The Imagine Project: Culture and the role of civic engagement


We recently held the fourth Imagine project annual event on the theme of ‘culture and the role of civic engagement’ and we’d like to share a little bit of the experience with other Connected Community people. Below is a summary of the day, written by our Digital Communications Officer, Sarah Hollely

The Imagine: connecting communities through research project is a five-year programme of research which is exploring the way people engage with their communities and with wider society through taking an active role in civic life.  We experience civic engagement through lived experience, and we imagine better futures through that lived experience, through art, through building, through locality and through writing and expressive forms.

The Imagine project involves a wide range of UK and international universities and community organisations and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) under the Connected Communities programme.

Each year we hold an event to bring together all of the participants from across the project which has four themes: social, historical, cultural and democratic. The wide ranging, interdisciplinary scope of the Imagine project has brought complexity and challenges but we have also learned so much from one another along the way. .  Learning about civic engagement requires the development of relationships with our communities in a sustained way. Co-produced research is key to the Imagine project’s way of working. We have learned about the different ways in which communities can do research for themselves through our project. Our emerging findings have highlighted key issues that can inform the development of positive community-university partnerships. It was therefore important to us that our event, described below, was co-produced and reflected the hopes, aspirations and dreams the communities we have worked with.

This year we focused on culture.  Working with our artist in residence, Steve Pool, we invited Imagine project participants to plan activities to explore the theme of culture in their own research and bring films, visual art, narrative, artefacts and objects to represent their work.


Video Thumbnail


A short film by our Artist in Residence, Steve Pool, which captures the day


We also invited a group of speakers for a public talk and discussion: Kim Streets (Museums Sheffield), Paul Ward (University of Huddersfield), Mariam Shah (Who is your neighbour) and leading cultural thinker Francois Matarasso on Culture and the City. Mariam Shah shared her inspiring journey as a community researcher with the Imagine project, how her understanding of her own background has grown and with it her confidence.  In Francois’s key note speech ‘More in common: meeting one another through art and culture’ he talked about feeling that our society is very divided today, frighteningly so, with so much bitterness, anger and hatred being expressed in our public space. He spoke about how our public space is changing and developing rapidly with the internet and new technologies and how along with the wonderful possibilities that this brings, public discourse is also becoming increasingly intolerant of any kind of difference.  His reflections on the “power of art to create a safe space for people to meet, think and express themselves in a dangerous time.” resonated strongly and reinforced the value of art in what we do. He explained, “Art is tolerant of ambiguity, hesitation and uncertainty. It is the opposite of the angry claims and vague promises that nourish politics and the media. It accepts that things are complicated and that there might be more than one answer – or perhaps no answer at all. And it is equally accommodating of difference, allowing us to explore other ways of seeing, feeling, hearing and being without requiring us to make judgements about them. Through art we can walk in another person’s shoes and we might find that they’re not as strange or uncomfortable as we expected. Through art and culture we can go beyond our differences without abandoning them to find what we have in common without feeling threatened by what makes each of us unique.”

During the event itself we explored culture, defined here as “the way of life, general customs and beliefs, of a particular group at a particular time”. Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, hierarchies, notion of time, roles …  We took the opportunity to “walk in another person’s shoes” by listening to different perspectives, learning about each other’s research and hearing the voices of our community partners which came through so strongly in the creative work shared.


Themes of the day included:

  • Resilience and culture
  • Revisiting the Community Development Projects of the 1970’s
  • Culture and the lived experience of modernism – the case of Park Hill
  • Popular cultures and vinyl records
  • Photographic cultures – Coventry photographer John Blakemore
  • Hope in the City

One of the most interesting and constructive activities from day was the group discussion where we considered four questions, the notes from these discussions are summarised below:


  1. What we have learnt so far about the relationship between culture and civic engagement and how can we apply this knowledge within our communities?

There’s a history of civic engagement which we can learn from and there are different cultures of civic engagement and some get traction. Cultures of engagement also change over time. We’ve learnt that some people’s culture makes it difficult to participate and that there can be tensions between culture and civic engagement but at the same time civic engagement allows voice and therefore helps create culture. New migrants bring different cultures into neighbourhoods and so focussing on one aspect of an area’s history may not resonate with all of its residents. We need to work sustainably with communities. We also need to be wary of ‘controlled consultation’ by local authorities. 


  1. Does art matter to us, if not why not and if so what kind of art does matter?

Some felt art defines us and matters in a very personal way – it has value. Others found the process important. Art was also seen as a representative or device for discussion of deep issues. We talked about what art means to us, how art bridges the gap between the personal and the political, a sense of purpose, to challenge and change with consequence eg. therapy, re-generation of an area, making a political statement. The concept of art separate from life doesn’t exist.


  1. How can we imagine better communities together and what kind of changes do we want to see happen?

It’s important to pay attention to relationships with community partners and this takes a lot of work.  Working with Community Partners differently takes time and runs right through everything we do, who we include, who we exclude.  The involvement of people with lived experience is needed in order to transform practice.  Communities of Practice (COP) can help involve young people. It is important to ensure that young people are included in future projects. Practitioners can bring young people into the COP through anecdotes, breaking down the barriers. Also important is who we are excluding to find the right balance and not make it too complicated.


  1. What should Imagine do next?

Some of the ideas our participants wanted to explore more included:

  • Community-practice techniques between researchers, facilitators, students and practitioners,
  • Value Creation Framework evaluation and planning
  • Inventory of learning – process of coproduction, what works in terms of practices, insights, new ways of working and interventions
  • Integrating resilience into training for teachers, social workers, build in co-production in qualification.
  • Creative and artistic methodologies in community research.
  • Historical context – parallel context of practices – legacy
  • International comparison/perspectives
  • Identify generic points which can be translated to other areas – core points, how intersects, at academic level and community level


I joined the Imagine project just over a year ago so for me this was the first time I had seen all of the Imagine participants come together in one place and it was wonderful to see the breadth of the work that has been produced and to meet the people involved. From the very first meetings I attended on the Imagine project it was immediately obvious that there was a different way of working on this project, a way of allowing for different opinions and views and a willingness to accept being in disagreement while working together to tackle difficult, complex issues. It has been fascinating to observe and inspiring to witness the passion and integrity of my colleagues in their determination to really explore understanding with members of communities, who are often invisible, overlooked or stereotyped, on their terms. Listening to Francois’ words I saw that the Imagine project really embodies this approach.

As the Imagine project approaches its fifth year the focus now is on writing up our work and taking time to step back and develop a deeper understanding of what we have achieved, communicating what we have learnt, and capturing the impact of the project.

To end, here are some thoughts from our participants on culture, art and practice:


“I was inspired by a talk to create some art about a part of my culture that I find difficult to communicate verbally.”

 “A greater appreciation of role of art as a process of research not just product.”

 “I will be more confident about using culture/art in my practice/research”


To see more pictures from the day visit our Event Gallery.

To find out more about Imagine project visit: