Endowing The Future

CIVIC SQUARE
Neighbourhood Public Square
54 min readApr 29, 2024

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Endowing The Future is co-authored by CIVIC SQUARE and Dark Matter Labs as a call to philanthropy to meet the moment, endowing its resources, possibilities, assets and imagination not only to avert the worst of current trajectories, but to seed just, regenerative, and distributive futures that can invite the wisdom, creativity, energy and drive of us all.

This propositional paper focuses on the endowment of neighbourhoods as part of a multi-capital approach to unlock and discover the capacities, capabilities and knowledges required for the people who live there to co-lead a courageous, bold and urgent transition, held in common.

Full Endowing The Future Chapter.pdf — March 2024

Endowing The Future is one chapter of the Neighbourhood Public Square publication, co-authored and co-built by CIVIC SQUARE.

The Neighbourhood Public Square seeks to demonstrate regenerative civic infrastructure at the heart of Ladywood, Birmingham, co-building and democratising access to the spaces, tools and resources for a bold, imaginative, distributed transition, held in common with the neighbourhood.

Within our wider work it represents a significant demonstrator for many layers of regenerative redesign around land stewardship, finance, governance, as well as building design, construction and retrofit. The focus of this is to discover the capacities and capabilities required for neighbourhood transitions in an ambitious, emergent and participatory way.

At the heart of this, the fundamental enquiry that we are continually seeking to build out, experiment with, prototype and nurture the possibility for remains, for us to answer courageously, boldly and tangibly together in the here and now:

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

In March 2023 our writings on Refounding CIVIC SQUARE 2.0 framed the context of our wider learnings from the first three years at CIVIC SQUARE, and the pivots that COVID-19 required us to make. This was particularly true for our core physical infrastructure demonstrator — the Neighbourhood Public Square.

Over the last year, we have reorientated and stepped into the next stages of tangible design from all we have been learning together with our peers and neighbourhoods, from the Neighbourhood Doughnut to activating on our streets to reimagine retrofit. We are working alongside visionary collaborators to build our design team and wider ecosystem in this demonstrator. Together, we are deeply committed to meeting the scale and breadth of the polycrisis, designing for future challenges and abundant possibilities ahead, including what climate predictions mean for the criticality of neighbourhood civic infrastructure.

Co-authored February 2023 — March 2024, this new publication reflects our progress, learning and insights at this time, and seeks to:

  • Open source research, reflection and proposition about the time we are in, the urgency of our collective action, and some blueprints for ways forward at the civic infrastructure and neighbourhood scale in collaboration with a range of visionary partners. We also recognise the risk of this, and offer principles to engage with the work respectfully.
  • Situate CIVIC SQUARE within a wider ecology of practice. Whilst we focus specifically on our work, starting with humility from where we are, we invite and recognise we can only thrive when there is collective investment and plural approaches beyond one organisation. We must acknowledge the scale of discovery, momentum, collective resistance and propositional demonstration requires all of us.
  • Answer a number of key questions rigorously that are cyclically requested within philanthropy and we believe keep us all stuck. We hope to push us all collectively beyond these, and towards transformative practice, together, in order to actively and thoughtfully meet the moment.
  • Invite a range of investments in CIVIC SQUARE’s Neighbourhood Public Square demonstrator from those looking to redistribute wealth into deep skills, curiosity and knowledges needed to build out the bold ideas within this proposal. This sits alongside complementary existing work, and understands that physical infrastructure is foundational to unlocking and nurturing the wisdoms, capacities and capabilities that already exist in our neighbourhoods, as well as cultivating new ones.

We warmly welcome you to follow along with this publication, through which we will be humbly and actively sharing everything that we can in the open as we go over the next few months, working out loud wherever possible along the way. This is an open invitation into conversations that require many of us, from many vantage points, and we hope you will build upon, discuss and share this as an open and generative provocation, and one that is designed to be distributed.

Figure 1 | Endowing The Future
Source: Dark Matter Labs and CIVIC SQUARE

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The Need To Endow The Future

UK neighbourhoods grapple with a profound emergency unfolding across local, global, and planetary dimensions. Locally, the impacts of climate breakdown are glaring when considering the intersecting indicators of the challenges we face: disrupted weather patterns, vulnerable food systems, and measurable environmental phenomena such as urban heat islands, poor air quality, and local flooding.

After fifteen years of austerity measures, and amid the cost of living crisis, our neighbours are facing acute poverty evidenced by the inability to pay for basics: 15% of UK households experienced food insecurity in January 2024. Socioeconomic inequality is impacting life expectancy to the extent that for some groups, those with the highest incomes are expected to live more than a decade longer than those earning the least.

More than 1 million people in England died prematurely in the last decade as a result of the health inequality associated with poverty, austerity measures and COVID-19.

Figure 2 | Climate Breakdown Is Not The Only Symptom Of The Challenges We Face
Source: Dark Matter Labs

Our demographic shift towards an ageing population significantly heightens the demand for local care services; community well-being faces serious challenges in the coming decades, while the pandemic of loneliness is already present across generations. At the same time, our young people are inheriting a social fabric torn by cuts to public spending and youth provision, implying further unknown impacts to their futures.

The environmental, social and demographic challenges we observe near to home exist in an entangled network of human-driven problems faced by communities across the globe. In addition to the climate crisis, economic transformations are reshaping industries on a global scale, posing intricate challenges to local livelihoods and employment.

It would be difficult to overstate the challenges — and possibilities — that we collectively face at this moment in history; only ambitious action can meet this moment.

Wholescale transformation is urgently needed. At the same time, today we are equipped with technological, scientific and human-centred potential that is similarly unmatched in history; these capabilities underscore a deeply rooted hope for the necessary transition.

This article and connected chapter from our Neighbourhood Public Square proposal will lay out some lenses for apprehending the interconnectedness of today’s ecological, social, economic, democratic and institutional crises, as seen through their implications for UK neighbourhoods.

Using data from across the UK and wider world, historical precedent, learned and lived experience as our guides, we propose that now is the moment to endow our neighbourhoods with the means, and the much-needed hope, to affect a transition with the speed and scale prompted by this moment.

It is the time for reimagining, for bold leadership, and for unleashing the abundant potential of our human and more-than-human world, towards a mutually flourishing future.

A Context Of Entangled Crises, From The Global To The Local

In the twelve months leading to February 2024, global warming exceeded 1.5°C; this is the first time that the global temperature has breached this threshold for an entire year.

In 2023, Climate Action Tracker calculated that current policies across the globe set us on track to reach 2.5°C of warming before the end of this century. This is a 0.1°C increase from their 2022 predictions: this number is likely to continue climbing. Meanwhile, almost all emissions scenarios estimate that we will reach 1.5°C of global warming by the early 2030s, according to the IPCC.

Figure 3 | Emissions In Gigatonnes Of CO₂ Equivalent
Source: Climate Action Tracker

In the UK, 2022 was the hottest year on record (and 2023 the second hottest), with the July heatwave breaking temperature records at 46 weather stations across the country (link), and a temperature above 40°C measured in the UK for the first time. On 15 July 2022, the UK Health Security Agency declared its first ever national emergency, to mark a threshold where “a heatwave is so severe and prolonged that its effects extend outside the health and social care system”.

The worst effects of climate breakdown will make other parts of the world uninhabitable. In the UK, comparatively modest temperature increases nevertheless have huge practical implications for how we’ll live in cities: Birmingham’s city centre is already on average 4°C warmer than the surrounding countryside.

Figure 4: Average Global Temperature From 20,000 BC
Source: Don’t Mention The Emergency? by Jane Morton (2020) Based on a graph by Jos Hagalaars (2013)

Considering current predictions for the coming decades, many of our city neighbourhoods will experience heatwaves with temperatures exceeding 40°C every year. This threatens the most vulnerable residents, damaging critical infrastructure and pushing up energy demand through air conditioning, with further impacts on both the climate (through growing energy use) and infrastructure (electricity grid resilience) impact.

The UK’s three named storms in January 2024Isha, Henk and Jocelynand their associated costly and damaging winds and flooding, might be a preview of what’s to come. In 2019 the UK Climate Change Committee predicted that in a 2°C warming scenario, 1.7million people in the UK would face a marked risk of flooding in any given year.

High emissions scenarios predict a 3°C global increase by the end of this centurya moment likely to be experienced by many of those born today. While we cannot accept or endorse such a future, we must recognise that a 3°C future would fundamentally reorganise our relationship with the world’s landscapes and environments, unsettling our definition of the world as a habitable place.

“An increase of +3ºC average global temperature threatens food supply, energy security and destabilising much of the global economy.”

Read more in What Does +3ºC Mean In UK Cities?
3ºC Neighbourhood Blog on Medium

Crisis Beyond Climate

While global temperature extremes and flash flooding have entered our collective consciousness on the basis of their extraordinary impact on people’s daily lives, we are surpassing many other ‘planetary boundaries’ that are less immediately perceptible but nonetheless will determine the texture of our futures. We have today crossed six of the nine planetary boundaries that demarcate the safe operating space for humanity.

Figure 5 | Earth Beyond Six Of Nine Planetary Boundaries
Source: Katherine Richardson et al. (2023)

Today, we have crossed six of the nine planetary boundaries that demarcate the safe operating space for humanity. As we progress toward crossing two others, it’s crucial to recognise that these planetary-scale risks are inextricably linked to consumption and environmental destruction in the UK: not only have our diets and livelihoods changed how land is used in this country, but our purchasing patterns are driving deforestation, biodiversity loss and extinction far afield.

This can be seen as a new form of imperialism, driven by extractive capitalism, that constrains the development prospects and livable future and just consumption space for the global South, continuing and in many ways exacerbating the UK’s deeply problematic legacy of imperialism and colonialism. The inhabitants of many areas of the world which will soon become uninhabitable are paying the price for the UK’s ongoing and centuries-long ability to turn a blind eye to their suffering.

As it stands, the transition put forward by many global North policies will be powered by ongoing extraction and associated violence in far-off, externalised places.

Figure 6 | Index Scores For Climate Resiliences Of African Countries In 2022
Source: Statista
Figure 7 | CO₂ emissions in 2021
Source: Al Jazeera

A prime example of this phenomenon is how the entire continent of Africa — and all 54 countries within it that have historically been the object of the European race and fight for colonisation, and a continent considerably impacted by the subsequent extractivism — has contributed to the global carbon emissions by less than 5%, but has some of the highest levels of people vulnerable to the impacts of climate breakdown, and some of the lowest global levels of ‘climate resilience’.

How This Manifests In Our Neighbourhoods

These impacts converge on the places where we live, learn, play, eat, rest, 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”.

UK neighbourhoods experience the permacrisis through the multiple challenges facing us simultaneously and in entangled form: in the climate, but so too in growing poverty rates, the housing crisis, cuts to social infrastructures like youth provision, the fragility of social care, increase in mental health issues, and growing evidence of deeply ingrained institutional racism.

From skyrocketing bills and the soaring cost of living, to the amount of energy lost in heating poorly insulated homes and the strain on the NHS: while it’s possible to identify a given year as a moment of ‘unprecedented’ intensity, many signs suggest that this crisis is permanent, and getting worse.

Figure 8 | Domino Effects In The Global Polycrisis
Source: Cambridge University Press

It’s one thing to recognise these problems, and another to have agency in taking action toward a better future. Systemic inequality in wealth and power — both within countries like the UK and globally — exacerbates the disjuncture between those making decisions about our future and those who are most likely to be impacted.

For instance, recent increases in the cost of living in the UK mean that renters are 4.7 times more likely to experience feelings of financial vulnerability than homeowners; this correlates with other markers of structural inequality, such as disability, identities of colour, food poverty and ill-health.

In the UK, after more than a decade of austerity, most individuals and communities are already feeling trapped in this failing model, a great number of whom are facing the intersecting impacts of multiple marginalisation, where the failing systems feel exacerbated, more severe, and create compounding harms. For many, the time and energy spent on short-term needs like heating homes, paying rent, and getting to work undermine the possibility of visionary action to reimagine our future.

More than ever our communities require access to knowledge, tools, resources and platforms to be at the forefront of their own, local climate transitions, rather than being swept away by rapid change within which they had little agency or consent.

A neighbour-led transition could enable the deep retrofit of our homes, streets, public squares, high streets and schools, the transformation of our empty spaces into regenerative physical infrastructure to meet the needs of our communities, the rebuilding of our responsibility to more than human neighbours, and the rewilding of our homes and hearts.

The Public Response Relevance Gap

With a few exceptions, our local institutional infrastructures (such as Councils) in the UK are fundamentally not equipped with the agility, nuance or embeddedness to address the scale and complexity of the challenges in our neighbourhoods today. Nor are they, after a decade and a half of austerity and cuts, sufficiently resourced to think through, let alone plan for, the full scale and complexity of addressing interlocking challenges in a proactive way. Differences in priority and politics are making it harder to seed the level of transformative change required in the polycrisis.

This is as true at the international level as it is in our local authorities, which have faced a 27% real-terms cut in spending power in the last thirteen years of austerity. At the same time, the cost of providing essential services and crisis-responses continues to climb: for example, councils in England are paying more than twice as much on temporary accommodation today as they were in 2015–2016, and more people than ever before rely on this safety net.

Figure 9 | Differences In Priority And Politics Are Making It Harder To Seed The Level Of Transformative Change Required In The Polycrisis | Source: UK Gov, The Guardian

Deep transformations, which take time, investment, commitment, and radical candour about the challenges faced, can’t be captured in the short attention span of today’s media and policy landscape. As a result, although more than one quarter of Britons believe that climate change is “out of control”, and scientific publications make more alarming predictions of what our future is likely to bring year-on-year, the political Overton window and policy landscape remains stagnant.

This is reflected in the fact that the investments that most Councils and utilities are making in climate adaptation are alarmingly limited, while 93% of councils identified a lack of funding as a barrier to implementing further adaptive measures.

These major shortcomings in policy will continue to grow the relevance gap between what’s being done and what needs to happen to address upcoming transformations and crises.

Figure 10 | Relevance Gap Between What’s Being Done And What Needs To Happen To Address Upcoming Transformations And Crises

Neighbourhoods At The Transition’s Leading Edge

In this section we focus on our home Ladywood, as an example of the future many urban neighbourhoods face. We do this with great respect, admiration and humility for the very real and catastrophic ways much of what we describe has already and will affect the lives of so many — whilst celebrating the deep love, care, joy, resistance in the face of the wider historical, current and future context describe, and much which is not acknowledged by us.

In many ways, Ladywood in Birmingham, which CIVIC SQUARE calls home, is representative of many inner-city areas in the UK in its characteristic challenges. What’s easier to miss is that our neighbourhood, like many across the country, balances these problems with great potential and possibility.

At first glance, the proximity of the city centre, with its seeming abundant economic opportunity, masks the underinvestment and deprivation faced by many in Ladywood, and the bankruptcy of Birmingham City Council.

Figure 11 | Neighbourhood Doughnut Data Portrait of Place (2022)

More granular data, such as that surfaced in our Neighbourhood Doughnut Data Portrait of Place, paints a picture of how neighbourhood infrastructure has been overlooked in the context of austerity, how pockets of extreme deprivation go unaddressed, and how arterial roads, among other components of the built environment, separate Ladywood residents from nearby areas of wealth, resources and investment.

Ladywood has a Biological Inequities Index (BII) score of 16 out of a possible 20 (with 20 the highest). This means that when measuring a range of interdependent environmental stressors, including air, noise, heat and light pollution, combined with measures of deprivation (Index of Multiple Deprivation), there is significant presence of systemic factors associated with a range of long term, negative health outcomes from dementia, diabetes and respiratory diseases to mental health disorders, obesity and cardiovascular diseases.

“Health is the ability for our biological systems to enter stability after experiencing trauma or stress throughout our entire lifetime, to give us all an equal opportunity to realise our full potential.”

Centric Lab, What Is Health?

This inequity is also reflected across a number of other indicators. Ladywood constituency is ranked the 7th highest for multiple deprivation across England, which is also the second highest of Birmingham’s ten parliamentary constituencies. Within Ladywood itself, 63% of its LSOAs (Lower Layer Super Output Area) are within the top 10% most deprived areas in England, highlighting the multifaceted inequities both within the neighbourhood itself, as well as compared to Birmingham and England more broadly.

