Beyond the Facts: Creating a Compelling Narrative

Do we know what we think we know?

Since the momentous events of 2016 we all know that we are in the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. Populist movements of the political right have hijacked popular debate this way with alarming speed. The rapid growth of disinformation via social media has been highlighted recently in the UK Department of Culture, Media & Sport Committee’s interim report “Disinformation and ‘Fake News'”. The report, based on the findings of a major inquiry, asserts that our legal framework is no longer fit to counter the scale and sophistication of social media disinformation, thereby creating a potential existential threat to our democracy. The report states that “Our democracy is at risk, and now is the time to act, to protect our shared values and the integrity of our democratic institutions”. Such high-profile attention to the threat to our democracy is long overdue and confirms our worst fears.

It is now increasingly clear that many of us, even those of us who consider themselves to be economically literate, lack an understanding of the most basic tenets of economics. Vested interests, whether financial or political, find it easy to manipulate these shortcomings to gain support for policies and governments which threaten to undermine the wellbeing we rightly expect. We are therefore in urgent need of a clearer understanding of how our economies work in order to push for government policies which work for all of us. We need, as a starting point, to know the facts.

A story for our times

But what if facts are not enough? We know, to our cost, that facts bounce off the surface of the argument once an acceptance of “alternative facts” gets traction. Witness the speed at which Donald Trump’s supporters rush to defend his manipulation of the truth, or downright untruths. Similarly, the impending economic catastrophe which economic experts warn is likely with a hard Brexit, are dismissed as “project fear” by hard line Brexiteers who take a pride in dismissing the views of experts.

So is there a need for a story-style narrative to support a fact-based debate? What if, say, economic arguments, were presented as narrative supporting the facts and arguments on offer? Story narratives can be compelling and thought provoking, offering ideas and opportunities for change. Stories aren’t all fairytales.

The Life Project


I recently read The Life Project, an absorbing book by Helen Pearson about five longditudinal British birth cohort studies from 1946 to the present day. These studies have been the envy of researchers across the globe, offering insights into the lives of people from every era and social background, from cradle to grave, directly influencing medical and social policy in tackling inequality.

On the surface, this sounds like a dry read, but in practise the book is quite the opposite. Through presenting selected cohortees’ back stories to support the significant amounts of data in the book, Pearson has cleverly broadened the appeal of the book way beyond academia, drawing in anyone with an interest in how societies work to understand and tackle social inequality. Small details such as typical questions asked in the 1946 survey (“who looked after your husband when you were in bed having the baby”!) shed a light on social attitudes of the time. What Pearson has done here is create a story narrative to support the facts, increasing the reach and impact of the book.

Adopting a narrative

As a regeneration practitioner Helen Pearson’s book has helped me see the benefits of a strong narrative in understanding the drivers of, and potential solutions to, social and economic inequality.

My experience over many years working with communities developing regeneration projects tells me that what people respond to most of all is a story: Shiny new buildings may grab the headlines and account for countless millions spent, but it is the small and intimate personal histories which create a place worth fighting to defend. Stories of local people and their communities over generations are the bedrock on which economic and social resilience is built. In renewing places for their communities, it is these stories which will be remembered, long after the modern buildings have lost their shine.

We need to value these stories for the gems they are, and use them more prominently. If we don’t then so much good work will get drowned out in the wider background noise.


Taking a chance. Making a difference

Red Tower Steps

Eagle-eyed readers will notice I’ve been away from this blog a while. Not for any other reason than having been immersed in various projects and not had time to write about them. Since that last post, it’s remarkable how little has changed in terms of the inequalities highlighted. There have been some startling – some would say potentially catastrophic – developments: The 2016 UK Referendum vote for Brexit; the election of Donald Trump as United States President; the rise of nationalism across Europe and the USA. Democracy, having lashed itself to the neo-liberal capitalist model for three decades, seems to be under threat.

2018 is a timely reminder of how following a dark path can lead to fractured society: It is both the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King and Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. It is, though, the 50th anniversary of the UK Race Relations Act, which took a major step towards better equality. However the recent Windrush generation debacle shows how far we have to go before we can claim to be a truly inclusive country.

