Last week, over 100 people from different walks of life gathered around a dance floor in Sheffield City Hall – not to learn ballroom steps, but instead to learn how to be partners in place-based working.
The Power of Place was an attempt by five different organisations – Collaborate, Lankelly Chase, Locality, Local Trust, Power to Change – with similar ambitions to transform places but different approaches, to come together and see what we could all share and learn. It was not so much a conference as a conversation, where many of the constituent parts that make up place-based systems could share perspectives, challenge each other and build relationships.
We didn’t quite know if it would work or exactly what to expect – but then that is often the nature of place-based working. The only intended outcome was the creation of an opportunity; for people to engage openly with one another, make new connections and to learn in their own way from a range of different experiences.
Here are some of our collective reflections on what we learnt from organising the event and from spending a day talking with people who are at the leading edge of making place-based social change happen in practice.
Modelling collaborative behaviours
The event itself was an act of collaboration, with different organisations learning to trust each other, to be flexible and adaptive, to keep dialogue open and to be willing to relinquish control. It enabled us to pool our different skills, networks and experience, to organise something that was much more than any of us could have done on our own. The huge range of participants at The Power of Place – from community activists to central government, from academics to the sports and physical activity sector – demonstrated the far reaching recognition of a need to work across traditional silos, and of the value that stepping outside your organisational comfort zone can add.
Thinking on our feet
We began the day as we meant to go on; with people standing up, moving around, and shaping the conversation for themselves about what we mean by place-based working. From “local solutions to local needs” to “understanding places as systems”, it clarified the commonalities, drew out the differences and introduced some provocative threads that continued to challenge throughout the day. This opening large-scale dialogue (also known as the ‘soft shoe shuffle’) set the tone for the event – dynamic rather than static, moving about, forming new groups and connections, maximising opportunities for learning from each other in non-hierarchical ways.
Listening and learning together
Rather than presentations from a panel or having any keynote speakers, the day was structured around a series of small group discussions. These addressed two broad questions: “why placed-based working?”, and “what does place-based change look like in practice?” So people considered what the potential benefits of place-based working were, whether they would be equally felt by all; the resources needed and the particular tools to make it happen. The conversations were rich and varied, and in amongst it all some headline themes began to emerge: around the art of really listening; an awareness of behaviours and culture; the need for space and time; the importance of understanding power and where it lies; and that shifting power would require new approach to accountability and risk. More practical experiences were also shared – of creating ‘open spaces’, use of design tools, illustrators and animators, or just the universal value of cake in bringing people together.
Stepping back to make space for change
Making change happen in a place requires a spirit of curiosity, openness, enquiry, dialogue. The final session of the event modelled this by handing the floor over to attendees to host their own discussions on a range of different themes or questions they had been suggesting throughout the day. For example, people wanted to talk about: how do you make your processes sustainable? How do we diversify our sector? Does money kill informal grassroots activism? For conference organisers, empty space on an agenda can be a bit daunting – but having overcome initial reticence to step up and lead topics, attendees welcomed the opportunity to set their own agenda and to find peers to learn from and make new connections. They also didn’t shy away from the difficult or provocative questions, highlighting the extent to which place-based working is also about allowing space for challenge and conflict. This reflects the kind of approach that might be required to manage dialogue in a place: stepping back to allow ideas to step forward.
Indeed it became increasingly clear from people’s closing comments that the form of the event reflected the reality of place-based working. It was hard work but productive. Complex but fun. Connections were made between sectors, and a welcoming space for listening and sharing had been created, but as with much place-based working people wanted to know what next, what the action was as a result of the conversations.
The ebb and flow of the day was beautifully illustrated by Jon Dorset, who kept track of the questions and captured some of the conclusions – that change takes time; place-based work is about process not outcomes; trust the people as experts; relationships are key.
The conversations inside the room reverberated outside it over on Twitter at #powerofplace. We hope they will continue.
Over the coming weeks we are planning to share blogs from participants with their take on what they learnt and what it means for their own practice. Please do get in touch if you have thoughts you’d like to share; we’d love to hear from you to keep the debate going, build the momentum behind place-based working and help us shape what we do next.
Thanks to everyone who came along and gave so much energy to the day. All our participants are motivated to make change in a place. One of the questions that was raised from the floor was “is there longing in belonging”? The Power of Place was evidence of a longing to work better together, and to expand the capacity of all the actors in a system to make places better.