Developing through social enterprise

This is a guest blog by Kate Swade of Shared Assets, reflecting on the Developing Socially Productive Places conference at the RSA, 2nd April 2014.

It is when the different worlds involved in developing place and community meet that really interesting conversations begin to happen. The “Developing Socially Productive Places” conference last week was a brilliant opportunity to bring different sectors together – developers, local authority officers, urban designers and social entrepreneurs. As one of the speakers said, we should all be talking to each other more: there should be more pub conversations about place and the built environment!

I had a niggling feeling all day, though, that there was something missing.

The conference seemed to take it for granted that the creation of places is going to be developer-led, with local authorities and the planning system playing a strategic and regulatory role. It is certainly taken as read that when we say “developer” we are talking about private, profit driven companies. But there are a different set of possibilities which open up if we take a different starting point.

Some private sector developers are excellent; committed to fostering quality of place and quality of life. It was heartening to hear British Land talking about their long-term approach to the Regents’ Place development and their commitment to involving local people. Developers bring investment, of course: they have access to the cash on the terms and at the scale necessary to make things happen – and to buy enough land to create a critical mass around a development. Chris Grigg, the CEO of British Land’s point that diversity of ownership can mean a piecemeal place was a good one.

Tim Dixon from Reading University’s presentation on measuring social sustainability was fascinating and offered an insight into the challenges of measuring something that doesn’t easily lend itself to quantification. This is where we can start to feel possibilities for socially productive places evaporate.


If we take the developer-led, private sector model as the blueprint for how we make places in this country then of course we need metrics to help us understand the impact that that is having on society, and on the environment. That is a big “if”.

If we accept the dominant idea that development will be motivated by profit for developers, we will always see the social (and, for that matter, the environmental) as things that are considered separately from the “real” business of development; as externalities that need to be managed.

Private sector developers are driven to maximise shareholder value. That is why they exist.  For many, this means taking a relatively short-term view of the financial return on development: build and sell. It is shareholders who ultimately have the shortest profit horizon. (With computer algorithms dominating trading, the average share is held for 22 seconds).

Places built on the logic of a development appraisal tend to be homogenous and led by commercial property. While some developers are better than others, the crop of identical “unique landmarks” springing up all over London illustrates the cumulative effect of this shared logic.

We all know – and can feel – that good places, places where we want to be, which must be at the heart of what makes a place socially productive, respond to their location. People and the local environment are the logic.

Where this really has an impact is in the public realm: the spaces in between the buildings; the liabilities in between the assets.  At Shared Assets we believe that these spaces, regardless of ownership, are common goods, and should be managed and governed as such.

This requires more than just “community involvement”; it means that local people and organisations need to be actors in the development process. Local authorities need to see social enterprise development and land management as a viable option when thinking about the future of their areas.

This feels like a huge opportunity to me. How much more could we achieve if we truly put local people and their environments at the heart of the logic of development, rather than the creation of value for shareholders? If enterprise was encouraged, but profits reinvested in an area rather than siphoned out of it? If all investment in place was long-term, rather than the current short-term paradigm?

There are risks to this transition which would need to be managed, but it’s worth trying: physical regeneration has rarely delivered on its promise of associated social regeneration. When a community develops a shared asset collaboratively, this inherently involves both.

Property development and place making are skills, and there are many talented people in the development industry. I would contend that if we want to see places that are truly socially productive, the social sector needs to harness some of those skills and take an active role in development and place making.

How to make a make space

April 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Last week the RSA and the Comino Foundation hosted Make It Together, a 24 hour gathering for 30 of the UK’s make space leaders to connect, share ideas, build a network and seek advice from peers. (No idea what a make space is? Have a read of this.)

There was a wealth of inspiring conversation, collaboration and connections made by the end of the second day (video coming soon!) but for now I wanted to focus on one question which came out of the event:

How do I make a make space?

Eddie Kirkby (a UK Fab Lab network facilitator & trainer who helped set up Manchester FabLab) and Marc Barto (organiser of Maker groups and events including NotJustArduino at London Hackspace and Elephant & Castle Mini Maker Faire) passed on some of their learnings to the rest of the group, which I have tried to compress into a nifty ‘how to’ guide.


1)   Know WHY you’re doing it before you start.

Make sure you know:

a) Why you are doing it and

b) Who you are doing it for.

This may sounds obvious, but knowing the answer to two simple questions will shape everything you do, including opening hours, equipment, community engagement and funding.

For example a make space which aims to find young people employment in the world of digital fabrication will look very different to a make space whose focus in enabling the community to make things which will improve their local area.

This aim may change over the first 6 months – that’s fine too. But you need to have a key aim before you even think about opening.


2)   Never invest in a space before you have the community

You need the support and passion of a solid community for a make space to be a success, so make sure this is firmly in place before you invest anything. Piggy-back on existing groups and spaces to gauge and build the level of interest and support.


3)   Start before the doors open

Let’s imagine you have a beautiful space, equipment to die for, technicians standing with open arms and you are ready to open the doors to all… but no one knows you exist.

Community engagement prior to opening is key. Having an answer to Number 1 will help define who you engage and how you engage them. Eddie spent 9 months prior to the opening of Manchester Fab Lab speaking to the private sector, local educational organisations and businesses. This ensured that from day 1 of opening they had a whole network of people excited to come in. You need to create demand before you open.


4)   Keep that energy going after the doors open

You’ve opened, have a wealth of people desperate to come and have a look at what you’re doing, so make the most of this time. Don’t let this excitement fade. Make sure you have a 3 month engagement plan in place. Run free events, flyer the local colleges, have a call to action and run competitions. Give people a reason to come back and spend time in your space. People love the idea of a make space, will come in, have a look around, be amazed and excited by the facilities and think “Great… But I’ve no idea what to make” – so give them a focus.


5)   Put serious thought into how you register yourselves

Don’t rush this decision. Are you going to be a charity? A social enterprise? A limited company? This will somewhat be determined by your answer to number 1, but it is also worth thinking about how this decision will impact on funding. Certain funders will not support limited companies, or prefer to fund not-for-profits, and this can be impactful on future work.

If you are part of a larger organisation it can be easier to initially set up your make space as a ‘project’. This way you are able to test ideas and be more flexible during the earlier stages. If successful, you can roll it out to an independent organization. And if it all doesn’t quite go to plan it is much easier to close a project than a company.


6)   Use a combination of funding models

By using a combination of income streams such as funding, sponsorship, membership and charged services you are less at risk if one of those sources dries up.

If you are fundraising, go for larger pots of money. Fundraising is time consuming; don’t waste time on smaller grants. It’s also important to think about what parts of your make space you are fundraising for. Using funding for operational activities can be risky. It is better to use funding for programmes or projects that add to your offer, but are not essential for the running of your space. If funding comes to an end after an agreed period of time and you are using it to pay staff time or cover rent this could be problematic.

If you want your space to be completely independent and stay afloat with no fundraising, you need to look at your offer. This again comes back to question 1: Why are you setting up a space? If you aim is to offer free access to all, then realistically a self-sustaining model is unlikely to work.


7)   Get the slow build/space ready balance right

While it can be tempting to throw your doors open the second you secure a space and adopt the ‘I’ll build up my equipment over time’ approach, this can run the risk of disengaging your community. It’s hard for people to get truly excited about a space that hasn’t got a huge amount of stuff in it.

The other side of this is spending time and money getting your space fully kitted out, to find that when you open the doors your equipment isn’t right or the layout is flawed. It is important to find a good balance.


Have you been involved in setting up a make space? What would you add to this list? We would love to hear from you!

Follow @RSAremake to more information on the RSA’s work in the Maker sphere.

The power to create.. what?

The RSA is, almost fundamentally, a place of debate.  We debate at lectures with speakers; we debate online with the media; but most of all, we debate amongst ourselves.  We debate the morning’s news over breakfast; we debate project and report details at lunch; we debate existentialist dilemmas and the meaning of life over late-night drinks; and the cycle begins anew.

But lately we’ve been debating even more than usual, because the topic of discussion has not been about this or that, but about us and what we stand for.  A consensus on a new agenda is (slowly) building around the idea of ‘the power to create’: the belief that “all should have the freedom and capacity to turn their ideas into reality”.  This emerging worldview was first articulated by Adam Lent, Director of RSA’s Action and Research Centre.

It’s a concept that embodies two of our core principles:

  1. Creativity: that individual and collective ingenuity will be key to successfully addressing the complex web of social, economic and ecological challenges we now face as a society
  2. Inclusivity: that the best solutions to these challenges will emerge from the bottom-up, rather than be imposed from the top-down

Where debate has broken out, it has typically concerned the lack of stipulation of which ideas we want to help people turn into reality.  Jonathan Rowson posted a full discussion of this issue, but for brevity I quote Paul Swann‘s comment, which put it thus:

“Calling for an ‘unprecedented explosion of creative endeavour’ is all well and good, but to what ends? Perpetual growth, short-term profits and increasing greenhouse gas emissions..?”

Paul’s question highlights that ‘the power to create’ is silent on what is surely a third pillar of our principles: the issue of social responsibility.  In other words, are we advocating a kind of capitalist creativity which rewards any innovation that is profitable, regardless of externalities?  Or are we, with tonight’s speaker, David Harvey, promoting a revolutionary creativity to oppose capital’s exploitation of people and planet?  I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I find the question interesting as an exercise in questioning my own ideals.

