When was the last time you had a conversation that mattered?

Mary Stevens from Collaborate | Unusual Suspects Festival 2017

When was the last time you had a proper conversation about the things that really matter to you — in your life, in your community — with someone new? Many of us would struggle to remember. Indeed, even with our friends, family and neighbours we often stick to safe ground, with the result that views from all sides go unchallenged.

The Unusual Suspects festival, which took place last week in London, has at its core the idea of taking us out of our comfort zone. Based on an idea developed by Collaborate, SIX (Social Innovation Exchange) and the Gulbenkian Foundation, the festival is now in its fourth year. In returning to London after Glasgow and Belfast, one year on from the Brexit referendum, the festival aimed to prompt fresh perspectives on some of London’s most pressing challenges.

Richard de Domenici is an artist whose work exemplifies the Unusual Suspects concept. At the launch event, expertly curated by our friends at SIX and hosted by Only Connect, Richard gave a short presentation about his #shedyourfears project. It’s a simple but powerful idea: an ordinary shed, converted into a ‘non-denominational, non-hierarchical booth into which two people from different backgrounds get to confess their fears to each other’. And hopefully, by sharing, to transcend them.

The shed was launched as part of Who Are We? at Tate Modern, and will be touring this summer. Richard’s vision is to take the shed out of the gallery and into the high street, to prompt meaningful conversations about the future in the ‘cultural cold spots’ (the Arts Council’s words, not his) that often correspond to the areas also overlooked by both public and social investment and where levels of support for Brexit were highest.

Gently nudged on by free tea and biscuits (a community engagement technique we’re fond of too) #shedyourfears has inspired hundreds of conversations that might otherwise never have happened. And (minus the shed) it worked on the night too: Richard’s intervention prompted us all to talk to our neighbours over dinner about our hopes, dreams and fears. In my case that meant learning about a sustainable vision for the future of food growing in Barcelona, and in turn sharing my hopes for the kind of world my daughter might grow up in. And there were also positive lessons for the kind of transformation that happens when communities mobilise together, from the #shevotes campaign, that is estimated to have reached 30 million women in just two weeks before the General Election, to citizen power in South Korea.

And yet, while these conversations were taking place, on the other side of London firefighters were still tackling the blaze that had broken out at Grenfell Tower. Connections were being made: the young people from Only Connect who catered for Wednesday’s meal, all with recent experience of the criminal justice system, would all be getting up the next morning to provide meals for the affected families in a community centre in West London. But taking part in a workshop hosted by Forum for the Future as part of their Civil Society Futures work on Friday morning in the shadow of the Barbican’s high-rise luxury flats, it was hard to escape the conclusion that conversations are only ever an opener, and that social change needs more than dialogue and personal empowerment. Or rather, that our starting point needs to be a much more honest recognition of the distribution of power between communities and how some voices, however articulate, organised and urgent can go wilfully unheard in our society until it’s too late. Just as ‘hard-to-reach’ sometimes best describes not target communities but the institutions trying to do the reaching, perhaps our suspects are only ‘unusual’ if we — the whole community of social entrepreneurs and innovators — are not getting stuck in enough.