Citizens as real agents of change in the places they live

We must consider ways of shifting responsibility, accountability and agency towards communities, and citizens as active partners in City making, argues Rosie Clayton.

By Rosie Clayton

Follow Rosie on Twitter @RosieClayton


Over Christmas I watched A City Speaks (1947), an iconic postwar film sponsored by Manchester City Council which presents a fascinating vision for the City built on the prosperity and creativity of its people — and through the prism of a thriving City ecosystem encompassing industry, leisure, housing, education and a dynamic local democracy all working in service of, and in partnership with, its citizens.

Fast forward 50 years and it’s a little disheartening to think how far removed we have become from the civic vision, ambition and values of that time, and from the prioritisation of people as active creators, makers and do-ers in City life. It was also interesting to see how little has changed in terms of the means of participation — the idea of the public consultation and the electing of local officials in three year cycles being the core (and only?) opportunities for citizen engagement. Both of which still stand today, and both of which, in the 21st Century, are proving inadequate in providing voice and agency to citizens.

The notion for example that citizenship is solely defined by participation at the ballet box now seems outdated when we think about how we exercise choice in other areas of our life, and the complexity of decision making around say housing, education, utilities, that is now expected. It’s also a pretty inert means of participation, not necessarily requiring deep engagement with any of the issues at stake. And public ‘consultations’, where experts present proposals and seek the views of people through surveys in a rigid and prescriptive way, and where little ends up changing as a result, has tended to just further disengage and alienate people from decision making processes.

Both of these tools have also concentrated power in institutions and bureaucracies, which treat citizens as passive recipients of services, the relationship often being adversarial and transactional, rather than as co-designers or co-creaters and the real agents of change.

There is a vast untapped collective knowledge and skills base amongst our citizenry which is rarely recognised or utilised by the wider system.

This includes for example within our schooling system, which treats education and learning as an isolated and discrete experience confined within a specific building, and increasingly disconnected from the realities of the real world, and particularly the world of work.

The school system also only tends to value one type of achievement — the acquisition of academic knowledge needed to pass tests — rather than recognise and place importance on the vital range of wider skills and competencies required for active citizenship and life success.

Through this narrow conception of education we fail to make use of the wide range of learning assets across our localities — physical, digital, human — and opportunities to give our young citizens and the leaders, creators and problem solvers of tomorrow a rich variety of learning experiences and chance to apply their knowledge, fail and grow. (Something that the RSA Cities of Learning project is looking to explore.)

Linking to the notion of inclusive growth, this disconnection and depletion of agency across society is felt particularly acutely in those areas that have not benefitted from traditional trickle down economic development, and where the success and prosperity of a place is defined through its physical assets — how many shiny new buildings have been built, what does the urban imagery and landscape look like — rather than say through the capability of it’s people.

So as we start to think about new models for economic growth that are inclusive and both value and cultivate the active engagement of citizens, and utilise their knowledge, wisdom and energy, then we need to look at both the means of participation and opportunities for engagement in civic life and decision making, and also how we define and measure the prosperity of a place.

This is already starting to happen, for example the recently launched Vibrant Economy Index aims to look beyond economic measures as the sole indicator of national success, to include indicators around health and wellbeing, trust and belonging.

But I wonder if there is an opportunity to go one step further in including metrics around citizen engagement and civic capability, which could also create a bias to action in doing things differently — particularly thinking about education (in its broadest sense) where political and civic knowledge would become an important component — and in shifting responsibility, accountability and agency towards communities, and citizens as active partners in City making.


Rosie Clayton is a freelance consultant specialising in education and school innovation, networks design and edtech.

Current and recent projects include with the Innovation Unit, the RSA, the School Design Lab, Gaia Technologies and Creative Pioneers/Digital Advantage, and in Autumn 2016 she spent 2 months travelling across the USA exploring innovation ecosystems in education through a Fellowship with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

Rosie is also part of a group of international education leaders convened by Getting Smart and the Buck Institute for Education to develop a set of standards for high quality project and challenge based learning, and has written on a range of topics for both GS and BIE whilst in the US.

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