Mudlarking in the social ecology of cities – breaking the public-policy impasse
By Martin Ferguson

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I’d like you to imagine for a moment … we are standing on the banks of the River Thames.

We are going ‘mudlarking’ – combing the shore – to discover British experience of how place-based leveraging of social ecologies is changing the fortunes of people and their city environments and how cities are breaking the public-policy impasse of recent decades that has allowed the wellbeing of significant parts of their places to be forgotten, to be placed in the ‘too difficult’ box.

Our mudlark began by observing numerous signs of the public policy impasse facing cities, including:

  • a ‘new normal’ of perma-austerity, with unsustainable rises in demand for services that were conceived for different times and that now struggle to cope;
  • mega changes in expectations and erosion of trust, driven in part by new technology, but also the rapid decline of old-world power paradigms;
  • a legacy of industrial-age thinking, leadership, government and public-service provisioning;
  • environmental degradation and climate change;
  • rapid and unpredictable demographic changes that challenge prevailing patterns of cohesion and identity;
  • an economy that isn’t working for significant numbers of people; and
  • persistence of hard to solve, ‘wicked problems’.

Taking us on a short exploration, our mudlark left the River Thames to venture a stone’s throw into East London and then north to Manchester.

Drucker Forum 2019

In East London, he described the social ecology of Barking and Dagenham, one of 32 London boroughs. Located just 30 mins from the City of London, today it is (literally) ‘post-Fordist’. Just 2,000 are employed at the Ford Motor Company’s Dagenham plant, compared with 40,000 during our mudlark’s East London childhood. Meanwhile, the population has grown to 212,000 (23% more than a decade previously); 51% of schoolchildren have English as their first language (c.f. UK 80%); and the Borough has the youngest demographic of all local municipalities in the UK.

On the other hand, Manchester had been the birthplace of the industrial revolution, suffering repression in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, establishing the basis for the cooperative movement and witnessing decades of industrial decline with the loss of cotton and manufacturing industries. Today it has 2.8 million residents, served by 10 local municipalities, 10 local health bodies, one police force and one fire and rescue Service.

In both locations, he described deep-seated deficits. For Manchester, these include poor air quality, wide differences in life expectancy depending on where you live, homelessness and rough sleeping, unemployment and unpreparedness of children to start school.

Using data from Barking and Dagenham, he explained how the borough is close to bottom on 12 out of 14 measures compared with all other London boroughs, including life expectancy, educational attainment, domestic violence and abuse, and survival of new businesses. With the realisation that national government was not going to help, this begged the question for local municipal leaders: what would a thriving place look like? They responded by making a manifesto commitment to leaving ‘no-one behind’. Barking and Dagenham Together was born and over 3,000 citizens contributed.

From a leadership and governance perspective, the municipality had repurposed and restructured to transform its public services into Community Solutions, an integrated service focused on harnessing the local ecosystems of ‘community assets’ and helping residents to thrive. In parallel, it had created new, collaborative organisations to build local ecosystems for ‘inclusive growth’, for example: Be First aiming to facilitate creation of 20,000 new jobs. As a consequence, the Barking and Dagenham is now one of the fastest growing boroughs, economically, in London and is building more municipally-owned houses for rent than it is losing through sales.

For Greater Manchester, devolution of governmental functions had cultivated a new ‘platform of purpose’, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. With an elected mayor and leaders of the ten municipalities, the city’s cooperative mindset was being rekindled with local municipal leaders cultivating ecosystems to grow capacity and capability and to orchestrate solutions organically, co-created with local interests.

A collaboration between 30 organisations is creating a Cyber Eco-system, growing local expertise and contributing to the city region’s economy.

Here also, city-wide data, co-created with service users, is being used to inform better decision-making and identify deficits in local ecosystems, including access to green spaces and safe, sustainable modes of transport.

Returning to Barking and Dagenham, he found a strong focus on evolving accessible, educational and training opportunities, including The Campus, a collaboration with Coventry University in the repurposed, former Civic Centre.

More than a century after Charles Booth mapped Life and Labour in London, our mudlark described how Barking and Dagenham is pioneering a Social Progress Index drawing on a rich variety of datasets. New insights are being generated into the principal components of diverse social ecologies – the root causes of persistent problems that undermine basic human needs, the foundations of wellbeing and access to opportunities.

Published openly, these insights are forming the basis for collaboration and participation, indicating where to locate assets, services, advice and support based on the needs of residents, helping to bind social ecologies together and holding diverse stakeholders, including municipal leaders to account.

In conclusion, our mudlark suggested that, in these two city-based examples, we have observed a ‘regime shift’ from organisation-centric, producer-led interventions to organic, and co-created solutions that facilitate the wellbeing of ecosystems. These centre on a concern for people and their wellbeing – the social ecologies in which they live and interact. Leadership is visionary but diffuse and collaborative, orchestrating healthy interactions of people and enterprises in places and complementary relationships that spawn innovation and co-create value. Focused on the whole system – political, social, economic, environmental, technological, legal and not being afraid to tackle persistent, wicked problems, these approaches work across geographical, language and cultural barriers to address issues of power and distribution. Critically, they focus on the future, what could be and ‘what’s not there’ currently, to break through previous decades of public-policy impasse to build a healthy and sustainable city ecologies.

About the Author:

Martin Ferguson is Socitm’s Director of Policy & Research.

This article is one in the Drucker Forum “shape the debate” series relating to the 11th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “The Power of Ecosystems”, taking place on November 21-22, 2019 in Vienna, Austria #GPDF19 #ecosystems

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