Community engagement needs radical re-design. All too often decision-making is top-down and decision makers do not adequately engage, deeming ‘community engagement’ a passive exercise. Communities are often only invited to comment on decisions which have already been made. This leaves isolated and excluded communities feeling even more powerless, adding to the dislocation between politicians and the electorate. Starting life in April 2013, the Productive Margins: Regulating for Engagement research programme is a co-production venture comprising community organisations and social enterprises in Bristol and South Wales and academics from the University of Bristol and Cardiff University. A five year project, the aim is to co-produce new forms of engagement in decision-making, not just across politics and policy but also the arts.
This new and exciting programme of research asks:
- What happens when diverse communities and academics come together to re-shape engagement and work creatively with ideas that run through society, law, history and art?
- Can the findings of this research help release creativity, knowledge and the passions within parts of society often on the margins of decision-making and power, to co-produce new forms of engagement and decision-making?
The collaboration between research teams (Bristol/Cardiff University) and community organisations and social enterprises in Bristol and post-industrial South Wales will focus on three main themes:
- Mobilising neighbourhoods: understanding how neighbourhoods can become bridges to better engagement with regulators, policy-makers and the business world
- Harnessing digital space: experimenting with websites and social media to create on-line opportunities for communities to access expertise and develop new skills to engage in policy-making and politics
- Spaces for dissent: identify how new understandings and ways of working emerge when communities resist authority; exploring if and how these practices create new forms of engagement.
The Productive Communities Research Forum will be set up where academic and communities will come together to determine the research agenda and design research that arises from everyday life rather than the interests of powerful institutions of university researchers. Through a website and other social media spaces will be created where idea about community needs and different ways of engaging can be discussed, explored and acted upon. Through community-based festivals ideas will be shared with a wider audience of communities, policy makers and businesses.
Heads of the Valleys
South Wales valley communities have a history of distinctive identities relating to geography and economic history; narrowly tapering valleys are cut off from each other by mountains and there is a clear historic affiliation to workplaces based on the extraction of coal, iron and steel, and other forms of manufacturing. Though timing and speed may differ, the experience of deindustrialisation following the closure of mines and steelworks is common to all communities in the valley regions and many communities are subsequently amongst the most economically deprived in Wales. Deindustrialisation was accompanied by the disintegration of institutional forms of organisation such as trade unions, local labour parties, miners’ institutes, and chapels that forged forms of solidarity and mobilisation in workplaces and communities. These forms of organisation had enabled people in the valleys to maintain a sense of identity and interests across the South Wales valleys, and provided bottom-up forms of regulation in relation to economic activity and wider social and cultural controls.
All this indicates a need for new forms of engagement and coalition to ensure that the Welsh Government’s Communities First programme commitment to the co-production of services and policy is rooted in the knowledge, experiences and aspirations of communities themselves. The purpose of the project is to develop methods of engagement which will mobilise the collective knowledge, resources, and capabilities of communities. Specifically, the project involves working with young people in North Merthyr Tydfil in the South Wales valleys to map their experiences, perceptions, and concerns around issues of safety, wellbeing, and space.
During the project, the research team will work with young people using a qualitative Geographical Information System (GIS) platform which has previously been employed to map perceptions of crime and safety in a number of UK areas. This will be carried out along with using other creative methodologies such as filmmaking, photography, and other creative activities with young people and local performing and/or visual artists. The intention is to allow young people to address authorities with the power to deliver change. It aims to enable young people collectively to the define spaces where they feel secure and insecure in their neighbourhoods, define and articulate their needs to public officials and third sector agencies, and engage in a deliberative process to design new modes of provision. The project will facilitate young peoples’ involvement in the research process and encourage alternative modes of expression. The idea is to cultivate a research project co-produced by academic and community partners and to support, motivate, and empower young people to speak out about the barriers they encounter in participating as full public citizens.