The Work Project: Behind the Scenes


Image: Methods workshop with Peckham Residents and IIPP students, Peckham Levels 2021

By Hilary Cottam

This is the final blog in a new series about the future of work. The series reflects on workshops that were held in five locations across Britain over the past two years. The project has been generously funded by Laudes Foundation, Open Society Foundation and James Anderson.

In the first blog, I set out the context for this project: a shifting socio-economic paradigm driven by technology change, looming environmental catastrophe and the unaddressed legacies of injustice that mean we must think again about work. In the second I wrote about working time, in the third about care, in the fourth about transition, the fifth about new forms of organising and in the sixth I looked at the role of capital and those I call the New Industrialists.

In this final blog I go behind the scenes and look at the work of imagining, sharing the design process I used in the workshops.

Audré Lorde famously tells us, ‘that [the] master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change’. In other words, if we want to make deep change in the world, not simply produce ideas, then we need to work in new ways with new questions, new tools, new voices.

The Work Project extends my interest in both how we build new socio-economic systems and in how we can make the work itself in a way that is open, imaginative and can move to practice.

Imaginative Practice

I have written in Radical Help about my frustration with most social policy making, a process which perpetuates existing structures of power and dominant models of industrial thinking which are, in my view, now redundant and unable to offer us ways forward. In response I draw on a wide body of theory in thinking about how to frame the questions behind the work.

To make new work we need to re-situate problems within their social context. Work for example does not exist in isolation from the rest of our lives or the local economies in which we live. It sounds obvious, but almost all the current writing and thinking on work focuses on an abstract idea of dis-embodied jobs. I’m interested in methods, like Foucault’s archaeology, that enable us to at once see and excavate the wider contexts: working lives for example as opposed to work.

I’m also looking for ways of working that help us blur categories: high/low, emotions/concrete, theory/practice, analysis/making. To imagine and to create new ideas we have to first break free of the norms which constrain our thinking. I draw for example on the early work of Donna Haraway that was ground-breaking in the way it challenged accepted borders between production/reproduction and imagination. And I’m deeply influenced by a wide body of feminist scholarship and making that emphasises the imaginative possibility of emotions — the work of Irigaray, de Lauretis, hooks, Minh-ha and others. They urge us to understand human experience as a complex bundle of determinations and struggles that are not static and have to be continually renegotiated. There is in other words not an absolute view, it depends on where we are standing and this opens up rich possibilities.

This is work that keeps questions of power front of mind and the working methods need to do the same. I have been influenced deeply by the teaching of Robert Chambers in the 1990s. Chambers drew on work in Asia to develop the techniques known as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). These methods are a set of adaptable techniques that encourage live drawing and modelling in small groups. This is not a mining of ‘user’ knowledge, rather it is a reverse learning process in which ideas are created, discarded and re-worked again in the process of the workshop. Crucially, Chambers noted that the act of doing something with your hands, not having to make eye contact and the conversational cross-checking of ideas in small groups encourages deep participation and creation.

In this project I collaborated with the award-winning design studio Humanly to create a series of visual prompts designed to be suggestive, open and stimulating of the imagination, but never offering answers. The tools are simple with the idea that others could later download them and replicate the work. As ever, the point is not the diagrams and drawings produced — although many were rich and beautiful — it is the conversations that the work provokes which matter. I recorded and transcribed every conversation.

Participant Creators

In the Work Project I worked in five UK regions with 4 categories of workers.

Digital Artisans is the term I have coined for a cohort that are predominantly young, usually graduates, working in digitally based activities either as self-employed individuals or in small start-ups. This cohort may successful in terms of income and their connections to new, dynamic sectors of the economy with growth potential however the nature of their work and business cash-flow means they cannot access mainstream financial architecture for example pensions, mortgages and many financial/ business loans. Their growth potential is therefore limited and they are vulnerable to economic shocks.

Participants to date have included carers, nurses, education support workers, grave-diggers, welders, electricians, weapon makers, digital artisans, non-tenured academics and managers. Participants have been young and old, recent immigrants, Black, brown and white. There are many however who have not been included and who I would love to include in further work if time and funds were available — agricultural workers for example.

Participants worked with me and a local co-facilitator over a three-hour period on three structured activities:

  • Drawing life journeys
  • Visioning a good working life
  • Designing a new work organisation

They worked in small groups of four and each workshop only included those from the same category. Managers for example are never in the same workshop as those who work on the factory floor.

Life Journeys

Each participant was welcomed and given a simple chart blocking age on the X axis and positive/negative experience on the Y access. Using three differently coloured pens they were invited to draw the story of their working, learning and personal lives. This exercise was designed to give space to participants (who usually did not know each other) to feel comfortable in the room and settle in.

Image: Participant Life Journey, Barking London

Dynamic 1: the good working life

In small groups participants were asked to think about and prioritise the elements of a good working life. To stimulate the conversation participants were given a large circular chart with four labelled segments: money, purpose, capability and relationships. Each participant was additionally given a pack of 64 small cards depicting potential elements of a good working life — images for example of trees for nature, walking boots and other games for hobbies. The images were illustrative, not prescriptive. For example, a clock was used to depict time. The discussions about the need for a four-day working week that took place in every workshop were therefore generated from thinking about time, not by ideas suggested by the cards. There were blank cards within each pack, for things we might not have thought of. These blank cards were rarely used. This was a collective exercise and therefore participants had to sort the cards as a group and decide what to include and its relative importance. The recorded conversations of the debates the dynamic provoked, provided rich insight and the results of the card sorting exercise was photographed.

Image: Good Working Life Tools

Dynamic 2: organisation

After a coffee break, participants were welcomed back to shared tables each of which was covered with a blank, white paper table cloth. Using pens, magazines and a series of prompt questions participants were given an hour to collectively design their ideal work organisation. The prompt questions were as follows: what is the experience of being a member; what does the organisation offer you; who can belong; what would you like to contribute; who would own and run the organisation; what else is important?

As I discussed in the fifth blog which looks at the organisations that emerged on the table cloths, this type of free-thinking exercise was a new experience for almost all participants. All groups produced a design which was photographed.

Image: Work Organisation Design, Kilmarnock

What’s Next?

Three things. Firstly, I’m planning to replicate the workshops in the U.S context in partnership with New America’s New Practice Lab, a policy and delivery team working on family economic security and wellbeing, in the Autumn. Secondly, I’m exploring with two of my location partners, the possibility of starting to prototype a new form of organisation. And thirdly I will be writing: this series of blogs has only scratched the surface of what I have learnt and I am writing a book for publication in 2024.

Hilary Cottam is a social activist, the author of Radical Help and an Honorary Professor at UCL Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose. In 2005 she was named as UK Designer of the Year in recognition of her work in creating the field of social design @hilarycottam

The Work Project is made possible by a grant from Laudes Foundation. I’m grateful to the Open Society Foundation and to James Anderson for financial support which funded the workshops in 5 UK locations between 2020 and 2021 and I would like to thank the workshop participants and my local hosts in Barking, Barnsley, Barrow, East Ayrshire, Grimsby and Peckham.



UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Changing how the state is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato