(Re)founding CIVIC SQUARE 2.0

Demonstrating neighbourhood-scale civic infrastructure for social and ecological transition.

52 min readMar 10, 2023


This piece was co-authored by members of the CIVIC SQUARE team as we shift from phase one of CIVIC SQUARE (2020–2022) into phase two. It is a strategic reframing and refounding that we want to share openly from the beginning, whilst it will also be translated into other formats that we can share as it continues to gain form as the functional foundation for the next stages of our work in practice.

This is the first of two blogs as part of sharing from our refounding. In this first part, we introduce our updated strategy for phase two: CIVIC SQUARE 2.0. We have found that it is critical to build on what you have learned, how to iterate and orientate more appropriately to the North Star mission with the further knowledge and insights gained, and for the first time we decided to share it as immediately as we could, as we build and take the next step, rather than in retrospect. This strategic piece will which will be followed by a more practical account of the refounding process from December 2022 and January 2023, including reflections as a team and making the tools we used openly available.

Written in March 2023, it reflects our progress, learning and insights at that time. If you’d like to explore these ideas further, we warmly invite you to visit our contribution to MOULD’s Architecture Is Climate exhibition, 18–19 March 2023 at Lethaby Gallery, Granary Building, 1 Granary Square, London N1C 4AA, or reach out to us directly at info@civicsquare.cc. We’d love to hear from you.

If a long form read doesn’t suit how you would like to engage, here are a few shortcuts to different forms of media to explore some of the topics raised here:

Neighbourhood Doughnut Portrait DEAL Story — December 2022
Neighbourhood Doughnut Workbook v1.2 — October 2022
Reimagining Economic Possibilities: Essay Series — October 2022
Neighbourhood Doughnut Launch: Video Playlist — October 2022
Retrofit Reimagined Festival: Video Playlist — July 2022
Doughnut Economics Peer to Peer Learning Journeys — February 2022
Doughnut Economics Peer to Peer Video Playlist — February 2022
Re_ Fest: Video Playlist — June 2020

You can also listen to this piece using the Listen button at the top of this post.

In December 2022 we began the process of refounding CIVIC SQUARE, as our first three years of practice, experimentation and the initial phase of core funding and development came to an end.

We knew it was the right time to do this due to a number of factors, including hearing from many of our peers that we were all facing similar challenges, needing to (re)articulate our mission clearly within the current socio-economic paradigm and the crises and challenges in the backdrop of the last 3 years, and more viscerally knowing in our guts and our bodies that we couldn’t go forward well without investing into intentional repair and collective reconfiguration as an interconnected group of people working towards a bold mission together. We know how well working in the open, sharing our strategy and organising has been received and appreciated around the world, so it felt critical to us at this stage to share our emerging, open, and iterative thinking and practice. We hope it is received as an open sharing, not as a truth, or single way forward.

“I increasingly think organisations need periodic re-founding as they evolve through their phase shifts; it has to be an intentional act of rebuilding solidarity, mission and mutual accountability.”

— Indy Johar

Similar stages along the journey for us so far have included the founding of Impact Hub Birmingham in 2013–2014, and transitioning from Impact Hub Birmingham and founding CIVIC SQUARE in 2019–2020. We know first hand how much getting these shifts right can pay off in the years to follow the balance of building a clear and courageous enough compass to orient us through both calm and stormy weather, and strengthening the bonds between us to be well connected and versatile enough as a collective to ensure we adapt well as we discover new ways to be generative as a system.

The north star mission remains the same, but three years of experimentation, learning, prototyping and iteration has given us a sharper focus, more informed, more appropriate and more rigorous direction towards that north star. For many of us who have been on this journey, in some cases for more than ten years, we knew that the past three have tested us, our hypothesis and ideas about change, transformation and interconnecting crises like never before. It was, without a doubt in our minds, the right time to reset, reconnect and get even more serious, disciplined, rigorous and focused about our work going forward, in service of the arc of our work over the continued long term.

As we sat in Impact Hub Birmingham in 2019 bringing together our early vision and strategy for CIVIC SQUARE, we knew at that time that this was quite a bold step forward, perhaps beyond what we as social organisations were expected to be thinking and dreaming about, but knowing the imperative of designing our work in the context of challenges that are unprecedented, complex, interdependent and interconnected. Then, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the fragility of our economic systems and the many paradoxes we sit within were starkly illuminated, bringing them further off the page and into tangible reality for many more people.

At that time we started from where we were and, like so many of you, worked hard to continue our collective work within a rapidly changing context, but in 2022 we saw that the impacts from this time had really started to take their toll, on our bold and brilliant partners, and for us personally as we navigated the growing pains of convening a broader team of team(s) around different emerging portfolios of work, shouldering an organisation holding more responsibility, risk and resource, and everything that it meant in practice to step up to the scale of vision that we had outlined and committed to, whilst operating within systems as yet untransformed and in many ways struggling to adapt, resource and to step up to the context quickly enough.

This made 2022–2023 another clear, intentional step along the long arc of our work, actively holding space to process and draw upon learnings new and old, explicit and tacit, tangible and intangible, and making this process collective for everyone involved in CIVIC SQUARE to break through into the new phase ahead together in a meaningful way.

You can read more about our practical reflections of the refounding process in December 2022 — February 2023, as well as the tools we used, in the second part of this blog to follow.

As part of this refounding, in this first blog we introduce our updated strategy for phase two: CIVIC SQUARE 2.0.

Perma + Polycrisis

“If we consider the pandemic in the context of growing global risks posed by the environmental breakdown — from air pollution and plastic contamination, to the extinction of species and destruction of the oceans and biodiversity — the return to pre-2020 governance systems and economies is not only increasingly unlikely, but would be structurally negligent.”

Millie Begovic and Indy Johar, A Way Forward

Our 2019 roadmap and foundational ideas around transition, described more deeply here, helped us understand that we find ourselves facing a series of interdependent strategic risks that are complex, connected and not possible to treat in isolation. We described the scale of change urgently required in the decade ahead in this document, and it formed the backdrop of the next three years of our work and our key milestones to date.

In practice, COVID-19 revealed to us in the UK, more quickly that we have predicted many things we knew in ways that none of us could look away from: the global interdependence and mutual vulnerability of our 21st Century challenges, existing and accelerating injustice and inequity, and the many related cascading impacts.

This was, of course, not new knowledge to the thousands of neighbours and communities organising throughout the last decade of austerity or our families and kin all over the world, already facing the stark realities of deep injustice. The stripping of vital social infrastructure, which was holding up the last mile of everyday life, and the impact of the pandemic on their life and work became painfully clear. We celebrated, nationally, the role of key workers and communities, saw the best of who we are and could be, and the worst systemic injustice and inequity too.

The pandemic could be described as a warning: a living example that we have and continue to somatically experience together — not a historical record, relegated to archives of the past, but something we continue to experience in this very moment that highlights the structural weaknesses of our existing systems and the utter futility of insisting on 20th Century models, methods, and institutions for the scale and breadth of 21st Century challenges. We are facing challenges that can’t be merely responded to at one horizon alone, with Kate Raworth and others calling this H1 — the necessary but limited horizon of simply responding to crisis, and we are at the heart of an era where we urgently require 21st century missions and goals that centre more fundamental shifts, such as in the foundational role of our economic and land systems.

“Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Milton Friedman

In the years since, we have continued to see and feel how multiple globalised systems are entangled in ways that have cascading impacts on society and the natural world we rely on. This global ‘polycrisis’ affects every aspect of our lives, and is experienced most viscerally as multiple impacts begin to converge on the places we live, play, eat, rest, learn, love, heal and grow.

‘Permacrisis’ (a portmanteau of ‘permanent’ and ‘crisis’) was the Collins Dictionary’s word of the year for 2022, with the managing director of Collins Learning, Alex Beecroft, quoted as saying that it “sums up quite succinctly how truly awful 2022 has been for so many people”. From sky rocketing bills and the soaring cost of living, to the amount of energy lost in heating poorly insulated homes, and the strain on the NHS, we know all of these intersecting crises are at breaking point. In addition, we know the scale of the challenges we are facing is large, so any routes out of this that are more regenerative and future facing need to recognise these cascading impacts of our built environment, and to design strategies that take them into account with social, climate and energy justice firmly at their heart.

These points of systems-made-visible and viscerally lived in our everyday insist that we scaffold an ecologically safe, socially just transition, rebuilding our social contract, our relationships with one another and the natural world around us. This calls on us in the Global North to recognise the role we must play in this future, undoing the repercussions of centuries of extraction, resource and supply hoarding — accelerating deep injustices — and instead, moving towards a radically reparative, restorative, interdependent future, humbly learning from, resourcing, and raising up those restoring our natural ecosystems and defending the land from further extraction at this most crucial of times.

Neighbourhood Doughnut v1.1 | Ladywood, Birmingham UK | December 2022 | Two Lenses Rerolled, Based on: The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries. Credit: Kate Raworth and Christian Guthier. CC-BY-SA4.0

We know from our own home, Ladywood — an inner city neighbourhood archetype of many, both the challenges and opportunities are significant. From looking at the Data Portrait of Place and qualitative and quantitative research co created in the work of the first phase of CIVIC SQUARE, we can say with a fairly high degree of confidence that we are not meeting the needs of our own place, our collective responsibilities to each other or working within ecological boundaries. Whilst this can feel alarming, it’s also a chance to deeply and honestly look at where we are, and where we need to get to, knowing that we might have to oppose a lot and, more importantly, propose and demonstrate a lot more, but that together we are able to do so. Overwhelmingly, the Community Portrait of Place revealed deep, untapped vision, energy and passion in every corner of the neighbourhood, at a scale that the climate transition and the bold vision of moving into the safe and just space of the Doughnut requires of us ALL.

Transitions + Infrastructure

“Transitions are forty to sixty year periods, made up of a number of things where everything needs to change.”

— Carlotta Perez

Whether it be in service of the deep neighbourhood retrofit of our homes, streets, public squares, high streets and schools, or transformation of our empty spaces into regenerative physical infrastructure to meet the needs of our communities, rebuild our responsibility to more than human neighbours, rewild our homes and hearts, our neighbourhoods require access to knowledge, tools, resources and platforms to be at the forefront of their own climate transitions, not fall victim to them or be swept away by rapid change they had little agency or consent within. The movements, stories and organising for new plural economic possibility, the establishing of new land contracts, the demonstration of the symbiosis of mutual aid and systemic transformation, the literal and metaphorical rewilding of our places and our relationships with one another and the natural world — these, and many more instruments for our futures need to be nurtured, demonstrated, and crafted in the everyday, and are critical in all of the many layers this transition demands of us.

For this, transitions require institutional responses. Tredegar Medical Aid Society was founded by working class people in South Wales, providing health care free at the point of use in return for contributions from its members. According to Colin Ward, the model which had “evolved from the vast network of friendly societies and mutual aid organisations that had sprung up through working class self-help in the 19th century”, contributed to the establishment of the British National Health Service. Tredgar Medical Aid Society, and many others like it existed decades before the forming of the NHS, before the political and social will, for this to be a public good existed. Stories like these of people universally and collectively working around their needs in radical ways compared to the beliefs that the status quo was constructed around at that time are vital in reminding us of the journey we need to go on and invest into. Arguably, we have many examples today that rehearsing the future, our own demonstrators, radical projects and work expanding the window of possibility. Which, today may seem small and radical, but are forming and crafting the blueprint where one yet does not exist.

In the founding of the NHS, as a society we understand the national and regional systems we would need to build up, the vision, legislation and infrastructure, but critically we built neighbourhood GPs representing and creating democratic shifts in access to public healthcare near your home, giving people the tools, spaces, resources, and expertise to collectively and individually uplift their health, as part of a wider societal transition at the end of the war with the founding of the NHS, so is the significance of the kind of neighbourhood infrastructure we need to democratise access to the capabilities, skills, knowledges, tools, and resources to its neighbours in this time of deep societal transition and transformation, socially and ecologically. This was a period of huge transition for the country, this was not a transition that could happen centrally, or simply from the top down.

At the time of a shift from an industrial economy to new forms of knowledge-based work, we knew the democratic access to education, learning and the tools and spaces to support that were critical. Whilst a complicated man whose wealth was accumulated in many unjust ways, Carnegie’s investment saw 1,689 libraries over a 25 year period in the early 1900s, bringing a significant influx of civic institutions at the heart of communities to democratise knowledge through increased access to resources, knowledge and space to grow. Both widely felt and largely invisible, the legacy of the Carnegie library system may not be measured best by architecture or even information studies, but instead by the enormous impact on civic life, especially for women and children, to be felt from these buildings. Not only do our community libraries themselves need to be deeply invested into, but just as Carnegie, and the public interventions and vision manifested, and many others did it is imperative that our own generation asks how large scale investments can democratise access to shared resources at the scale of our neighbourhoods.

Whilst many of the examples we draw inspiration from are from a different era and the stories are told backwards there is a lot for us to learn, their representation of this essential factor for neighbourhoods to be at the forefront of their transitions remains pertinent. This is not in isolation, nor to give in to localism, but rather an interdependent planetary approach that starts from where we are and doesn’t ignore the scale of broader challenges. It is neither true that everything can be addressed individually at this scale alone, nor can it be imposed and enforced from ‘top down’ solution — it requires civic organising, infrastructure and demonstration nested at this layer, alongside the city, the state, and in deep relationship with the planetary scale of this moment. Ideas such as these end the end transcended partisan politics, and whilst like us many in the early demonstration of this work came to the work from a social, justice and equity lens, they were also investments that were pragmatic, logical and without a societal transition at scale, impossible.

It is critical to add that this does not mean we take an apolitical, ahistorical, and rose tinted approach in sharing these examples, particularly as a movement who platformed, shared, and brought a deep whilst hopeful critique of the field into the everyday at Impact Hub Birmingham, and a team descending from people who felt the brutal realities of imperial history. Instead this is about taking a moment to look where we are, understand the short term and longer term shifts we need to make, and the wider socio-political-economic backdrop. We must build radical ideas into everyday tools, frameworks, land contracts, organising, with a long term view of radical transformation, whilst also looking at what we can learn from to build on, and what to leave behind with the history of this country. This is a moment that is deeply fraught with contradiction and urgency, as well as hope and belief and imagination. It for sure, however, isn’t rose tinted — something that many of us grapple with everyday.

Designing for transition is both multi-stage and multi-level. It moves forward step-by-step, but also requires multiple levels of governments, sectors, communities, geographies, and spaces working together. This represents the need for layered civic infrastructure, consisting not just of physical ‘platforms’, but also a range of resources, processes, forms of participation, zones of experimentation, funding mechanisms, new models of accountability and legitimacy, and much more and, crucially, these must be demonstrated in the here and now at a scale big enough and small enough to effect change.

