What contribution can university-community collaborations make to the creation of flourishing cities?
This summer, the Connected Communities Programme and Urban Living Pilots have organised a two-day event exploring innovative partnerships between universities and civil society organisations engaged in co-creating, re-inventing and improving life in the city and its surroundings.
The event opened with an inspiring presentation by Professor Keri Facer, outlining key directions, challenges and research priorities of the two programmes and a wider international context of urban living research and living labs initiatives. A range of common themes and questions included:
- How to create environmentally sustainable cities?
- How can citizens and civil society be empowered to create people-centred urban change?
- What can be done to address exclusion, loneliness, isolation and disadvantage?
- What needs to be done to create healthy cities?
- What is the role of heritage and history in regeneration and city futures?
The key aim of the event was to better understand the ways in which co-produced research between universities and communities helps create flourishing cities, engaged citizens and sustainable urban environment. Keeping in mind some of the the lessons from the Connected Communities work and drawing on a wide range of university-community projects, participants explored the changing role of universities and communities in becoming vital partners of city governance in co-creating new approaches to managing and running cities.
These and many other themes and approaches featured in discussions and presentations throughout the event. Following a set of visually-engaging and analytically-impressive Pecha Kucha presentations, roundtable discussions brought together academics, community partners and artists. These informative and interactive sessions explored challenges and opportunities influencing co-produced research and methodologies. Subjects ranged from cultural participation (Understanding Everyday Participation) and discussions about energy (Stories of Change) to harnessing the power of local communities to transform lives beyond their localities and bring policymakers out of their silos (Productive Margins); from reflecting on lived experiences of people in housing regeneration projects (Imagine) to focusing on collaborative opportunities and citizen-led innovation in the face of austerity (Urban Living Pilots).
This conference made me more positive about the mix of people being really important to solve key questions in cities and communities. I was delighted to be able to bring two teams who themselves got a lot out of the event. One of my community partners said, ‘I felt at home here’. The teams were welcomed in a very positive way (Kate Pahl, University of Sheffield)
Thematic sessions, running in parallel with roundtable discussions, featured innovative case studies to illustrate collaborative approaches to urban living. A session on citizen-centric services and urban governance included a presentation by the Urban Living Birmingham on bottom-up end user innovation within public services and a paper on co-creating strategies for the smart and sustainable urban Reading 2050. The two other talks explored co-designing processes of the York City Environment Observatory and creative practices used by the Co-Creation Network to address urban stigmatisation.
Another session generated further interest in urban planning and smart cities, including the extent to which dance techniques can be compatible with urban design and engineering (Choreographing the City) and examples of developing international projects with marginalised communities (Whose Right to the Smart City). Other presentations on urban living showcased their collaborations with local authorities to stimulate creative economy (Creative Cardiff) and local urban agricultural communities to co-design digitally-enhanced seeds library (Connected Seeds).
Urban diversity, citizenship and community politics provided another thematic cluster. How can we welcome refugees in the city and use public park spaces to improve their wellbeing (#refugeeswelcome in parks)? How do we examine the process of co-producing LGBT+ history using digital tools (Mapping LGBT+ Bristol)? How do we re-design the ‘co-operative council’ (Advocacy through environment change)? A presentation on intercultural street art explored the ways in which Muslim British street art helps us understand participatory processes of local regeneration. Participatory art practices have also been central to the project with the Southwark community in London which explored the transformative nature of art, place and relational connections between the artist and local residents (Here comes everybody).
The final set of presentations brought together curators, academics and artists to discuss what happens when sensations of place, memories and senses of community are mediated through digital networks. The work presented by the Sensory Cities project addressed the impact of people’s individual interactions with smart technologies and implications for curation of public spaces in different European cities.
The interactive format of the event offered a range of creative and stimulating opportunities to share research findings and engage with the audience through a variety of artistic means of expression, including poetry (D4D project) music (Migration and Settlement), films (Imagine, Youth and Heritage), local maps (CAER Heritage Project), interactive digital technologies (Communities 21) and even ‘rebellious’outdoor activities!
The Open Space Session, facilitated by Paul Manners, was one of the highlights of the second day of the event. It provided an intense yet informal opportunity to join up collective thinking about co-production processes and develop actionable strategies to improve future collaboration.
Participants were divided into small groups and asked to think of particular challenges, key insights and actions required to move forward. Below is the list of some of the main points from breakout discussions.
|Understanding the role of the artist in collaborative projects||Artist is a vital catalyst between community organisations and academics. How do we co-create community programmes to link communities and researchers in equal places for dialogue without hierarchies or hijacking ideas.||Developing participatory spaces for artists and including their perspectives early in the project to collaborate with more transparency and openness.|
|The role of universities in co-creating future green cities||Universities should act as facilitators between external stakeholders to co-design projects in the context of austerity.||Creating more living labs in universities to develop real connections with communities.|
|Mainstreaming co-production||Developing long-term partnerships, trust and friendships.||Having more face-to-face contacts and embedding universities in communities and communities in universities (e.g. building cooperative hubs in the spirit of the cooperative movement)|
|Communicating findings||The need to share a spectrum of interests, skills and capacities that collaborative research brings together.||Exploring early in the research what the project is trying to deliver and allowing for flexibility and variety of ways to communicate to different audiences.|
|Collaborations with BME communities
|More authentic representation of ethnic diversity in universities.||Avoiding just ticking boxes by working with one ethnic group. Developing a better understanding of communities and how to best engage with them.|
|Power dynamics in university-community collaboration||It is important to demystify universities.||Developing explicit structures, challenging lived values and developing creative ways to enable communities get more funding.|
|Long-term commitment of universities and collaboration in times of austerity||Articulating the value of knowledge production.||Improving processes for engaged learning, mentoring and supporting initiatives with social resonance.|
The conference closed with the launch of the latest book by Keri Facer and Kate Pahl, entitled ‘Beyond impact: Valuing Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research and wine reception.
A more detailed report on what we have learned about universities, communities and cities will become available shortly.
In the meantime, we invite you to visit the event’s gallery.
For a more artistic interpretation of the event, check out brilliant drawings provided by Joff Winterhart.