The portrait’s many dimensions capture how this manifests more specifically within lived realities — for example, over 23% of Ladywood’s constituent households experience fuel poverty, highlighting also the inadequacy of the existing built infrastructures with 63% of homes in Ladywood having an EPC rating of D or below.

The social context here presents just one lens as to the scale of necessary transition that Ladywood and neighbourhoods like it represent. Whilst the needs of people in our neighbourhood are not being met, our portrait shows that neither are those of the local ecology that underpin our neighbourhood’s health and resilience. Coupled with the exceedance of the six planetary boundaries, at the city scale it is clear our existing systems and consumption patterns are falling far short of our global responsibilities to people worldwide.

Given the scale and interdependent nature of the polycrisis, Ladywood’s story of social shortfall and ecological overshoot is not unique, but rather outlines a clear trajectory for the necessary systemic transition for neighbourhoods across the UK.

Since publishing the Neighbourhood Doughnut Portrait in 2022, the increasing cost of living has further intensified the challenges faced by our neighbours. Concurrently, Birmingham City Council has grappled with extreme financial strain, declaring bankruptcy in September 2023.

This led to the implementation of drastic cuts across essential services throughout the city, ranging from child and adult care, to waste collection, libraries, arts and culture, transport and vital infrastructure such as street lighting. In order to meet the emerging financial recovery plans, Birmingham City Council is also expected to sell over £750 million of assets, including 11 of the city’s remaining community centres. Meanwhile, despite this context of cuts and further stripping of civic assets, council tax will increase by 21% over the next two years.

Illustrative of scale, nearly 100% of all arts and culture funding will be cut by 2025. Meanwhile, despite this context of cuts and further stripping of civic assets, council tax will increase by 21% over the next two years. The burden of our failing political and economic systems is overtly transferred yet again onto citizens, and this is not going unnoticed.

Figure 12 | Protesters Gathered Outside Birmingham City Council’s Chambers On 6th March 2024
Source: BBC News

As the glassy facades of luxury housing developments are lifted into the sky by vast flows of private capital only a few minutes from Ladywood, our local library — Spring Library — is closed indefinitely due to ageing building issues, and faces potential demolition. In spite of its proximity, the nearby flagship Library of Birmingham cannot fill Spring Hill’s role in supporting community connectivity and is saddled with debt itself.

We know this situation to be typical of cases around the country. Following shortly after Birmingham in November 2023, Nottingham City Council issued a section 114 effectively declaring bankruptcy and one in five councils also anticipate bankruptcy over the next 15 months.

Figure 13 | Resourcefulness And Creativity In Our Neighbourhood

Despite these pressing issues, Ladywood has been a hub of 20th-century pioneering models of industry, creativity and community: the resourcefulness and creativity of our neighbourhood has been documented by us, and many others.

As in many other UK towns and cities, the gradual loss of economic opportunities and lack of retention of value within Ladywood’s areas of deprivation will drive increasing social, financial and material precarity in the face of an uncertain world.

The lack of preparedness in the face of climate risks feels particularly problematic — where many other cities are actively preparing, the financial crisis facing Birmingham Council means that investments in resilience measures, essential for preparing for weather extremes and a shifting energy system, feel out of reach.

This leaves residents even more vulnerable than elsewhere, whether to flooding or energy price rises. Just when cities need to grow their investment to prepare for climate risks, Birmingham and others retrench further, leaving citizens to fend for themselves, while the able-to-pay market for private climate mitigation services grows.

Figure 14 | Neighbourhood Map

The scale and severity of the polycrisis is forcing us to systematically reevaluate the speed and scale of the transition facing our built environment and the social fabric of our neighbourhoods.

This transition will be substantive, structural, and systemic, changing how and what we account for, how we interact with and use spaces, how we live and work. It also will redistribute agency, support and resources, enabling fundamental changes in the built environment led by new combinations of actors.

“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

These changes are rooted, and will be felt most keenly, in the ways that we live in, govern, and advocate for our neighbourhoods in the everyday. Neighbourhoods will be key places in leading and driving the transition towards our next systems. We believe it is in the heart of the compounding crises and challenge, that investment in demonstration of the future is the most critical and urgent to demonstrate from, and alongside the communities here.

Principles And Strategy For Neighbourhood Transition

In this context, we derive huge hope from the work of pioneers who have laid down strategic frameworks for desirable futures in our neighbourhoods — frameworks designed to unlock the incredible assets and agency of people in their communities; to solve many challenges simultaneously rather than optimising one at the cost of another (also described as ‘multi-solving’); and to be responsible to both ourselves and future generations.

Here we lay out some of the key principles and approaches that can guide how we channel energy towards neighbourhood transitions in a strategic way, building from learning of others and our own long trajectory in this work.

Reimagining Neighbourhood Fundamentals

Following on from work by Dark Matter Labs outlining the foundational shifts needed for a future regenerative economy in the built environment, together we propose six Reimagined Neighbourhood Fundamentals that look to highlight possible ideas for shifting how we build, organise, and own our neighbourhoods. We expand on this in 3ºC Neighbourhood chapter.

  • Regenerative Resources
    Rewiring neighbourhood resource flows to encourage longevity, bio-materials and reuse as a default
  • Renewable Energy Systems
    Building the physical and institutional infrastructure for just local energy transitions
  • Retrofit & Densification
    Supporting neighbourhoods to maximise the space and materials that already exist
  • Recoding Comfort
    Creating the civic infrastructure and building standards for a hotter and wetter climate
  • Rewilding The Neighbourhood
    Finding opportunities for supporting civic-led blue and green infrastructure
  • Re-infrastructuring
    Rebuilding the social and organisational networks for a more unpredictable world

A Future That Is Just, Regenerative And Distributive By Design

Figure 15 | The Doughnut Of Social And Planetary Boundaries | Source: DEAL

The Doughnut offers a vision of what it means for humanity to thrive in the 21st century, and Doughnut Economics explores the mindset and ways of thinking that may help us to get there.

While there are many thoughtful, useful, and propositional frameworks emerging in new economic thinking, the Doughnut sets a clear goal that we have centred as a organising framework at the heart of CIVIC SQUARE’s work — through the Neighbourhood Doughnut. Simply the Doughnut sets the core challenge for our generation of finding a way for the economy to thrive between two concentric circles — an ecologically safe and socially just space for humanity to prosper within the means of the living planet.

Doughnut Economics’ holistic scope and visual depiction coupled with its grounding across economic history, planetary and climate sciences, has quickly turned it into a convening tool for governments, education, businesses and communities in neighbourhoods, towns, cities and nations around the world. For us, the Doughnut has given form to the interdependencies of planetary thinking in a way that considers the multiple scales of social, climate and ecological challenges of the 21st century, as well as creating space for the best of broader new economic thinking; degrowth, feminist economics, green growth, circular economics and more, to be held simultaneously.

It is not only a compass for the long-term transition to socially just and ecologically safe futures required, but it also presents a set of principles to get there that we feel are critical to the futures we want to build.

These include:

Design To Distribute

“21st century economists recognise that there are many ways to design economies to be far more distributive of value among those who help to generate it. That means moving from redistributing income to pre-distributing wealth, such as the wealth that lies in controlling land, enterprise, and the power to create money.”

Kate Raworth

Create To Regenerate

“As with inequality, there is no such economic law that pollution has to increase before it can decline: environmental degradation is the result of degenerative industrial design. This century calls for economic thinking that unleashes the potential of regenerative design in order to create a circular, not linear, economy — and to restore ourselves as full participants in Earth’s cyclical processes of life.”

Kate Raworth

Through putting these these and the other Seven Ways To Think Like A 21st Century Economist in action, we are seeing as an emergent global ecosystem of practice that we can simultaneously contribute meaningfully to, and a foundational framework to inform how we might organise and mobilise within our neighbourhood.

We recognise Doughnut Economics not as a panacea idea, that is the sole way we can move forward, but as a compass, a shape of progress and an accountability around the scale of transformation required. We recognise many forms of economic rethinking, reimagination, tools, practices and frameworks will intersect to move us towards regenerative futures and economic systems in service of life and flourishing.