‘the power to create’ is silent on what is surely a third pillar of our principles: the issue of social responsibility

“Ultimately”, it was said in our latest round of debate, “what will give any prospective agenda meaning is not the words we use, but the work we do.”  And perhaps the work I am doing is illustrative of the kind of creativity I want to see in the world.  Following on from a productive round table discussion with manufacturing representatives, policy makers, academics and NGOs, I am exploring the potential for a new project to accelerate the transition towards sustainable manufacturing.  The creative, inclusive and responsible vision here is one of a circular economy, in which production is localised rather than centralised, mass customisation replaces mass production, and pollution and waste become inputs rather than outputs of manufacturing.

Continuing the theme of working with business rather than against it, I am working on the RSA’s new Premium, which addresses the fact that we are chronically under-investing in our workforce, leaving people unproductive and unfulfilled.  Grounded in the belief that great ideas can come from anywhere, Valuing Your Talent is a crowdsourcing challenge open to all, generating practical innovations to help businesses (particularly SMEs) recognise and make the case for greater investment in their people – get involved today!

What these two projects have in common is that they seek radical, transformative change in the way businesses work, but they do so through a collaborative rather than confrontational approach.  So if our work says more than our words about who we are, then to the question, ‘what kind of creativity do I want to see in the world?’ I say:

This kind of creativity!’


Conor Quinn works in the RSA’s Action and Research Centre.  Follow him @conorquinn85

Reflections on ‘Developing Socially Productive Places’

This is a guest blog by Alison Seabrooke, Chief Executive of Community Development Foundation. Alison spoke at our recent conference at the RSA on developing socially productive places.


I was privileged to be asked to participate on the closing discussion panel at the RSA and British Land event on 2nd April on ‘socially productive places’. These places are ones where communities have an opportunity to shape the physical environment where they live, work and socialise; and to benefit socially and financially from the end result. It was clear from the opening speakers that community and built environment development should be intertwined and that places should be networked in more than one sense. This common thread ranged from the need to cluster like-minded businesses and for greater public, private and voluntary sector collaboration, to well-designed transport infrastructure which helps people move about and connect.

The event was comprised of a largely private and public sector audience. During the sessions we heard inspiring stories of successful private and public sector community development. Chris Grigg, Chief Executive of British Land, a property investment company, opened the day by describing his experience of the 30-year Regents Place development. The success of this project was an exception given the long timescale, but he gave a convincing description of his, and his company’s, changes to community development practice as a result of the project. His conviction that community collaboration worked for them was driven by his experience that sitting at the table with local residents and businesses led to intelligent, productive and sustainable outcomes. Which makes sense: how many new developments are delayed and local tensions stirred by a failure to communicate effectively? Or how many companies, or public bodies, pursue a new development without the input of pragmatic, locally-driven intelligence? In effect, these processes of local engagement should also be viewed as a form of commercial as well as community risk mitigation.

Of course, it isn’t always like this and there are some difficult and bloody-minded professionals, as well as difficult and bloody-minded people living in our communities. But we all have the ability to be difficult when liberated from the constraints of our professional roles. So I remain bemused at these events when ‘community’ becomes an abstract term, when sensible and intelligent people separate their lived experiences, personal desires and expectations from their views on how things should work in a community other than their own.

At the event, we also heard about difficult community ‘representatives’; but then there were the side comments that these people actually come from all walks of life, including developers and planners, who turn up to argue against local developments. There were also comments that communities aren’t consistently reliable – of course they’re not! Communities, like organisations, change; people move on, their interests evolve throughout life cycles and local political leadership shifts. But unlike organisations, communities aren’t limited by a structure to drive consistent behaviour. That’s what can make them unreliable. It was the people who deeply understood this and worked with the grain, like Ed Watson from Camden council, who remain excited about the change that can be achieved in communities.

During our 50 years’ of work in and with communities here at the Community Development Foundation (CDF), we have learned that there are more common than divergent interests amongst different parties wishing to achieve ‘socially productive places’ – just as there are often more shared aspirations between people and families of different faith, race and socio-economic background than disparities. In fact, I would argue that there are usually more common goals between those pursuing new built environment developments and those living in the communities that benefit from them.

Let me describe what I mean by this. At the event, businesses and local authority planners talked about development to increase local economic prosperity, through things like increased land values, created by intelligent housing, business and transport infrastructure. For this, developers need a strong employment pool, populated by people with the right sets of skills. What’s more, public officials want to see environmental quality of place to meet health and community safety objectives.

In comparison, what do people living in communities want? Well, in my community, we want financial prosperity and wellbeing, driven by opportunity – jobs, education and training – to enable us to live in decent housing, with good schools and transport. And we want a pleasant environment so we feel healthier and safer. It seems what developers and communities want are simply both sides of the same coin.

What we know at CDF, and what those like Chris and Ed have learned, is that it takes a particular set of skills to facilitate these discussions, to be able to help prioritise goals and agree or agree to disagree on particular outcomes. New developments are about more than the spadework involved in digging the footings to a building; they are about the work behind the scenes to develop common goals and a shared understanding of what a socially productive place might feasibly look like. In other words, development that works for the wider community.

