Cooperative by Design

9 min readMay 28, 2020

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen all the time, so how can we help people, organisations and communities not only cope but influence the change around them? We start with this way of thinking, because I feel it creates a space for different disciplines and philosophies to work together, from service design to strategy, from behavioural insights to community development, from organisational change to…systems change.

For anyone who hasn’t been to Lambeth, you may have seen the headlines or heard the rumours about what it’s like to live there. People say it’s both rough and family friendly, up and coming and past its prime, gritty and dull.

But what people say is only the tip of the iceberg of the culture wherever you are, whether that’s an organisation or a local area. Start by understanding the culture of the environment you’re in, before writing the plan of what you’re going to do.

But in any organisation or community, while there is culture, there are also people. These people aren’t static and will be influenced not just by the culture you’re trying to understand by other cultures too, the place they live or work in, the channels they use to inform themselves, the people they know, as well as the wider political, economic, social and technological trends.

While individuals influence and are affected by the cultures they inhabit, they also interact with others. Understanding the capabilities for collaboration is as much about people’s relationship to others and the culture around them, as their individual values, perceptions and experiences.

But what they feel and think about their experience of living in a neighbourhood and interacting with others is shaped by values that are deep-rooted in the environment and networks they’ve been brought up in. While every human has needs which flow all the way from needs like food, water and sleep to creativity and problem solving, we give them different levels of importance. While a settler is much more focused on security and traditional networks, like families and neighbours, a pioneer will prefer creativity and the ability to make new connections. As such, when we want to support collaboration, it’s important we don’t make the assumption that will want to work together in ways which we feel comfortable with. Even if in Lambeth, there are proportionally more pioneers than the national average, we need to understand what values different communities possess…but also share if people are to want to collaborate.

People’s values and the culture is shaped by the environment and infrastructure around them. There are societies and welfare systems which better meet people’s basic needs like food, security and mobility than others. That’s the same in a local area like Lambeth, where there is a visible culture and supporting infrastructure that people in the community are developing from @remakery who reuse rubbish to develop new products, @brixtonenergy who support ways to access community-based renewable energy, @brixtonpound which encourages people to spend locally to @ediblelambeth, which helps connect activities that grow fruit and vegetables.

Every community, every society needs to look beyond its borders to learn from how others are creating different ways of collaborating. The collaborative economy to set to grow exponentially and there are several scenarios about how it can grasp the opportunities the future might bring. What does this mean for the resources people need to make a living? What does this mean for the policies we can develop with people to facilitate this?

The government has just announced that it will enable councils to use the proceeds from all of its business rates, the taxes that business give to us. How can we use that to support collaborative economies? Should we use our social value principles to encourage collaborative economies that achieve specific outcomes — like the environment, work or care? How do we make sense of the different forms that business takes?

What does this mean for a local council when we have transnational companies like Airbnb or Uber whom many people use in our local area? How can we understand that better — through the data they’ve got? How do we create infrastructure that helps local collaborative economies use data and technology to scale out what they do? Do we want to support collaborative economies in every neighbourhood or help grow existing ones to become the next Airbnb or BlaBlaCar? Do we want to provide our own assets to be used by collaborative economies? Do we want to work with people to develop collaborative economies or just support or commission them? How could we support people to make the best use of these resources? How do we involve them in this debate?

In the meantime however, people are finding it more difficult to live and act together than before, with less people feel like they belong to their neighbourhood, less people who think their neighbours help each other and less people who want to collaborate to improve their neighbourhood.

That’s why we need to start with the issues that people want us to tackle, but making sure the ways we do that help people grow strong and supportive communities to tackle issues and take greater responsibility, that we address the causes of problems rather than their consequences and that we continue to protect those who need it most.

If those outcomes can help us focus our resources and how we influence the other actors helping meet these needs, how we can help people and communities build their resilience on a day to day basis.

If those outcomes can help us focus our resources and how we influence the other actors helping meet these needs, how we can help people and communities build their resilience on a day to day basis.

We need to understand that people have different capabilities and will be in different situations at particular moments of their life. Working with people isn’t a generic way of doing things — between a faceless council and a random member of the public on a generic issue. The contexts in which council officers and residents will come into contact will differ. Some because the officer wants to engage a particular community or type of user. Some because a person wants to engage a particular service. Others because they have been referred by a GP or a school. Or because there is a structured process of engagement. Either way, we need to recognise the context and work out together the best way of developing a common activity or outcome.

But these common activities can’t just be one off. We need to develop pathways that help people — be they local residents, council officers or others — develop resilient relationships with each other.

Those pathways need to be supported by infrastructure that builds on existing resources and cultural practices within that community.

However, we need to be mindful that our organisations, economies and communities are subject to wider external factors — government policies, market forces, as well as social and technological trends. That’s why we try and help people experience and practise change together, change that they can initiate while learning methods to do so, from programmes we run such as @madeinlambeth or that other local organisations do, like the Lambeth U Lab, by @hubbrixton.

Connecting these methods that learn from others to kickstart change with everyday practices that everyone can relate to and already exist in the neighbourhood helps people take part in activities that bridge communities and support people developing these activities to turn them into more sustainable projects, whatever form they take…be that an informal group or even a cooperative.

We know that there are situations which are more contrived, where we need to identify the leverage points and negotiate with the people and institutions which have the greatest influence in the system. The Lambeth Living Well Collaborative turns people’s everyday motivations into principles for collaboration not just between the user of a council service and the council, but with every service that person needs to interact with. It also creates the space for people considered as “users” to become “providers” of support, not in an institutionalised way, but supporting their peers to help each other develop better mental health.

When you have different assets with different ways of doing and initiated by different parts of the community — from local residents to the council via community groups of businesses, finding ways to connect them helps create a joint awareness by each of what other people are doing. Too often, people duplicate other people’s work either because they don’t what’s going on or they feel the need to compete. Supporting the infrastructure that connects different cultures of collaboration is about helping them become “neighbours”, it’s also about making people who take part in one activity find out about another, be that makers discovering a growing initiative walking through the polytunnel to get to their co-working space, or a street food shop discovering young talent at a jobs fair in the event space.

To go back to the opportunities the future can bring, we know that a borough like Lambeth has always experienced new communities and new influences from people arriving in the SS Windrush to the Portuguese settling in Stockwell. If we can attract people with different skills to work with our local communities, and build relationships with those organisations developing that next generation, we can make Lambeth even more of a space where people come for its cooperative culture.




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese