austerity..

What characteristics will it have?

  • Localised
  • resilient
  • brings assets into the community ownership
  • low-carbon
  • has natural limits
  • not purely about personal profit (59)

Quite vague though. It also depresses me the absence of words like justice, a line about how we end existing structural inequality. The environmental justice movement has been fighting that for so so long, arguing addressing class, race, gender, sexuality inequalities have to at the forefront of any real and lasting change. You have to throw in global inequalities as well. Graham Haughton is one place to start, Vandana Shiva‘s work somewhere else. I know this book is mostly about motivation, but this could just become (or remain) for the most part a nice comfortable middle-class thing. It can’t stay there and maintain any real meaning, especially when there is so much amazing stuff happening around the world — more amazing outside of the UK to be honest. This does try to connect to some of those things, but clearly it’s mostly limited to Britain and its former white colonies.  This is the weakness of localism in many ways I think, it tends to avoid these issues as well as the big agents of climate change with a positive goal of doing what we can here and now. An uneasy trade off that needs more work.

So all that said, I did like the case studies — I always love case studies, they actually help you do things and they really push our ideas about what is possible starting where we are.

I do like that that is the point.

Here are a few that you can look at

Totnes REconomy project

Malvern Gastketeers

Bristol Pound

Transition Town Brixton

The one I most love is Brixton Energy — I’m just sad living in Brixton for the past six years I had never heard of it, but putting solar panels up on estates is definitely my idea of awesomeness. Their last post, though, is November 2014 and like a lot of these initiatives they seem to be continuing on but not expanding. These initiatives rely quite heavily on people with a lot of time and no few skills, at least to really start up and get going. That makes it hard, and not so resilient and is something that needs more thought I think. The participatory city folks are working on what it would take to get a very dense network of projects up and running that would network a whole community and make this more sustainable once set in motion. That’s quite exciting really, and I do have immense enthusiasm for these kinds of projects…


Learning from Civic Systems Lab: Designed to Scale

Civic Systems Lab - Designed to ScaleThe community garden is only one of many community projects we are looking to start up in my day job. Multiple linked efforts that will begin to create a strong, caring and supportive community here. Much of the inspiration has come from Civic Systems Lab, particularly Tessy Britton and Laura Billings, and it’s been wonderful to go through their team’s detailed (and free!) research report on The Open Works research project in West Norwood — just down the road from me now! If only I had moved a year earlier…

This report is for several different audiences — foundations like Lankelly Chase who helped fund it, politicians and government workers like those of Lambeth Council who partnered in this particular project and really should be funding similar projects in the future. For that reason it uses a certain language, but it also manages to be very geared towards those who wish to do similar things in their own community, particularly the last chapters.

It focuses on participatory culture, building on many years of work studying best practices and building this kind of connectivity — a most impressive work of praxis. Civic Systems Lab’s report on Open Works studied on a most basic level whether multiple small-scale community projects engaging people on a daily basis could create real and lasting change on a larger scale.

So much of my life has been spent assuming that that is so — and happily the report agrees. It notes, however, that neither government services and commissioning cycles nor top-down organisation of services operate to support such efforts. Rather they work (just as market forces do) to segment and separate people from each other — serving the elderly, the disabled, the Spanish speaking, etc.  Rather than building networks and collective efforts, they often destroy them to replace them with one-way relationships of dependency and service.

While I personally and politically am fully committed to full government funding for social services and a safety net, there were always fundamental issues with how these were delivered that no efforts to save them should ignore. We need full funding for better ways of creating healthy and caring communities — like this one. While this does actually fit into Cameron’s hated Big Society in many ways, it doesn’t have to — and this report for survival purposes I respect, has left either possibility open.

Civic Systems Lab – Designed to Scale

Their key findings in their own words:

  1. Building a dense participation ecology at scale is possible.
  2. A fully developed prototype of this dense participatory ecology is estimated to take 3 years to build.
  3. High levels of micro participation could be a key component for building local sustainability and resilience in a neighbourhood.
  4. Micro participation needs to reach a threshold to be effective. — early estimates are that around 10% – 15% of local residents would need to be participating regularly at any one time (c. 3 times a week) for multiplier effects to be achieved. This estimated level of participation greatly exceeds any current levels of participation through existing models.
  5. Two levels of participation typography are needed for the ecology to work… a fully developed participation ecology should consist of two levels of activity. The first level is a highly accessible and inclusive network of commons-based co-production activity built into everyday life. Building on this foundational level of mass participation in micro activities, the second level would see the development of community businesses, co-operatives and hybrid ventures through platform incubation programmes.
  6. Moving the centre of gravity through the platform approach has the potential to create a new collaborative model between citizens, government and other institutions.
  7. The estimated costs of building and maintaining a participatory ecology represent a low percentage of public spending for an area. (21)