As William Blake said, ‘without contraries is no progression’, or Maroon 5 (She Will Be Loved) sing, ‘it’s not always rainbows and butterflies, it’s compromise that moves us along’.

How to develop a socially productive place

Last week the RSA brought together over 100 people who invest in, plan and construct our built environment – homes, workplaces and public buildings. Here, we summarise the key insights generated, and diverse voices heard. In the next two months, we will pull together a paper outlining policy directions for the government and the various relevant sectors of industry. This will be an open process, so we are starting here summarising feedback and providing minutes and presentations:

We want this to be the basis of an inclusive “in the pub” conversation which includes constructive cricism…

To open the conference, Mark Prisk MP, former housing minister, gave a keynote address – welcomed by Chris Brown of Igloo as the best he had heard in years. Mark was aware of how his ability to speak freely was liberated.

Mark outline five key challenges for the conference

  • “we will need to show people that when we build to a greater density, its desirable for them and for the wider community.”
  • “what needs to change, so we can integrate this [rapidly growing] older population back into the community?”
  • “those of you who are investors or owners will reel from the idea of broad, mixed-use asset classes. However isn’t it time to recognise how people’s lives are changing, and not leave these assets increasingly vulnerable to becoming redundant ?”
  • “So what does it mean for a space to be public? And how do we square private ownership and public access, in either new settlements, or urban renewal schemes?
  • “The final challenge is how can we empower people, to create lasting communities? It’s that social side, less tangible but just as important, which acts as the glue that binds a community together. Now all too often this is the exception not the rule. We need to change this, developers, community leaders and politicians alike.”

In short, the conference had to consider how our planning, development and construction sectors account for the changing reality of work, rest and play? You can watch his full presentation here:

Tim Dixon’s session concerned how the built environment fosters social sustainability, well-being and a sense of community.

Other sessions emphasised the need to allow successful places to grow and fulfil their potential? Chairing a session, Ben Lucas noted how this question was tackled by the City Growth Commission

…and identified that keeping successful places successful, while expanding them, rather than always making new places, is an art which may be promoted by new ownership models.

Matt Leach: What inspired you to take this approach?

Waheed Nazir: I’m a resident, born and bred. Grown up thinking “why is the public realm so awful”? It’s not rocket science – its basic. The planning process makes it complicated – frustrates residents.

Matt: How have you found winning over those who made the mistakes in the 90s?

Waheed: Haven’t called them ‘mistakes’, for starters.

RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor defined a socially productive place as a place where “people are enabled individually and collectively to come up with solutions which help to meet their own needs and achieve their aspirations for issues which matter to them”. To realise this requires developing a shared vision. One challenge identified by Tom Bridges of Leeds Council is that places need to find a balance between finding their “unique selling point” in a competitive playing field, and having an economic development strategy which is too broad and generic so that “if you Tipp-Ex out the name of the place, it could be anywhere”.

All agreed that for successful places, a shared vision is required, and local plans need to be easy to understand. Where a vision is already in place (or development underway is prompting local people to respond), Ed Watson (Camden Council) and Nigel Ingram (Joseph Rowntree Housing Foundation) considered the actions they had put into practice, based on their understanding of local places, to foster better social and economic outcomes.

…some suggestions were made, and there was much debate about who should be in the driving seat, and what drives socially productive places.

In the final session there was consensus that one focus should be achieving progress measuring the social impact of development in the built environment. This will be considered in a policy directions paper to be released via the RSA website in June 2014.

Thinking beyond the classroom

Some good news for a Friday morning: Despite our Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the Pupil Design Awards pilot falling just short of target (we had £8,000+ pledged), our Academies have agreed to support this pilot project using their own resources, meaning we are able to go ahead! We have begun working with teachers to transform three RSA Student Design Award briefs, and work with pupils will begin in April.

Mollie Courtenay, who was shortlisted for the RSA Student Design Awards in 2013, is one of our alumni who is keen to get involved. Mollie studied graphic design at Kingston University and graduated with a first in 2013. She has recently taken the new position of Junior Designer in the Design Council Challenges team who use design to tackle big social issues, working on a variety of projects including the Knee High Design Challenge. Here she reflects on her own experience of the RSA Student Design Awards, and why introducing social design thinking into schools will inspire pupils to think beyond the classroom…

EXIF_IMGMollie carrying out testing and reseach for her RSA Student Design Award ‘Social Insurance’ shortlisted entry

“Yes Miss! I believe introducing the RSA Pupil Design Awards to schools would offer a practical method of inspiring pupils to think beyond the classroom. How incredible would it be if young people began to build and use their skills and imagination to tackle real social issues?

My personal reflection of school, is that it could often make me feel like one of many others; year by year I was in the same class, in the same uniform, answering the same exam questions. Even when it came to Design and Technology, the end product was always prescribed; each of us designing perfume packaging or a place mat.

