Innovating Redbridge: What is the new role of local government?

May 29, 2018   By Abigail Gilbert, Policy and Projects Officer, London Borough of Redbridge

Is the state still essentially a convenor of service provision – whether in house or indirectly delivered? Or does the future demand a different model altogether, which involves a more open democratic engagement, involving citizens, civil society and businesses who are empowered to collectively design the future for their community? If it’s the former, this entails business largely as usual – albeit with efficiency gains grasped where possible. If it’s the latter – what does this actually mean in practice?

Local authorities across the country – and cities across the world – are finding their own ways to build the social networks which characterise urban transformation and allow cities to thrive in the context of a tired and flailing global economy. In Redbridge, we want to make this process as ‘outside in’ as possible – letting what defines “good” place-making come from our residents. Whence came Innovating Redbridge.

The model (as first envisaged) was this: two weeks of events, organised with, by and for residents to discuss various topics around a given theme: the first being ‘neighbourhoods’. From these, in week three, ‘community squads’ would form and come together to reflect on what was learned and define the problems to be tackled. In the last week, those squads, and any others who could be part of generating that change or intervention, would co-design solutions to be built in the short, medium or long term. At best, we would be building social movements. At the least, we’d be creating spaces for new, open-ended conversations with our residents about tomorrow’s places.

Of course, life is never as clear cut as the Powerpoint diagrams we use to plan it. But broadly speaking, this did indeed happen – and some amazing things along with it. Highlights of the nine events included the gathering of a group of our boroughs’ most inspiring women to talk about the relationship between womanhood, place and mobilising social action over crowd-sourced, home-cooked food. In a session on creating the conditions for creativity, a software designer and artist delivered a practical workshop which highlighted the power of compassionate communication and its importance in bringing together our diverse communities – ethnic and professional. Early on, we were schooled in how important social innovation, rather than technical innovation, is in transforming place and community life. But this didn’t stop us probing what radical technologies like Blockchain might mean for future democracy, and how we can go passed ‘representation’ to deliver more genuinely participatory governance.

Some benefits were immediately tangible. At the Dragons Den event, an aspiring local social entrepreneur met a future mentor from successful social enterprise Primal Roots. One of our own councillors has since joined the network of practitioners. Kings College London’s VOLT Project are working with to test their new system of Liquid Democracy. A local chef – new to the borough – discovered our local food bank at the Women Inspiring Social Action event and has offered to help run healthy cooking classes.

Other opportunities that emerged from the conversations were plentiful, wide reaching, and ambitious. Conscious of resource, we prioritised our convening, enabling efforts where there were already coalitions of interested participants. So far this has led to three pilots of entirely new models of social action. The first, responding to the opportunity of better treating our older residents as community assets, is an intergenerational design council at South Park Primary School. This will bring together the youngest and wisest residents of South Ilford, local artists and scientists to develop creative solutions to whatever they deem to be their biggest challenges.

The second is a Community Think Tank, each of which will focus on different topics – the first set to be on mental health. Inspired by the constructive conversation at the Dragons Den event, this idea came from a board member of Barkingside 21 who thinks more space needs to be made for residents to come together and share ideas about what they can do, rather than complain about what the council aren’t doing. The plan is for each event to be sponsored by the local business community, and draw in diverse attendance by leafleting and working with local faith groups.
Lastly, we are planning a hackathon like no other. For this, communities will hatch plans for a complete overhaul of a patch of publicly-owned green space – an unloved slither, wedge or corner of undevelopable but infinitely valuable (in the right hands, with the right idea) yet to be made, Place.

This responds to the clear theme emerging from the events: social change comes from allowing more play, rather than games. This means Community Think Tanks as much as Competitive Dialogue procurement models. It means bring a dish networking lunches as much as public consultations. It means if we want creativity, we have to transform the rules of engagement.

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