Neighbourhood System Demonstration

“‘Local’, ‘neighbourhood’, ‘community’ do not have to mean small or slow. They can be the infrastructure engines of a new big and bold kind of economic future, one that is collective, regenerative and cares about the longview.”

— Melissa Mean, What if the power and resources to build our neighbourhoods were in community hands?

Following more than a decade of organising, convening, and civic experimentation through TEDxBrum, Impact Hub Birmingham and more particularly in the neighbourhood we call home, Ladywood, Birmingham UK, through prototyping CIVIC SQUARE 1.0 over the past 3 years — including the very particular contexts of the COVID pandemic, Cost of Living Crisis and Brexit in the UK — we can see all around us this entangled, complex and interdependent picture layering and building up live. We can see this live at the scale of society, and it converging on our homes, our personal lives, our loved ones, our streets and neighbourhoods.

As a team of many intersections of identities, we find ourselves at the knots of these systems. Challenges like decarbonisation and retrofitting of neighbourhoods and streets is one that sits at the heart of many different justice projects, including energy justice, health justice, racial justice, and spatial justice, and it is a severe and urgent challenge no matter what lens(es) we view it through. We know we have a responsibility as a country for our emissions, and the real lived impact these have on people living in the toughest conditions. So for us it’s really important that we truly begin to orientate our organisation, resources, privileges, creativity, diverse viewpoints, our many ways of being and knowing towards our biggest challenges.

We know we cannot simply describe the possibility or scale of change required. Instead, seeing, feeling and co-building emerging futures in the here and now has the capacity to transform us. The first phase of CIVIC SQUARE (2020–2022) was all about building relationships and invitations through everyday participation, and then observing and moving towards the ideas that landed in a more exploratory way, equipping us with lots of learning about how to convene in the everyday around bold, systemic ideas. We will keep telling the inspiring stories of possibility, and what we have to gain by moving towards more regenerative and distributive-by-design neighbourhoods, whilst focusing on the scale and pace of the work required now.

“Systems Demonstrators are more fully-realised and fleshed-out versions of living systems. Nonetheless, they exemplify innovative approaches to transformed systems delivered in reality. They are real things, yet also stand for future trajectories, effectively living incarnations of North Stars for the missions.”

— Dan Hill, Designing Missions

CIVIC SQUARE has always intended to be a fertile ground to test early assumptions and emerging design principles, convening people in a safe, supported and resourced context. In version 2 of our theory of change, updated in February 2021, we expanded out the idea of civic experimentation as being where what surfaces from the Neighbourhood Regenerative Economics Lab is experienced and can be co-built together by many people in their place through a Creative + Participatory Ecosystem of practice. We learned deeply we were often at the edge of many systems, getting in the cracks, forging new combinations, expanding and the window of possibility, and seeking to create a blueprint where one yet doesn’t exist, long before it is often welcome or adequately resourced or understood.

At that time, we articulated civic experiments as either taking the form of proofs of possibility or deep demonstrators and, inspired by Climate-KIC, we then considered deep demonstrations to be a way of accelerating learning about how to transition our systems in the context of urgency, diversity and radical uncertainty, in the form of larger scale, longer-term activity. The TransCap collaboration convened by Climate-KIC with Thirty Percy, Lankelly Chase, Dark Matter Labs and ourselves was an early example of giving form to this intention, and one that has since evolved into one of our three key demonstrators as we go into CIVIC SQUARE 2.0: Neighbourhood Transitions.

In his seminal playbook Designing Missions available here as a pdf — Dan Hill outlines precise definitions of the systemic design and practice around transformational missions. Demonstrators are considered a nested system of systems, and can be as big or as small as is useful in order to demonstrate the different transformations that are required — in governance, finance, and beyond — areas that require deep (re)design in order for us all to be able to build different realities.

Recipes For Systems Change by Helsinki Design Lab — available here as a pdf — is another important read which first inspired our work.

“The demonstrator inherently conveys the systems of systems pertaining to the mission, or grand challenge behind it, and crucially, begins to illustrate how they are now combining in a transformed way. Systems theory indicates that all these aspects are already combined — everything is connected — but our challenge is to transform how they are connected such that they address our grand challenges, rather than ignore them or, worse, consciously produce or reinforce them.

Simply, with our examples, the demonstrator is what we begin to get when prototypes move from transforming one or two streets, to transforming multiple streets in entire city blocks and neighbourhoods, and thus producing ripple effects through all their inherent services, experiences, infrastructures, cultures, biodiversity, forms of governance, and so on. Scaling may be non-linear here, as critical mass may be achieved at various certain points in this development, producing the ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ perturbation point which shifts a system from one state to another.

As Jane Jacobs said, a city is not ‘like suburbs, but denser’ — it is something else, a different condition.”

— Dan Hill, Designing Missions

Being thoughtful and deliberate about our scale of demonstration matters. On the one hand, we must not get lost in an idea that hyperlocal street and neighbourhood organising is everything, and need to consider our interdependent connections with other people around the world, as well as responsibility for our shared planetary home. We know that, as a society, we need to move rapidly, and boldly, but we also recognise that the systemic design of that being possible both matters and can be informed through the scale of our neighbourhoods.

Deep retrofit, for example, goes beyond the scale of our individual homes to address our economic relationships with supply chains, our ecological relationship with our more than human peers, and our social relationships with our neighbours. By engaging in such approaches we may create community composting, urban farming, bike storage, cleaner air, welcome wildlife back to our streets, reduce noise pollution, and a whole host of other street-based interventions, and wider critical engagement allows us to interact with the built environment as a holistic system, dramatically expanding how ambitious we can be together, and making the unit of the street far more than the sum of its parts.

“Transition pathways and changes in social norms often start with pilot experiments led by dedicated individuals and niche groups (high confidence).

Collectively, such initiatives can find entry points to prompt policy, infrastructure, and policy reconfigurations, supporting the further uptake of technological and lifestyle innovations. Individuals’ agency is central as social change agents and narrators of meaning. These bottom-up socio-cultural forces catalyse a supportive policy environment, which enables changes.”

— IPCC, Sixth Assessment Report: Mitigation, Chapter 5, pg. 5

As the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report shows, and as our friends at Centre for Alternative Technology echo, having the data and the technology available for the climate transitions we need isn’t where the shortfall lies — we have these in abundance, and have had for a long time. One of the most important shifts to make together is in how we relate to one another, our environments and the narratives we believe about these at both a local and global scale. A necessarily upgrade of social contracting becomes an opportunity for us to come together on our streets in ways that breathe new life into them and us, giving more of us the opportunity to reimagine the places we live and spend time in together, to create cleaner, greener, less isolated, far more abundantly joyful communities and neighbourhoods that can experiment, build, exchange and learn from one another.

“We have all the ideas, we have the technology, we know what to do, we just need to get on with it.”

— Anna Bullen

So, what if we funded and invested in neighbourhood-scale demonstrators that could highlight individual, local, and communal benefits through experimentation and compound learning of how to finance, govern, organise, implement and maintain these collective models? What if we could unlock a role for everyone in the climate crisis — as described in the IPCC AR6 more clearly — to steward not only a technical transition but a joyful, creative, equitable, imaginative, intergenerational one? What if we understood scale, in a regenerative way, and shared the models, learnings, practice in a distributive by design, open source way. What is everything wasn’t focused on creating a market, and hoping that market will clean up the externalities later.

