Learning lessons en route

noelito
6 min readSep 13

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Secret Artist, Kentish Town

When I was at Camden, we brought people together to develop a vision for the future and a call to action. The climate crisis is an issue that affects all of us where we all have a role to play.

As a result, Camden developed a Citizens’ Assembly on the Climate Crisis which brought together residents to develop 17 proposals to tackle this issue. One of these proposals was how we mobilise communities at a neighbourhood level to be greener. Below is my personal story of the lessons I learned.

1. Go where the energy is and fuel it

Working with the energy of the community where they proposed to develop a popup space to run local activities to tackle this issue. I quickly connected with them to work out how we make this happen together. I developed a mission statement that the space would help people take part in, run & grow activities that mobilise people to tackle the climate crisis, as well as a set of outcomes, activities & measures of success.

I developed these as a “user journey” from the space benefiting people who pop into the space out of curiosity to developing projects with others that directly improve the environment. These outcomes were, that people become more aware and involved in actions to tackle the climate crisis, people feel more connected as a result of meeting others in the space, activities helping tackle the climate crisis in the space increase their reach & impact, new projects are developed between people to tackle the climate crisis and relationships are strengthened between groups tackling the climate crisis. This journey helped people understand how they could get involved and helped staff & partners support people and increase their participation as a result of taking part in an activity. I then organised a workshop. Most importantly it ensured we focused our efforts as much on the space & activities making everyone feel like they could contribute as it was on getting people to develop projects together that have an impact on the ground.

2. Create a shared sense of urgency and purpose

As we were given a month to set up the space, I persuaded different people not only in my team but across the organisation to help make this happen, from mobilising local groups, facilitating the co-design, finding a space and fitting it out to make it usable, promoting the activities to people and volunteering to host the space. As this project hadn’t been planned, I needed to convince people (and their managers!) to dedicate their time above their day jobs, by showing how important their contribution was, how we would value their expertise but also stretch the art of the possible and how fulfilling this could be for them to work in a more agile and collaborative way. Creating this shared sense of urgency and purpose helped achieve this, as well as agile innovative ways of working like weekly (and sometimes daily) sprints, being flexible in inviting people to contribute their expertise only when we needed them and induction sessions for people hosting the space.

3. Help people find and use their skills together

We also created a shared sense of purpose & urgency when mobilising the local neighbourhood, by not only inviting them to shape the space and ideas but also bringing their skills, resources & connections to the table in a very tangible and fulfilling way. In practice, we got offers of help from all parts of the community — from people making local furniture, children & artists to decorate the space, people designing ways to bring the walls to life, organisations to use their communications channels to spread the word to businesses donating everything from food to benches. To make the best use of people’s time, we had an introductory co-design session and then targeted sessions on specific themes, getting different people to lead these, so there could be collective ownership. To make sure this wasn’t a one-off, we’ve got weekly “test & learn sessions” which are open to anyone to share what has gone well, what we need to improve now and what we could do differently in the future. Most importantly, we get people to pledge what they will do themselves to improve the space and activities.

4. Curate to be inclusive and to grow impact

To make sure the programme of activities was both creative, open and focused on the outcomes, we have worked with local communities to programme a mix of activities that are easy to take part in and help people become more sustainable (from swapping & repairing clothes to cooking food together), activities that help take forward proposals from the Citizens Assembly (from developing creative ways to campaign on the climate crisis to going solar), to activities that help people grow & develop projects to tackle the climate crisis (through weekly Saturday hackathons as well as activities that help develop projects in particular ways, like storytelling, community mapping, craftivism). I wanted to make this as inclusive as possible, both in terms of diversity of background and thinking, so I did a call out to colleagues and my networks outside Camden who have strong relationships with communities from different cultures and groups who sometimes feel excluded from traditional community activities (like children, carers, single parent families) to run sessions (from campaigning in an intersectional way to carers circles).

5. Focus on principles & values over outcomes to help you adjust

I knew with experiments, that when you test quickly, it can be difficult to know how to respond to new opportunities or even issues we hadn’t thought of. So we got people to develop principles for the space that became the litmus test for any issue we hadn’t anticipated. It’s helped everyone understand how we make decisions and it’s helped people hold us to account for decisions I make. It’s helped us learn how we decide what is duty of care to residents and what bureaucracy we can challenge. It’s helped us and particularly me make the best of people’s skills & time. I’ve adjusted people’s roles and responsibilities as we were clearer about what was needed and what different skills people had, giving them leadership opportunities that got them working quickly and thinking creatively about their role (and creating products & toolkits that can be used in other projects). By also sensing what skills people in the community had and what they wanted to do, I’ve also been able to enable local people to takea leadership role in the space right from the start, so it wasn’t council-run.

6. Work out in the open to drive short and long-term impact

When I took this project on, it was located in one team. I knew that engagement isn’t sufficient on its own unless it’s rooted in a common cause people can get excited and mobilised around, and unless it’s rooted in a programme that has the infrastructure to take the outcomes forward. So I brought in our sustainability and neighbourhoods team right from the start and throughout — ensuring that what was created in the space could be connected to the local networks of the neighbourhood and of the environmental world and that the activities, physical resources and thinking in the space could find a new home in our neighbourhoods space after the experiment.

As a result of making sure we reached out to people with strong relationships in different communities, we have got hundreds of people taking part in activities, who’ve made new connections with people they haven’t met before. As we’ve created mechanisms to help people work together in tangible & creative ways, we have projects which could have a significant impact and are scalable, from developing a school programme to building a climate-resilient estate, which all have teams of people working on them, with actionable deliverables.

What I’ve learnt is that if you want to focus on the short & long term at the same time while you’re working at pace means you have to think & work out in the open, so you’re showing why you’re doing what you’re doing and creating seeds of ideas that people can build on and calls to action that people can respond to, which we’ve done through blogging, tweeting, word of mouth and using different media, and mobilising our networks within & outside of the borough. This has attracted people to want to run activities, develop Think & Do in their own areas/organisations and support the projects. Think & Do wasn’t a project devised & run by the council or by a community group, it’s a collaborative team with people from different organisations & walks of life!

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noelito

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