Pushing back the tide

Facing up to these challenges can seem overwhelming, but what has been striking is the rise of grass-roots movements to push back and reclaim some sensible middle ground: The pro-EU movement for instance, has been pivotal in building support for a referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal, with an option of remaining in the EU. The widespread protests across the USA against gun violence and right-wing politics have captured international attention and inspired other movements worldwide. What is clearer than ever to me  is the need  to face down negativity and combat it with hope – it may take courage and determination, but as these cases show, the rewards are more than worth the risks.

One such project close to my heart is the Red Tower, now a fully fledged community space in the heart of the City of York. After a lot of hard work and support from many people and organisations, this wonderful space is now realising its ambition as a community café, meeting and growing space. We are thrilled with the design and fit out of this important listed building and Scheduled Monument – a classic example of “less is more” – which had stood empty for many years. It was awarded a coveted York Design Award earlier in 2018, and now hosts a range of activities including a Hunger Café throughout the school summer holidays. The building is run by volunteer-led social enterprise Red Tower York, a Community Interest Company.

Red Tower board

The Tower has established itself as a safe and welcoming space for anyone to come and just “be”: Since opening up as an impromptu café and events space in 2015, we have welcomed some thousands of visitors, from local residents to tourists from across the globe. It is here we have time, space and commitment to offer hope, kindness and inclusivity in the face of fear, despair and division.

Stopping the Big Sell-off

As small, local projects like the Red Tower can show, we don’t need big gestures to drive change: We can start local and work up from there, becoming part of a wider network of grassroots projects making a real change to people’s lives. However our access to places and spaces to do this is under threat: A recent report “The Great British Sell-off” by community membership organisation Locality draws attention to the  loss of on average 4,131 publicly owned buildings and spaces per year through sale to the private sector. They estimate there are 7,280 further public assets identified as surplus over the next five years, representing a lot of small but important potential opportunities for local people. We all need to rise to the challenge of sizing these opportunities before these places are lost to the public for ever. We need to ensure that the Red Tower and others like it are simply the tip of an opportunity iceberg, keeping up the momentum to turn these assets into places of hope and opportunity for us all.


Peretti, Piketty and a 99% case for radical change

Last night I watched the second episode of a compelling 2 part documentary on BBC2 called “The Super Rich and Us”. Veering between anger and despair, I sat dumbfounded as journalist Jaques Peretti calmly and systematically peeled back the layers of greed and chicanery amongst the top 1% of our global elite: The facts (14% of UK wealth is owned by 1% of the population; bank bailouts and quantitative easing siphoned off to fund the super rich) were more than matched by the sense of entitlement of those who have seen a widening of the gap between rich and poor as just another money-making opportunity. Top prize for living dangerously should surely go to the titled lady owner of a rich tract of land in Gloucestershire which hosts a multi-millionaire polo event every year. Surrounded by Bacchanalian scenes of self-indulgence, she was asked if she felt guilty about such goings-on, to which she simply replied that it was natural for people to be envious, and the poor simply didn’t realise how jolly hard the rich worked. Not a hint of irony in sight, though she was a little bit hurt at being asked such a thoughtless question, poor dear. I could go on, but my blood pressure would only rise to dangerous levels again, and twitter is awash with plenty of pithy responses already.

French economist Thomas Piketty, author of the bestselling “Capital in the 21st Century”, also interviewed in the documentary, similarly critiques the yawning equality gap. In his book he uses economic and social history as a launchpad for predicting dire outcomes for all of us if growth continues without state intervention. In order to slow the pace of the widening gap between rich and poor, he controversially proposes a super tax on the rich to bring us all back to the same economic planet. Well, it’s controversial to those who are currently unburdened by any such notion of payback, at any rate. I personally think this is a merely putting us in poll position to redress our more extreme out-of-kilter imbalances.

Faced with such hell-in-a-handcart scenarios, it’s easy to feel powerless and disenfranchised: After all, how can we, as mere tools for enrichment of the already rich, convince the turkey to vote for Chrismas? Well, I think we can – and we must. Looking at things through the other end of the telescope, we are part of the 99%. If we all challenged the 1% just imagine how things could change – a point not lost on the more savvy super rich in Peretti’s documentary. The Occupy movement has already started to rattle the cages of the finance world and über establishment. If we can harness our thirst for change, and pull together the disparate energy of that 99%, just imagine what could happen.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Pam Warhurst and Mary Clear of Incredible Edible Todmorden a couple of years back: They passionately believe that big change comes through small, incremental, well placed actions rather than big shouty, shiny projects. In overturning the perceived wisdom of change only coming about through grand gestures and big spending, they have managed to tackle anti-social behaviour and bring real power to their community through growing sweetcorn. And carrots. And being kind to people.