We don’t believe that the neighbourhood is the only scale of change that is critical, however, we do know they are both key parts of the story, and notably under-resourced, under appreciated, misunderstood in its criticality, and often diminished to people who need to ‘be engaged or consulted’ rather than key elements of a wider societal transition. All too often greater proximity equals being considered as a small, local, nice-to-have instead of a powerful force for change at a city, regional, national and international scale, when we know the opposite to be true. History, shows over and over, this is not true.

Our Homes, Streets + Neighbourhoods

“It could be that the neighbourhood, not the individual, is the essential unit of social change. if you’re trying to improve lives, maybe you have to think about changing many elements of a single neighbourhood, in a systematic way, at a steady pace.”

— David Brooks

We all know how important our homes, streets and neighbourhoods are. Despite the many different ideas we may have around how we relate to them and what they mean to us, they are crucial in how we access education, our peers, green spaces, and much more, fundamentally shaping our health and wellbeing and how we experience our everyday life. Neighbourhoods shape our routine and quality of daily life in multiple ways, as places where you can bump into someone, connect, organise, celebrate and more. However, it isn’t just about the day-to-day. In his book Palaces for People, Eric Klinenberg reiterates what we already know widely: that outcomes and life expectancy can vary greatly depending on the services and social infrastructure you find in your community.

Klinenberg gives the example of a lethal heatwave that struck Chicago in 1995. He asked how two adjacent poor neighbourhoods on the South Side, demographically similar and presumably equally vulnerable, could fare so differently in the disaster. He asks, why did elderly victims in the Englewood neighbourhood lose their lives at 10 times the rate of those in Aubern Gresham? The exploration goes deep into the differences in social capital, and the social infrastructure to enable that social capital to flourish. In the neighbourhood with few fatalities, people checked in on one another, knew where to go for help. In the other social isolation was the norm, with residents more often left to fend for themselves.

Crucially, these were not cultural or economic differences, but related to density of spaces, social infrastructure, shops and vacant units along streets, which either helped or harmed people in getting to know their neighbourhoods. This has been further reiterated in Local Trust’s recent research in comparing outcomes in economically similar areas, with large disparities in outcomes where this social fabric and civic life thrived, compared to where it didn’t. This isn’t just about buildings, but it is clear that convivial space, as well as a range of other interconnected factors, are not only a nice-to-have, but can be a case of life and death in times of crisis. We saw this in every way play out in the UK, during COVID — 19, we saw critical links between health outcomes, and social infrastructure, health outcomes and isolation, and we knew how much fragility and resilience emerged at the hyper local scale, and what that mean to how we were or weren’t able to mobilise nationalise. We saw what happened when people were empowered, and what happened when they felt infantilised, that knowledge and information was not open, available, understandable. We saw what happened when trust was, high and when it broke down and the impacts of corruption and lack of transparency on trust, and buy in.

“When hard infrastructure fails, it can be the softer, social infrastructure that determines our fate”.

— Eric Klinenberg

Are our neighbourhoods resilient to the future that is emerging? We believe the neighbourhood to be an exciting, legitimate, creative and tangible unit of change, if designed with intention, care, generosity and our future structural risks at the forefront of our minds, building upon the long history of neighbourhood level work in the UK, the anti-fragile organising of communities across the world in caring for each other throughout the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, cost of living crises, and the effects of our changing climate, as well as the many forms of mutual aid and community organising that have been and continue to happen across Ladywood.

The neighbourhood, in some ways, is small enough to be tangible for people, such that they can mobilise, yet big enough to implement policy schemes that can be significant enough to make a difference and spread. Active and participatory neighbourhoods, devolved power and resources can boost levels of civic engagement, help rebuild legitimacy, trust, make bureaucracies more responsive and develop deep sources of social and civic value. When done poorly they can lead to mistrust, growing inequality, failing public services and conflict.

We wrote about this more in 2019 as we transitioned from Impact Hub Birmingham, as well as in 2021 in the earlier vision and strategy for CIVIC SQUARE.

It is in the spaces closest to us that we experience wider societal challenges and crisis most acutely in our lives. From the energy crisis manifesting in the bills that come through our letterbox, to understanding the deep impact of changing climate perhaps not directly through relating to carbon emissions but from our family’s experience of food insecurity, farming or floods back home in the Global South, or experiencing deeply the impact on our own health and the health of our children due to inner city air quality or mould in neglected housing stock.

It is also a scale at which we can discover, nurture and unlock the most agency in ourselves and one another, in our homes, streets, libraries, playgrounds and schools. After, all who better to look after, make, and have deep investment in their places than those who live there, and whose futures, histories and dreams are tied up most directly in them? It’s a scale we can organise, come together, and see tangible change most clearly, in our own lives, and the lives of our neighbours, families and loved ones. Our homes, streets and neighbourhoods bring together the big picture, our bold goals, expansive dreams, immediate everyday challenges and opportunities, as well as the experience of crisis, mutual aid, and real barriers to overcome, which manifest in a way that we can interact with, share in and feel the effects of as neighbours.

As we know from many key transitions, although the challenges we face are vast, and nothing short of transformation is required, the transitions of societies was unlocked by creating democratic access to the tools, knowledge, spaces, creative confidence, and each other through social infrastructure. When we look at many of the radical precedence we are inspired by it was also in deep struggle, and needing deep resisting, courage, and creativity over long periods of time, rather than something that was given to us.

“A revolution that is based on the people exercising their creativity in the midst of devastation is one of the great historical contributions of humankind.”

Grace Lee Boggs (via Slow Factory)

There is a need for an entirely new class of platform organisation to support the transition to public infrastructure that can tackle the tangled complexity we will be facing. They need to be connected to a city-wide, national and global movement of communities working in this way to shift the dial on our imminent threats. Our experiences of growing civic systems labs and movements at Impact Hub Birmingham, and the open participation and co design in the first three years of CIVIC SQUARE, show us just how possible and tangible people being placed at the core of systems change is, and the call for visible, open, and legitimate spaces that enable active participation is clear.

Movements, stories and forms of organising for new economic possibilities are nurtured, demonstrated, and crafted through everyday actions. Our homes, streets and neighbourhoods can help to alleviate our grief and sense of powerlessness; they are the foundations of the hopeful, creative, just transition we know is in our hearts. Adopting approaches grown from our neighbourhoods is not only a moral imperative, nor simply a “nice to have” or a way to consult on decisions that have already been made. Our neighbourhoods are a fundamental unit of change that we need to understand, without which we will render ourselves unable to meet the challenges of this century.

CIVIC SQUARE 2.0 Demonstrators

What if the social, climate and ecological transition and deep retrofit of our homes and streets were designed, owned and governed by the people who live there?

“If we can recognise that we don’t know what will happen, that the future does not yet exist but is being made in the present, then we can be moved to participate in making that future. We can be skilful enough to make directed efforts, and sophisticated enough to know that results remain unpredictable.”