The Pupil Design Award project briefs would offer an opportunity for pupils to embark on an individual journey, to create a project that provides unique insight, and to design an innovative solution to a challenging question. There is no single correct answer with these briefs, which is often why they exist and why they are so exciting.

I took on a RSA Student Design Awards brief at University, as I was motivated by the realness of the issue I was designing for (encouraging safer driving among young drivers). At one point I remember I had covered a whole wall in my flat with my research. When my flatmate got home, he looked at me as if to say- ‘er, are you alright..?’ I was great – I had found something that I was interested in, and discovered the issue I wanted to solve through design.

I am currently working on a project that focuses on the development of children in their early years, up to the age of five. When working in this environment you can’t think about design in a way that produces shiny, perfect and one off things.

One of the most important factors when designing for society is to really understand the issue or problem you are trying to solve, whilst building empathy for people and situations you are working with. It is unlikely that this can be done without spending time with people where they are. This means getting out and about, learning from many sources, observing, monitoring, questioning, recording and interpreting. Having an agenda and going out to fulfill it.

Giving pupils an opportunity to take responsibility for their own project is a fantastic way of encouraging individuality and creativity. Unlike some school subjects, these design projects allow for mistakes; and that’s where the really interesting learning happens. It’s so important to continually look back and challenge your own thinking and not rely on your own assumptions.

I am super excited for the launch of this project and hope that schools can see the value in adding it to their existing curriculum.”

If, like Mollie, you want to get involved in the Pupil Design Awards, there are plenty of ways to do so!

  • Become a mentor or judge   We are looking for a handful of designers to help mentor the pupils through the briefs. 
  • Donate a prize  This could be an industry placement or some design-related goodies – we’re open to suggestions! 
  • Help take the project UK-wide    We are already looking for other schools and especially sponsors to take this project beyond our Academies.

If you would like to get involved, or receive project updates, please get in touch –

The (em)Power(ment) to (Co-)Create

February 17, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Take a look around you. Wherever you are there will almost certainly be something that has been designed. The buying and selling of these objects, the way they are made and the people and raw materials that are involved in the making build economies and develop societies. The design industry is a key part of this loop. With around 11% of the UK workforce in our sector, we play a key role in the economy and account for 7% of GVA, with a third of this coming from consumer-related spending (ref).

The designer’s role of adding value to products is fundamental to the markets. But sadly this industry, like many others, is only slowly waking up to some of the negative impacts of this system: the over extraction of resources, the exploitation of workforces and growing toxic waste streams. The staggering fact is that, according to EU research, 80% of a product’s environmental impacts are decided during the design stage. Ultimately our decisions at the very beginning stages on material specification or assembly process will be instrumental in determining the product’s lifetime in use and method of disposal (whether re-use, recycling or landfill), but our industry seems to have very little understanding of this. Why is this so?

To understand the challenges around system change you need to go right back to the beginning. Everything around you once had a written brief given to the design team to tell them what they needed to consider. These design briefs could include quite specific instructions which, in summary, might say: ‘We want a kettle design that is weighted so it can be held comfortably by an elderly arthritic person; is able to boil two cups of water in less than twenty seconds; uses minimum metal in the moulding; and retails at £12.99’. Or, it may say something about the aesthetic outcome: ‘We need a 50 page full colour report that makes our company look youthful and innovative’. However, you can absolutely guarantee that a brief will not include phrases like: ‘This product is required to be designed for a second life’, ‘must be able to have all its raw materials fully recoverable to their maximum value’, or ‘must not in any way be diverted to landfill in the first 5 years of its life’.

Imagine if it did. Consider how different our products would look, how differently we would use them, and how much easier it would be to recapture the materials. It would radically change the way our products were made. It would require a lot more collaboration and knowledge transfer around the extended supply chain, with those that see the problems at the end of life (ie waste disposal or materials recovery experts) telling those that potentially build in those problems at the beginning (ie designers) what they are experiencing. Design would not be so focused on the initial sell but would extend its vision far into a product’s potential second or third ‘life’, or even towards a ‘circular system’ of continuous re-use. To get to this point, the whole process of design, manufacture, recovery and ultimately re-manufacture would need a complete re-think.

Over the last 18 months The Great Recovery project at the RSA has been investigating the role of design in the ‘circular economy’. We have been building networks and using the creativity of the design industry to help understand why current design does not include ‘closed loop’ principles (where product ingredients can be recovered back into raw materials through re-use, industrial symbiosis and recycling). Our programme of public workshops and networking events set in the industrial landscapes of recovery and recycling facilities, disused tin mines, and materials research labs worked with people across all sectors mapped in our circular network model. Print

Participants went through a process based on the design principles of ‘Tear Down’ – where you literally pull products off the recycling pile and take them apart to understand how they are currently designed, manufactured and recovered/disposed, and then ‘Design Up’ – a process of rebuilding and redesigning the products around the four design models for circularity mapped by the programme: longevity, leasing/service, re-use in manufacture and material recovery. TGR_diagram_redraw_130425

This first phase of work supported the competition calls from the Technology Strategy Board on ‘New Designs for a Circular Economy’. These calls invested up to £1.25m into a range of feasibility studies proposed by business-led groups that included collaborative design partners.

