Designing participation systems around people, not institutions

Participatory City approach Deep Dive #2 looks at why its vital to build dynamic and adaptive practical participation eco-systems, and how this differs from our current approaches to fostering networks of neighbourhood activity.

14 min readFeb 23, 2021



People have been asking for more in-depth insights into particular aspects of the Participatory City approach. As we come out of the pandemic and turn our attention to longer term planning for the future, we will need to think about how we can live and work together more closely. We have had the single biggest shared experience of human separation we have ever had, across the entire globe. We have seen the extraordinary negative impact of living apart, on our societies and economies, but also experienced it first-hand as individuals and families and households.

We are social animals, hard-wired to connect with one another, work together, be together. When we are apart, we decline, emotionally, mentally and physically. There are rafts of scientific research which supports this. Data shows us that loneliness has a higher mortality risk than smoking or obesity, we literally die sooner if we are not close to others. Covid’s toll on our mental health is surfacing across the country, and across the world.

And so if being apart is so negative, should we be building a new way of life — designed for being together instead?

If we design our social systems with the grain of human nature i.e. drawing on our intrinsic need and desire to be and work together, could we be looking at a Natural Social Solution to our many challenges.

Over the last three years we have been testing this idea across the borough of Barking and Dagenham in East London.

Deep Dive #2

Everyone can see how incredible it would be to live together in harmony with one another and with nature.

We can also see what life and our societies have become, when we don’t live like this.

So if we can all see the huge impact it would make to our collective futures if we could find a way to live and work together in this way, why aren’t we doing it already?

Why have we organised our neighbourhoods, our societies and economies in a way which continues to generate human suffering and planet degradation?

A research journey

More than 10 years ago I started to research this fundamental question. If everyone wants to live in bustling neighbourhoods, alive with friendship, productive activity and neighbourly collaboration, what exactly is stopping us?

I started by studying a raft of different initiatives where people were working towards doing exactly this. I put together a book called Hand Made in 2010 where people described the stories of how they had developed and grown their projects. I spent 12 months travelling the UK holding workshops in over 100 communities to find out more about what was enabling and what was stopping people bringing their neighbourhoods to life.

The Understanding Society Survey in 2015 showed that only 3% of people in the UK are involved in neighbourhood projects, while nearly 60% agreed, or strongly agreed, that they wanted to work together to improve their neighbourhood.

Taken together, all this research revealed a major challenge which I found hard to ignore.

If people want to live like this, and people in every single community I visited confirmed this …

If people have so much creativity to bring to their streets and neighbourhoods …

If all the science and research of the last few decades show how mutually dependant we are on human contact and relationships, and how much healthier and happier we are when we have this…

If governments and institutions can see the value of this in terms of preventing suffering and reducing their long term cost liabilities…

If we have resources lying wasted in every community across the country…

If all this is true, and we still aren’t succeeding in creating places that generate positive outcomes, but instead continue to create places that generate negative ones, despite our very best efforts, then there must be something we are doing wrong.

We have tried so many ways to do this within our current set of models and methods — non of which have been achieving what is needed. Most don’t go beyond a few local projects, nothing like the scale we would need to fundamentally change how we live and work together.

A conversation with Alex Ryan, from MaRs Solutions Lab, highlighted one of the issues from a systemic perspective:

“We examine the effectiveness of the models themselves as a last resort. When an old model loses relevance, our first response is to push harder and double down on more of the same. When that doesn’t work, we will make tweaks around the margins while preserving the core. It’s only when we have exhausted all other options that the window of opportunity emerges for fundamentally new models and approaches.” Alex Ryan

And for me that window of opportunity was studying how people living in their neighbourhoods were already successfully showing us what was possible. They had already designed a new model, that was practical and peer-to-peer, that was inclusive and vibrant. (A model that is worlds away from this.)

Could we do things differently and make it possible to grow a concentration of this kind of exciting and creative activity for everyone to benefit from and contribute to?

And could we even make this idea work? Or is this unrealistic — a pipe dream?

Are there other sides to human nature, less positive, less collaborative, which would prevent us from ever achieving a harmonious way of life together, even if so many people can see the potential?

Or would it be possible to design our neighbourhood structures and processes differently, that work with the positive grain of human nature and ‘design out’ the conflictual dynamics we so often see?

Fast forward to 2020 and I am happy to say that I strongly believe that we are well on our way to discovering how to build the systems of participation that make this possible.

The Every One Every Day initiative in Barking and Dagenham represents the emergence of a new way of living, in harmony with each other and with the planet.

I wanted here to focus on a few ways this approach, and the systems it creates, differs from how we think about participation at neighbourhood level currently. It literally turns things on its head.

Peer-to-peer participation is good for people.

At sufficient scale it can also be good for neighbourhoods and planet. It needs to intersect and work with services, but it also needs to be recognised that people living together in friendship and collaboration can generate outcomes that no service, no matter how well designed or resourced ever can.

People have capabilities and needs — at the same time

Very broadly and simplistically, we have designed many of our social systems assuming that individual people fall into two main categories.

The first category is people who have needs. We build services to help them with those needs.

The second category is people who have resources. We build volunteering opportunities and structures to harness those resources. We market products for them to buy.

Put simply, we all need to clothe, house and feed ourselves, as well having lots of creativity, skills, talents and ideas.

Perception of people needs to move from a binary perspective to a more wholistic viewpoint.

Neighbourhoods filled with only micro-organisations doesn’t work to build a new way of life.

Our current methods to stimulate and support neighbourhood activity often focuses on small grant programmes. It’s so part of the current model now that we hardly think or talk about it. Over time what this creates is a local landscape of micro-organisations, often with low levels of funding, struggling to survive — competing with each other for funding and volunteers. If they are successful they become professional. Often they become needs-focused service delivery organisations — and as they transition to this, they are no longer neighbourhood projects of residents working together.

Despite millions of pounds being invested in neighbourhoods over decades, we have yet to see evidence that this type of investment, highly targeted, highly dispersed funding, has fundamentally changed any neighbourhood long term for the people living there.

It has worked very successfully to change a few people’s lives, for a short time, and this in itself is hugely important, but it isn’t creating the kind of places which help to generate positive outcomes across the board, for everyone living in a neighbourhood.

It’s a funding system that uses its finite resources to help people with the highest level of need, giving them the most specialist service-generated support it can. So in that sense it is achieving exactly what it was designed to do.

But this is not enough for the social, economic and environmental crisis we face, even more so in the post covid context.

So many studies have shown the incredible value created if social capital is higher in a neighbourhood. Social capital boosts health and reduces anxiety, it reduces unemployment, it increases academic achievement, it increases household income, it reduces crime rates, it stimulates climate change action, it increases political participation, it increases attachment to place and economic growth, it stimulates entrepreneurship, it builds resilience and creates positive life outcomes. In one study it showed that social capital was more important to education outcomes than education spending. The list of studies goes on and on.

So what is the alternative, if small grants alone can’t get us to the scale of collaboration we need to achieve these widespread and socially embedded outcomes? How do you even think about build systems for increasing social capital, when this can only be generated peer-to-peer?

Deconstructing the participation ecosystem

The Every One Every Day initiative is testing a model where a single set of infrastructures (the platform) are held centrally, to stimulate, incubate and support the co-creation of a large network of projects, activities and co-operatives. The system of ‘common denominator’ activity is fundamentally an inclusive way to bring as many people together, as often as possible, in order that friendships can be built — and with it social capital.

I know a lot more people in our street. Before everybody kept to themselves and now everybody is coming together. So that is a good thing, and everyone is starting to help as well now, doing little bits, even if it’s just a little tiny bit. When we started the garden at first the feeling was ‘oh my god how are we going to do this?’ But we did it. Basically Every One Every Day helped us to achieve the thing that we wanted to do. Barking and Dagenham Resident

This large network of projects becomes a dynamic, living and breathing ecosystem of activity that is constantly changing.

Instead of a network of micro-organisations, with a small number of people attached to each, which can become fixed (and even ossified), you instead have an adaptive system of participation. While the projects and networks themselves are constantly changing, the idea is to co-create a stable system that reliably generates high levels of positive outcomes, over the long term, built into the public infrastructure, much like libraries or roads.

What this alternative structure means is tremendously important.

In practical terms it means that the participation system is able to work with and adapt to the realities of people’s lives. Instead of relying only on the most confident people, with the security and time to participate, you can ensure that everyone is able to participate and benefit from this activity.

Imagine for a moment a neighbourhood like Barking and Dagenham with very real challenges. Below is a chart of statistics that we included in our planning for the Every One Every Day initiative in 2017 to give you an idea of the scale of challenges. Add to these numbers the high level of churn experienced in the borough, people leaving and new people moving in.

How do you build a practical peer-to-peer ecosystem that enables people from every walk of life to participate and experience the benefits? People with more than one job, or no job. People with low confidence or poor health. People experiencing depression or loss. People experiencing violence in their homes. Busy people raising children, caring for older relatives, caring for each other.

How do you design and build a participation system around them?

Because if it isn’t for everyone, if the system cannot create opportunities that enable everyone to benefit from and bring their creativity to, then you will never be able to build a new way of life for everyone.

And this leads me on to the important issues of inequity and access to participation. If peer-to-peer participation is intrinsically beneficial to people, and we witness this in the Every One Every Day shops, we see it happening before our eyes, then equal access to this participation is an imperative.

We cannot continue to accept participation systems that are only designed for people with the most confidence and time.

And they currently are.

I believe they are designed around institutional models and priorities, and not around people.

What this new type of participation ecosystem ensures is that people can participate in a host of ways, on their own terms, not on an institution’s terms, and not on the priorities they set.