— Rebecca Solnit, Why Climate Despair is a Luxury

Our key focus for CIVIC SQUARE 2.0 will be to simultaneously continue to develop, maintain and build out specific system demonstrators, all born directly out of our work so far, at a neighbourhood scale with a focus on the rapid, equitable transition that we need, and deeply we need examples we can touch, see feel and experience, and has Farzana Khan shares ‘enables us to rehearse the freedoms we seek’. This isn’t new work, this is us now being able to orientate more appropriately and deeply towards the North Star mission with all of the co-design, insights, and relationships we now have around us, rather than just key areas or a strategy reframe.

Whilst we understand many systems to be interconnected and that they’re all crucial to an ongoing redesign, time and time again we returned to the roots: the land and our economic systems, the transformation of which will continue to form the roots of our demonstration. They are the fundamental underlying causes of the hard-wired, deeply embedded rules and rights-to-extract that are codified into the foundations of our lives and democracies. How we think and feel about them, and our subsequent actions, create and surface the many thousands of symptoms we are now frantically working on — as described poetically by Thoreau in the 1800s: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil, to one, who is striking at the root.”

Each one of us is acting within patterns of relationship and behaviours that are either aligned to the dominant economic story of homo economicus (Rational Economic Man), or can be part of a new system arising. The roots affecting our world are not simply technical problems to be solved by the government; they are also challenges for culture and collective will — shaped by each of us, how we relate to our inner selves, our neighbours, society and our living world.

In 2022, we landed in the core question at the centre of our enquiry: What if the climate transition and retrofit of our homes and streets were designed, owned and governed by the people who live there? Now, as we shift into phase two, the question becomes: How can we demonstrate how the climate transition and retrofit of our homes and streets can be designed, owned and governed by the people who live there now in systemic, tangible and participatory ways?

We are intentionally taking this point in time to refine our definitions and specificity of the work, synthesising the learnings, to turn the prototypes and proofs of possibility that we have now tested into a very intentional focus for the coming years, alongside key partners. Rather than operating around nimble yet discrete projects and portfolios that have allowed us to try, test and quickly iterate many things and learn from what emerged, in this second phase we will seek to bring all of the ingredients and forms of matter we know are needed in combination across three interconnected sites of demonstration.

This is far from simply a narrative; we have been doing and will continue to do the work that both informs this article and is required to usher it into practice it actively over the long term, and this is a next key step in our learning, refinement and discipline as an organisation, as practitioners, makers, builders, gardeners, storytellers, and community members, across a broad range of technical and relational capabilities, rather than remaining theoretical or what we are recommending for others to explore in practice. We’ve learnt so much, but are now pulling on three key threads as we step into the next stage of the work ahead and what it requires of us.

Neighbourhood Doughnut

A 21st century compass to orient us to the scale of challenge and opportunity in the face of interconnected challenges, democratising access and contribution to knowledge, data, and collective neighbourhood research practices grounded in the everyday.

“Narratives that help explain where a community is, where it wants to go and how it intends to get there are an important enabler of transformation.”

IPCC Sixth Assessment Report: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Chapter 17

It has been incredible to see this work come to life over the past few years, from an early idea, co-creation weeks and peer-to-peer learning journeys, to trips to Centre For Alternative Technology, our Regenerative Neighbourhoods Festival, Neighbourhood Doughnut Launch and more. We will take what we’ve learnt, discovered and been inspired by in the first Neighbourhood Doughnut Portrait and weave research, data, technology, fieldwork, participation and demonstration together in the years to come, acting as a foundation and direction for the urgent transitions we need. This will include deep dives into topics of particular interest such as soil, waste and water, as well as unpacking the new dimensions we have added to the Doughnut framework in more depth, which include access to nature, everyday freedoms, imagination, play. We will be continuing to work together with Doughnut Economics Action Lab, Centre for Alternative Technology, Centric Lab and many others to take this forward together this year.

The dashboard, data, research and co-creation processes will underpin our other two demonstrators, as well as continue to inform our overall organisational design, governance, and finance. Critically, we will weave many ways of knowing, doing, being, knowledge systems, and research methodologies to co-create the compass, particularly through Neighbourhood Science participation, building on the methodology started in Co-creation Week #3. These will continue to build the ‘collective muscle’ of imagination, knowledge, tools and resources co-created by us, but opened for the world to learn and build upon. As Kate Raworth reminds us, the complexity doesn’t go away if we ignore it. This work will underpin everything we design and build across the work, informed both by people, planet, and by the scale of challenge we face, finding liberation and courage in the scale of the challenge, not stepping away from it.

We know there is are bold movements of movements of people reimagining economic possibility, radically, practically, and pragmatically, and a story beyond growth and capitalism in its current form, is emerging clearly. Through the change of goal that the Doughnut offers us, we can collectively hold our progress, action and (re)draw roadmap for reimagining our economic possibility and building in the 21st century socially and ecologically, together, with a deep understanding of the scale of transformation, opportunity and challenges, whilst rooted in social justice and ecological safety. Dynamic in its co-creation, building on the last three years more deeply, then unrolled and rerolled on an annual basis, the Neighbourhood Doughnut will serve as a new set of collective metrics against which we can be accountable, design and make thoughtful impactful interventions, design practice, and gather resource around.

A Neighbourhood Doughnut Portrait — Open Dashboard
Neighbourhood Doughnut Portrait Launch — DEAL Story
Neighbourhood Doughnut Workbook v1.2
Reimagining Economic Possibilities — Essay Series

Neighbourhood Transitions

Street-based systemic demonstration of carbon, energy and ecological built environment transitions that are designed, owned and governed by the people who live there, as part of the broader movement towards the shifts we need at neighbourhood, city and national scales.

“For a climate transition that is just and democratised, as much agency as possible should be devolved to the level of the community. This is not simply just a desirable principle, but it also builds a solid foundation for ambitious retrofit with a broad and deep scope through a process of co-design and trust-building.”

— Dark Matter Labs

Taking forward our deep work and prototyping of street retrofit and decarbonisation on Link Road, we will be building this into a demonstration of deep retrofit, and what it means for our streets to get into the space of ecological safety and social justice that the Doughnut frames. This work aims for a systemic transition: for other streets to follow suit, going beyond a single household approach to retrofit and into designing from the starting point of our streets as living systems. It is here that we can practice moving from the individual to the collective not just in social ways, but in the deep design of practice, collective governance, finance, social organising.

We know decarbonisation is important, but deeper shifts away from making disconnected technical piecemeal interventions to houses are required, and towards whole home and whole street deep retrofit that considers how we improve air quality, biodiversity, soil quality and more. All the technology is there, but we need to nurture and draw upon the power of the social fabric of our streets and ways of organising, and financing to move towards a radically more just reality that is also more joyful and connected, and this will be at the heart of this demonstrator.

This means bringing together many layers of system organising together, with participation, imagination, and systemic transformation of equal importance. Together with neighbours and partners it is our imperative to manifest collective action today, co-developing distributed knowledge systems, and agency. We will be working together with Dark Matter Labs, ACAN, Retrofit Balsall Heath, Thirty Percy and are looking for further bold partners to join us.

Retrofit Reimagined
The Great British Energy Swindle

Regenerative Physical Infrastructure

Co-building and democratising access to the spaces, tools, resources and infrastructure that neighbourhoods need to co-lead the social, ecological, economic and climate transition of the 21st century.

“You are at the meeting point of community (existing and future), public sector (lost and ineffective) and private sector (desperate not to get bad rep but wants to make money). What is interesting is how you will navigate all that creatively to create a better future for Ladywood.