I don’t know when we forgot that a mutually supportive and connected community was key to our survival…perhaps when we no longer faced starvation and the need to build our own homes. But sometimes I feel like we are facing a starvation of the spirit here in the developed world, even as people starve in other places intimately connected to us through trade and consumption yet removed from our immediate knowledge. From exactly those places, the development literature grown around decades of aid (making little impact as you can see) has brought us terms such as resilience. It is still perhaps useful here, and will be ever more so through austerity’s bite and the onset of deeper poverty:

Resilience as an integrative construct

The construct of resilience offers a useful lens through which to discuss how neighbourhoods might be re-organised for both individual and collective wellbeing. People and families need to find ways to manage the ongoing ups and downs of life, and this is done through a combination of resources which are collectively referred to as ‘protective factors’.

Resilience resource indices include:

  • Biological factors (e.g. regular physical exercise, genetic resilience factors).

  • Individual factors (e.g. optimism, agency and executive functioning).

  • Interpersonal/family factors (e.g. secure family relations and close social ties).

  • Community/organisational factors (e.g. green space, volunteering).

The resources used to cope in challenging circumstances are not evenly distributed in or across neighbourhoods – perpetuating unequal access to resilience resources. (24)

I translate that in my mind to more concrete things like access to healthy foods and time for exercise, access to education and the ability to have power over your own life and the political and economic forces impacting you, close and supportive relationships that provide love and intellectual discussion and laughter, and a networked and supportive community.

I think that physical space should be separated from that as its own factor — access to nature, to growing things, to earth, safe and decent housing that makes you feel like you’re home, safe neighbourhoods that encourage you to spend time outside rather than flee, public spaces that encourage chance meetings and bring different people together, perhaps also transportation that ensure no one is trapped and all have good access to all parts of the city. All these things that Gehl, Appleyard, Whyte, Adams and Cullen among others describe.

An Ecology of Place

They don’t quite engage with that literature or work on space, but it fits in well with the thinking embodied in terms like ecology and ecosystems, it fits in also with thinking around networks and emergence, and the growing body of work on permaculture I’ve just started to dig back into.

Where roads and pipes allow for the efficient flow of transport, water and power, this participatory ecosystem aims to create a new and essential piece of connecting social infrastructure for our individual and collective wellbeing.

The report does bring us to the geography of it all — how place and people connect and the fact that ‘Resilient places support resilient people’. Hardly a surprise, though I am amazed at how many development experts consider the two to be separate. So returning to their thoughts on what a resilient place would look like:

An ecology of place:

The projection for a fully formed ecology after 3 years of development would see life experienced through the following participation opportunities:

  • Within a 5 to 15 minute walk from your home you would have approximately 140 opportunities every week (20 opportunities every day) to participate in free activities with neighbours. These might be in spaces on your nearest high street, or in kitchens, workshops or gardens on your own housing estate.
  • These activities would be practical, low commitment, low barrier opportunities that would be open to everyone, that you could decide to join at short notice, depending on your other home or work commitments.
  • These opportunities would be imaginative and creative project ideas, some of which you would find particularly interesting and which would also help you with your day-to-day life. For example, some projects could save
    you money through bulk cooking or bulk buying, you
    could learn new things and share what you know through
    weekly short lesson skill sharing, you could share, fix or
    make things that you need everyday such as equipment,
    food, clothing or furniture.
  • The network of opportunities would also include free regular incubation programmes which might help you cultivate new interests or livelihoods. These peer-to-peer incubators would allow you to develop your ideas without any formal qualifications and could lead to self-employment or employment.
  • Through these activities you would be able to get to know many local people in very informal and enjoyable settings. These people might be like you, but also might come from a wide range of backgrounds, ages and cultures, many of whom might have very different social and work networks, and these could be helpful for you to learn or progress to employment.
  • The new local community businesses, including collaborative childcare, energy, retail, or urban farming would create opportunities for you to balance your work and family commitments more easily and affordably.
  • For families there are projects, kitchens and workshops which enable you to make baby food, toys and clothing in social settings, which save you money and build supportive social networks and friendships.
  • Your new local networks would enable you to understand what public resources and benefits would be available to you, and help you easily access professional support when you need it. (26)

I love the illustrations in this evaluation/manual, this is just one example:

Civic Systems Lab - Designed to Scale
These diagrams ‘demonstrate how this ecosystem of social projects and activities creates opportunities for people to lead sustainable lives, through self-direction, and for producing direct, collective and networked outcomes for themselves, their family and the neighbourhood. (p 27)

I quite love their ambitions as well:

Active, connected neighbourhoods as a universal ambition

People want to live in places where they know and like their neighbours, where they can do things together regularly, where they can help to create welcoming and safe communities in which to raise their children and grow old.


