Just over 2 years ago I moved back here to my hometown, Birmingham after doing 6 months in Manchester, a Masters student ready to pursue my final research project and looking for an opportunity to do so with an organisation. Having followed the #epicbrum campaign, I landed at Impact Hub Birmingham right in the thick of the inspiring startup phase, just after the kickstarter goal had been smashed and the team was figuring out how to harness all the energy and excitement that had been generated into transforming this old dusty building into the beautiful space we know and love today.

Although I had pledged my £10, and listened to the founding team talk with real eloquence about the city and the challenges it faces in way that I really could relate to, at this point, I honestly didn’t feel there was much more I could offer to being a part of this amazing story. In fact, I would at times intentionally opt out of being around, but there was something different about the culture of Impact Hub Birmingham, that was different to anything I have experienced before. This culture is one of the many things that compelled me to stick around this long at Impact Hub and as time progressed, I’ve learned how this culture stems from a particular paradigm, one that is manifesting in various forms and locations, transforming communities and challenging traditional ways of organising around the country and the world.

Experiencing Participatory Culture

I remember a time during Impact Hub Birmingham’s Opening Festival ‘Demo B’ taking a couple of much-needed breaks at the peak of my research project to create some soft furnishings with local designer/maker Allison Sadler and to build some open desk furniture. I really enjoy the satisfaction of making things but I don’t always make the time, or have access to resources, spaces or people to create things with. This was a welcome break from my day to day work to do something for a short period of time, produce something tangible (a cushion) that contributed to something much bigger and more intangible (a better Birmingham), cathartic release, and a safe space for altruism.

I can account for numerous occasions in my time being a part of this community whereby these sorts of opportunities have arisen, enriching my life and the lives of many others. Each occasion has been packed full of meaning for many different reasons, enabling me to go on and do a better job of dealing with the more difficult things that many would deem more important and serious, for example, my master’s thesis at the time. Moreover, they have enabled me to build density of networks that have helped me to go on and build other things.

Now I admit, that the sorts of experiences and the exchanges of value I have described here may seem a bit trivial when we consider the huge systemic challenges we are facing, but there are a number of places that are recognising and demonstrating the role that participatory culture can play at a systems level and at scale. In the recent article, George Monbiot discusses the many examples of these sorts of spaces across the country, how these sorts of initiatives begin and the potential they have to regenerate the social fabric necessary for communities to heal themselves and foster the cultures that make politics relevant to people again. In this article, George also refers to the work of participatory city in the London borough of Lambeth. Participatory City ambitiously aims to transform a place into a large Demonstration Neighbourhood – of around 200,00 to 300,000 residents – that will become a model for wellbeing, sustainability and equality. It is a leading example of participatory culture and the models for catalysing and organising larger-scale movements.

I have come to recognise the intentionality behind such projects and initiatives and learning more about the how they are driven by the values and behaviours of both the people who convene and participate in them. Values such as openness, curiosity, sharing, reciprocity and kindness to name a few.

Contagion has led to more of this work being pioneered in areas closer to home. Next week in Dudley there will be a 3-day festival taking place in Dudley called Do-Fest, packed full of participatory projects and activities which demonstrate the power of citizens coming together and doing. I recommend coming along (Mon 13 – Wed 15 March) if you want to experience some of the things I’ve described in this blog. Visit the website to find out more and sign up http://do-fest.uk