At TIM in York we have been similarly inspired to tackle change through modest, well-placed actions. Our latest project is the Red Tower in York, an unused 15th Century tower built as part of York’s medieval defences. We hope to get hold of it soon and turn it into a community kitchen, cafe and growing space. We’re in discussions with owners City of York Council to acquire the building on a long lease. We could then have a great space in a currently under-served part of the City which the community could share, use, and benefit from. It’s early days, but we’ve had lots of support and enthusiasm from numerous groups including Food not Bombs, York Human Rights City Project, Heritage York Project, York Foodbank and Friends of York Walls. We are in good company, and certainly not the first to take on this type of project: From Incredible Edible to the Leeds-based Real Food Cafe and Food Cycle, more of us are taking radical approaches to inclusive food sharing and local action.

In a bid to gather as many ideas as possible, we are opening the Red Tower to the public over York Residents Weekend 31st January to 1st February between 10.00 am and 3.00 pm, so hope to see many local people coming along to share ideas and get involved. We will be updating this blog regularly as the project progresses, so watch this space.

We don’t by any means live in a perfect world, and at times the odds can seem overwhelmingly against 99% of us. But if we can refrain from throwing bricks at the TV when watching the likes of “The Super Rich and Us”, as I somehow managed to last night, we may just be on to something: If 99% can have faith in change through coordinated small actions, then big change can happen. And if we don’t? Then we get all the banalities we deserve from rich ladies in Gloucestershire.

Could Scots lead the charge for radical change?

This time next week we’ll know whether or not the United Kingdom will still be intact: The Scottish independence referendum is of massive significance to all of us who call ourselves British, and whatever happens on 18th September, our country will probably never be the same again. As an English (albeit Ghanaian-born) Brit of Irish descent, I’ll miss the Scots if they decide to go it alone. I love Scotland, the people, the wide open scenery and a sense of public pride we seem to have squandered south of the border. All of these factors enrich us all, and make us who we are as a nation.

But for too long, our country has been too London-centric – politically, economically and media-wise. Power and influence has become entrenched with a southern-based elite who are understandably reluctant to give any of it away. The imminent prospect of losing a vital part of our country to the people to know and love it best has galvanised the Westminster mob and sent them scuttling north to plead with the Scots to vote for the Union on Thursday. I wonder if, had they made more concessions to Scotland, Wales and the English regions over recent years, they would be scurrying around in quite such a panic now? The United Kingdom needs to adapt to a more regionalised way of running things, or face a lop-sided future as poor relations to London. This point has been ignored for too long by those who hold the power, and we risk being the poorer for their lack of response.

The political events of recent weeks have reignited the debate about how we share power and influence amongst our various regions. Whether or not Scotland stays in the Union, it is likely it will get greater devolved powers. This could (and maybe should) spark similar trends in Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions.

Take Yorkshire as an example, seen by our London-centric establishment as somewhere vaguely north of Watford. The Yorkshire tourist board – Welcome to Yorkshire – led by the heroic Gary Verity, had to fight tooth and nail to secure the Grand Depart of the Tour de France which took place in July. Initially drawing a sulky response from central Government who at first declined to offer realistic financial support, the event was a triumph. An estimated 2.5 million people lined th 200 + mile route over the two days of racing, and there was barely a town or a village on the route which didn’t embrace the spirit of the race. This was not some commercial blockbuster event, rather it was led by a real sense of community pride across the region. Never have I felt so proud to live in Yorkshire, and I will never forget the atmosphere that weekend.

Grand Depart York & Bishy Rd Parties July 2014 086

The events leading up to the Grand Depart, and the weekend itself, were a perfect example of how a region can create its own success. Everyone seemed to join in, from street parties to street art, cycle races and cultural events. Red spotted sheep adorned the Dales, hundreds of yellow bicycles were strung to lamp posts, even York Minster was topped with a yellow flag declaring “Allez Alleluia”! What happened over this summer highlighted that, a mass of small actions could create a momentum for change. From a mere bike race, we seem to have somehow rediscovered our sense of self-worth.

Of course it’s early days to judge whether or not all the feel good emotions from the Grand Depart will turn in to long-term change, but the signs are good: The local economy has benefitted from all the visitors and countless more are expected having been won over by the warmth, good humour and stunning scenery showcased to a world-wide audience. At a more local level, ideas are afoot spearheaded by The Incredible Movement (TIM) in York, for parts of York – and who knows, maybe in time the whole City itself – to organise car free Sundays, which will give us space to organise fun activities in the streets. Groups like York Bike Belles have attracted growing numbers of women who want to ride more often. This weekend sees the now annual York Skyride and Cycling Festival which celebrates two wheeled activities.

What seems clear that, now more than ever, we need to work at a more local level to create stronger communities, better local economies and a greener way of life. Whether we tackle it through bigger questions, as the Scots are doing right now, or through a mass of smaller actions, as Yorkshire has shown over the summer, matters little. The important thing is we do it. To paraphrase the Scottish Yes Campaign, “now is our time”. Are we going to seize the opportunity or let it pass us by?

It’s not what you say, it’s what you do!

For TIM in York a moment of truth arrived at the weekend: Having launched TIM back in March (see my earlier post It’s all about TIM), and agreed to develop an interactive website which brought together community groups and activity across the City, we showcased it to old friends and new at Clements Hall, itself a home to numerous social enterprises.

We decided to run it as a World Cafe event, agreeing some questions at the outset which people could respond to. What we really wanted was ideas and offers of practical help – and we got plenty of the first, a few of the second. We signed up some new users to the TIM website which was well received. so over the first hurdle, but so now we need to see how well it serves those who said in March that they wanted to use it.

It’s going to be interesting to see how many step up to the plate and offer time and really get on and do stuff – coming up with ideas is pretty straightforward. Turning them into action is of course, less easily done. We’ll be charting progress over the next few months but you can find out more here

Life beyond austerity – a thoughtful revolution?

Much has been written and said about the current UK government’s approach to regeneration, a lot of it less than glowing. It seems to me that the UK Government has hijacked regeneration and replaced it with investment. If the popular definition of regeneration is intervention to rebalance economies in areas of market weakness or failure, this government has used austerity to redefine it. It has moved towards investing in areas which are most likely to grow and thrive, namely London and the South East of England: A recent study claimed that 35% of the Regional Growth Fund (RGF) was allocated to that region, with a paltry 4.5% going to the North East.

This use of public money to rebalance our economy away from areas of need towards more affluent communities can  only fuel our growing north / south divide. An increasingly centralised economy will surely undermine, not improve, our overall social, economic and political wellbeing. We will have more of what hasn’t worked, making solutions harder.

So how can we approach regeneration beyond austerity? Primarily, there is a pressing need to move on from our fixation with it. We must reframe the discussion by acknowledging that unfettered economic liberalism, propped up by an elite minority with vested interests in maintaining the status quo, has failed. Then by understanding how we can do things differently in the long-term, rooted in local civic action linked to the wider world.

We need revolution, not ossification. We need to ask awkward questions: Does our relentless pursuit of growth really deliver prosperous, functional society, or does it simply widen the gap between rich and poor, destroy our environment, and cause stress and conflict? Is it sustainable, for economies or the environment? Are our political leaders equipped and motivated to drive change for the better, or should “we”, the non-elite, be ringing the changes?

Here is the gap in the market for community players, whether strategists or activists: Who could be better placed to stimulate a debate on these and other important questions, and roll our sleeves up and create a sustainable future? Because it will be at local, grass-roots level, that these changes must happen. It’s already starting – through Incredible Edible and Transition Towns for instance – but we need to bring activity and ideas together. We need to act decisively, because if we don’t, who will?

We must be local, not parochial. A thoughtful revolution? There is surely no credible alternative.

It’s All about TIM

The past few months have been pretty flat-out, limiting my time to update this blog. But it’s all been worthwhile and changes are afoot in York and across Yorkshire through all the RSA Incredible activity. This post is a quick update on all of this, rather than a rumination on what might be. No time for that at the moment so here goes…

Thanks to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture & Commerce (RSA to you and me), and the Incredible Pam Warhurst, The Incredible Movement in York has really started to gain traction in changing perceptions of what is possible through small, local actions.

