6 Themes from 3 Years of Civic Futures

Koreo
18 min readMay 14, 2024
Civic Futures Fellows & Deputy Mayor Debbie Weekes-Barnard at the launch of the programme in 2019.

Interviews With Fellows

From February-May 2023, Koreo was commissioned to undertake a review of the first 4 years and 3 cohorts of Civic Futures. as part of which we conducted interviews with 15 Fellows across the cohorts.

As this project was aimed at individuals operating within London’s civic system — and that it combined both the inner and outer work of social change — it’s inevitable the impact of Civic Futures is most easily understood through the experiences of individual participants.

Understanding how those Fellows understood the space they were being invited into, how they experienced it while they were part of it, what influence it’s had on them and their practice, and how they reflect on having finished it, has been central to this review.

From these conversations, we’ve separated the findings into 6 headlines:

  • the unusual space created by the Fellowship
  • the relationships and networks that enabled it and sat at its heart
  • the value of the reflective space it created
  • the licence and platform the Fellowship gave them and their work
  • the growing confidence it gave people
  • the different things people used the space for.

Below you’ll find an outline of what we heard around each theme, and some quotes from Fellows.

An Unusual Space

Fellows described Civic Futures as creating a rare space for learning and development, offering something they hadn’t seen or couldn’t find elsewhere.

I wasn’t looking for something [like it] because I don’t think there’s much out there like it.Year 1 Fellow — Charity Leader

It’s with real people in real contexts, in real sites of governance and decision-making. I don’t know anything like it. You get traineeships where you can go into a department or you can work somewhere, but that’s very individualistic. There’s nothing like the collective learning process that Civic Futures is.Year 2 Fellow, Artist & Organiser

Although we heard this from across the cohorts, it was particularly true of people based in civil society and especially those who were operating outside of organisational structures (e.g. volunteers, artists, organisers). For those people, there was a perceived lack of space for peer support and learning with others leading or operating in similar environments. In particular, there was a lack of structured space to engage with people from other parts of the sector(s) they worked within.

“As a community organiser, there wasn’t an access point to work with local government. Most of the time you’re challenging policies. As an artist as well, there’s even less opportunity to contemplate using a creative lens to questions of governance and city stewardship. Because of my experiences with migration, I was always interested in that other area. Those programs don’t really exist for artists or community organisers. The approach of getting rid of that binary — of people working inside government and outside government — to make a change, and what happens when you bring those two sides together, was really useful.” Year 2 — Community Organiser

It’s striking how many people applied to the programme without a clear sense of what was on offer or what the space would look/feel like. Whether they were nominated by someone else or applied themselves, Fellows spoke about seeing the space as unusual and a step into the unknown. Reference was made to the open invitation and its big, expansive ask, the fact it was a new programme, and the consistent aim for the programme to be delivered emergently.

“I liked the collective leadership program terminology very much and there was a particular language that was used that just felt very different and really not corporate. It felt open with all of these possibilities. A particular line I pulled out as well said: how can we build shared wisdom in making the transition to a better future? That term ‘shared wisdom’ — it sounds good. I want some of that!” Year 1 Fellow, Civic Technologist & Educator

I remember it being really vague in some ways because it didn’t say what the programme would look like, or what the workshops would be exactly, or what the intended outcomes were. It seemed almost like a more abstract aspiration of people working together and creating change. For me, that was really intriguing.” Year 2 Fellow, Social Entrepreneur

That emergent approach was recognised and valued by participants, who commented on the ability to shape something open as well as the responsive way the partnership team worked. There was also a tension for Fellows who wanted a clearer journey and outcomes:

“It is great that the Programme has been able to flex and adapt to the various challenges presented by each cohort. This is testament to each organisation remaining responsive and sensitive to the dynamics arising from a diverse group of people and conditions — and as such is to be congratulated.Community Facilitator Fellow

“That was a big thing for me. It was a co-design program. It wasn’t ‘these are the rules and you’re gonna stick to it’. This was the first cohort and you were very open and honest, you didn’t know where it was going to go or what it was going to do.” Year 2 Fellow, Local Government Programme Lead

It’s notable that while people have seen this as a useful space for personal development, almost no one has explicitly used the language of ‘leadership development’. This is interesting in the context Civic Futures was originally commissioned as a leadership development offer, having been conceived as an advisory panel. It only slowly became the more open, inquiry-based programme it is now.

Relationships & Networks

One of the original intentions behind Civic Futures was to build stronger connections between different parts of civil society and to encourage collaboration and collaborative capacity. That intention has broadened to include people working in local government. The focus on the value of connections has been consistent and one of the primary benefits of the programme from the perspective of participants.

58% of survey respondents strongly agreed that they connected with people from London’s civic system that they wouldn’t have otherwise, with that percentage increasing to 83% for cohort 3.

