COVID-19 Futures

“In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices.

The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment.
The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.”

―Yuval Harari

On Friday 13th March our final preparations to launch CIVIC SQUARE from a canal boat in B16 were replaced with writing and communicating a responsive COVID-19 policy from a canal boat in B16, before leaving our collective working space for what we didn’t yet know would be the last time for an indefinite period. What we did know was when rapid adjustments like this occur they reproduce harm disproportionately to those most vulnerable and marginalised, often in ways we cannot fully understand, so we outlined that the wellbeing of our plural communities — those closest to us, our existing networks, our team, and our neighbours in every sense of the word—were at the top of our priorities at this current time, alongside our own health and wellbeing.

Along with so many of you, we started from where we are now to continue our collective work within a rapidly changing context. We are totally in awe of those right on the front line, the key workers close to us in our families and communities, as well as understanding the role that we might play and what that looks like. We recognise that so many things are true right now, from those in crisis, those in the thick of the emergency response, those trying to care for elders and young members of their families, those who are safe and comfortable, working hard in a new environment or enjoying some welcome, unexpected space. Many have intersections of these experiences, whilst for others none of these are true. Many are overwhelmed and overstretched, many are isolated, many are perhaps grateful for a retreat from normality, despite the circumstances, or any combination of emotions throughout a given time frame. There’s broader economic and financial uncertainty. There is personal crisis. Time is open-ended, yet there is no time at all. Everyone is anxious and scared, in one form or another, and nobody has the right answers.

“A modern economy is a complex web of interconnected parties: employees, firms, suppliers, consumers, banks and financial intermediaries…
Everyone is someone else’s employee, customer, lender, etc. A sudden stop can easily trigger a cascading chain of events,
fuelled by individually rational, but collectively catastrophic, decisions.

―Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, Flattening the pandemic and recession curves

We’re having to trust our governments and one another more than ever. Both urgency and emergency are critically important, and we won’t be able to function without those actors to whom we are truly indebted to their service. At the same time, it’s crucial that crisis does not become a cover for abuse of human rights; inequitable, undignified practice; technologies that are breaching our privacy and our rights. Whilst recognising that right now we are absolutely reliant on those on the front line, we can acknowledge that everyone’s work is valuable in this story and we need to be understanding, empathetic and considerate about how all of that comes together.

It’s definitely not the time amongst all of this scarcity and fear to be saying from a place of privilege that things will be so much better after COVID, but does it create a new context to reflect, to think about the fragile economic systems we’ve created and the many paradoxes we sit within? Does it highlight for us how poorly paid and thought of and cared for those keeping the country together are? This pandemic has highlighted many things, and is an important time for us to say, as hard as it is, that going back to normal —business as usual — is not really what we’re fighting for.

“We have to connect our imaginaries of prefered urban futures to experimentation in the here and now.
What really matters if the evolutionary potential of the present rather than waiting for some cognitive consensus of the future.”

―Mark Swilling, Imagining Urban Futures

It absolutely won’t be as straightforward as a new world emerging that’s just and equitable, but things that were previously deemed impossible are now happening at a pace that means the world simply will not be the same again. So, what does this mean? It means there is a space now to imagine what could be possible. It’s definitely a time to connect and to be in solidarity more than ever, and as we (re)activate our online presence and return to social media we’re really happy to share the work of those of you who are building amazing wholly digital initiatives, taking everything digital, and designing at home activities for this reality, but we aren’t trying to do that ourselves because we think those best placed should do so really well.

Here’s a little about what we are doing next:

1. Bringing forward our longer-term Department of Dreams work
When investing in the dark matter of large scale system change, we must invest in the dream matter. Recognising the role of catalysing public and community imagination and foresight, as well as reflection, processing and loss, during this time, we are bringing a longer term piece of work to the fore, working with visionary doers, thinkers, artists and designers to forge and imagine bold new futures for humanity together.