The lessons that came out of these initial investigations underlined some key issues:

(i) the role of design is crucial to circularity but very few designers understand or think about what happens to the products and services they design at the end of their life;

(ii) new business models are needed to support the circular economy;

(iii) the ability to track and trace materials is key to reverse engineering our manufacturing processes and closing the loop;

(iv) smarter logistics are required based on better information;
(v) building new partnerships around the supply chain and knowledge networks is critical.

The inaugural Resource show sees the launch of The Great Recovery’s next phase of work in a two-year programme of work that will bring together materials science innovators, design experts and end-of-life specialists to explore the interrelationships and key levers in the manufacturing process. In a series of investigatory workshops we will be seeking further understanding around the challenges and obstacles faced by businesses and members of the circular network when considering the shift towards circularity. We need the problem holders, ideas creators and collaborators to get involved and share their resource knowledge.

In a move to nurture disruptive thinking across the network, The Great Recovery plans to develop short-term immersive design residencies that can set up inside recovery facilities around the UK. These design teams will be there to observe and experience the complexity of recovery systems, to help inform new thinking around current waste streams and new product designs. We will also be growing our network of pioneering professionals and circular economy stakeholders, developing thought leadership, influencing policy and nurturing disruptive thinking to fast-track innovation. By their nature, many of these activities will be highly creative and we are looking for interested recovery facilities, designers, materials experts and other stakeholders who want to participate.

I like it. What is it?

February 10, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Design and Society, Social Economy

Image by Anthony Burril.

The first ever unMonastery launched this month in the city of Matera, in Southern Italy. Doing something new is messy. The path is unclear, doubt is a killer, and it’s somehow never easier to quit than when you are on the verge of something real.

2014 could be the year of unMonastery, and my mission, gladly accepted, is to help shape evaluation models and metrics that help us understand what it is and if it is working.


UnMonastery is place-based social innovation that throws a group of people into one place – currently Matera – and sees what happens. It takes issues facing the whole of Europe – youth unemployment, mismatched skills, brain drain to major cities, under-utilised buildings, depleted public resources –and offers up a secular, 21st century version of the monastery. People with skills and projects to offer are housed, fed and work out of a building that would be otherwise left empty.

Best suited to areas suffering brain drain and a lack of home-grown opportunities, the ‘unMonasterians’ are tasked with working with people from the local area to develop locally specific projects that respond to local needs and assets.  For me the key question will be measuring whether the project is one that both preserves the sanity of its protagonists, and can be mapped to really engage with and become embedded in its local area. Without the wellbeing of those working in it, it becomes a workhouse, without local embeddedness it becomes a fun working holiday for some super-skilled Europeans.


The unMonastery building is highlighted in red.

The Matera unMonastery is situated in the ‘Sassi’ of Matera, a ridiculously picturesque setting in the labyrinthine ancient part of the city, where, since the troglodyte era, houses have been built into the local ‘tufo’,a calcarenitic rock that comes from marine sediments. Whilst fantastic, this setting will actually prove to be one of the first challenges for the unMonastery: Matera, the people, is not Matera, the beautiful and touristy Sassi.

The team

The Matera unMonasterians were selected through an international open call in which people were encouraged to apply for residencies in Matera with projects that responded to local needs and interests, as had been set out following a series of co-production workshops. The final team comprises of projects that take us from building functional solar-panel trackers with local young people, to setting up water-filtering systems for urban farming. The skill-set of the unMonasterians spans coders, graphic designers, illustrators, engineers, social scientists, artists. Over the next four months their projects will focus both on Matera, and on unMonastery as a venture in its own right. UnMonastery favours total, brutal, transparency: you will able to follow its progress, with everything from project plan updates to budgets available online. If at all curious, you can meet the team and ask many questions today (!) from 10am UK-time, by following the hasthtag  #unmon on twitter.

Anthony Burrill –

Progress so far?

The first week has been slow, taken up with the difficulties of setting up when much is out of your control: internet down, heating variable, furniture arriving after the people.

Due to the iterative nature of building unMonastery, it was always hard to know what it would end up being. Born as an idea in the first EdgeRyders conference in Strasbourg, it only became real when Matera – currently a candidate for European City of Culture 2019 – stepped up as a host and funder. First Materans shaped unMonstery in their understanding of what Matera’s assets, resources and needs were; then the unMonastery applicants shaped unMonasery through the projects they proposed. And now, Matera and unMonasterians – sometimes the same thing – will shape each other.

So, how will we know if it is working?