The challenge you are addressing is: how do incumbent communities benefit from the vast inflow of resources which comes with a development like this? What are the economic, ownership and governance models which allow distributive by design solutions (as Kate Raworth would have it) to work, flowing a fair share of the resources to public value and the least well off? That’s a big challenge.

If you can find a model that cracks that you are solving a problem that communities face around the world, so Port Loop could be a really valuable model. The other thing is whether or not you succeed in terms of your development and the team will be fantastic learning, out of which will come all sorts of things we cannot yet predict”.

— Charlie Leadbeater, 2019

In this phase, we will begin the deep focus on the capital project and the retrofit of the CIVIC SQUARE site in Ladywood, Birmingham UK. This transformation of a 20th century industrial site into 21st century regenerative infrastructure will be a demonstrator for many layers of the deep redesign required, including finance, refurbishment, ecological building design and avoidance of demolition and retrofit, with the ownership and stewardship designed to be held in the common for the neighbourhood, with a covenant that bring social and ecological benefit into the legal steward, in perpetuity.

We have seen all too clearly how these arrangements beneath the surface can play out in both heartbreaking ways and really powerful ones in the area around the site, with examples of the demolition of the Tower Ballroom despite extensive archiving, imagination and campaigning by local people, in stark contrast to the hundred year old covenant holding the Birmingham Settlement reservoir-side site in public use across generations. Such different stories are playing out less than half a mile away from us, and both just across the same stretch of water from one another, due to different decisions, economic frameworks, understandings of value, and levels of vision and long termism, around ownership and stewardship.

As a physical place, CIVIC SQUARE will be a platform to reimagine ourselves and our future, on a regenerative land covenant designed in perpetuity and putting long termism in practice. Drawing inspiration from and learning together with The Eden Project, Schumacher College and Centre For Alternative Technology rurally as well as many incredible projects from Library of Things, Onion Collective, Atmos for Totnes, Participatory City, We Can Make, Rekindle School and many many more, we are building a landmark exemplar at the heart of inner city Birmingham that is both nationally relevant demonstrator of possibility and learning, and a working site in the neighbourhood for the transition ahead. It will have practical relevance to both Neighbourhood Doughnut and Neighbourhood Transitions demonstrators, the wider city and neighbourhood who will co-build and co-steward it, but also seek to break ground for the wider reimagination and rewiring of our relationships to land and finance to benefit those who follow after us, for many years. Just as neighbourhood GPs represented democratic shifts in access to public healthcare at the end of the war with the founding of the NHS, so is the significance of neighbourhood infrastructure in this time of deep transition and transformation.

Working with Centre For Alternative Technology, Architecture 00, Urban Splash, Dark Matter Labs and others, this year we will take some significant leaps. Not all can be shared yet, but we are looking for visionary partners ready to do landmark work here both now and for the long term. Together we will explore what it would take to create a power station for the neighbourhood through harvesting energy, what it would mean to create a building that cycles water and materials, and how to make spaces such as a microfactory fit for a neighbourhood retrofit movement in practice. What might a building designed and stewarded inside the safe and just space of the Doughnut, socially and ecologically look like, well lets shows it in the heart of Birmingham.

A short teaser by Iconic Productions for a longer film about work in Ladywood, 2020–2022.

How We Organise

“E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G — is connected. The soil needs rain, organic matter, air, worms and life in order to do what it needs to do to give and receive life. Each element is an essential component. Organising takes humility and selflessness and patience and rhythm while our ultimate goal of liberation will take many expert components.

Some of us build and fight for land, healthy bodies, healthy relationships, clean air, water, homes, safety, dignity, and humanising education. Others of us fight for food and political prisoners and abolition and environmental justice. Our work is intersectional and multifaceted. Nature teaches us that our work has to be nuanced and steadfast. And more than anything, that we need each other — at our highest natural glory — in order to get free.”

— adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

At the heart of our philosophy is that how we organise is just as important as what we organise, and that the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are feedback loops of each other. Therefore, we seek to embed our principles across every detail of our work. This applies to everything from governance to procurement, from language to storytelling, as well as in contracts, projects, and the work we are designing or implementing. In relationship to the ideas of Doughnut Economics, an overlap emerged over the last three years: what happens when the ideas of regenerative and distributive by design principles meet our theory of organising, the learnings across our ecosystem of partners and the field of organising for complex system change?

In the midst of a challenging, grief-filled, uncertain and all-hands-on-deck first year as an organisation in 2020, we started to understand more clearly every day the material properties of the work ahead in a way and at a rate that we couldn’t possibly have imagined; a process accelerated and experienced at a higher concentration due to the huge pressures, like a diamond forming. From a working hypothesis and vision in crafting the work ahead of CIVIC SQUARE, in our v1 ‘theory of change’, at the end of 2019 we already knew that everything is interconnected, but it became more tangibly clear that there would be no way of separating out the deeply entangled systems that impact one another at a neighbourhood scale. From land to economics, local to global, participation and politics, we were all seeing live why we can’t crudely separate them out or create hierarchies around what is more important and when, nor perfectly predict what leverage point might have the most impact in a system and when.

Our own working theory of change has since refined over the years. The first version allowed us to experiment with the key ideas, the second version in 2021 to update our language and set ourselves up for portfolio working in a growing team of teams, and we have now refined this further into the key demonstration areas presented here for the decade ahead. Over the last three years, the rate of learning has been almost impossible to keep up with recording or sharing throughout the last few years due to its abundance and variety, but three fundamental properties have emerged more and more vividly, that must feature in everything we do.

Each time there might be a different starting point, but things rarely thrive or have momentum without one of these fundamental properties. They dance together dynamically, we might feel more comfortable in one, have skills that match one, but they are bound together in healthy tension. When something isn’t working or is stuck, we often find asking what matter can’t be felt, or what we need more of — like balancing flavour, rather than following an absolute recipe. They are only truly understood through the relationships between them, between us all; at the edges that divide us, but instead could be playgrounds for deep innovation.

How we refer to these properties is inspired by Dark Matter Laboratories, who used the term in the context as a more intangible invisible layer of societal norms, rules, codes, behaviours and more that drive everything around us, and whose redesign can trigger transformative change.

Dark Matter

“The invisible structures responsible for producing the majority of the built objects and world around us. From policy and regulation to finance and data, governance and organisational culture, codes, rules norms, identity and democratic participation — this is all Dark Matter︎.”

Dark Matter Labs

This property represents the importance of demystifying, making visible, and hacking systems, structures, norms and deep codes that affect our capacity to thrive, without us always noticing and being able to interrogate them. We seek to make this often complex knowledge and these concepts open, comprehensible and structured, to enable many people to consider them in greater depth and detail.

As Kate Raworth eloquently and regularly shares, even those often deepest hidden and interdependent systems of finance, economics, land and so on were designed, and they can be redesigned. This matter is not simply about theory, but informs redesign, discovering leverage points, and helps us locate our place in a larger system, enabling us to start where we are, and know what we need to connect with.

Dream Matter

“With these creative ecologies of collective resistance, we experience just that: new combinations of images and stories, music and participation, solidarities and sacrifices, wherein this great transition has already been initiated.”

T. J. Demos

Whilst understanding, investing, and unpacking the dark matter of large scale system change, we had learned quite deeply through the practice, inspirational movements, imagineers and pioneers that went before us that we must also invest in the dream matter — the artists, writers, designers, dreamers and creative visionaries — those who dare to dream up bold new futures for humanity, and have the capacity to stretch our imaginations further than we ever thought possible.