Fellows joined the programme looking to connect with other changemakers, with perspectives and positions from different parts of the civic system, and with the GLA and other government actors. The programme delivered on this, and there was widespread comment on the quality and range of people in the room, the value in the diversity of thought and identity, and the quality of the discussion as a result.

“Primarily, the thing I got out of Civic Futures was the group of people and the network it connected me to. It really inspired me. That was the key for me. Reflecting back on the feeling of Civic Futures, I think about the inspiring moments I spent with incredible people doing incredible things in this city.” Year 1 Fellow — Charity Leader

“I can think of loads of experiences I had, whether that would be visiting Sue’s amazing place in East London and having an incredible time in the café there, or one-on-one conversations I had in various networking and social scenarios. I visited Javez’s amazing community centre in Hackney, five minutes away from where I lived for five years but never knew existed. I sang karaoke and I ate Chinese food with the regulars there! These experiences were really formative — inspiring me about what’s possible and the incredible work done in London. I was then seeing the work I do in a more connected way to other community leaders, for want of a better word, and local government leaders and seeing how the work intersects and can be a more collective effort.” Year 2 Fellow — Community Organiser

“I was a little bit siloed into working on LGBTQ+ issues and within a very specific community, which has very specific issues. Being connected to all these other amazing people doing amazing things made me realise that those issues are more broadly connected across a number of different sectors within London. Reflecting on it gave me a sense of more of a path towards action to do something about those things. We had so many conversations — almost exasperatedly so — around all these ideas and it’s not that something concrete came out of that but it gave me a sense of ways I can navigate that path a little bit more.” Year 2 Fellow — Cultural Producer

At the same time, there was a sense there could never be enough connection. There was significant frustration that the programme had become virtual for much of the pandemic:

“The program for our year was really impacted by the pandemic. I didn’t connect with the group as much as I hoped to, because it was all over Zoom. By the time we did in-person stuff, we were already trying to go into probes. I don’t know how the other groups were, but I felt like the missed opportunities are not having deeper relationships with the fellows, which I think is a massive shame. It was an exceptional time that we were part of so it was slightly compromised.Year 2 Fellow, Artist & Organiser

Although the thematic focus of the programme shifted across the 3 years, Fellows commented on how aligned interests were among Fellows. Relationships within the cohort felt the most fruitful when looking at collaboration and practical action, particularly through the learning probes in year 2, or the action learning sets of year 1.

“For me, the learning [was] in seeing the world from a different pair of eyes, and that was particularly in the action learning sets. I found them very moving and valuable in terms of how I thought about the world and how I thought about what the challenges were. There were people around the table who had a lot of lived experience, and that was, when I boil it down, the most valuable thing. To be equal with people who are living a very different life to you was really important” Year 1 Fellow, Education Leader

Overall, there was a sense that people were meeting ‘fellow travellers’ who they’d stay connected to and collaborate with over the long term. This is something that’s already proven to be the case in some parts of the network.

“In a professional sense, they’re people I’ll consider friends forever. For as long as I’m in this space and doing these jobs, they’re people I’ll respect and think, ‘Wow they might help with that or they might have an insight into that’. That’s amazing. There are a few things in my life that have been like that, but not many in my professional life that have been so like that.Year 1 Fellow, Charity Leader

This can be seen where there were Fellows from one borough across all 3 cohorts who could either build on each others’ work or connect with each other. In Barnet, Councillor Sara Conway’s involvement in year 2 led to Will Cooper’s involvement in Year 3 and provided an opportunity for ongoing investment in community engagement with and through the council. Sara’s comment:

This has literally shaped the policy of a different area and council. In Barnet, we’re in quite a lucky and unique space. I was on the program for one year and then one of the officers leading this whole area of work locally, Will, is on the program this year. That’s been wonderful. I don’t think our strategies would look the same if both of us hadn’t been part of this.Connection Into the GLA

For many of the civil society leaders, connection into the GLA (as part of and beyond the project) was both a significant and arguably under-developed benefit of the programme. Fellows reported a better understanding of the role local government played in London’s civic system (the GLA’s role in particular), but commented that they were looking for a more substantive ongoing relationship with City Hall.

“It gave a sense of agency in terms of access to the powers that be within London. I felt quite disconnected from decision-making within local government which had an impact on the work I did, the space I ran, and my community. It opened up how I can access those people I need to enact this thing or this project or try and find funding. The network through Civic Futures and having a direct connection with the GLA means I’m more able now to access some of those decision makers that before I didn’t feel able to. I have all these connections through…Civic Futures I can reach out to. Being on Civic Futures gives me a bit more of a seat at the table, I suppose.” Year 2 Fellow, Cultural Producer

“I don’t think we’ve fulfilled our potential in the sense of being that support to the GLA I think the program was set up to be. Now I know some of the cohort have gone to do some work for the GLA. I always thought as Civic Future fellows, I don’t really think we had a lot of communication after we were done and the second cohort came along. There’s still an opportunity for the GLA to reach out to the fellowship as a whole and see where they can pull in people who have that experience and start to build on it. I would like to see that happen.” Year 1 Fellow, Activist & Campaigner

Value of Reflection Space

It’s clear from this review that Civic Futures produced significant value for Fellows who were looking for well-facilitated spaces through which they could reflect on their evolving practice as leaders. The project offered 3 key avenues for reflection:

  • A 360 feedback process for self-reflection and peer feedback.
  • Three 1–2–1 sessions with a coach.
  • The shared reflection and sense-making spaces that the programme offered.

