Creative & Social

Part of a small series of articles I wrote for a client, posted here early 2015 but back-dated to the original dates.

Across the world many communities share a few of the same problems, I’d like to pick just a couple of those and look at a few solutions currently being experimented with around innovative use of space and co-creation.

The first of these problems has to do with spaces, the lack of space and also, paradoxically, the glut of commercial spaces. As austerity takes hold in more and more countries and as stagnant economies become common[1]. As online commerce and various systemic conditions cripple or kill off more and more small retail businesses, in various areas commercial spaces—especially on secondary streets—are becoming available, staying empty or being “taken off the market,” reducing the liveliness of some neighbourhoods. At the same time, real estate prices are rising in most markets, making those same spaces more expensive and harder and harder to access for many companies, organizations and groups.

The second problem or phenomenon is the change in social fabric in many communities. Even where a lively communal life takes place, where small shops are thriving and people happily walking around and participating, many types of jobs are disappearing, fewer and fewer people able to repair their possessions, build something, cook a meal or in general truly own their things and their actions.

Cuts are also made to social programs and structures, offering an ever diminishing set of services, from community centers to clinics to parks. Without giving up on pushing governments to re-invest in such areas, people are also at the same time self-organizing and supporting each other through various groups and forms of collaboration.

In smaller towns, some local governments manage to provide better services but more often than not those problems are actually exacerbated by the smaller number of citizens and compounded by a “brain drain” to larger cities.

An oft cited example of action is the Renew Newcastle project and similar initiatives. The focus of those project is on making commercial spaces more easily accessible to young companies and budding entrepreneurs looking for a chance to try something out. By filling empty spaces they hope to thicken the social fabric or those neighbourhoods, bring economic activity, diversify commercial streets and in general liven up and make more pleasant the areas they hope to rejuvenate.

In Rotterdam, from a similar situation of an empty shop space in a “neighbourhood with challenges,” they set up the “Mayor’s Living Room”. Thanks to a progressive lease meant to start low and match the growth of the project, they renovated the shop using second hand materials, involved local residents and let everyone pitch in to create a sens of shared ownership. It’s meant to act as a hub to the surrounding community and for local residents’ initiatives. People drop by for coffee, language lessons, history of the neighbourhood, a dining club, a hand craft club and a variety of seasonal activities.

In West Norwood, UK, in November 2012 the Lambeth Council setup The Work Shop, a store front space to introduce citizen-led ideas to the community.

These initiatives are not building new public services or more consumer-orientated markets, but are reframing our everyday local experience toward a new type of practical and participatory civic economy. Taken together they represent the potential for a radical re-organisation of our local systems that make better use of all our existing resources to produce significant and important outcomes. Those outcomes have the potential to effect everybody—and work with unique ideas and solutions, using unique local opportunities and assets. If we bring together local opportunities and imaginative thinking skilfully—then these projects should look very different in every place they appear.

Over six weeks they met hundreds of people who were inspired and wanted to get involved. This year on February 20th they launched The Open Works to execute on the projects discussed at The Work Shop:

The Open Works will involve citizens and professionals from across the council and partners, working in close collaboration, to start the first 10-20 local projects that are intended to set West Norwood firmly on the road to long-term sustainability. The Open Works aims to explore how ideas, knowledge and other resources – of citizens, businesses and government – can be brought together in entirely new configurations, and for these in turn to produce positive social outcomes that benefit everyone.

One of the first projects held in the space is the Trade School West Norwood where everyone can offer to teach something they are passionate about. Payment is made by bringing one of the teacher’s barter items listed with the class description. Then on April 22nd they are holding their first The Great Cook, “where people come together to batch cool meals, and take home portions for the week.”

One of the most recent and fascinating experiments is The unMonastery project. It wants to address some of the challenges I listed at the beginning, quite a few others in addition and offer forward looking solutions to the world we see taking shape before us. Here’s how they frame it themselves:

The unMonastery is an ambitious and radical response to the challenge of bridging this gap [between making money and making sense]. It draws inspiration from the 10th century monastic life to encourage radical forms of social innovation and collaboration. A sort of lay, off-grid mendicant order striving for a society that can better withstand present and future systemic crises. This place-based social innovation, is aimed at addressing the interlinked needs of empty space, unemployment and depleting social services by embedding committed, skilled individuals within communities that could benefit from their presence. The unMonastery aims to develop a new kind of social space, akin to co-living and co-working spaces, drawing influence from both Monasteries and HackerSpaces, with a focus on the process of co-creation and co-learning between the community and unMonasterians.

Setup by the EdgeRyders community the focus is on adding and offering skills to the community, in creating new connections and structures to make the community more self reliant, more local and better equipped. It’s also an exploration of how to make the “sharing economy” more sustainable, sharing and exchange is all good but doesn’t necessarily pay the rent or the grocery store, the unMonastery is one possible answer to a space where this type of economy can be made viable. Also notable is the fact that the facilitators specifically see this as a model only appropriate for smaller towns and not for capital cities, something much less common in such space / making projects.

So far these projects are relatively rare but more and more are being launched and a very promising phenomenon is that many are now quite aware of what’s going on around the world and learning from each other, basing their plans on what they’ve seen elsewhere and even, as with The Work Shop, using the basis for discussion with the community to find what gets people excited, what they are ready to pitch in with.

A lot of the factors leading to the creation of those endeavours are problems which have been historically solved by governments in a more or less top down manner and even though we can mourn the massive cut backs, it’s certainly a very promising and positive development to see all these hybrid solutions being put forth and a worldwide mesh of projects collaborating together in such a fashion.

To know more

Also note the Community Love’s Guide with many more examples, Tessy Britton who was involved with the book and currently with many great projects and 00:/ a multifaceted firm participating in a great variety of socially minded projects.

[1] We won’t delve here into why slowing down economies and letting go of our consumer centric ways would be a good idea and how it could have similar impacts but it’s certainly another factor to figure in when considering the importance of these types of projects.