The forthcoming ↗ Doughnut As A Compass chapter has more on how the Doughnut has informed our organisational framework, governance models, how we organise in the neighbourhood, where have been applying this, and why we think this framing is really critical for stepping into the challenges that we are the first generation to fully understand the scale of, and one of the last to meaningfully be able to change course.

The Role Of New Infrastructures

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 the 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 heat-wave 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.

Figure 16 | A Look Back At Chicago’s Deadly 1995 Heat Wave | Source: Chicago Sun-Times

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, and health outcomes and isolation, and we knew how much fragility and resilience emerged at the hyper-local scale, and what that meant to how we were or weren’t able to mobilise nationally. 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.

The scale and scope of the crisis means that no single actor acting alone, no matter how well resourced, could address what is needed. We require the power of all of us, including neighbours, streets, grassroots groups, local private sector, local VCSE (Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise) sector and local public institutions in addition to structures operating at larger scales.

The intersections that form when we contribute the many plural facets and perspectives that we bring with us can forge new ways forward, meaning when we combine this plurality across a street, a neighbourhood, or more broadly, entirely new worlds become possible. This means that reinforcing the diverse capabilities of communities and investing in the capacity for multi-actor collaborative action across all of these actors is essential.

“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, Speaking on the release of the latest IPCC Assessment Report (AR6) in 2022

We recognise that the initiators of ‘civic infrastructures’ can be local public sector institutions, place-based anchor groups, social enterprises or civic groups / networks — what defines a civic infrastructure is the function not the form. We need to unlock capabilities for coming together to enable sense-making, preparedness, resilience, imagining alternatives, fostering new solutions, and investing our multiple capitals together.

INFRASTRUCTURE
n.

The term ‘infrastructure’ here refers to more than its traditional uses in the built environment: our infrastructures don’t just organise what is tangibly constructed and used, they also hold relations that enable systemic change that isn’t physical.

CIVIC
adj.

Compared to the social infrastructure traditionally provided by the public sector, civic infrastructure is the framework through which individuals engage in civic society in partnership with other actors and multiple ‘sectors’, from energy coops to local media to community creches. These infrastructures create various forms of value and outcomes for different actors at the same time; they may be resourced though multiple economies–from gift, barter, credit, care and capital–to social, market and other economies.

Figure 16 | The Compendium for the Civic Economy (2011)

The Compendium for the Civic Economy laid out 25 examples of civic infrastructures up and down the country and a set of characteristics and principles on how they operate. Civic infrastructures may include physical spaces such as community libraries of things, friendship centres, community hubs, arts venues, playgrounds and public parks, as well as intangible things like local policies and social programmes.

Civic infrastructure shapes social behaviour, laying out the web through which civic connections are created and community bonds forged and where people with different types of agency shape the places they live in. Relational, interconnected and resilient, they are designed to create flourishing and well-being for a whole system, rather than extracting resources from one area to benefit another. In their ideal versions, they offer regeneration in the following ways:

Relationally

  • Fostering a multiplicity of financial and non-financial relationships, from exchange, gifting, and contributions to mutual aid.
  • Welcoming and providing meaningful everyday frameworks for diverse contributions and theories of value

Economically

  • Cultivating local economic multipliers where initial spending and investments lead to a cascade of economic activities, amplifying the impact of the original investment

For example, a project that promotes local food production can stimulate local businesses, foster skills and create jobs, and keep financial resources circulating within the community.

  • Enabling enterprises and organisations that are committed to transitioning towards a just and flourishing future and are at the forefront of biomaterial, circular, inclusive, and equitable economic practices

For example, they leverage local resources sustainably, foster a built environment that is adaptive to climate change, operate on circular economy principles, and ensure that economic opportunities are accessible to all community members, particularly those who have been historically marginalised.

Materially

  • Conserving materials already extracted — by reusing, recycling, and reutilising them — so as to do no further harm
  • Using materials that are systemically beneficial to the soil, air and water and surrounding environment, fostering biodiversity

In turn, they become inherently regenerative:

Of Us

  • They nurture the capabilities of local communities and individuals to participate in shaping their futures, including with skills fit for 21st century challenges (whether retrofit, composting, sense-making or otherwise). They connect people, providing touch points for community and sense-making, overcoming isolation and trauma to foster a more vibrant everyday.

Of Our Futures

They create resources that are stewarded in perpetuity for the benefit of communities present and future, through:

  • Inter-generational Equity
    Balancing current need with future flourishing, ensuring that resources remain available and accessible for years to come, so that future generations inherit a foundation of assets that are not depleted but are vibrant and capable of supporting their well-being.
  • Continuous Renewal
    Facilitating ongoing assessment and rejuvenation of the assets so that they remain relevant and valuable as community needs and environmental conditions evolve.

To usher in a future that is just, regenerative and distributive by design, we need a deep transition in how we understand and build the world in order to move away from the extractive and degenerative processes that led us here. Civic infrastructures are one of the various critical ‘interventions’ to the making of these futures, and for this reason we see them as a key part of enabling neighbourhood transitions.

Strategically Investing Into Neighbourhood Transition

How Investing Into Neighbourhood Demonstrations Of Civic Infrastructure Can Shape Future Public Goods

Carlota Perez describes transitions as forty to sixty year periods where everything needs to change. Whilst they may, as a whole, unfurl over decades, history tells us that deep foundational transformation in our core social, economic and political systems is rarely linear in nature. There are often turning points in the process during which an old system rapidly diminishes as the next system is embraced, as visualised in the Berkana Institute’s ‘Two Loops’ model:

Figure 17 | ‘Two Loops’ Model | Source: Berkana Institute

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Antonio Gramsci

We might be instinctively familiar with these moments, or know their variations using different terms: the concept of ‘tipping points’, explains how innovations gain critical mass in a way that can lead to a next pattern, and paradigm. Cassie Robinson, in her talk Emerging Futures: Patterning the Third Horizon, asks: Are all changes — particularly the ones that liken to the ending of a cycle — inevitably bad? How can we adapt accordingly and create pathways to what’s to come? with her work providing many portals for this.

Similarly, the Geels framework lays out how socio-technical systems transition becomes mainstream when bridging multiple levels and perspectives, beginning with niche innovations.

These models tell us that as much as we understand our context within a longer-term transitional moment, the tempo of change may rapidly shift at any moment, either in favour of reinforcing the transition elements we are advocating toward or by means of the crossing of further crisis thresholds.

Figure 18 | Tipping Point

This invites the question of where to strategically invest our many capitals — including our time and attention — in the interest of the just, regenerative and distributive futures we seek. When it comes to neighbourhood infrastructure we have seen throughout history how deep demonstration (i.e. demonstrating not only what can be made in a place but also the invisible wiring needed across areas like policy, regulation, land, property and governance to enable it) in one place can shape changes to the public landscape, resulting in a shift in conditions at a neighbourhood level up and down the country. In this section we describe this process.

“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

Designing Missions brings forward a range of frameworks to support deep system demonstration, and crucially, begins to illustrate how they are now combining in a transformed way.

They demonstrate and describe transformative approaches to solving multiple societal challenges in an integrated and holistic way, often through collaborative, mission led activities. They are usually place-based, at various scales and levels and complexity. This means they combine and align meaningful touchpoints and experiences, operations and organisations. Examples can include buildings and streets, campuses and neighbourhoods, ports and factories, farms and landscapes, towns and cities, and entire value chains. This enables an integrated, holistic, and people- and ecosystem-based approach.”

— Dan Hill, Designing Missions

Overton Windows

Our window to make change without the onset of further deep, structural crises is rapidly narrowing; it is likely that the ‘tipping points’ we will face imminently will materialise in ways that may be hard to imagine now. Nevertheless, their impacts will rapidly and viscerally enter everyone’s everyday lives, even those of the people currently using their power and resources to shield themselves from these emerging realities.