We must go beyond today, the current systems and limitations, and imagine bold radical futures, over the long-term, building on that which has gone boldly before. This matter is imaginative, irresistible, inspiring, vibrant and plural, like Kate Raworth’s reference to a “hologram for humanity” that we need as a new portrait of ourselves. It seeks to transport us towards awe, wonder, and on course for a future with hope.

→ Discover more in The Matter of Dreams: 2020–2021

(Everyday Extra)ordinary Matter

“People forge bonds in places that have healthy social infrastructures — not because they set out to build community, but because when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships inevitably grow.”

— Eric Klinenberg, Palaces for the People

Making the work relevant in the everyday is the ingredient without which the other matters cannot truly be unleashed. This matter is about the importance of nobility, practicality, relevance, legitimacy, openness and utilising the many and varying everyday entry points in all of our lives. Whether we can relate to something over a cup of tea, in the school playground, or on our front lawn matters, so a key question for us becomes — Is it hopeful in the everyday, whilst respectful, relevant and acknowledging of the contextual challenges?

Perhaps if we hone our crafts, to make things across the realms of the dark, the dream and the everyday, through proofs of possibilities and deep demonstrators in the neighbourhood, with the civic infrastructure to support that, and a 21st century compass to guide us, we can transition in a way that places justice and equity at its beating heart. Through this, we will truly see the neighbourhood not as a small corner of the system, but as a foundation from which economic transformation and a just transition will rise up, because it is transformation in real time.

A Role For Everyone

“My message in the face of the recent IPCC report? Whether we are driven by rage or by theory, by creativity or by education, whether we are doctors, activists, authors, musicians, lawyers or mothers, there is a role for everyone in the climate movement.”

— Joycelyn Longdon

Throughout the first year of co-creating the Neighbourhood Doughnut together we have talked about the need to connect artists, designers, economists, ecologists, gardeners, teachers, neighbours and more to redesign and get to the heart of new economics possibilities for our neighbourhoods, but of course these and many other roles can be ours to play simultaneously.

Beautiful Economics by Howard Collinge calls for a new breed of hybrid or reimagined roles that we will be required to practice and embody in order to usher in more regenerative futures. We know that it will take a whole host of neighbour-slash-scientists, neighbour-slash-storytellers, neighbour-slash-ecologists, and neighbour-slash-renegade-slash-economists who are researching, listening, growing and trading, and it is these and many more roles through combination and democratisation that we must demonstrate ways to explore together.

Our journey across this work describes a story underpinned by the hope brimming from the green shoots of the new economy and futures being rehearsed today, practiced and imagined hand in hand in everyday ways, in bold imaginative ways, in systemic ways, and often situated at the intersection them all, that we can see and feel around us locally and across the world. So, our questions may become: who is already working to move us into the Doughnut, where are the green shoots and how does their work connect up? How do we amplify and grow this, and hospice and let go of that which no longer serves us? Perhaps, by spotlighting the ways forward, we can grow in our hope, confidence and possibility, more easily leaving behind that which no longer will serve us.

“[Seeing the big picture] sets the stage for a twenty-first-century economic play — one whose characters and script can help bring us back [from the brink of collapse] and into a thriving balance.”

Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics

What if we can meet those characters of the new economy, all around us in our homes and street, and what if the neighbourhood was the stage for the first act of the twenty-first-century economic play? As a small act, we have spent time with those we had worked with, alongside, and admired from afar in our neighbourhood, and began collating stories and ecosystem mapping into the form of a neighbourhood newspaper: the first edition of the Good News of B16, as a reminder not to overlook the wisdoms and stories already coming true in our places right under our noses.

Explore Good News of B16

No matter how we look at it, we certainly aren’t on our own. Incredible work is happening at all scales and typologies of work, alone they are inspiring, collectively they tell a transformative stories of the transitions we could steward, with just a few examples to explore here, of which we can and will share countless more:

Beyond The Rules
We Can Make
Centric Lab
Healing Justice London
Participatory City
Slow Factory
Maurice Mitchell
Freedom & Balance
Homebaked CLT
Coffee Afrik
Hastings Commons
Privatise The Mandem
Nudge Community Builders
Centre For Alternative Technology
Anthropocene Architecture School

Now more urgently than ever it really will need all of us; our diverse skills, creativity, wisdom, hopes and imagination, to pave inspiring, collective, regenerative ways forward together, finding one anothers, and the inspiring new possibilities in the spaces between us, and as we come together. Thank you to Sophia Parker and Cassie Robinson, for framing some of the emerging capabilities and characteristics of this work in their latest blog for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Case For Investment

“Rebalancing this relationship between communities and finance requires more than just new capital formations, new funds and new grant structures. It requires the systemic rewiring of capital itself, away from asymmetric power, control and value extraction, towards more distributed and democratised forms.

It also requires a rewiring of how we see value. Reconfiguring the relationships between financial capital and community capital can unleash the multiplicity of equitable returns and co-benefits, recognising that value flows from investments can take many forms, but too few are incorporated into conventional financing models. Reductions in liabilities, for instance the health risks associated with fuel poverty, are rarely accounted for fully. Longitudinal and intangible outcomes, such as increased social resilience from one generation to another, fail to be valued fully when investment decisions are made. The failure to capture these values reinforces a warped view of what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ investment.”

— Dark Matter Labs, Bridging the Impact Investment Gap: Infrastructuring Tomorrow

The case for investment and long term support for work like this is not straightforward within the current systems of philanthropy, public funding or private capital. It is work that has only been imagined, is in the process of being manifested, seeks to be transformative in an untransformed system, and has no clear blueprint. The logic of Neighbourhood System Demonstration and the wider case for system demonstration clearly sets out that how we demonstrate a shift from extractive, imperial, degenerative and centralised finance, governance and organising is critical, even in its finest details.

Whilst ultimately the future we describe here will require a societal scale vision and investment — a public-civic partnership with deeply rooted hyperlocal transformation and a planetary scale interdependence — there is also a critical role for private capital, radical wealth redistribution and philanthropy to invest in the manifestation and demonstration of future pathways. This is a small but critical part of paving the way ahead and manifesting as much potential for radical possibility as we can. Long term, bold, core investment allows this emerging work to manifest, gain form and tangibility across a field of diverse actors, movements, practitioners, organisations, communities and neighbourhoods, and it is from here that the blueprints that have not yet existed and the first precedence of an ideal broader systemic form will be forged together.

This work, whilst urgent, is also long term. The emergence of a post capitalist, post growth economy, the green shoots of new land contract, and ecological and social transition are not stories that can be linearly predicted with outcomes over a three to five year cycle. They are not crafted simply by a few actors working in collaboration; there are many deep layers of labour, craft and fundamental rewiring of how we see value to unlock regenerative futures, and the early days and radical precedence that has paved the way for us must be funded radically over the longer term to encourage and continue to nurture the conditions for imaginative and rigorous innovation in all dimensions of the work.

“If our finance systems are to go beyond capital formations motivated largely by short term, narrow economic returns alone (financial ROI / social ROI that use conventionally static or negatively biased discount rates), and begin to recognise the multiple civic returns possible, there is a need to explore new ways of measuring, accounting and financing for civic value creation for a new symmetry of power and mutuality. It is in this rewiring of capital and value that we can create the systemic conditions for just transitions.”

