A new book shows how civic collaboration is creating an alternative economy
This is a serious coffee-table book,” says architect Indy Johar about the Compendium for the Civic Economy. The book, written by Johar and others at his practice 00:/, is also the first how-to-do-it manual for the “Big Society”.
No wonder then that the prime minister David Cameron has written the introduction. Up until now, the Big Society has been worryingly short on practical examples. To the Left, at least, it is simply a way of disguising huge public sector cuts; but to Johar, the 25 case studies – from the North Yorkshire villagers who formed a co-operative to buy back the local pub to the Peoples’ Supermarket owned and managed by members – represent the future; a new sort of capitalism based on shared social values and collaboration.
In his introduction, Cameron writes that the selected projects (most of which pre-date the Conservative’s Big Society agenda) “blow apart the myth that civic action is impractical”.
Johar says Cameron “liked what we were doing because we are filling in the conversation of what the Big Society really means. It is the new polices of place in a micro sense.”
But he admits to being vaguely uncomfortable that Number 10 has give the book such a whopping endorsement. He actually prefers the term “civic economy” rather than Big Society, which, as he points out, has become equated with volunteering and working for free.
It’s also not an idea that is particularly new, as Johar admits. The civic economy – from the Co-op Movement to mutual and friendly societies – has been part of the UK economic landscape for more than a century. But it is the global financial crisis that has put it in the spotlight once again, he argues.
We need a new way of thinking – one that is not based on quick-fix solutions
“The collapse of the banks and the recession that followed has effectively led to an opening in big finance and real estate,” he says. “But as we were writing this we all agreed that if we are to have a civic economy, we also need to have a new way of thinking and doing – one that is no longer based on asset values or quick-fix solutions.”
An example of this new way of working is the Hub, workspaces for social entrepreneurs that have flourished all over the world since the first one was set up in Islington in 2004.
Architect 00:/ is now working on the Westminster Hub, which will occupy an entire floor of New Zealand House in London when it opens in September. But the Hub’s innovation comes from the way the projects are funded and managed, with Westminster Council acting not simply as client but joint venture partner on New Zealand House.
“A successful project doesn’t rely on the single architect hero with a titanium building behind him, or post-it note strategies,” says co-author Joost Beunderman.
“What we are proposing [in the book] goes far beyond designing a building or being able to run a public consultation.”
A successful project doesn’t rely on the single architect hero with a titanium building behind him
This explains why architects hardly feature among the case studies, save for Neil Sutherland who set up his own sawmill in the Scottish Highlands and then did his own research into making structural beam and panel systems to use on projects.
“The profession hasn’t built a new compact with society…. They need to become more responsible and act less like consultants and more like professionals,” says Johar, a trenchant critic of the profession because of its focus on the physical design of places.
But the flaw in the book is that, in the real world of planning and development, there is still a big question mark over how far local communities really can control their own destinies in the face of national economic imperatives.
This is an issue currently being debated as the localism bill makes its way through Parliament. But it’s also an issue that Johar believes architects must become involved in if the civic economy is to flourish.
Free civic lessons: A limited number of copies of Compendium for the Civic Economy: What the Big Society Should Learn from 25 Trailblazers are available free from Nesta at email@example.com. The book, which was supported by Nesta and Cabe (now Design Council Cabe), can also be viewed online at http://civiceconomy.net
13 April 2012
20 May 2011
25 February 2011