Since our launch at the end of March we have renamed ourselves as The Incredible Movement (TIM) in York, and attracted a diverse, lively and imaginative cohort of thinkers and activists from across the City. We also have a logo designed by Matt at locally based Fusion Design. We’re nearly ready to launch a new web platform which will map growing and other activity across York, as well as like-minded groups, networks and individuals. We’ll be able to update people through this site, and it will be interactive so any members of the site will be able to update it as they find out anything relevant and interesting. It will also have a Call to Action, bringing people together around projects and activity close to their heart. Thanks to Innovate York for all their help and expertise in bringing this together, and to Joseph Rowntree Foundation for funding it.

We also organised a brilliant Incredible Tour and Party in September, which brought together an eclectic mix of performing artists in a tour of growing beds across York as part of York Festival of Food and Drink. The evening culminated in a party at the New School House Gallery, attracting more artists, John Cossham our wonderful local apple presser, two pygmy goats and around 100 guests bringing their dynamism and ideas with them. Support for the event came from Co-operative Food, RSA, York United Multicultural Initiative, Edible York, New School House Gallery, Innovate York, Yorkshire Housing, York Conservation Trust and many others. This really showed how groups and individuals can pull together in ways none of us had envisaged to make something really good happen.

TIM is now getting quite a lot of attention, managing to grab some airtime and get the message out at recent events like Re:Fest 13 in Nottingham and RSA / Incredible Edible BeIncredible in Todmorden. All of this of course has a point: It is fun, naturally, but the serious side is that we are building a momentum for change to tackle poverty, social exclusion, and inertia across Yorkshire. New networks are coming on board in Wakefield, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford to add to the critical mass of change. This is just the beginning, but who knows where it will end up?

We have started modestly, but are rapidly gathering a momentum for change. The challenge now is to keep it going and build on that success. How we do that is for all of us to decide. Time to join the debate and make things happen!

So What’s this all About?

This blog is about making sense in a changing world, and about driving change through small and local actions.
It is about finding a new direction with ordinary people in the driving seat, towards a place where we are kinder to our environment and to ourselves.

It’s mainly about an experiment, The Incredible Movement, which is happening now across Yorkshire, and who knows, may go way beyond that. For now we need to harness energy, but it can be fast, fun, cheap and easy, with small acts not grand gestures.

We’re running out of time for deliberation and can’t waste it propping up the old hierarchies. We need change, and we need it now, so the debate, and the action, starts here.

The Oil Road – A Call to Arms

“An articulated lorry revs its engines as it pulls onto the road, driven forward by the constant rhythm of explosions in its piston chambers. Fumes rise from its exhaust pipe, the geology of elsewhere disappearing into the air”.

So begins one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve laid my hands on in a long time, “The Oil Road”, written in 2012 by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello of Platform is an arts, human rights and environmental justice organisation which has written this book after a decade of travelling the route of oil pipelines and sea routes from the Caspian Sea to the City of London. The book traces the environmental, economic and social impact of oil on the communities along the way, reminding us of the dependence of our political and economic elite on the long-term security of this route.

I spoke to Mika at an event last week where we discussed the book, and asked how Platform aimed to reach audiences beyond the scant, and no doubt sympathetic, audience in the room. It struck me that the book, though eminently readable and apparently well researched, has untapped potential in reaching far beyond the predictable readership, many of whom are already concerned in one way or another about the price we pay for our reliance on fossil fuels. But what about those who are either sceptical about climate change, or have no interest in the subject?

Which brings me to the power of small actions to drive change: If we read this book and do nothing, we have surely failed future generations. But how do we reach beyond the environmental lobby to a less conventional audience, beyond preaching to the converted? This book demonstrates strikingly how our seemingly trivial life choices can have a catastrophic impact on communities thousands of miles away. We are, to paraphrase our Government, really all in this together. So this book should be a wake up call to anyone concerned about the future of our planet.

We need to link ordinary, everyday actions, to our power to diminish the impact of the Oil Road and others like them, to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and think again every time we fill the car up with petrol. We need to bring the problem closer to home so busy people, under pressure to make ends meet, raise kids, do the school run and get to work every day, can do something meaningful to drive change.

The Oil Road, and all it represents, is another reason to galvanise local action. So if we start with food: Growing locally, distributing locally, supporting local economies, and above all thinking about everyday actions we can change to support our local communities, we can feel empowered to drive change. Emboldened, we can start to work more with the fine grain of what is around us, and feel less that we are hapless victims in a global economy we can do little to change.

It’s got to be worth a try. And if it doesn’t work, what’s the worst that can happen? We grow a few carrots nobody wants? I don’t know about you, but that’s a risk I’m quite happy to take.