Starting further upstream — in the soil.

Image by Darn Thomas Magee

In my last few weeks at TNLCF I co-wrote a blog that highlighted the role participatory grantmaking could play in ‘levelling up’ — explored here. As Onward put it in their recent report ‘Turnaround’, communities need to be able to take back control of their futures to ensure engagement with regeneration schemes and the long-term success of levelling up programmes.

In that blog post we also shared how TNLCF* are exploring and implementing participatory grantmaking in different strands of work across the fund. And, within the context of levelling up, we explained how participatory grantmaking can “​​give communities and community members a sense of agency, pride and power.” This approach can diversify what kinds of projects get funding, and ensure that what gets funded works for the communities it impacts.

I’ve been surprised that more links haven’t been made between the participatory grantmaking community, the rich expertise they have, and the levelling up agenda.

In this blog post I also wanted to add more into the mix because participatory grantmaking, and other deliberative, deeply devolved approaches to decision-making and grant-making are not cure-alls. They, too, have flaws. Significantly, participatory approaches don’t account for the ‘unknown unknowns’ of communities, and can thereby encourage communities to default to what is familiar, comfortable. A wholesale devolution of power to communities without acknowledging and addressing this could lead to stagnating, outdated solutions that fail to deal with the novelty and complexity of present-day problems.

Any communities which are the focus of ‘levelling up’ schemes may require capacity building in order to make the most of any community regeneration funding made available. Without investing further upstream in our collective imagination — in work that explores, unearths and seeds new narratives — then a risk of participatory approaches to grantmaking is that we remain trapped in the same patterns, the same narratives.

Part of the problem is that we may not be talking explicitly enough about the existing paradigms within which our current systems and solutions operate. We are like the two fish David Foster Wallace talks about in his blog:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

In our case, of course, the water might be consumerism or late-stage capitalism, patriarchy or racism, systems of property ownership or types of farming. Without naming these systems and their modes of operation, it can be hard for people to understand how their choices and behaviours are being shaped and limited by the water in which they swim. Without that knowledge, what hope is there of exploring a new kaleidoscope of possibilities? How can communities truly level up in ways that take them beyond the same, tired solutions that haven’t served them in the past?

One solution is to make the practice of new, emergent ways of being and doing legible. In other words, not only do we need to make the ‘water’ visible, but also the ways that water might be otherwise: creating prompts and propositions that give a sense of and make visible what could be. This is what J.K. Gibson-Graham call the politics of possibility — the act of re-framing, re-reading and re-imagining the world in order to uncover the diverse seeds of the future. This work goes beyond the focused particularity of participatory grantmaking and other devolved decision-making by enrolling the power of imagination and experimentation to unveil new, previously unthinkable possibilities.

The Emerging Futures Fund was one attempt to put this idea into practice, providing communities with the time and space to come together to explore new narratives (re-framing), conduct community foresight and public imagination (re-reading), and invest in strong signals of transformation (re-imagining).

What’s in the soil?

Another question we need to ask when working further upstream — in cultivating the conditions for participation, is where, how and from whom we draw ideas, intelligence and wisdom from.

As Jessica Prendergast, Director of the Onion Collective, put it, in a recent event I co-organised with the RSA — the communities which have been targeted by the ‘levelling up’ agenda and who may often be left out of collective imagination processes are far more deeply embedded with community values like solidarity and collectivity than others who have benefited from historical ‘progress’. Because they have been ‘left alone’ (rather than ‘left behind’), these places contain the pioneers of the next economy. As such, any futures and solutions imagined without including these voices will be the poorer for it.

However, it’s not just who participates, it’s also about the other kinds of insights and intelligences that can be brought into these participatory processes — other kinds of ‘intelligences’ or ways of knowing or intuiting that communities could draw on when imagining, decision-making and deliberating.

In the previous blog we shared the work we’d been doing for participatory grantmaking to make better use of what digital, data and tech can afford. We also commissioned some work to better understand how participatory grantmaking could make better use of collective intelligence.

Collective intelligence combines the useful things that technology can do with the unique things that people and communities can do. Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design describes it as:

The enhanced capacity that is created when people work together, often with the help of technology, to mobilise a wider range of information, ideas and insights.

MIT’s Centre for Collective Intelligence describes it as:

How people and computers can be connected so that — collectively — they act more intelligently than any person, group, or computer has ever done before.

Bea Karol Burkes talks about how “It draws on the idea that all knowledge is situated and partial; that is, it is constructed by a person whose experiences cause them to approach an issue in a certain way (Haraway 1988). One person alone can only hold part of the picture of any given situation.”

This is why participatory grantmaking that encourages representation from a small number of people with unique lived experience can only ever go so far and why collective intelligence is so powerful. It can combine different kinds of intelligences and data — it can weave together lived, learned and practice expertise — and never rely on a small sample perspective or practice.

I hope ‘levelling up’ goes way beyond consultation, co-design and citizen assemblies, and instead devolves the design and decisions about where money goes to communities themselves — but, not without also investing in the methods of collective intelligence. It’s these kinds of approaches that will help us fundamentally reimagine and transform the ‘water’ in which we swim.

Bea Karol Burkes has highly informed this piece and the work she’s developed as part of the Collective Tech project will soon be published on that website —



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Cassie Robinson.

Cassie Robinson.

Working with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, EarthPercent, P4NE, Policy Fellow IIPP, Co-founder Point People, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.