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Power and leadership

Why communities already have everything necessary for systemic change

Change begins with respect and empowered communities. In this blog, Nathan Ardaiz offers five ways for this to happen.

By Nathan Ardaiz, designer & facilitator, AzuKo

The unit for change is the individual.

Let’s not confuse this with the absolute celebration of the individual, which has proliferated since the time of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and has now run rampant to the tune of Kardashian and a disastrous culture of consumption.

Whether you want to call it the butterfly effect, hope in the dark, oneness, or participatory design – ownership, and the faith that the individual has everything he or she needs to incite world change, must be the collective foundation for our work in communities going forward.

Local Trust, as part of their Empowered Communities in the 2020s research, has asked, ‘What does the future of communities look like?’ Or perhaps, ‘What does the future of communities need to look like for crucial systemic change to occur?’

In the UK, homelessness is up 50% since 2010. In Tower Hamlets, where we are working currently, child poverty is also nearly 50%. It is well known the external (financial, psychological & physical) costs of relative poverty and tenancy insecurity, and the catastrophic toll it takes on trust, cohesion and belonging in a place – things we’d consider necessary to foster ‘community.’

For AzuKo, tackling these challenges starts with the individual. It starts with respect for everyone involved – the understanding that each person is oxygen to the fire.

To do this we employ participatory design. We are an architecture charity and we work to empower communities and improve living conditions in the UK and internationally, from housing, sanitation and a playspace in Bangladesh to holistic placemaking and design education in East London.

Five ways we approach systemic change

Here are five ways we approach systemic change (in no particular order), and things we believe are necessary for the future of communities:

Listen. This sounds obvious, but how often do we stop and listen to others without interjecting our thoughts, biases, sounds and facial expressions? When we teach design, listening and in-depth research is where we naturally start. Sometimes our biggest challenge as designers and ‘change makers’ is getting out of the way of ourselves and our egos, but by curiously exploring another’s perspective we give ourselves the chance to more deeply understand, and thus create something lasting, dynamic and relevant.

Include those who are not usually included. It’s a scary and brave process to do things differently – to oppose the status quo – which is exactly what we’re doing when we include the most vulnerable in the design process, when we allow young people to be heard, and when we genuinely believe that we can learn and grow from everyone. That is when designs are at their best.

That also equates to what we’d call empowerment – when people are involved in the processes that they believe are shaping their lives for the better.

Respect power. Adam Kahane, the world renowned facilitator (yes, there is such a thing) in his book, Power and Love, describes years of facilitating future scenarios – at times on a national level (Kahane was a part of the The Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise in South Africa). The premise is that sustainable outcomes (programmes, designs, scenarios, etc.) must be guided by a balance between respecting and listening to the power of each individual in the room, and a collective unified direction (Love). Simply, if you do not acknowledge the power in the room and authentically include decision makers, then solutions will fail. Or tangibly, when working on the issue of homelessness, you must listen to and include the landlord.

Reclaim education. And education is not about formal, primary and secondary tuition; education is about how a group of people (communities – not central governments) share and instil wisdom, stories and memories in future generations. For communities to thrive, a re-emphasis must be placed on relationships, problem solving, storytelling, lateral thinking, empathy, curiosity, and general self-efficacy; as well as STEM (the in vogue acronym for Science, Technology, Maths and Engineering curriculum).

Redefine our relationship to the planet (including what we eat). If we are in fact the unit that defines society, and thus the world, then we must also be the planet (regardless of your stance on climate change). It seems as though we have no choice but for a heightened concern for future generations (see: the Seven Generation Principle), the source of our existence (soil), and the process by which we create with and utilize natural resources.

Click to explore the Empowered Communities area of our website.