Financing Sustainability Transitions: In Search of a New, Civic-led Orthodoxy

Overall, we know that philanthropy struggles to understand how to fund the type of work we have shared here across this emerging field, better accustomed to single point solutions with short cycles and highly relational or predictable outcomes. Where more ambitious plans exist, they tend to fall victim to short term cycles, may depend on very specific relationships and power in the moment but struggle over the long term to learn together as personnel change, and become captured by the goals of the current economic system and the wider value extraction driven by our current land contracts, systemically limiting their potential for transformation.

Traditional process can also struggle to practically process complex, multi layered, system work, that is networked. This is the challenge we need those with resource, even if working through clunky outdated systems or in the midst grappling with their own extractive histories, to unlock rapidly, to accelerate demonstration across the country that is radical, distributive by design, regenerative, tangible, rooted in place, powered by the people, and in service of the natural world around it. It is critical to fund openly, as an ecosystem, over the long term, focused on unrestricted, imaginative core funding that is supported by the those with the new typologies of capability required to craft this future. In the short term, that will mean strengthening that knowledge, capability and possibility within grant makers and their trustee boards to move beyond the paradigms they are used to funding within.

The radical redistribution of wealth has the great opportunity to open and radically expand the window of possibility, and has done this many times in history, for a wider societal transition to follow. We must invite liberation from just being stuck, overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge and the fear of not having all of the answers, and move into rapid co-learning and iteration, so as a system it can get smarter, learning from the work it unlocks and using its power to influence at the many scales has the ability to, whether that be in policy, public vision, or private capital.

On the metaphorical eve of an election, resourcing a wave of imaginative, systemic, tangible possibility in to plausibility could be critical leverage point for the responsibilities of our generation. We know this will be challenging, but we have to move, together, and hope this helps to give us some principles to move by.

An Invitation

“Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever manoeuvres and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.”

— Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

We are the first generation to know the scale of the challenges that have been created by human activity on the planet, and we are one of the last that can deeply do something about it. We can be stewards of a joyful, just, creative and caring transition, starting right where we are as the pioneers demonstrating transformation in real time. It is now about how we collectively harness that: working boldly enough, whilst being legitimate enough and doing so with care; demonstrate systemically, work in ecologies, and with a thoughtful urgency.

The stage is set, and now is our time to step into our power, to recognise the collective force it could bring as we orient towards an economy and the infrastructure in service to life; ushering in and growing neighbourhoods that are regenerative and distributive by design; an interconnected movement that knows its liberation is tied up with one another at a planetary scale. For us, this piece is an open sharing of our emerging learning, thinking, and practice, but also a platform from which we can act.

“Climate change is the greatest threat to human health this century.”

Marina Romanello et al. (via Breaking free from tunnel vision for climate change and health, with our thanks to Rhiannon Osborne and Thilagawathi Abi Deivanayagam for the bold framing)

This is an invitation to forge bold solidarities, exchange knowledge, tools, narratives, vision, resources and to deal in hope, rooted in a radical pragmatism. We are excited to meet others working towards our shared goals, on their streets and neighbourhoods, starting from where they are with what they have. This includes those funders and patient investors looking to demonstrate landmark work in infrastructure, regenerative and pioneering land contracts, new forms of economic relationships, and who wish to deeply democratise that access to the tools, knowledge, skills, capabilities, resources and creative courage in our homes, streets and neighbourhoods. We would love to work with those working with ecological building design, legal design, and those wishing to demonstrate landmark infrastructure.

To those stewarding large financial resource, we understand why it is frozen, we understand the scale of the challenge, and the confusion as to where to leverage, but as a start let’s unlock longer term (10 year+) unrestricted core funds, as a very simple start point, to deeply resource the work that is only imagined, and the hard yards of demonstration, manifestation and the patient discipline to keep stepping into and crafting the future and blueprints that don’t yet exist. Let’s invest in winning the argument that a socially, ecologically just and regenerative future, with the miracle of the flourishing commons thrives. Where philanthropy and private wealth can’t yet create the societal tipping point, let’s ensure it forges another path, creates a courageous future in neighbourhoods all over the country that can be touched and felt. The complexity is significant, but let’s not let that stop us making the first moves, discovering and iterating as we go. There is precedent, let’s not lose the progress that has already been made, and forge a path together.

“Arundhati Roy writes: ‘What lies ahead? Reimagining the world. Only that.’

But that reimagining requires us to assemble the tools now to help people to feel that longing deep in their bones, that aching, pining, for a new economy, a new world, a thrilling new culture.”

— Rob Hopkins

For an economy that thrives in dynamic balance of human needs and planetary health, there is a role for everyone, and the revolution starts on our doorsteps. Please answer when it knocks to borrow a cup of sugar. There is room for you and what matters to you. Let’s weave our dreams, skills and talent together, and use our time on the planet to do more than any of us can alone in our lifetime. Let us reimagine the world; only that.

With Deep Gratitude

“Our Ancestors set us this path — all we have to do is pick up the “baton” and run our race — as fast and as best as we can — then pass it on. And remember that our Ancestors include all beings: we carry all life inside us.”

— Araceli Camargo

There is no work — like this or any sort — without deep long term relationships, friendships, rolling up your sleeves together, generous open learning and sharing, and often travelling through the trenches together. All work depends on the ecologies we are in: the generous learning, sharing and caring that happens amongst us all.

We would particularly like to acknowledge the pioneering bold leadership, consistent, generous, unwavering support, championing and vision of Indy Johar, Kate Raworth, Dan Hill, Giulio Quaggiotto, Cassie Robinson, Alastair Parvin, Marco Steinberg, Tessy Britton, Angie Tangarae, Diane Roussin, Joost Beunderman, Sam Rye, Lorna Prescott, Farzana Khan, Anab Jain, Amahra Spence and Konda Mason. Very few days in the last three years have gone by where your bold work, tools, leadership, stewardship, vision and deep care and commitment fails to impact or support our work.

“‘Thank you” is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.”

— Alice Walker

Fundamental to our ongoing work are our core partners and movements: DEAL, 00, Dark Matter Labs, Open Systems Lab, Centric Lab, Centre For Alternative Technology, and CoLab Dudley. Thank you for your enduring courage to try, share, and encourage us to. We would particularly like to thank funders such as The National Lottery Community Fund, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Tudor Trust, Lankelly Chase and Ashoka for taking the leap to seed this work, and particularly Thirty Percy Foundation, encouraging us both to be bold and to take a moment to re-found, reset and be ready for this next phase. It’s time for a radical and ambitious transition alliance across public, civic, philanthropy and private capital, a massive collaboration for a courageous, collaborative and just transition.

It is through these bonds that we believe deep transformation is possible; they are unwaveringly generous, forgiving, visionary, long term, with collective missions beyond any one of us. It is an honour to travel alongside you.

“We know what is happening and we know what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

— Andri Snaer Magnason

We also give thanks to the many co-authors of the future; those who will know if we did it.

If you’d like to explore what’s featured here further please e-mail us at info@civicsquare.cc or visit our contribution to MOULD’s Architecture Is Climate exhibition at Lethaby Gallery, Granary Building, 1 Granary Square, London N1C 4AA on Saturday 18th — Sunday 19th March 2023, 12pm — 5pm.




Demonstrating neighbourhood-scale civic infrastructure for social + ecological transition, together with many people + partners in Ladywood, Birmingham