Social Innovation changes face of the cities

I wanted to share with you observations by David Barrie. He reviews examples of social innovation that changes the face of the city. There are similar things in Lithuania worth mentioning as well.


For example arts and culture ( Street Music Day ) come out into the public, the street becomes part of life. Social relations are changing: strangers meet to share emotions and activities together (bubbler ), some second hand stuff ( fleamarket at teachers’ house), their skills and experience ( Eco Wave at Gedimino 9), ideas ( Pecha Kucha ) or just simply talk to each other. Artists and other active people are changing their communities inside Vilnius as well: starting in Uzupis adn ending with Newtown . Coworking in our Hub is part of this movement as well. And that’s just the beginning:).

Naujamiesčio nauja autobusų stotelė

Percent for Innovation

For all of the trauma of recession, when it comes to urban innovation, be it people forming a new collective enterprise or socially producing goods and services, we’re living in exciting times.

In the UK, we’ve shifted from the boutique outreach of street-level projects like the National Gallery’s Grand Tour of 2007 to the Cineroleum, the adaptive re-use of a derelict petrol station in London as a temporary cinema by a collective of artists and designers.

In the delivery of public services, we’ve gone from industrial age ‘command and control’ Government to a moment when the Whitehall Innovation Hub, a unit of the National School of Government, the blue-chip space for the training of civil servants in the UK, can say in a report that

Innovation in the public sector flows through a viral model…The enormous challenges society currently faces…demand systemic innovation, new narratives, new ways of working and, more importantly, more appreciative atttitudes to people and their potential.

In earlier miserabilist post-punk times, this view of human creativity would have been derided as happy-clappy niceness and the warm, well-meaning, collaborative politics of the wig-wam.

No more.

Look to the United States – and New York City in particular – and you can’t help but notice an orgy of modish socialist-real collectivism.

Take just two examples.

First, the weekly Fixer’s Collective at the Proteus Gowanus Gallery, a former box factory on Union Street, Brooklyn.

Billed as a social experiment in improvisational fixing and mending, the Collective is a group of local handy-people who are waiting to fix stuff for you, like textile artist Maya Valladares.


At the same venue, there’s the Brooklyn Brainery, a programme of four-week collaborative courses in which participants all read up on a topic, then share their findings with the group, much like book clubs.

Recent classes include The Life of Che Guevara, How to Survive Winter, How to Make Irrational Decisions – and I am sorry to say that the forthcoming course on World Dumplings is full.


At a time of street riots and demonstrations across Europe, this kind of progressive, DIY, local self-help starts to feel like a relation of pacifist activism, a form of carnivalism I blogged on here and what English philosopher Simon Critchley has called tactical frivolity.

But it expresses other things too.

It supports the idea of the city as a creative place that maximises its citizens’ potential and also feels like early adoption of a make-do mutualism that cities and communities will need to prioritise over the next two decades, as the number of economically active people – i.e. those paying taxes – decreases.

But how to make this kind of thing more common?

How to help collective enterprise  become an integral feature of urban life, rather than a trendy exception to the rule?

YR Melbourne 28_29 10
One tactic worth looking at is to turn the culture industry in to the libertarian industry and take inspiration from an element in the recent transformation of our cities, a phenomenom that has triggered and mirrored shifting values of culture and self.


Today, whether you like it or not, art is an important feature of the public realm of towns and cities and it has played its part in turning soulless business districts or burnt out downtown districts in to more civic, animate places.

The ancient Egyptians were good at it. Ditto Napoleon III. But there’s little doubt that the prevalance of public art across the world today is in no small way thanks to a programme that started in New York City over twenty-five years ago – and if there’s a will to mainstream make-do mutualism, I think that it’s worth looking to for model behaviour.

In 1982, as New York emerged from financial crisis, the City Council led by Mayor Ed Koch passed legislation called Percent for Art that insisted, in effect, that one percent of the budget of a new or reconstucted public building be devoted to art.

Since that time, almost in silence, the Percent for Art programme of The City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs has produced over 200 works of art for the City, for public spaces, parks, schools, hospitals, fire stations, juvenile detention centres, even sewage treatment plants.

This is an astonishing sculpture in the Queens Family Courthouse that was completed byUrsula von Rydingsvard in 2003.

Suspended five floors above the atrium of the building, the sculpture is called katul katul, derived from a Polish children’s game that mimics the rhythmic kneading of dough.


Also in the borough of Queens, here’s a large-scale sculpture on the roof of the 107th Police Precinct that was completed by Alice Aycock in 1992.

Library - 002

The work is a weird combination of military-industrial and Harry Potter, made up of various pieces of painted grey steel and a large disk, inspired by a medieval astrolabe.

Around the disk are fragments of doors, steps, wheels, and a vessel-like form from which light emanates at night – or did back then.

Library - 001

For over twenty-five years, the Percent for Art programme has made art accessible and visible to the public in New York. It has spawned copycat schemes throughout the USA and Europe and played an important role in rendering the city as a more civic place.

But does Percent for Art also offer up a model for stimulating other kinds of creativity in cities, beyond flickering lights and ribbons of polyster?

If one percent of the budget of new or reconstructed buildings in our cities were given over to promoting or seed-funding new social ventures, it could light the touchpaper for a new culture of civic enterpreneurship.

Call it Percent for Innovation.

Value for money?

Yes, if you attach value to the power of sharing and vibrant, local, independent, sociable enterprise.

No, if it’s happy-clappy nonsense to think of the city and its development as a platform for social achievement.

Images courtesy of 1. Tristram Sparks. 2 & 3. The Cineroleum. 4. the hanner. 5. Proteus Gowanus Gallery. 6. The New York Daily News. 7. Brooklyn Brainery. 8. Jeremy Keith. 9.Yvan Rodic. 10. Wally Gobetz. 11. Ursula von Rydingsvard. 12. Newyorkology. 13 & 14.Alice Aycock.

And thanks to Ben Denton, Director of Investment at First Base Limited, an urban development and investment company, for making me think about this the other week, rather than zzzzz on the 06:37 train from London to the city of Sheffield. 🙂

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