Evidence of these critical, unanticipated circumstances exists in the varying forms of recent events ranging from the global COVID-19 pandemic to the East London grass fires in 2022. As this happens, we know that ‘Overton windows’ can quickly shift, and what was considered edge, unlikely or even impossible can quickly become plausible and normalised. We saw the rapid change in attitudes towards remote working, for example, following the COVID-19 lockdown periods, where working from home went from niche to normal in a rapid period of time. How Did We Do That? a booklet by Andrew Simms and Peter Newell lays out a number of past and present alternative examples from around the world.

Figure 19 | Overton Window

We note that this phenomenon does not always result in changes that benefit the public. Naomi Klein highlights numerous examples of the “tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock — wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes or natural disasters — to push through radical pro-corporate measures, often called ‘shock therapy’”, highlighting how these quick changes in Overton windows can also be exploited by those in positions of power — notably private interests with ample access to capital and high influence over decision-making and regulatory systems.

The polarisation and distrust that characterise today’s political landscape in the UK and many European countries is likely to amplify a counter-discourse to our fundamental understanding of this moment.

These voices seek to gain momentum toward tipping points leading to their vision of the future, grounded in a politics of division and desire to sustain positions of privilege. In the last few years, we have seen how right-wing politics have promoted competition to privatise gains and increase cherry-picking in emerging business spaces, such as with PPE contracts during the pandemic.

The free-market economist Milton Friedman highlighted this phenomenon in 1982:

“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

We do not align with Friedman’s ideas of which alternatives are desirable to develop and keep alive, but the call to action is clear: investing now into demonstration of a desirable future at the small scale is far from naive, it is strategic. What now may be developed at the scale of the neighbourhood, may tomorrow be adopted and adapted as a broader public good, as we are about to explore.

It is precisely because of this dynamic of rapid moments of change that it is so critical to keep alternatives alive — and to boldly invest in them — to advance the likelihood that the present polycrisis yields a just, regenerative and distributed approach to our future.

“Transition pathways and changes in social norms often start with pilot experiments led by dedicated individuals and niche groups. 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 (WGIII Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change), Chapter 5, pg. 5

Examples

“A public good is a commodity or service that every member of a society can use without reducing its availability to all others.

Typically, a public good is provided by a government and funded through taxes. Examples of a public good include a town road, park, or school. National defence is a public good. A public good may also be a basic need such as access to clean air and drinking water.

The main criteria that distinguish a public good are that it must be non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Non-rivalrous means that the goods do not dwindle in supply as more people consume them. Non-excludability means that the good is available to all citizens.”

Jason Fernando (2024)

Public goods play a crucial role in shaping the neighbourhoods, and societies that we live in, as they democratise access most widely to communities; and discovering the public goods of tomorrow enables the scale of transformation we must enact at many scales is a key task in the transition that we face.

The adoption of these demonstrations by governments particularly in times of crisis can be the start of a whole new suite of public goods, and the rebuilding of a broken social contract and a new social settlement, that is just, regenerative and distributive by design. The phenomenon of new civic infrastructures developed and proved at a local level going on to form the basis of the next public goods is well established.

New social and civic infrastructures have often emerged from, and incubated the changes conceived during major societal transitions. From grassroots educational efforts to the birth of public libraries, to the mutual aid societies of the 1920s that ultimately paved the way for the National Health Service, history shows how important elements of the fabric of Britain’s communities grew out of pioneering local initiatives that gradually paved the way for transitions over periods of decades.

Each of these infrastructures, rooted in community-level initiatives, subsequently played a pivotal role in contributing to the health, resilience, wellbeing and human development of communities and society as a whole, while evolving apace with changing needs. They point to a possible course towards the next public goods in this country.

Here we share some case studies of this in the UK. These examples should not be romanticised, and instead are most helpful to learn from when regarded in the context of similar grassroots activities and transitions across the world. Many of these examples and stories of revolutionary movements that resulted in the public goods that benefit people locally have been born of a long trail of injustice following colonialism, and been built by systemic extractivism.

These examples are not to suggest that the progress made here to democratise assets should follow the same model that enabled many atrocities globally, but also not to be immobilised by perfection, and instead to see the overall lessons these case studies have to offer.

Endowing The Future | Case study #1

The NHS: From Exceptional Local Instance To Cherished Institution

Figure 20 | Aneurin Bevan Addresses A Crowd Just Outside Tredegar In 1960 | Source: WalesOnline

July 5, 1948, was the Appointed Date when the healthcare of 45 million people shifted into the hands of the British state under the NHS. But the NHS as it was instituted upon its launch was not built up overnight, out of nowhere.

In addition to the headline-making reports and legislative restructuring that enabled its constitution, so too did the first half of the twentieth century hold a range of transformative processes and efforts, where civic sensemaking around the potential of nationalised healthcare demonstrated possible futures this institution could bring about.

Crucially, the NHS’ genesis disturbed the strictures of class dynamics through the indubitable benefits that resulted from working class mutualism, which resonated across the systems that had excluded this population. Distributed transitions and discussions laid the groundwork for the initial and ongoing success of the ‘National Health’, its core progressive identity and its ability to change over the decades. Activist figures like Aneurin Bevan and Edith Summerskill carried examples of grassroots action and the needs of everyday people through political channels.

The NHS is based on a core redefinition that holds true today: healthcare is a right for all Britons; the duty for its provision rests with the state, and principles of mutualism and access should determine its form.

Public institutions like the NHS should be regarded as the crystallisation of ongoing transformative thinking and civic work in neighbourhoods to enable transformative futures. Two key processes are outlined below.

  • Community Demonstration

The NHS was born in a small village in Wales, where workers asked, “What if everyone had access to healthcare at the point of need, unrelated to their ability to pay?”, and then modelled what this could look like.

In the decades before 1948, communities across Britain tested new forms of health infrastructure at neighbourhood scale, leading the way toward a popular understanding of how healthcare could be improved. These grassroots working class demonstrations evidenced possible futures that were eventually influential to policymakers.

Notably, the Workmen’s Medical Aid Society in Aneurin (‘Nye’) Bevan’s hometown of Tredegar, South Wales established a contributory scheme, using deductions from miners’ salaries to provide care free from additional charges, in the form of five doctors, a surgeon, two pharmacists, a physiotherapist, a dentist and a district nurse, seeing to the care of about 95% of the town’s population during the 1920s.

This notable example of working class mutualism addressed issues with the contemporary system of mutual and voluntary hospitals and independent general practitioners, which provided limited access or burdensome costs to many working-class families, and uneven distribution of facilities across Britain.

This model, born far from Westminster and initiated in 1890, thirty years before its period of greatest impact, was perhaps the best model for what the NHS was to become. It’s no accident that Aneurin Bevan took this example from his hometown to chart the course in his role as Minister of Health and Housing in the years to 1948.

  • Scaling Of Grassroots Learning

A second key figure acting to translate on-the-ground experience into spaces of power was Edith Summerskill, a doctor-turned-Labour MP who used her platform to articulate the potential of a national health infrastructure to benefit women, children, and British society at large as a result. Summerskill deployed harrowing anecdotes from her years working as a community doctor to the poor, when campaigning for the idea of a new system of state-sponsored medicine.

Summerskill painted the picture of a service which would better support the needs of women and children, whose care was precarious under the existing National Health Insurance provision for GPs, leaving many of her former patients facing profound challenges in getting basic care.

With the Socialist Medical Association, which she helped found in 1930, Summerskill advanced the idea that universal care–across gender, social class and geography–could transform society and the economy by increasing the country’s birthrate, a major contemporary concern.

The primacy of women’s and children’s needs was a complex message that took decades of data-gathering and fieldwork to articulate, but one which forms the backbone of the NHS, and public health, today.