It’s a system of participation activity that is co-created with the talents, energies and creativity of people, at the same time as helping to address their own challenges, within the same action. It allows for people to self-direct their interactions based on their situation, their feelings and confidence. It allows them to fit this into their available time, which is always changing, often unpredictably, often even more so for people living in deprived circumstances. People who participate in Every One Every Day lose their jobs, get ill, leave their partners, have a bad day. And this flexible dynamic system of participation is allowing for that, it doesn’t expect that people will always turn up with then say, or answer emails, or consistently and reliably contribute. We have an empathetic approach to people’s real lives, we care deeply about them. Our conversations are focused on their potential, how we can help create opportunities the will advance their skills, their ideas, their dreams.

With a flexible, person-centred participation ecosystem of opportunities of this kind on people’s doorstep, people are more likely to participate than if only high threshold opportunities are available.

I feel like it has given me legs to start my own thing, and I think it has actually pushed me, it’s been something that has solidified everything for me. Barking and Dagenham Resident

I wasn’t in a good place. It was nice to have some normality come back. It was nice to know there is some good still going on. I think coming to this gets you away from all of the pain that had been going on a few years before and thinking that we’re going back to some sort of fun, some normality. I’d say yes, it’s given us a bit more of a life back.” Barking and Dagenham Resident

People are constantly moving in and out of the borough, with significant growth in population anticipated in the coming years. This growing participation network and the sense of friendship and cohesion which grows with it, will be established to welcome many new people on an ongoing basis.

The participation programmes are designed to create a diverse collection of participation opportunities, doing different things, in different places, at different times of day, for different durations. See the first Deep Dive into the Neighbourhood Collaborative Brand and communication for more on this. These opportunities create entry points from the smallest engagement on social media or coming into a shop — — through to participating, hosting activities, replicating projects, to exploring new livelihoods through the Collaborative Business Programme. Below is the diagram showing how these entry points are mapped onto a continuum from low to high levels of time and confidence.

Our experience has been that everyone finds the entry point they are most comfortable with to start, but they quickly participate in a lot of different projects at the same time, in different roles and capacities. In one project they may be initiating, in another participating.

This continuum is not intended to indicate that people are expected to move steadily along the line, increasing their commitment levels. Co-operatives and collaborative businesses will be beneficial to the neighbourhoods, but they generate only one set of potential collective outcomes. Many more outcomes are generated through the participation in everyday neighbourhood projects, like cooking and eating together, sharing skills, growing, fixing, making, playing etc. Outcomes like social capital, health, trust, friendship, networks, learning... And all the things that add up with many people do many small things, like sustainable and regenerative everyday practices.

How far have we got with developing the approach?

Our evaluation framework set out 5 overaching areas we wanted to test during the first five years of R&D developing this approach to the next level in Barking and Dagenham.

These areas are feasibility, inclusivity, value creation, systemic integration and adaptability elsewhere.

In this previous article I describe where we think we are on all these points, and the diagram below is a summary.

We often get buried in the detail of the research and development of this approach. How do we measure the impact when there are so many outcomes and they are so distributed, how do we create pathways for people between high service support and inclusive peer-to-peer support, how do we communicate different aspects to different audiences? How do marry the aims and priorities of different funders?

But the most important thing for me, more than ten years into this incredibly exciting and challenging journey, is this:

We have demonstrated that it is possible to bring together thousands of people, from every walk of life, from every conceivable circumstance.

Building a new way of life in this way, with the creativity of everyone, is incredibly inspiring, and the good people of Barking and Dagenham have proved its possible!

I had maybe four friends in Barking that I knew had the same interests as me, and now its in the hundreds. I’ve met people with all different interests, all different careers and hobbies and pasts. And people that have lived all over the world, and speak different languages and experienced different cultures, and know so many things, and I would never have met those people if it wasn’t for the Barking shop. Barking and Dagenham Resident

I was on my own in my room for 5 years. I was addicted to counselling. This is way better than counselling. Barking and Dagenham Resident

I didn’t have a purpose to be here [in Dagenham] anymore. I would have moved out but participating in Every One Every Day as led me another way. Now I feel the borough has something for me. It has changed my perception of the place, and it has changed my life. Barking and Dagenham resident

It had a lot to do with my recovery. I had a nervous breakdown about ten or more years ago. Coming here and doing Public Office, I was sitting in team meetings and things, it sort of made me realise that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that I could go out there and work again. I haven’t worked since 2009, and so started to miss the working environment. Like whenever I came to do Public Office, I’d put on a wig, put a bit of makeup on, I’d dress a bit more corporately. And it gave me the chance to not only use my knowledge and skills, but recognise that I still am able to practice.” Barking and Dagenham Resident




Founder Participatory City | Ashoka Fellow #depolarising @ParticipatoryC @everyone_org @AshokaUK