65 years after the Institute for Community Studies was originally launched by Michael Young, today it’s a pleasure to see it reborn with new priorities.
Two years after first discussing the idea of relaunching the Institute, today our Manifesto gives a fantastic summary of what’re we’re about and our mission. You can get a sense of all those collaborating on research in and with communities and the methodology and guiding principles behind our operating model. But I wanted to set out a more personal perspective on why we chose to re-launch a 65 year old institution, and what I hope it will mean for the use and purpose of knowledge creation within and beyond the walls of academia.
Over the last three years, various parts of the UK have been occasional hosts for some unusual, rarely seen visitors. Prime ministers, Cabinet Ministers, senior bods from the Bank of England, journalists who normally venture no further than Essex Road to get their news stories have all been flocking to ‘left-behind’ and ‘leave-voting’ towns, trying to find out what on earth half of Britain was thinking when it put a cross in the leave box.
A lot of this flight of the elite into different corners of the country was driven by a realisation that they simply didn’t know, recognise or understand the country in which they were now living. They were (and are) insulated and inoculated against the effects of austerity and poverty and have been the winners in a more globalised economy and a failing meritocracy.
The pollsters played their part in contributing to their shock too. While polls were often predicting that the referendum result would be a close run thing, only 16 of the 168 polls predicted a leave win; with bookies predicting an 80% probability of a vote to remain.
I’ve lost count of the people who were not just shocked by this result, but couldn’t (and still can’t) understand it. I bet Geoff Mulgan a Euro we would remain, and I remember respectfully handing it over to the only person I knew in London who called it right.
This well-intentioned desire to get on a train and ‘get out and about’ to speak with people has continued, in fits and starts over the last three years. What has been far less in evidence - with the notable exception of the Irish Citizens Assembly on the Thirty Sixth Amendment - has been the commitment to ‘bring people in’ to that central space where conversations and decisions about them are made.
Day trips to Bolsover and Rotherham to deliver focus groups don’t cut it, and while there are many good organisations and genuine pioneers looking to reinvigorate our democracy in different, more deliberative ways, this issue and profound importance of understanding each other should not be regarded as a problem that is confined to our democratic processes. As you can read in this Civil Society article, it’s a problem for anyone in a position of institutional or commercial power and a clarion call for them to give higher value to the lives, experiences and perspectives of much broader and diverse base of people.
This is why we are launching the new Institute for Community Studies - to bridge the chasm between the voices of people and those in power. To shift the rhetoric of listening towards genuine forms of engaging and co-creating; and to bring the sharp insights and knowledge from communities in to where they can be heard in their own words, in robust and real ways.
When I joined the Young Foundation in 2017, I did so with an intention of getting closer to where life was happening, closer to communities. I was unsatisfied in a professional environment where the vast majority of people I met were all cut from a very similar cloth. And as part of the philanthropic world, we were often in positions of privilege and unacknowledged power. I’d never heard of the Institute for Community Studies, knew nothing of its history, reputation and publications. I simply came with a hunch that the Young Foundation had something incredibly powerful and timely to offer anyone trying to understand, involve and innovate with communities.
Two years later, with generous financial support from Power to Change and Friends Provident Foundation, a private donation and continued support from Richard Harries, members of our Shadow Advisory Board, Young Foundation trustees and our hardworking, committed staff, we are ready to begin our journey.
Our mission is to co-ordinate what’s working to support stronger, more resilient communities across the UK. It is to direct the UK’s considerable research capabilities towards questions that matter to people and communities. Our mission is to build bridges between communities and institutions, finding new ways in which academics and communities can work together, and by doing so, bring together very different kinds of knowledge. What we expect this to mean in practice, is more public involvement in research and innovation, increased research skills within the population; creating knowledge and insights that are practically grounded in things that matter to people. Knowledge and insights which will have far greater utility and application for more people – accessible and understandable to anyone seeking to create positive change and reinvigorated relationships with their communities.
You’ll see here the early results from our research agenda creation process, a unique blend of methods to uncover and prioritise what matters to communities up and down the country. This process is ongoing until the end of the year, when we will publish a prioritised research agenda and our partnerships with universities and other institutions who are committed both to directing their research efforts to what communities say is important to them, and to working in partnership with community researchers.
My recurring hunch is that the next decade, perhaps even the next three decades, will be an Age of Community. Where the combination of what some people like to call ‘mega trends’ find their feet and we begin to see far more clearly the consequences of a changing climate, the continued rise of technological power and changing world of work, the need to care (if we are fortunate) for an increasingly ageing society in the places and communities where we live. This is not to paint a calamitous picture of our future, it’s more a belief that it is outside work, outside politics, outside shopping and Netflix, in that empty, ungoverned space of un-coerced association - in our communities in other words – where we will – and are - finding agency, a sense of control, mutual support and the capacity to transform. Academic and other institutions need to find ways of working with that power and that intelligence, involving communities in ways which increases our collective understanding, and shift policies and practice together.
The new Institute for Community Studies will work consistently in the service of that mission, I hope, for many years to come.