Philanthropy’s Role In Enabling The Public Goods Of Tomorrow

To recap the context that we are facing, as outlined in more detail in 3ºC Neighbourhoods:

  1. Rising global temperatures exacerbate untenable local risks from heat, drought, flooding, food shortages, climate migration, and the cost of living: these challenges come together and are felt in our neighbourhoods
  2. Changes in the world are already increasing volatility of prices associated with meeting our most basic needs
  3. In the bigger picture, the UK’s policies to meet climate targets are widely regarded to be inefficient
  4. And our current patterns of consumption, as framed through carbon budgets, are stealing from the future and from global south nations
  5. We are locked in to carbon intensive systems, despite the fact that the transition to renewables that is now part of mainstream discourse. The demand for transition materials will require a significant increase in mining and processing of minerals
  6. A neighbourhood transformation will need to maximise co-benefits in order to address the polycrisis with the required agility, along with a clear direction of travel and a framework for measuring progress
  7. This mode of transformation involves reimagining neighbourhood fundamentals to ensure that neighbourhoods are equipped with the skills, resources and connectivity to face the crises that crystallise locally
  8. The inadequacy of current pledges and commitments means that without systemic redesign, we will be unable to sustain current ways of living

Philanthropy has unique agency in this demanding context. For one, it has the capability and precedent for identifying civic infrastructures of the upcoming transitions — whether related to energy, mobility, built environment, materiality, food and land-use, or the wider socio-economic, cultural and societal structures around them — and invest into their proofs of possibility.

Existing largely outside of the political landscape, philanthropic support can step ahead of our current governance landscape and intervene in timelines to shorten what we might call the ‘proving period’ (the time from initiation to becoming public) for tomorrow’s public goods.

PROVING PERIOD
The time from initiation to becoming public

We recognise this as a complex process, that is non-linear

For example, we might see the proving period of the NHS as 37 years: from the 1911 National Insurance Act to the official inception of the NHS in 1948. 37 years is less than the working lifetime of most people, and during this period an enormous shift in possibility was conceived and implemented; even so, compared to our current context, it is a significant time frame for a neighbourhood civic infrastructure to be tested, refined, and ultimately adopted at the public scale.

Our understanding of the polycrisis, the UK Government’s inaction, and the layers of inequality and democratic disempowerment that rest upon this reality, tell us that we simply do not have this much time. The urgency of this moment demands an accelerated approach in order to shorten this discovering and proving period for public goods, and here philanthropy has a critical role to play.

There are already so many examples of civic infrastructures having been built over the past decades in communities across the UK, driven largely by passion and voluntary or underpaid time and energy.

Part of philanthropy’s role is to get behind what is already being developed and enable its deep demonstration in a way that can be commensurate with the scale of the cascading crises we face. There is so much latent potential, wisdom, skills, knowledge in our neighbourhoods that can be further unlocked to contribute to these infrastructures and innovations — the assets available to this work are vast.

Endowing The Future | Case Study #2

Andrew Carnegie’s Public Libraries

Figure 21 | Patrons In The Reading Room Of The Carnegie Library Of Homestead In Munhall, Pa., circa 1900.
Source: Library Of Congress

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Scotland’s public libraries were the focus of pioneering philanthropic investment led by Andrew Carnegie.

Public libraries as we know them today were established and their future maintenance assured through the conditions that came with Carnegie’s grants. This is not to idolise Andrew Carnegie, whose wealth was extracted and accumulated during the industrial age aided by power inequalities and extractive capitalism; but we can learn from the scale by which this money was later distributed and the public goods for which it laid the foundations.

Carnegie’s support for civic infrastructure was advanced because of how it combined grants with a condition that the full extent of public funding available would be coupled with each of his investments. During the mid-19th century, interest in public libraries was growing.

The UK Public Libraries Act of 1850, the Scottish Public Libraries Act of 1853, and subsequent revisions, gave town councils the power to raise taxes to build a library, and provide for its operations. This legislation was a landmark: although libraries in Britain had been present since before the Enlightenment, until this point most were private and inaccessible to most people.

Carnegie’s ‘formula’, attached to his grants, stated that towns were required to comply with two conditions: firstly, adoption of the Public Libraries Act taxation permissions, and secondly, to demonstrate the town’s need for a library, the availability of a site and a plan for staffing, maintenance, stocking and furnishing.

With the ‘formula’, grants could be calculated on a case-by-case basis, wherein the taxes raised would be used to support the longer-term needs and ongoing costs for the library. This pairing of philanthropic support with the full potential of a novel policy lever enabled structural-scale change, the ability for towns to grow their own institutional capacity, and the instigation of a new era for public libraries. The sum impact of these two ways of supporting civic infrastructure was greater than their parts.

1883, the year of the first Carnegie-funded library, began the most prolific period of construction of public libraries in UK history. Institutions funded by Carnegie’s programme ranged from small village reading rooms to resplendent new structures like Edinburgh’s Central Library; in most cases, the dignity of the library as a piece of civic life was supported and expressed through its built form.

During his lifetime, Carnegie contributed funding to over 2500 libraries in Britain and the US, creating a pathway toward progressive and ambitious civic institutions. In 1919, the year that Carnegie died, a new Public Libraries Act was passed, transferring powers for public libraries from town to county councils, such that networks of libraries could be established at a regional level.

This change allowed for an expansion of services and greater assurance of longevity, more sharing of knowledge within the sector, and increased financial independence from individual patrons. The Carnegie ‘formula’ significantly extended the potential inherent in an emerging public policy idea, changing the course of our public education landscape in less than 40 years. Without advanced philanthropic thinking, the public library as we know it today would not have taken shape.

Almost one fifth of the UK’s libraries closed between 2010 and 2019, against the backdrop of a spending cut amounting to nearly 30%. By contrast, several northern European cities have opened flagship libraries in recent years that radically reframe what a library can offer the public, with forward-looking digital assets, public programmes and democratically organised spaces. In spite of the devaluation of libraries close to home in the context of austerity policies, neighbouring countries show us how libraries can continue to carry us into the future.

A Call To Philanthropy To Meet The Moment

There is no ‘unicorn’ solution for this situation: investment into an ecosystem of multiple deep demonstrations across the UK — focused on different areas, from healthcare, energy and food systems to retrofit, the arts, housing or otherwise — is necessary, building on diverse, contextually driven foundations that can compound their learning and provide mutual support.

These practitioners are recognising the scale of the challenges we face and designing commensurately for them; intervening both in place and in underlying systems such as policy, regulation, contracts, land or currencies; openly sharing what they are learning to build the wider field.

Figure 22 | From System Level Crisis To Wider System Adoption | Source: Dark Matter Labs

We must deeply invest now, and invest in possibility, knowing that it is unlikely for change to happen linearly with advance warning. Rather, there may be moments where crises collide, possibilities open up, the overton window can be shifted or shifts and we need the readiness of just, regenerative models to be able to quickly ripen and be adopted.

As a society in the UK — and as a philanthropic sector — at many scales we are squandering time; time that we have stolen from other places from where our economic systems have extracted resources. This includes philanthropy if and where endowments have accumulated through extractive means. This gives a huge responsibility for the many crises we face, in line with the role that has been played in creating them.

As crises compound, philanthropy’s capacity to respond systemically will reduce, and crisis-management measures responding to ever more immediate emergencies will become the enduring norm.

If we were to calculate the current ‘philanthropic discount rate’, we would see that the value and impact of £1 in philanthropic funding invested in, for example, one year’s time will be significantly lower than the value and impact of that £1 invested today, due to the lost opportunity to invest in proofs of possibility that might occur in this period, as well as the diminishing adaptive capacity, the accumulation of multidimensional challenges, and the growing harm and pain caused within that year.

Every passing second, day, and month make future philanthropic investment less valuable as our societal challenges grow.

We see this mirrored in the public sector, where, for instance, Local Authorities’ capacity for long-term, preventative investment and innovative thinking and action is being rapidly eroded by the need to respond to harrowing crises in housing or family breakdown through very expensive temporary accommodation and children and adult social services.

How can philanthropy avoid being consumed by the same dynamic?

“What time is it on the clock of the world?”

— Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs
Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century

At least some part of philanthropy must inhabit its potential to do things public funders can’t and endow its resources, possibilities, assets, imagination not just to avert the worst of the current trajectories, but to seed just, regenerative and distributive futures that can invite the wisdom, creativity, energy and drive of all of us. This is the time for real leadership to meet the moment of the great transformations that we face.

Principles To Guide This Type Of Investment

We recognise the many challenges faced by philanthropy in deciding the right approach to how it responds to the contexts we face:

  1. There are so many actors doing brilliant work across different horizons, places, and domains
  2. There are many alternative, compelling strategies that could guide decision-making (and no clear ownership of the responsibility to select among them)
  3. The quantum of funding feels too small to invest both deeply and broadly

In this context, the strategy of investing into demonstrations of civic infrastructure is one strategy among a wider portfolio needed. Here we lay out some key approaches that we propose can help philanthropy to be strategic and enabling in how it approaches this complex landscape.

