Alternative Editorial: Time for next-level collaboration

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By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK

We’re spending time in South Devon: in particular meeting the people of Plymouth and getting some perspective on the role they play in the region. It’s way too early for us to become usefully insightful on their history: it takes time to understand how individuals, let alone whole communities, came to be what they are today.

But it’s not too early to become related with groups, observe the dynamics between them and notice how they point to bigger patterns of outcomes – successes and failures – we see around us. What’s noticeable is that each group of people we meet is actively looking for development.

They have theories about dysfunction – why things don’t work – and their own theories of change too. But each has their own threshold – a boundary they cannot step over to meet the other groups.

I’m not going to exacerbate those barriers to change by pointing at and amplifying them here. Instead, I’m asking the question: what does it take for anyone to step outside of their comfort zone, their ready analysis, to take a risk and see what might happen next?

Political analysis is focused on the material differences: the deprivation that leads to loss of freedom to act. Addressing it is core to change – but does it cover everything? After all, lack of motivation exists at every level of material wealth.

Some of the people we met on our recent visit were officially the most “deprived” and also the most inventive – as well as the most courageous in terms of speaking up and challenging the status quo.

At the Pembroke Street Estate Management office for example, we met a team of people who have spent the past thirty years regenerating their estate – see here for their extraordinary story. We saw the substantial, ground-breaking work they had done after years of successful campaigning which won them £6m, to renew their homes and environment.

After meeting them, they gave us a very substantial document from a week-long Action Planning event that The Mount Wise Community, the larger area of which Pembroke is a part, had hosted twenty years ago.

Reading it is quite a wake-up call: the language is very familiar today and must have been well ahead of its time in 1997. It makes clear recommendations and anticipates social, economic and housing actions - some, but not all of which have been fulfilled.

On the last page of the report, the people who attended evaluated the plus points of the week-long event – the common cause, the positivism and the collaboration. But they also talked about the weaknesses – the relatively low engagement from the residents themselves, the lack of youth integration, the impact of the poor image of Mount Wise.

So maybe it’s not entirely unexpected that, today, those who took part in that phase of regeneration (including our friends at Pembroke Street) feel they are treading water. Having set themselves up for radical change, they need a next level of activity to help them capitalise on all they learnt. Instead, they continue to feel excluded from the mainstream, lacking traction when they try to stand up and get going.

They look over at the entrepreneurial activity in what was once the Town Hall – now the Devonport Guildhall – and think it’s out of bounds. Sarah Brown, the owner of the community hub Devonport Live, talked to us about the invisible line dividing one block of houses from another. And despite her hub yarn bombing the streets that connect them, she doesn’t expect it to change.

What would it take to overcome these barriers? I had a chat with photographer Jenny South, active in both the Plymouth Places and Power to Change projects, herself married into the Navy (one of the major employers in the area that barely takes part in any of the local regeneration initiatives). She’s clear these are not political tribes: the people here are distrustful of politics, pride themselves on their independence and switch between Labour and Conservative in elections.

But she struggles to name the issue. Is it territorial - between those that occupy one block of houses and another, because one house is old and another new? Is it material - between those that have a car and a house and those that don’t, though she sees plenty of friendship across that divide? Or, with all the regeneration money coming into the area over the years,  is it more subtle: a gulf between those that feel like actors, and those that feel acted upon?

Somehow, she says, “I can’t see it changing until people feel like they are in control of their own lives, not on the receiving ends of someone else’s idea for them. And for that they have to be able to see the bigger picture: how change happens around them. Staying in their own closed communities is not going to help them."

It’s a theme we encounter wherever we go: that the political agenda at the national level is not capturing the felt needs of people. Yes, people have material needs – no-one can function without food and shelter. But they have concurrent – not subsequent – emotional needs: for autonomy, for meaning and purpose, for status and belonging. In fact, the more those needs get met, the more people are able to get their own material needs met in more satisfying ways.

This is what the people of Pembroke Street felt momentarily - but lost again, once the money and attention from the outside was gone.

These emotional needs can’t be answered by way of programmes delivered from the top because Westminster politicians don’t live in their world. When David Cameron launched the Big Society, it actually took money away from long-standing community projects and put it in the hands of young, savvy entrepreneurs who were not connected to the people.

As Jenny said: sometimes people don’t want shiny new media centres where people are fixed to their screens, they want spaces they can walk into that allows them to connect to each other as people.

If local communities – where most people live – are to come alive again, the energy must appear as ideas from amongst the people themselves. Then they must be sent upwards as information – both quantitative and qualitative - to politicians who are willing to pay attention. But for that you need politicians that understand the value of their voters’ civic participation for its own sake. 

The possibility of this shift of relationship between the top and the bottom is not simply more formal devolution from top down, but a bottom-up shift of dynamics as people wake up to their own power. It’s an ongoing experiment in a number of places across Europe.

Take the Pirate Party in Iceland, who supported liquid democracy to crowdsource a new constitution (which was not implemented by a government still stuck in the old culture). 

The Podemos party in Spain arose in relationship to En Comu – a citizens' circle initiative, now winning power at municipal levels.  Alternativet won 9 seats in the Danish parliament (on a proportional system) on the promise to crowd-source their political programme through political laboratories across the country.

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Similar experiments in the UK are small but powerful in the quality of their practice and vision: Flatpack Democracy for example, is a handbook that was written after the early stages of an ongoing experiment in Frome.

It demonstrates the simple logic of communities coming together – across the old political divide - to take back control of their local council and open it out again to the people.

The author of Flatpack and former Mayor Peter Macfadyen describes the participatory budgeting approach, in which anyone can take part in deciding how local money gets spent.  People are also free to come to the council and pitch their ideas at any time of the year – the council’s job is to help link them with the resources needed to make them happen.

Localism is often looked upon by those operating at the heart of our current politics – both politicians and activists - as small stakes. It's doesn't really add up to substantial change at the national and global level. But if Brexit and Trump have taught us anything, in the age of organisation and data capture, it’s that people power is the biggest factor in the future of politics. Being able to engage well and help people get in touch with their own deeply felt needs, and their growing agency, is the key to a future we can all look forward to.

It starts with people coming together across their divide to find their common purpose and see the diversity of skills they can pool to make a leap forward. Those who are implementing  innovation need the pioneers of the Mount Wise Action Planning Event to help their entrepreneurship be grounded and accepted by the wider community.

It takes more than negotiation, it takes imagination – as well as courage and generosity. A bit of humour and humility also plays a part.

If you are in the Plymouth area on June 12th, come and take part in the South Devon experiment – you’re both needed and welcome.