Bringing community imagination to the heart of missions
This blog is a contribution from one of IIPP’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) students. To find out more about the course, click here.
The Scottish Government’s Clyde Mission is tackling the grand challenge of making the river Clyde an engine of inclusive and sustainable growth for the city, the region and Scotland. Five mission areas highlight interconnections across economic, social and environmental sectors:
The Clyde River was important to Scotland’s economic and industrial development and has potential to play a central role in Scotland’s net zero transition. A 2021 climate study projects that nearly 2 million people living in the Glasgow City Region will face severe disruption from climate heating; 140,000 of the area’s poorest residents will experience the most severe consequences. As the region emerges from a global pandemic and faces the oncoming climate crisis, the Scottish Government must quickly chart a course toward a more sustainable future.
Community imagination in the post-COVID anthropocene
It’s in this context of the twin catastrophes of COVID-19 and climate change that fostering community imagination has emerged as a galvanising force for designing just, green futures. Community imagination links to Mariana Mazzucato’s assertions that missions are bold visions of the future that activate the imagination and promote genuine citizen participation. We need to profoundly enhance our ability to ‘imagine and design better social arrangements’, not just rely on technological innovation.
Like many system-shifting practices, the work of building an imagination infrastructure is operating at the edges of the current system and in the hands of talented artists, designers and social entrepreneurs. These creative leaders are demonstrating the potency of respectfully bringing new methods to communities where government initiatives have failed to turn the tide on stagnant inequality and improve social cohesion.
Searching for inspiration
Barrow New Constellation highlights the transformative potential of nurturing community imagination and the skill required to do it well. It’s one of 52 projects funded by the National Lottery Community Fund’s Emerging Futures Fund (EFF). EFF was created to ‘invest in the creativity of civil society and help amplify the voices of communities through stories, narratives and public imagination projects that can lead to new ideas, questions and visions of the future’.
A small team of social entrepreneurs and creative practitioners created an emotionally attuned ‘end-to-end journey’ for a ‘crew’ of 15 residents from the northwest English coastal town of Barrow-in-Furness . This ‘crew’, representing a cross section of the borough including the public sector, community and local business, came together for an immersive week to chart a course — a new set of ‘guiding stars’ — for Barrow’s future. These 12 ‘guiding stars’ are steering a visible trajectory of change toward a better and more beautiful future in a post-industrial seaside town. Immersive audio storytelling featuring local voices illuminates ‘moving patterns of hope’. The New Constellations team weaved participatory futures, embodied facilitation and strong narrative building into their imaginative work.
The Barrow example shows how a forward-looking public organisation can collectively shape a local system for public value by working closely with the community it serves. As a member of the crew, the local council chief executive incorporated the ‘guiding stars’ into Barrow-in-Furness Borough Council’s decision-making framework. Because of this, the town’s in a better position to navigate any strings attached to central government investment while holding true to the community’s vision. This will also prove vital if Barrow’s £16m Levelling Up Fund bid is successful; with priority one status it’s poised for a significant cash infusion on top of the £25m Towns Deal it’s already received .
Barrow’s case also demonstrates the public sector has a vital role to play in strengthening grassroots change. This is not David Cameron’s Big Society, where communities had to pick up the pieces of the public sector’s managed decline regardless of their desire, ability or capacity to do so.
Imagination and dreaming along the Clyde
Missions are a chance for Scottish Government to embrace new norms. Taking a page out of Barrow New Constellation’s playbook, the Scottish Government can use its ground-breaking missions as an impetus to leave lanyards at the door and sit at the table as an equal participant . By embracing ‘a plurality of views and new forms of decision-making’ the Scottish Government can involve communities directly in the work of charting the future of their local places. The river could become a neutral space for gathering and a catalyst for collective imagination, opening the door to animating Clydesiders’ connection with the riverside and building a new narrative for the Clyde.
External support could help the Scottish Government step out of the hosting role. This is not about paying expensive experts to swoop in on the taxpayer’s dime without leaving anything of lasting impact. It’s about bringing new types of capabilities into the heart of missions and partnering with new types of actors to help communities navigate the expansive, unbounded thinking required to explore complex problems in novel ways. The Scottish Government can use its power and resources to bring emergent, creative practice that has great potential to make missions truly participatory and inclusive into the mainstream.
New wine, new bottles
Addressing environmental and economic challenges along the Clyde River will require building infrastructure for large-scale collaboration and incorporating new forms of deliberation that meaningfully involve communities from the start, especially those most likely to experience the harshest climate impacts. Participatory processes that unlock community-led visioning and imagination can catalyse creative breakthroughs and centre new narratives around often-excluded voices and places.
In order to lead the transition to a more ecologically sustainable system, the Scottish Government should open Clyde Mission to radical new partnerships from the start, and in genuine ways. This includes social entrepreneurs whose transformative ventures are challenging the current system and visionaries whose facilitation makes it possible to imagine stepping into an entirely new world.