Collaborating In A Wider Portfolio

For clarity, we are not proposing that every philanthropic institution invests now solely in demonstrating civic infrastructure of the future; instead we are suggesting that it is an under-resourced and yet critical layer within a wider portfolio needed across the sector, and one which some philanthropies are particularly well-placed to nurture.

Those actors need to strategically invest into this whilst others invest in complementary areas such as widespread narrative and movement building, campaigning for policy and regulatory change, or capacity and capability building, as well as symptom response.

This stack of intervention spaces laid out by Dark Matter Labs below, as an example, points to some of the key areas of work that need investment from across the landscape of philanthropy. The intention is that different philanthropic actors invest into these various key areas as a mutually reinforcing portfolio:

  • Recognition
    The work of identifying and acknowledging the system effects (both its symptoms and its drivers) and building awareness and motivation to address it. Examples may be releasing reports on the state of poverty or investment in movements that shine the light on institutional racism or the state of climate breakdown.
  • Response
    The work of responding to the immediate challenges and symptoms. This may involve reaction and tactical measures to mitigate negative effects. Examples may include investing into food banks, domestic violence services or animal rescue centres.
  • Repair
    The work of repairing the harm that has been caused to people and/or communities by the former system and resetting inequalities it may have contributed to. Examples may include investing into healing, therapy, capacity building, reparative justice methods such as reparations.
  • Reconstitution
    The work of bolstering the agency, capacity, skills and capabilities of individuals and communities. Examples may include investing into skills trade schools, peer to peer learning.
  • Reimagination
    The work of unlocking the imaginative capacity in communities and individuals, for alternative futures. Examples include imagination & foresight practices, spanning across everyday extraordinary imaginations, to the radical imagination work.
  • Recoding
    The work of addressing the everyday codes that shape the systems that we wish to move away from — whether codes of governance, policy, law, contracts, finance, currency creation or otherwise. Examples may include resourcing methods for systemic investment, alternative contracts or regulatory change initiatives.
  • Regeneration
    The work of orchestrating alternative systems that can demonstrate a just, regenerative future, and enabling their adoption into the norm to restore ecosystems and enable mutual flourishing for the future. Examples may include investing into the demonstration of civic infrastructures (at the neighbourhood, town, city or national level).

We draw attention to Kataly Foundation’s recent Shuumi Land Tax Contribution to Sogorea Te’ Land Trust as an example of critical repair and reconstitution work being led in the philanthropic space. Collaborating across the wider philanthropic landscape (and beyond it) to align and compound complementary strategies for these areas and establish benchmarks is a responsibility of operating with the power and potential that philanthropy holds.

Operating Principles For Investments Into ‘Regeneration’

Investing in the complex work of the class of change defined as ‘regeneration’ in the list outlined above in the context of today’s increased volatility means deploying capital with a set of operating principles that are appropriate and relevant for this type of work. For philanthropy, this also means investing in a way that involves:

  • A Cohesive Strategy Towards Philanthropic Goals
    The approach enables philanthropic entities to proactively use their investments to mirror their values and objectives
  • Embodying The Next Economy
    Leading by example and demonstrating the viability and necessity of an economic system that values the health of the planet and its inhabitants equally with financial prosperity.

We suggest appropriate principles for this class of work — ‘regeneration’ — as outlined below.

  1. Operationalising An Ecosystem Of Possibilities
  2. Taking A Multi-Capital Approach
  3. Operating With Emergence And Agility To Enable Anti-fragility
  4. Moving To Real-world Endowment

Operationalising An Ecosystem Of Possibilities

CIVIC SQUARE exists among many groups in the UK and beyond building neighbourhood, street and city scale civic infrastructure under this area of ‘regeneration’. The work we have done and continue and aspire to do, in enabling neighbourhood-scale demonstrators, sits alongside ground-breaking initiatives in our own and other cities, for example:

Figure 23 | WeCanMake

WeCanMake
Knowle West, Bristol

WeCanMake is a community land trust and neighbourhood test-space based in Knowle West, Bristol that empowers local residents by providing them with the tools and resources to both create and improve their own living spaces. The project began as a response to the housing crisis and the lack of affordable housing options in the city. It recognizes the importance of involving individuals and communities in the design and construction process, enabling them to have a direct say in shaping their own neighbourhoods. It embraces sustainable and innovative building techniques, such as using reclaimed and recycled materials, to create affordable and environmentally friendly housing options. What makes work like this particularly remarkable is that it is deeply rooted in a neighbourhood, and is working at many layers of community wealth, land, construction, design, convening, material justice, policy change and much more simultaneously not as a set of individual interventions, demonstrating from the neighbourhood up.

wecanmake.org

Figure 24 | MAIA Team On ABUELOS Site, Visualisation For ABUELOS

MAIA
Birmingham

MAIA envisions a world towards liberation, in which artists are resourced and mobilised to reimagine its possibilities. They engage culture as an imagination and organising strategy, working to build infrastructures that grow the personal, structural and sustained capacities needed in support of thriving Black life and its interdependencies. As an organisation that rejects a single-issue struggle analysis, MAIA identify the complex transition of this time as a cultural one in which the arc, languages, tools, underlying stories, actors, artefacts, values, philosophies, practices and manifestations require transformative shifts.

MAIA is on a journey to establish ABUELOS (meaning ‘Grandparents’ in Spanish) as a demonstration of life-affirming systems through the form of physical, relational infrastructure. As part of MAIA’s strategy to immerse and build iteratively in the community, they have been stewarding YARD as a prototype for ABUELOS. YARD is a townhouse converted into a neighbourhood base for dreaming, mobilising, nourishing and testing.

maiagroup.co

These are two examples among so many others, which include but are not limited to:

Figure 25 | From L-R | Onion Collective, Portland Inn Project, CoLab Dudley, People Dem Collective, Opus, Nudge Community Builders, Hastings Commons

The ability for these groups to compound their learning between peers and emergently build the everyday codes and practices needed in the field is critical to the success of this work which is inherently discovery-orientated.

This invites philanthropy to trial approaches of investing into connected ecosystems, building from what has been learned in the Growing Great Ideas programme, the Pathfinders ecosystem, is being explored in the Platform places project and being tested by New Constellations (exploring moving resource like mycelium) and Beyond the Rules’ ‘many to many funding’ in connection with Arising Quo.

In these contexts, philanthropy is invited as a collaborative partner within the ecosystem rather than its separate ‘benefactor’, leveraging its own multiple capitals (see below) towards real-world demonstrations of the future.

Taking A Multi-Capital Approach

Figure 26 | Taking A Multi-Capital Approach | Source: Dark Matter Labs

This type of work requires us to recognise forms of value that exist outside of financial statements and purely tangible ways of knowing the world. Instead it requires embracing multiple forms of value represented by diverse capitals, including but not limited to financial capital. By other forms of capital we may refer to, for example, those recognised in permaculture: human, social, cultural, natural, intellectual, spiritual, physical.

When philanthropy collaborates with other actors — whether community groups, NGOs, collectives, public institutions, researchers or otherwise — this means not assuming that financial capital is the primary contribution to the work, and instead valuing and understanding the other assets (i.e. stored capital) that they are contributing.

These assets may be in the form of (for example) specialist skills, reputations of trust, lived experience, relationships of care, long-term commitment or otherwise. These assets may have been accumulated in varying forms, and — like financial assets — have different lineages relating to how they were accumulated, what that took and who it impacted and how.

Philanthropy (both as wealth-holding individuals and institutions) can take a more balanced and appropriate role in the space of shared governance through an appreciation and curiosity of these multiple capitals and how they flow into the collaborations that they are part of.

The responsibility of philanthropy is then not to optimise the landscape on the assumption that financial capital is the only or primary capital that matters, but rather to recognise its role alongside others to enable a supportive and thriving collaborative environment for all capitals to flow and regenerate.