Through the participatory ecology described in this report, neighbourhoods could 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. Examples of which already exist.(28)

Civic Systems Lab - Designed to Scale


Not bad at all.

From a community organising background (and one more built around popular education, positive community projects and working with individuals and families rather than a focus on working through institutions to amass power to challenge power which is more IAF’s model), so much of this seems self-evident. Still, I know well from working with many service-providers that this is often opposite to their normal practice (and demands of funders and government and often academics), and key to emphasise how this differs just to be very clear:

  1. People participate on an equal footing
  2. There are self-directed pathways of progression from
    micro levels of participation through to employment
  3. There are new dense networks for friendship, support
    and resources, as well as opportunities to develop new
    skills informally… (30-31)

These networks and participation need to reflect the community and all of its diversity — a challenge in a world that works to effect the opposite. I write and obsess about racism, and there are multiple other factors involved here that such an approach needs to work hard not to sustain, much less to undo — and there isn’t a great deal here about to how to do that, but I think this is an approach that can begin to tackle these issues despite the challenges:

Traditional attempts have largely failed to bring people from a wide range of different backgrounds, with different abilities and cultures, into the same spaces regularly enough to develop the connections and friendships necessary to build large bridging networks.

Experience has shown that creating and sustaining dense and diverse networks is harder than it looks. The way our systems are currently organised shows that these relationships do not develop as naturally as we would hope or as easily as they once did. (42)

This is one place where I think we definitely need to put more work and thought.

Building Platforms and Building to Scale

They also start to struggle with scale — again for us as community organisers this was always a big issue that we never quite cracked and debated endlessly.

The challenge of scale
One of the key strengths of many new participatory models is that they are small scale in nature. Typically, practical activities are done in functional local settings in small groups – and it is these highly personal peer-to-peer experiences that are proving to build relationships and generate mutual benefits. Study of many of these successful projects identified that they offer whole sets of different outcomes, and that they are productive, imaginative and engaging at a time when interest in some traditional community activity is declining in many places.

However, despite all these obvious strengths of participatory culture, we concluded that participatory projects of this kind are unlikely to fulfil their promise to transform places and people’s lives if they remain scattered, unsupported and small scale.

The reality that when things get too big, their truly participatory nature becomes harder and harder to maintain. I think, however, a broad base of people used to this kind of ecology of daily participation in multiple smaller projects with multiple relationships of trust and respect in an area could make a much more participatory society work on many different levels. I think if we created it, we could much more easily start to talk about scale with some integrity. In its absence, everything seems a little hollow and I myself haven’t much hope.

I also like their idea of platform, as a goal, as a foundation, as a construct and invention:

The Open Works project set out to discover if we could invent a platform approach that would allow us to change a whole set of existing participatory infrastructures, and accompany this with a change process that could build a larger system of these small scale experiences. (42)

More on the platform idea, that I’m still trying to get my head around:

Platforms for participation and mutualism: Unlike many government or third-sector led projects of the past, the new participatory project and civic ventures don’t seek to involve people in processes or representative structures, but are direct opportunities for participation. They operate on a platform logic: thriving on uncovering, inviting and combining multiple, unpredictable sources of input such as dormant existing resources or ideas from multiple sources, rather than just focusing on creating new products. For example with overcrowded hospitals a platform approach would look to system redesign, prevention and needs reduction, a products approach would procure more hospital beds. The former is a highly generative approach, as the wide range of unplanned, indirectly facilitated exchanges between platform participants can generate independent momentum. (151)

The scaling ideas they present are really impressive, showing how small projects could grow or serve as groundwork for or even federate into larger, more transformative ones. Here is just one example around growing and energy:

Civic Systems Lab - Designed to Scale


A question of Agency

Much of the literature they draw on is far removed from that of critical theory (not surprising) or community building and organising or even health and wellbeing (a little surprising but not too much). I enjoyed it, and how it presented small snippets of unfamiliar theory that I found quite thought provoking around social change and democracy, like this summary of agency as described through social cognitive theory by Albert Bandura (2006), which ‘incorporates the concept of a humans are both products and producers of their environments.’ Lefebvre says that too of course, a major innovation of critical geography, and I wonder if there is cross-pollination there, but that is to digress. They quote Bandura at length and so shall I:

Social cognitive theory distinguishes among three modes of agency, each of which is founded in people’s beliefs that they can influence the course of events by their actions. These include individual, proxy and collective agency.

