Last year, members of the EDP team took part in the AHRC's 2016 Connected Communities Research Festival, which was focused on the theme of Community Futures and Utopias, celebrating 500 years from Thomas More’s publication.
The Prototyping Utopias project, led by EDP partners The Open University and The Glass-House Community Led Design, built on our relationship with Bow Church and connections with other local organisations in Bow: Bow Arts, Bromley by Bow Centre and Poplar HARCA. The project was partly an experimentation on how a historic place of worship can be used to catalyse connections in the wider community, but it had a broader objective to explore community utopias, and how the connections people have in their own places frame their future aspirations and can lead to the emergence of new visions and actions.
We were fortunate to also collaborate with three artists who have lived and worked in the area, Paul Burgess, Emma Crouch and Simon Daw. Outputs from the activities were shared at a major public exhibition, the Utopia Fair at Somerset House in central London, between 24th and 26th June 2016.
Following the Fair, I was involved in an AHRC catalyst fund application led by Deirdre Figueiredo, Director of Craftspace, which brought together three projects present at the Fair: Maker-Centric, Life Chances and our own Prototyping Utopias.
At the end of June we all met in Soho House (former home of the manufacturer Matthew Boulton) in Birmingham, to talk about and experience each other's projects; share the theoretical concepts we used to approach the theme of community utopias and the processes we used to engage people from local communities; and explore the outputs and learning produced.
We approached the subject of utopia from different disciplinary starting points or lenses. The Maker-Centric project saw utopia through the lens of heritage and embarked on exploring the past as a catalyst for future thinking. The Prototyping Utopias project used the lens of design, and explored how dreaming can help explore and develop ideas for future realities. Life Chances saw utopia from a social science perspective and used creative disruption as a vehicle for creating novel futures.
Despite those different starting points there were many commonalities between the projects. They all saw the past as a foundation but also limitation for the future, which necessitated an effort to re-examine, re-construct and to a certain extent let free of the past. They all paid particular attention to place and the specificity of the local context in which project activities were carried out. They all also focussed methodologically on making and acting, as vehicles for helping engage people from diverse communities in utopian thinking.
It was also interesting to see the different configurations of working between academics, practitioners, artists and community participants adopted in each case, all however agreeing on the benefits of collaboration in research, design, and action, and the richness of knowledge and outputs resulting from the process.
For me, the most affecting aspect of this exploration of community utopias was exactly the emotional engagement of people with this question and the realisation that we dream the same dreams of peace, equality, diversity, opportunity and respect for each other and for the planet. But we all strive to realise them differently in our locations and contexts through, mostly, small steps.