Achieving balance: a citizens’ vision for inclusive growth

Clare Devaney sets out the latest thinking emerging from the RSA’s ‘Citizens and Inclusive Growth’ research, in partnership with JRF, and brings forward a shared vision of balance, independent space and equilibrium of impact at both human and city scale.


Building on emerging evidence, our final stage of research in the ‘Citizens and Inclusive Growth’ project sets out to explore a theory of change based on the hypothesis that:

Inclusive growth strategies can only be sustained where there is an equilibrium of strategy (impact, authority), creativity (commercial, civic/social, public innovation) and values (participation, inclusion).

This theory of change starts with the acceptance by leaders that inclusive growth goals (combining social and economic objectives) are likely to only be achieved when those who benefit from the strategies are included in their design (see Viv Slack, Founder of Street Support’s blog for this project: Nothing about us, without us, is for us). To achieve this goal requires a new equilibrium where strategic leadership, innovators and citizens participate in the process of change. This equilibrium encompasses our three key research themes: inclusion, innovation and impact as part of the processes of change, rather than simply outcomes of change strategies. Citizens are not only the beneficiaries of change, but are fundamental to the success and sustainability of social change strategies.

Creating impact at both a human and city scale requires a shared vision of success, at an individual and collective level. This co-relationship between visioning and impact means a move beyond an understanding of ‘human centred design’ as a self-contained element of an engagement process, toward an embedded process which is collaborative throughout — from visioning to evaluation, and in all aspects.

The presence of open and independent space is emerging as key to both inclusion and effective citizen engagement. Whether through the rise of innovation spaces and labs, civic commons and the re-appropriation of public space, Barcelona’s super-blocks, or the emergence of online and virtual platforms, there is a clear demonstration of the importance of creating space — for both safety and risk-taking; for agreement and conflict, for consensus, and dissent.

Cities are also navigating the space between digital and face-to-face engagement; between ‘high tech’ and ‘high touch’. The evidence suggests that most successful approaches combine the two, as in the case studies of Helsinki, and in particular its Helsinki Lab initiative, and Barcelona, augmenting its deliberative public policy meetings with online streaming.

The importance of balance between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’, between familiarity and risk, between ‘high tech’ and ‘high touch’ in successful engagement supports the call for equilibrium put forward in our hypothesis, and the principle of balance between economic and social inherent in inclusive growth. The critical factor in our hypothesis, and supported by emerging evidence, is the third element to achieving balance. Some approaches, for example, demonstrate good balance between strategy and creativity (Boston), between creativity and values (Seattle), or between strategy and values (Barcelona), but the evidence suggests that all three must share equal prominence to support inclusive growth.

In this phase of research, we are working with UK cities to explore and unpick how that critical balance can be achieved, bringing diverse voices together as ‘citizen stakeholders’ in finding new pathways to maximise opportunities and confront acknowledged challenges for those cities. Our aim is to support cities in exploring the nexus between established — and formally polarised — principles, by creating an independent space in which to express and create a shared vision of success. Our approach in the visioning task includes an invite participants to imagine their city as a global lead for citizen engagement, and to describe the principles behind that; what it feels like and what it looks like. Guest blogs on visioning from our first city workshop in Manchester can be found on the project’s Medium site, and include a post from Simon Buckley, founder of NotQuiteLight and the Floor 15 group, which explores the space between street level and high-rise, and a post from Alex Chisholm, co-director of Bradford’s Freedom Studios, on a city’s ‘empty, in-between spaces’ and the dynamic movement of people, imagination and places at play.

We welcome your vision for your city. Please send submissions to citizensengage@rsa.org.uk

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