This may manifest through investment allocation logics and terms (and whose mindsets, risks or comforts those are optimised to), contractual terms (including clawback, reporting, IP, liability and other clauses) or through relationships (and whose needs, spaces, languages and powers are centred) — moving from funder-centred to more collaborative and balanced approaches where philanthropy holds risks proportionately and invests in true partnership.

Operating With Emergence And Agility To Enable Anti-Fragility

Figure 27 | How Systems Respond To Stress | Source: Systems Innovation Network

In an era characterised by complexity and vast volatility we will experience quickly-changing contexts where governance will be challenging. We expect that planning and strategy for this class of change will unfurl throughout a process rather than be laid out for us in advance — approaches to capital allocation need to be effective not only for what we plan, but for what we don’t.

Financial capital allocation should be designed to be able to quickly change direction or address things unforeseen, guided by the mission and key principles and values whilst staying agile and adaptable to what might be needed, to provide support and prioritise resilience in volatility.

ANTI-FRAGILE
n.

The ability to grow through adversity

There are a number of contractual mechanisms (see, for example some of the work by Beyond the Rules on bi-lateral and many-to-many contracts, focused on enabling emergent and flexible agreement spaces) and financial instruments (some of which are detailed in the Investment Ask chapter of this proposal) that can practically code this approach into how investments and grant-making is executed.

Moving To Real-World Endowment

“Four-fifths (80%) of the Top 300 foundations hold investment assets of one sort or another to back their grant funding programmes in the longer term. Investments range from just £1,000 to £29 billion.

The majority of investments held by the Top 300 are listed (57% by value), but unlisted investments are also significant (34% by value) with some big foundation investments wholly or in part held in privately-owned or unlisted companies.

The other substantial component is investment in private equity.”

Foundation Giving Trends Update 2020
Association of Charitable Foundations

The case for traditional philanthropic endowment management traditionally focuses on maximising long-term financial return in order to enable consistent grant spending on philanthropic goals. There are various ways in which this can be problematic, especially if and when the long term financial return is created by extractive investments that exacerbate the symptoms that the spending then tries to address (as would normally be the case when investing in financial markets).

This is a widespread and continuous hoarding of wealth via extractive mechanisms by varying actors across the philanthropic sector at a time when great transformations are needed.

We call for at least some of the wealth held by philanthropic institutional and individual wealth-holders being moved to ‘real-world endowments’.

This involves moving endowments outside of extractive financial markets (which exacerbate the symptoms we are all trying to address) and into real world civic assets that can generate a multi-capital surplus (rather than purely a focus the financial returns) which can then be stewarded by community governance (rather than by institutions further from the problem space).

This means:

  • Ceasing environmental and social harm by stopping the influx of capital into extractive industries which compromise ecological and social well-being for financial gain and contribute to environmental degradation and social injustice.
  • Redirecting investments to tangible real-world assets and the real economy, specifically initiatives that have a direct, beneficial impact on communities and the environment such as sustainable agriculture, renewable energy projects, affordable housing developments, and local businesses.

Recognising Civic Infrastructure As A Commitment To The Future, Not A Cost

One of the key challenges for civic infrastructure to thrive is how we have approached it as a traditional ‘business’ using the logics of market capitalism. Investors have focused on the need of our civic spaces to ‘wash their own face’, and financed them heavily through debt repayable with interest.

This forces those infrastructures to maintain themselves through transactions (charging for their provision, renting out space, prioritising the wealthier ‘customer’) and to peel back investments into the social and relational interface (their hosts, community offers, connection between members, open events) where the most value is created.

Civic infrastructure is assessed on financial value creation when, in fact, their true value is in how they create surpluses in people’s lives, households, and in society through connection, belonging, participation, agency, joy, health and other factors that we all know are critical to human flourishing. These factors in turn reduce costs in healthcare, emergency services, social care and more.

Instead of investing into these civic infrastructures as flourishing assets that spillover into many varying benefits, we seek to privatise them as financial assets.

We propose that a key operating principle for financial capital investing here is for it to recognise the systemic value (captured ambiently through multiple beneficiaries, direct, indirectly, tangibly and intangibly) created by civic infrastructure, and its criticality to the flourishing of present and future societies. In doing this means taking a financing model that is justified not at the level of individual transactions (e.g. can this community cafe charge enough to cover all its direct costs) but that is justified at the level of systemic value generation.

This is somewhat of a paradigm shift in how we approach investment (whether through grant-making or impact investment). Building and implementing these tools will require collaboration, innovation, and a commitment to reimagining the foundations of our economic systems.

Our response and our leadership must be deeply cognisant of the scale and complexity of the challenge, but this cannot paralyse us from acting boldly now with the longer-term horizon in mind. In fact, we’d propose that this is necessary if foundations are genuinely to “make sure the charity’s assets are used to carry out its charitable objectives” and fulfil their governance duties. We recognise there is a limit to how much mutually thriving futures can be described through written text, and must be embodied, practised and demonstrated in our places.

“Rather than seeing the world as dead matter, or the human as the rational agent, or philanthropy as a set of logical and financial decisions to maximise the effectiveness of money, we are acknowledging the primacy of entanglement, of multiple simultaneous ontologies of outside the human realms of understanding”

— Alnoor Ladha and Lynn Murphy, Post Capitalist Philanthropy

Call To Action For Those Stewarding Wealth

As crises compound, philanthropy’s capacity to respond systemically will reduce, and crisis-management measures responding to ever more immediate emergencies will become the enduring norm. CIVIC SQUARE are seeking ambitious financial investors as part of a multi-capital approach, interested in providing transformative finance to a neighbourhood scale demonstration of social, civic and ecological infrastructure in service of community-led and stewarded transitions.

At heart of the operating model is a multi-economy approach that seeks to nurture a perpetual cycle of neighbourhood and civic wealth creation, collective governance frameworks, and ongoing neighbourhood-led granting pool.

Our investment ask places financial capital as a key enabler of unlocking this work moving it out of financial markets and into communities directly, situating it equally alongside multiple capitals that nurture and sustain neighbourhood work. Financial capital that is distributive-by-design, regenerative and reparative is sought, from investors who seek to work alongside a team, wider ecosystem and vibrant neighbourhood to meet this moment in time, and the challenges we collectively face, with hope, dignity, honesty and hands-on practice in place.

In particular, we have developed a range of next generation possibilities by modelling proposals for Real Impact Investing, Real World Endowments, and Multi-Capital Accounting alongside Emily Harris and Indy Johar at Dark Matter Labs. If you are seriously interested in taking these questions, possibilities and work forward together with bold investment and re-distribution of wealth, reach out to us for access to the full Neighbourhood Public Square proposal.

Additional Materials

Full Endowing The Future Chapter.pdf — March 2024

Full Endowing The Future Diagram— March 2024

↗ 3ºC Neighbourhood Case Studies — Coming Soon

↗ Ladywood Climate Study — Coming Soon

Wider Proposal

Endowing the Future is a chapter of the Neighbourhood Public Square proposal co-authored and co-built by CIVIC SQUARE, alongside named partners, collaborators and neighbours, in March 2024.

Further chapters of the Neighbourhood Public Square proposal will be shared over the next few months. These include:

↗ 01 | An Invitation
↗ 02 | Key Principles
03 | 3ºC Neighbourhood
↗ 04 | Ladywood Climate Study
↗ 05 | Doughnut As A Compass
↗ 06 | Our Track Record
↗ 07 | Physical Infrastructure Design
↗ 08 | Radical Precedents
↗ 10 | Investment Ask
↗ 11 | Team & Governance
↗ 12 | Call To Action

Get Involved

Material Matter[s] Skills For Transition Learning Journey
29th May — 5th September 2024
Applications Now Open

Site As A Classroom Launch
28th — 30th May 2024

Timber Festival
5th — 7th July 2024

The B16 Lunch
7th — 8th September 2024

This article is proudly co-authored together with Dark Matter Labs, with our particular thanks extended to the following people:

Text

  • Indy Johar
  • Emma Pfeiffer
  • Annette Dhami
  • Joost Beunderman
  • Emily Harris

Diagrams

  • Vlad Afanasiev
  • Eunji Kang

We also give our deep gratitude for the following additional contributors:

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CIVIC SQUARE
Neighbourhood Public Square

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