  Without the wellbeing of those working in it, #unMonastery becomes a workhouse; without local embeddedness it becomes a fun working holiday for some super-skilled Europeans

Anthony Burill –

The job of the unMonasterians is now to work hard and be nice to each other – not too light a request when living and working in the same space as up to ten people for up to four months.

Using metrics developed in the RSA’s Connected Communities work, I am helping them develop ways of measuring how things are going, inside and out.

1. How are you? Social change is messy, and burn-out is often the cost. The unMonasterians will be asked to measure their levels of wellbeing, and make sure they have routines that allow for some version of the five ways to wellbeing and proper sleep.

2. Do you feel part of a community? RSA Connected Communities work has really highlighted the importance of feeling part of a community, of feeling accepted where you are.

3. Do you feel supported? It is important to know that you can go to others when you need, and our social connections are often the first thing to suffer when we move around. Even for those who live in Matera full-time, their new focus could disrupt those social connections that currently help them feel well.

4. How are you and your project linking in to the local area? This is the big mama of the questions. Even if our unMonasterians are happy, bright eyed and bushy tailed, without real local engagement unMonastery is a spring-break, not a new way of working. Using social network analysis, and possibly linking to unMonasterian Lucia‘s walking ethnographies, we will be tracking who the unMonasterians are working with, how this changes, and if this goes beyond the existing contacts of our contacts. Everywhere is a bubble: a key question will be whether we can burst ours.

2014 could be the year of the unMonastery, and unMonastery could be the start of something really excellant. Please do follow unMonastery on twitter, keep up to date with what they are doing here, and join them for an online twitterstorm at 10am today!




Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA Connected Communities project.

She is an an Edgeryder and an UnMonk advisor, founded the RSA Social Mirror project and is ¼ of the ThoughtMenu.

You can find her on twitter: @la_gaia

The fabulous poster images are all by Anthony Burrill

Design for Social Innovation in Hong Kong

February 4, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Happy Year of the Horse! Sevra Davis and I from the RSA Student Design Awards team have just returned from a week in Hong Kong – and what a week it was…

We delivered four student workshops, had meetings with five RSA Fellows, and Sevra gave a keynote talk attended by many more RSA Fellows (there are 85 in total in Hong Kong).  We also developed links with some organisations doing exciting work in the design for social innovation arena, rode one of the longest escalators in the world, and visited a social entrepreneur’s maker workshop in a disused farm. Suffice to say it was an incredible trip – here are a few of our best bits:

Working with students and staff from Hong Kong Design Institute

Photo courtesy of Meng Lau, HKDI DESIS Lab

We were invited and hosted by the DESIS lab for social design research at Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI), the design stream of the government-funded Hong Kong Vocational Training Council which currently has over 7,000 students. This year HKDI is encouraging students from across different design disciplines to respond to the 2013-14 RSA briefs and enter our competition (students anywhere in the world are eligible to enter). We ran workshops with students from Landscape Architecture, Product Design, Interior Design, Publishing and Visual Communications courses, meeting over 150 students in the process and seeing some outstanding work. This visit was an initial step in establishing a relationship that may result in a more formal partnership with HKDI, and many of the tutors we met expressed a keen interest in embedding the RSA briefs in their curricula in future years.


Learning about Hong Kong’s burgeoning design for social innovation scene

HKDI talk_500

It was clear from meetings with DESIS staff and the directors of Hong Kong Design Centre, the British Council, and the newly founded Design Institute for Social Innovation at Hong Kong Polytechnic University that there’s a growing movement of organisations in Hong Kong promoting and enabling design that affects positive social change. All of the organisations we met with were keen to develop closer ties with the RSA and to explore potential knowledge exchange partnerships.


Spreading the word about the RSA + social design – with the help of RSA cupcakes!

2. IMG_2205

The biggest event of the week was the RSA Student Design Awards evening talk and reception on Thursday night, hosted by the Hong Kong DESIS lab at HKDI. There were some very big smiles when we discovered upon arrival that drinks were accompanied by cupcakes decorated with our very own logo and images! We managed to resist tucking in until after Sevra had delivered the keynote speech; a very well received introduction to the RSA and presentation of our unique viewpoint on design. HKDI staff, students and other young people attended the event along with a number of Hong Kong-based RSA Fellows, which made for some fascinating conversations and networking during the reception.


Visiting a remarkable social entrepreneur and his maker space


Photo courtesy of Meng Lau, HKDI DESIS Lab

One day we travelled nearly 2 hours out of Hong Kong City Centre to meet engineer and social entrepreneur Cesar Harada at his design workshop. Cesar is a Senior Ted Fellow who quit his job at MIT in 2010 and moved to the Gulf to develop an Open Source, shape-shifting robot called ‘Protei’ to clean up the BP oil spill. Cesar recently moved the Protei headquarters to Hong Kong, and is the current ‘Creator in Residence’ at HKDI. We (eventually!) managed to locate his self-built workshop in a disused farm, and spent some time being shown around, hearing about Cesar’s Protei journey and taking a look at a prototype. Cesar later attended and spoke at the RSA evening reception, so he had a chance to talk to some RSA Fellows too.


