From thinking to acting local

In 2011, the Localism Acto proposed to transfer power from British central government to local communities, but there are few tools available to enable local decision making and involvement in the public realm.

Last April, we wrote about the future of public consultation and challenges met by traditional top-down approaches. Today, I want to speak further, and more specifically, about how bottom-up process of self-organising communities could take place in London local neighbourhoods. Every day I walk through the Hackney’s Narrow Way, a high street close to Hackney Central Station. The Narrow Way is fundamental to the urban fabric of my neighbourhood, and many of its shops are used by a generally low-income local population. Impacted by the gentrification of the borough, the Narrow Way is now threatened by rising rents and the Council’s push for higher quality retail. I have seen many attempts to “save” the street, from projects aimed at improving shop fronts to ones extending pedestrian areas. Yet, an LSE Cities Studio Publication rightly highlights that locals always had minimal knowledge or influence over these projects.

The Localism Act of 2011 offers opportunities of greater involvement for civic groups in the commissioning and delivery of public services. Yet, this requires a dedicated group of individuals, capable of representing different interests, of self-organising and eventually gaining council approval. According to a report published in 2014 by the Planning Committee, gathering such local forums remains slow, expensive and is proved to work for small, homogenous areas. 

Urban areas in the UK, such as Hackney, are, conversely, vast and heterogenous, i.e. populated by a mix of generations, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. In the Narrow Way, I see young families, young professionals, students, workers, pensioners, homeless, all using the street in different ways. Some organisations are addressing this challenge and currently providing opportunities for diverse communities to mobilise themselves and have a single voice over local projects. For example, the collective Architects for Social Housing (ASH) is working directly with social housing residents of West Ken and Gibbs Green to help them take control of development plans in the area.

It is time to start a conversation with councils, local communities and other stakeholders to explore how the Localism agenda can evolve in heterogenous, urban areas across the UK.

But how can citizens independently organise themselves to shape their communities and deliver change? Many suggest that digital tools could effectively allow micro-democratic gathering and local decision-making. A London Council report shows that some London boroughs have already introduced online citizens panels or personalised interactive council accounts, which allow people to both express opinions and access information about community-related questions.  Progress is being made but challenges remain: which tools can be used? How can they be applied and where?

Some pioneering tools include RepresentLoomio and Democracy OS, participatory democracy platforms that allow citizens to debate, vote on and influence government decisions. Changify, inspired by a neglected pothole, allows locals to share the things they like or want to improve in their neighbourhood.  Commonplace has also successfully created mapping interfaces on which people can give their opinion on a wide range of public projects. Some mobile apps, like Mobile Citizen, also allow citizens to quickly create requests for local issues by including GPS coordinates, photos, the address of the problem and short comments.

But are these tools capable of reinforcing self-organising communities in heterogenous urban environments?

There are opportunities to reinforce the relationship between systems developed by boroughs, currently helping to shape existing service interactions, and tools that create new forms of micro-democratic decision‐making structures. Combined, these platforms could potentially act local and construct, in Massey’s (Professor of Geography, Open University) words, “particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus”. 

It is time to start a conversation with councils, local communities and other stakeholders to explore how the Localism agenda can evolve in heterogenous, urban areas across the UK.

As we start this conversation, some questions have yet to be answered: How can locals discover and access these tools? Who can we trust to lead these movements and subsequent adoption of these tools? How do you overcome engagement barriers, especially amongst older and time-starved citizens? How can citizens who use the tools and their input help to influence decisions made by local governments? Finally, as pointed by Dunbar (Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Oxford University) at Nesta Collective Intelligence conference, how can we design flexible, modular tools that are accessible to citizens who are diverse in age, culture and tech confidence?

If you’d like to be a part of this conversation, please get in touch with us by email or on Twitter.

Mindset reminders:

  • The Localism Act promotes opportunities for local decision-making but does not propose convincing tools to actually allow locals to gather and make decisions.
  • There are innovative digital solutions out there that could resolve the lack of actual “Localism” in London boroughs.
  • They still need to be adapted to heterogenous, urban communities’ needs and linked to council decisions.


Alsaraf, A. (2015) “Localism and Public Engagement "How digital tools can contribute”
The Economist (2014) “Chasing Cool”
Department for Communities and Local Government (2011) “A plain English guide to the Localism Act”
London Councils (2012) “Localism and Decentralisation in London Survey of Borough Chief Executives Findings and Analysis” (Draft)
Machado, C.A., Bielecki, J., Jalil, D.M. and N. Walt (2014) “Hight Street Magnifiers”, LSE Cities Studio Publication
Massey, D. (1994) “Space, place and gender”, Polity Press, p.154. 
Nesta (2015) “At the roots of collective intelligence”
Planning Committee (2014) “Localism in London: What’s the story?”

ImageNarrow Way - Festivities Taking Place, courtesy of Studioweave.

Agathe Faure