In personal agency exercised individually, people bring their influence to bear on their own functioning and on environmental events.

In many spheres of functioning, people do not have direct control over the social conditions and institutional practices that affect their everyday lives. In those circumstances, they seek their well-being, security and valued outcomes through the exercise of proxy agency. In this socially mediated mode of agency, people try by one means or another to get those who have access to resources or expertise or wield influence to act on their behest to secure the outcomes they desire. For example, children work through parents, marital partners through spouses, employees through labor unions, and the general public through their elected officials.

People do not live in isolation. Many of the things they seek are achievable only through socially interdependent effort. In the exercise of collective agency people pool their knowledge, skills and resources, provide mutual support, form alliances, and work together to secure what they cannot  accomplish on their own. People’s shared beliefs in their joint capabilities to bring about desired changes in their lives is the foundation of collective agency. Perceived collective efficacy raises people’s vision of what they wish to achieve, enhances motivational commitment to their endeavours, strengthens resilience to adversity, and enhances group accomplishments.” (123)

I quite love that definition of collective agency, particularly in thinking about organising and what so much of my life’s work has been about. It’s interesting arriving at these thoughts not through Freire or Horton or Camilo Torres, but social cognitive theory.

So, a recap from Civic Systems Lab on just what is key to these participatory projects:

Emergent: The projects we have studied have all been
started by citizens as ‘ordinary people’. Not primarily in
a formal role such as community organisers, or to make
money, nor because they were invited to by governing
authority or organisation, or given a pot of money to entice
them into action.

‘Live’ and ‘lean’ development: The initiatives are not efforts to compel some other party to solve a problem, but are
rooted in practical DIY ethos.

Oblique approaches: These initiatives develop oblique or
secondary ways of addressing social, environmental, and
economic issues. (150)

Scale: Most of these projects work on a local scale. They tend to be rooted in the very tangible opportunities and problems of people’s lived experience in local areas and the social networks embedded in them. (151)

I think DIY can only get you so far and sometimes you have to fight bad things, too often really, but it’s true that the building of positive local initiatives has not received nearly enough study or attention. In some ways I agree with this, being always optimistic about what local people working together can achieve — and utterly pessimistic about how long it will take it to be smashed. But that’s for another post maybe, the rougher things become, the more necessary these initiatives will become, and in imagining an ideal base from which to create a different world, I cannot think of a much better one.

This foundational research suggests that a radical re-think of our institutions needs to occur: because of their valuable multiple social outcomes, the autonomous activities of civic initiatives and ventures are worth supporting as a complement to current developments in public service reform and innovation. The challenge is to create structures and investment mechanisms that work with the grain of what citizens are already doing together in this domain. This will be an important next step in the evolution of the relations between the state, the market and citizens in the UK and beyond. There is growing case study evidence on how, at the scale of individual projects, neighbourhoods and whole cities, this evolution is already underway, giving ample cause for optimism. (132)

I found this interesting too, a curious mix of things that on the whole I’m not sure I agree with — and it’s paragraphs like this that make me feel most that I am not the intended audience as this is not a critical study, but a practical one demonstrating not just how to do this, but why it should be funded.

What characterises the participation culture and civic entrepreneurialism we are witnessing now is that it brings together the diverse values of civic society with the new approaches and culture of 21st century start-ups. Where in the 20th Century, civic action was frequently focussed on protest against the state or market, or on demands to be included and represented in government decision-making, the new citizen participation and entrepreneurship firmly focuses on seizing opportunities that make life better or create more enjoyable places through practical action. They are marked by innovative and energetic hands-on design processes and a DIY ethos, drawing on existing resources where possible – whether physical resources in the locality, online tools or collaborative relations with people.


In sum, a ‘many to many’ culture has grown. People now have the access to tools and platforms to act independently of established players: market and state institutions, but also traditional local community power structures. (136)

I’m not sure what I think of ‘civic entrepreneurialism’. So I will let that go for now…and keep thinking about how this approach could lead to a deeper transformation of injustice and oppression in our society than such paragraphs allow. More nuts and bolts to follow, but this is already far too long…

For more on building social spaces…