Meeting RSA Fellows

William Yeung at VIP night_500

It was a real inspiration to meet so many RSA Fellows during our time in Hong Kong, both in meetings and at the RSA evening reception. Those we met included the CEO of a global design company, a psychology professor from a Hong Kong University, a 1981 RSA Student Design Award winner who now runs his own design agency, the principal of a secondary school and the founding director of a social enterprise. One Fellow who gets a special mention is William Yeung (above, right), who was carrying his lifetime RSA membership card and has been a Fellow for over 50 years!

We found that there was a real commitment to the RSA and an appetite for a more active RSA Fellow network in Hong Kong, and the new Hong Kong RSA connector, Chris White (above, in the centre), is working on this. We spent a brilliant evening with Chris, who also attended the reception and had a chance to meet other Fellows there.

I’ll finish by sharing something one of the Hong Kong Fellows said which really resonated with us – when speaking about what being a Fellow means to him, Simon Yeung said:

‘…by being a Fellow, you are demonstrating that you are a certain kind of person; you are making a statement that says “I have a social conscience.”’


Rebecca Ford is the Assistant Manager of the RSA Student Design Awards.

Follow @RSADesignAwards



Just an intern?

January 9, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters 

I have been working at the RSA for six months and as my time here is coming to an end, I have recently taken to a. reflecting upon what I have learnt and how it can be used in a future role and b. panicking about finding a job.  One thing that I have certainly learnt about myself and being an intern however is that I should at no point refer to myself as ‘just an intern.’ I’m sure that some internships require very little of interns, but this is not the case at the RSA (thankfully). We are definitely being paid for a reason. I have been given the opportunity to play an important role in a research project for the RSA Warwick partnership which involved conducting focus groups with pupils in the Academies, creating a questionnaire, and even speaking at the launch event (which was only slightly terrifying). I have also been given the opportunity to work on the Kickstarter project RSA Pupil Design Awards * which involved drafting the script and working with the Fellowship and Design teams. This definitely seems like the role of an employee to me, and I can honestly say that I’ve been made to feel like one throughout my time here.

Interning at the age of twenty seven is not for the faint hearted as there is nothing worse than feeling like you probably should have started your career when you were 21 years old. However, did I know that this was the area I would like to follow after graduating? No, I certainly did not. Did I feel prepared to stay in England after graduating? No again. I can honestly say that when choosing to apply for this internship within the education team at the RSA, I was passionate about working in this sector. Having completed a dissertation comparing the higher educational aspirations of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in both France and England, I wanted to feel as though I was part of a project which aimed to aid these pupils.  I’m happy to say that I have achieved this and I will continue to follow the progress of many of these projects from afar.

I’m not sure what my next move will be, but rest assured that I will be using the skills I have developed throughout my time here. I will also never again refer to myself as merely an intern. Here’s hoping that future employers will appreciate this too…

*Please do check this project out and spread the word We only have 7 more days to go!

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    For 250 years the RSA has vigorously supported good design, encouraging invention and enterprise for the common good. In the 20th century this support was directed at championing good professional design and excellence in undergraduate design education. We are now exploring how else - above and beyond the impact of professional excellence - society can benefit from design.
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    Nat Hunter is a co-director of design. She trained in Psychology and Interaction Design and ran her own design agency for 14 years before coming to the RSA. Her interests lie in the power of design to agitate, inspire and change.

    Sophie Thomas is co-director of design. She has been working in the fields of sustainable design and material process for over 15 years, which has fuelled her curiosity about why things are the way they are. She wants improvement and knows that good design thinking is key. Follow @tmsophie

    Melanie Andrews is the Manager of the Royal Designers for Industry, a multidisciplinary group of designers appointed ‘RDI’ by the RSA for sustained excellence and significant benefit to society. She develops initiatives with them that add value to the RSA Academies, ARC projects, and runs their annual Summer School for creative thinkers. Follow @Melanie_Andrews

    Sevra Davis trained as an architect and urban designer and worked in both of these roles prior to coming to the RSA. She currently runs the national RSA Student Design Awards programme, thinking up design challenges for students that will address pressing social issues.

    Rebecca Ford is Assistant Manager of the RSA Student Design Awards, an annual competition for students to develop design-led solutions to big social challenges in the UK and beyond. She's also a trustee of youth arts organisation Phakama and co-founder of Digital Disruption, a project that empowers young people to engage critically with the Internet. Follow @RebeccaPFord


    Hilary Chittenden is Design Assistant, working across a range of projects including the Great Recovery, FutureMakers and the Pupil Design Awards. A trained graphic and communications designer, Hilary also has a strong interest in design education. She founded and runs social enterprise Celebrate My Library in 2012. Follow @HilaryChitty

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