2. Launching The Front Room — the first phase of CIVIC SQUARE
The Front Room is the first phase of an ambitious long-term neighbourhood platform based in Birmingham. It will be a physically-embedded example of our deeper, longer-term theory of change in practice, acting as a soft landing for those who arrive to CIVIC SQUARE from near and far. Rather than meeting and hosting in physical spaces, we will use the coming months to invest in things such as live streaming to make our events and explorations more accessible now and into the future, as well as creating an online context for citizens and residents to begin connecting, dreaming and co-creating the longer-term neighbourhood platform together.

3. Continuing the story so far
There are things that we need to tell you about; things to be thankful for. Previously a wider series of updates was what we were excited to launch and lead boldly with, but these can now be found in a collection of blog chapters in the background to dip into. They connect the transition from Impact Hub Birmingham to CIVIC SQUARE at the end of 2019 with the present moment, and give context to our work as we launch a new reality. We’re incredibly grateful to have been able to go through the process of closing Impact Hub Birmingham gloriously together at the end of last year, to have begun moving towards a regenerative business plan over the next three years, and to have had time at the start of the year to prepare our transition co-operative for the work ahead. You can also find our outline of key areas of work for the next decade, and more information about the set up phase of The Floating Front Room, the direct work of which is currently paused until a time when it becomes possible to host, play and meet together safely.

“In and through community lies the salvation of the world.”

―bell hooks, Choose Love

In a recent discussion on pandemic-resistant economies, Kate Raworth mentioned that we cannot keep putting the role of resilience down to the individual and household level, and this is why we need to invest in our civic and social infrastructure more than ever. Today Geoff Mulgan talked on a States of Change digital coffee session about how we are learning more than ever that the government’s role is handle risks that citizens can’t hold on their own, and this is ultimately where the state gets it legitimacy from. Whilst we have to trust more than ever, we also know that we need to hold them to account more than ever, recognising the incredible work the front line are doing, including the chronically underfunded local government, in order to fight for the future.

What we’re being reminded of amongst all of this is the utmost importance of care, of community, of the value of the role we all play as carers for elderly, community members, children. None of us are just one thing, least of all just an economic unit, but that is one of the reductionist ideas that has led to this place. Now more than ever we come back to the work we paused with even more solidarity with the under resourced, the trodden on, the maligned, those facing deportation and other systemic injustices.

Those who we place at the meaningful, noble, creative centre of leading CIVIC SQUARE’s future are the same people who are unseen to many systems, organisations and criteria, and so unjustly fall through the gaps of much support. We want to direct you to the crucial work of MAIA in their West Midlands Artists Coronavirus Impact Fund and much more to come. Organisations such as The Active Wellbeing Society, The Real Junk Food Project and Eat Make Play in B16 are leading the charge too on emergency food distribution and more, from growing to craft, and we will amplify and support their work however we can in the coming motnhs. We are also working in the background with our wider ecosystem of partners and contacts to organise how we can help in the distribution of funds to the right places, and will keep you up to date with this.

At the end of last year, we left you with this quote:

“Democracy must begin at home, and its home is in the neighbourly community.”

―Eric Klinenberg, Palaces for People

We had no idea what meaning those words would take on for all of us, with it becoming our newly widespread civic duty to stay at home to protect our communities, the NHS and one another. But, despite so much change and uncertainty, we are returning to this point and continuing the work we’ve started together, as individuals, collectives, organisations and wider system actors. This begins with us all, now, wherever we are, to begin the fightback for the world we want to be part of. We must dream and re-dream up the many futures that could be possible, including an economy that takes into account the wellbeing of all people and the planet, rather than measuring success only through productivity and profit.

In all of the chaos, cancellations, pivoting and newness as everything changes around us, we take on a renewed responsibility to create things to look forward to, think deeply and intentionally about and place even more value on the role of building resilience, circulating capital and sharing ownership, designing resources in the open to be hacked and improved, and bolstering the incredible work happening in communities deeply into the long term. This is what we’ve always believed, but that has now been shown to be even more important for our survival, to not only recover from this, but to thrive together in ways beyond the limits of our imaginations, as impossibility becomes inevitability.