We have a while to wait before time can provide us with better objective perspectives to fully recognise just how significant the ways in which we live and work shifted during the COVID pandemic. The early clamour for normality, or the subsequent concept of a ‘new normal’ faded over the years of change in which we have begun to address our traumas and losses, realisations and resiliences which continue to shape how we think about our environment, societies and economies.
As individuals, many of us were isolated, affected and even bereaved. We also found incredible kindness in neighbours that we were aware of living in our area, but knew precious little about. Many of us suddenly switched from spending our daytimes at work to spending all of our time where we lived, reflecting on our built environment and appreciating our streets with less pollution, noise and haste. The activities in our neighbourhoods and communities that keep the social fabric together frayed, while at the same time we found new ways to (safely) come together. We had time to consider our purpose and what we want our one life’s daily labours to create. Businesses went bust, others reinvented themselves, and others still grew through the cracks, finding more relevant and meaningful paths. Without global air travel, and the sight of periodically empty shelves in supermarkets and endless news cycles of how other nearby cities and faraway countries were all coping with the same problems, today we are experiencing a crucial environmental awakening and understanding that we’re all in this together.
As a resident of London for almost half my life, and having grown up in Hartlepool, I am acutely aware that towns and cities everywhere could benefit from the resources, thinking, ideas and action that the Designing London’s Recovery programme supports. I hope that my insights into this programme and the links below to other reports can be learned from, adapted and adopted.
The Programme: Mission and Systems-Driven Innovation
In 2022 it has been my honour to be involved with Designing London’s Recovery. The Greater London Authority and the Design Council secured LEAP funding to pursue ‘mission-driven recovery’: Supporting a cohort of organisations to step forward boldly in a collective and systems-changing effort to move the needle on city-level missions.
As Charles Leadbeater describes in his opening address for the Making The Shift Learning Festival, systems thinking is a way to leverage the many disparate social innovation efforts struggling to scale, or overcome the common phase of compromising to fit into systems that dilute purpose, effectiveness and obstruct the drive to achieve a bigger and more socially, environmentally or economically valuable mission. Ideas cannot become innovations if they can’t survive the existing context, but what if such ideas, however initially small, shifted how our systems worked to re-align with the broader purposes they envisage?
The Design Council has published its Systemic Design Framework and Systems Shifting Design Report, which are timely narratives to exploring how we need to work in a split-screen way: How focusing on the services we offer and the efforts in running and evolving them day-to-day, and at the same time looking to the long term and the potential to influence and shift a whole system is the key to achieving much bigger picture missions and objectives.
The close involvement of CUSSH and UCL (where thought leader on the subject Mariana Mazzucato is Professor of Economics of Innovation and Public Value) provided an evidence-based underpinning of the programme, and explored how the ideas and initiatives described below can have a ripple effect to shift how our systems are aligned to serve their purpose more effectively.
These Recovery Missions and supported organisations are detailed here and can be summarised as:
A Green New Deal – To tackle the climate and ecological emergencies and improve air quality by doubling the size of London’s green economy by 2030 to accelerate job creation for all.
Good Work for All – To support Londoners into good jobs with a focus on sectors key to London’s recovery.
High Streets for All – To deliver enhanced public spaces and exciting new uses for underused high street buildings in every Borough by 2025, working with London’s diverse communities.
Building Strong Communities – That by 2025, all Londoners will have access to a community hub ensuring they can volunteer, get support and build strong community networks
Supporting the Teams
With fellow Design Council Experts Maayan Ashkenazi, Nat Hunter and Tom Wynne-Morgan we supported the core Design Council team in developing aspects of the programme such as anchoring online workshops in mission-driven and systemic thinking, and provided regular mentoring to the organisations within each mission. My charge was Building Strong Communities, which consisted of:
Supporting the development of their offer of ‘fringe farming’ and expanding access to derelict and disused land to support agroecological horticultural food growers in London. Reframing London’s land usage by building a triple-bottom-line case and creating a partnership service offering to for landowners, food growers and local authorities to transform London into a sustainable ‘market garden city’ – creating green jobs and building communities through the provision of good quality, locally grown and culturally appropriate food.
University of Roehampton
Urban university campuses are often islands of activity with precious few connections to nearby neighbourhoods. Roehampton bridged the gap between the University campus and nearby housing estates by creating sustainable rolling programmes of peer-to-peer, practical and creative arts projects, including a physical ‘platform’ – a mobile events unit that physically meanders through the area, attracting and creating cultural happenings. Roehampton residents can learn and teach new things, gain confidence, improve their physical and mental health, build social and professional networks, create new services, products, works of art and forms of celebration, leading to the development of new micro-businesses and social enterprises. The project is an anchor point for residents who will have access to university resources, creating a more interconnective and thriving community.
With an academic appreciation of the nuances of the problematic phrase ‘Ethnic Food Shops,’ the team created a beautiful living map, digital storytelling platform and participatory narrative of the diversity of an area. It enables community inclusion and cohesion in the post-pandemic recovery by promoting migrant labour inclusion and supporting cultural exchange of community kitchens, recipes, and food preparation workshops.
Leveraging the Oracy method of facilitating discussion to develop an individual’s ability to express themselves, the project gives Londoners a safe space to facilitate conversations over food, enabling them to hear from each other, creating empathy and a better understanding of London’s diverse communities. Its aims are to break generational, economic, social, and cultural divisions by delivering a series of fun monthly events facilitating conversations and connections between individuals otherwise unlikely to meet.
Community of Practice: Ensuring Formal and Informal Learning and Doing
Core to this work was creating a community of practice as much as a programme of support: To foster cross-sector and multi-organisational connections and momentum to effect larger-scale change and demonstrate the ways forward at a systems and policy level.
The programme of workshops provided an opportunity to gain exposure to systems thinking, encourage connections between the initiatives and to help teams zoom out from their day-to-day running of their initiatives and consider how their innovations could agitate shifts in the systems that they fit into.
A balance of formal and informal interaction is vital to the building and sustainability of a community of practice. As we have shifted much of our working day to remote working, the online workshops were designed to focus on the more formal sharing of knowledge and encouraging thinking and application of new methods, tools and perspectives.
Mentoring sessions were valuable to each team in different ways. For some organisations who were running fast and had a clear plan, mentoring sessions could provide a sounding board and sense-check for activity. For others, the regular sessions were a time for convening otherwise disparate and physically distant team members: As I have found over the years in my consultancy, innovation programmes are often an opportunity to catch up with colleagues, understand different perspectives and update and align thinking. For others still, mentoring sessions could provide milestones and gateways for organising next steps, with advice and encouragement to look further down the line and to think more strategically.
Exhibiting as Catalyst for Clarity
For many, the exhibition of each team’s projects at the V&A museum was a first opportunity to meet other teams in person, to see eye to eye with mentors and connect with the Greater London Authority, CUSSH and Design Council teams. Here, in-person and informal conversations had a great value in improving ongoing communication and understanding between groups and individuals.
The panel discussion at the V&A chaired by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino was excellent, and provided some big-picture oxygen, covering the widening gap between citizens and the policies and processes that shape our cities and lives, the opportunities in convening communities around good questions, creating agency for young people to affect change and agitating for creativity and humanity in leadership roles.
The process of pulling together a coherent narrative for each of the teams was most valuable to the teams who may have had more difficulty in defining, articulating and visualising what they did: By creating films, brochures, exhibition stalls and other elements for the physical show, teams were pushed to consolidate not just what they had, but to think objectively about how they communicated their offer and trajectory.
Reflections on Blended Learning, Tailoring Support and Co-Creating Programmes
Celebrating The Work
The final main session of the programme was an online show and tell, which presented each team’s work to the wider cohort and a panel of experts who provided advice, connections and critique. Being online made the session incredibly efficient, with each team speeding through their presentations in around five minutes. Though this is a valuable exercise in itself, this was a moment in the programme where the balance between the programme serving the participants and participants serving the programme felt inverted. Teams that were more organised and running effectively had less to gain than teams who benefitted from clarifying their core messaging.
The final session could have provided more value as a series of events to allow more time for each team to unpack their ideas and discuss. Were they to be held as in-person events, with networking and more opportunities to follow up on the leads provided, they would have provided more value to teams and another opportunity to forge connections between one another and the guest experts and organisations involved. The budget of the programme was a limiting factor in this, but it felt like an easy fall-back to organise online sessions.
Tailoring Support: Co-Creating a Programme’s Process and Purpose
The programme provided a variety of support and reflection channels and events, to cater for where different organisations were and how different organisations and individuals best learn and do. But this is still a provider-participant dynamic, with a top-down structure and offer based on the resources of the delivering organisations. The varying value of mentoring sessions, workshops and showcases to where different teams were in their development highlights a need for more tailored and responsive programmes.
By involving participating teams in the earlier stages of planning, or by giving each team a budget to spread across different types of support in proportion to what they felt would be most effective, they may have found that the programme was better designed and evolved around their individual needs. This is a universal challenge, whether it is between participants and a programme, citizens and their government, customers and a service, staff members and their organisation. Co-creating a flexible, democratic structure from the very beginning based on individual purposes and directions is messier and harder to plan, but more effective. By more actively appreciating the individual characteristics, objectives and missions of each team in the shaping of the overall programme, the programme imbues in its DNA the notion that the system (administering a programme) should be evolved, improved and shifted by the efforts within it.