What lessons can culture learn from local change programmes?

This month A New Direction will publish two new papers in a building collection of place-based intelligence, focused on learning beyond the arts. Sarah Davies introduces the papers

29 May 2019

I’ll admit something. I often feel daunted at the beginning of a new research project. A familiar feeling of not knowing the dynamics of partners, not knowing the filters with which to review their literature. Not yet truly understanding the need that underpins the research commission, the expectations, and whether those perspectives are shared by all stakeholders. But most of the research I do is within the creative and cultural sector, where I am at least in familiar territory.

Increasingly A New Direction has been exploring more holistic approaches to place-based challenges; including its work with Creative People and Places, its cultural investment programme, Challenge London, and its support for Cultural Education Partnerships. These are place-based programmes that seek to connect partners across different sectors for a greater impact through arts and culture. However, there was a sense that perhaps we as a sector are behind the curve; that there were potentially relevant lessons we could learn if we looked beyond our own practices.

So when I was asked to explore examples of place-based initiatives beyond the arts, from fields which I have no prior knowledge or experience of – that familiar daunting feeling returned with zest. I hope any reader would agree though that this is not a bad feeling; you can harness it, channel it. You need it to help you dig away and delve into the issues and core questions.

Immersion counters daunting

I immersed myself. Initial investigations took me on a whistle-stop tour of UK, US and Australian place-based programmes, within the fields of child development, health, wellbeing, municipal services and local economies. The resulting documents are two-fold: a paper outlining different approaches within place-based work, which draws upon the learning for cultural programmes from 8 worldwide place-based initiatives; and a case study detailing the personal journey of leadership in establishing the Birmingham SEMH Pathway programme, which supports those wrongly placed in Social, Emotional and Mental Health schools.

My first task was to organise the definitions and language of place-based working in this broader set of contexts by three main starting points, or ‘points of departure’:

  • Bigger picture - policy-led, issue-led or about structural issues
  • Place - addressing local systems, or local physical environment issues
  • People - focusing on challenges within the social infrastructure

Within these three themes, a set of approaches emerged ranging from top down to bottom up. I found that most programme examples I investigated mapped into these three points of departure. But, rather satisfyingly, many also straddled the different approaches that sit within these starting points. There is a trialling/mixing/borrowing of approaches, which means we could see more community engagement akin to what we would have expected in a hyperlocal programme, in programmes that might seek to transform local economy, for example.

Approaches should be flexible

Another key step was to reach out and talk to people. I owe extreme gratitude to Rob McCabe, Senior Social Worker in Birmingham who generously shared the journey of his SEMH Pathway programme. Here was a real sense of one person’s efforts to overhaul a situation for young people and families in need. A case study was developed from this insightful conversation, tracking his journey and pulling out key points to consider along the way. I hope some of his story will resonate with others who are trying to assemble, motivate, build something located at place level. This is a reminder of the leadership and people/resources needed.

read the case study here

A programme’s success needs dedicated leaders

A parallel process?

During this research process I observed some parallels. I had to immerse myself, I observed flexibility in approaches and strong leadership. I became acutely aware of the tasks faced by those who aim to champion cultural learning at place-level. Within a cross-sector partnership are differing goals, missions, language. Differing procedures, funding restrictions and levels of motivation. Perhaps the developing partnerships of place-based creative and cultural programmes could reflect on these three parts of the process:

  • Immersion – allow adequate time to immerse yourselves in local issues, the language of the different partners’ sectors and the evidence base
  • Flexibility – there is not likely to be one successful, fixed approach. Borrow from other models and points of departure
  • Leadership – identify leaders who can champion the case for change, and build and nurture a cross-sector/multi-agency partnership around the case

read the place-based approaches paper here

Alongside, and in support of, a growing knowledge-base of place-based work, A New Direction has worked closely with Dr Jonathan Gross and Dr Nick Wilson of King’s College London to explore how an ecological perspective to place-level work can further support the impact of our programmes. Read the latest report here and the recent blog by Holly Donagh about the importance of leadership in this type of approach here.