All 3 of these were noted as having brought value, particularly to those Fellows who didn’t have access to this kind of space through the community/organisational structures they were already part of.

The coaching provided a valuable solo space to work on personal inquiries and development:

I got quite a lot out of the coaching. Those sorts of things are an investment and often it’s not the sort of thing you can afford to do. I had a great coach, had some great conversations and I was thinking a lot at the time about my own leadership development, and other leaders that I was working with. I found having that one-to-one space and opportunity to do that really great.Year 1 Fellow, Community Educator

“Remembering the coaching that came as part of civic futures, which now feels like so long ago, I was really struggling and grappling with a lot of big questions at the time, personally. I was questioning my next steps for [my organisation] and what to do now it didn’t have a home anymore. The coaching was really helpful in stepping through that with me. It didn’t quite get me to where I needed to go decision-wise, but it was an important step along that journey.” Year 2 Fellow, Placemaker

The 360 feedback process was an unusually open opportunity for feedback which many people found confirming as well as developmental;

“The 360 audit was the first time I’ve ever done that. That was really fantastic. Having that kind of personal strand.” Year 2 Fellow, Cultural Organiser

The range of reflective spaces in the group sessions provided new perspectives and an opportunity to make sense of one’s own work:

“[It was] amazing and beautiful to have a space to open questions up and have a much slower pace — and be able to delve into some provocations, especially at the beginning. It was a privilege to have the space to think about things in a different way and be introduced to different concepts and meet an amazing group of people. I didn’t think I could be refreshed on a Zoom call but I think I was! It always felt like it would be too much and then there’s this really wholesome, amazing space.” Year 2 Fellow, Cultural Producer

Our understanding of the reasons this aspect of the programme was valuable is:

  • It was a good reflective space, something that didn’t feel particularly available or accessible elsewhere.
  • It was on offer from an independent source.
  • It was happening with a group of unusually diverse perspectives in the room as part of group conversations.

Fellowship as Licence & Platform

Civic Futures has provided a platform for Fellows to explore, inquire, and experiment on themes that feel important to them. In some cases it’s given them a licence to do that which was previously lacking.

Being able to describe yourself as a Civic Futures Fellow was seen to be valuable, and something Fellows use on CVs, social media etc., and as part of job applications. Whether through the connection with the GLA or because of the experience itself, the label is seen as credible and useful.

There was also recognition that the nature of the space allowed more expansive conversations than is often enabled within everyday work/volunteering. Fellows found this positive and valuable, although there was frustration at the difference between the energy created through Civic Futures conversations and the scope to take that energy back into organisational contexts.

“My work is very focused on the micro and actually just to come out to a London level felt like a really good influence and a shift from the day to day. With hindsight, by lifting out of [borough] that was really good for growing my confidence as a leader and understanding what was important to me in this work.” Year 2 Fellow, Cultural Organiser

“My particular work is really place-based. You’re so focused on a place in the community. It’s so important to have those opportunities to look out and find out what other people are doing and be connected to something more broadly.Year 2 Fellow, Local Government Community Worker

It was interesting that those involved in the learning probes in Year 2 described the programme as giving them a licence to explore. We’d expect the same to be true of Year 3, which were just starting at the time of writing.

The probe opened this Pandora’s box of questions that feel quite crucial to answer. It’s changing my practice and the way I’m working on projects, the way we approach architecture, and even how to see the role a designer or a community might have. It’s impacted the way that I speak to other people who’re trying to achieve something similar.Year 1 Fellow, Architect & Writer

Inevitably, and as with many programmes of this nature, how much people got out of these opportunities often related to how much people put in:

On reflection, I’m really aware that I don’t think I invested in building relationships with people. There are probably a couple of reasons for that. I do think the COVID disruption for our particular cohort probably didn’t help with that. But then I also wasn’t active on the WhatsApp group. People do use it, people do connect and reach out to people and I just didn’t do that. I also know that from previous networks that I’ve been in, where I know I invested in it and got a huge amount out of that and continue to do so almost 20 years on. So I think there’s a real opportunity there. I just don’t think I did and that’s because I didn’t make the most of it.Year 1 Fellow, Community Educator

Growing Confidence & Personal Transition

It was striking how many people talked about the programme arriving either at a time of personal transition or starting one.

This included: new jobs; moves into new sectors; setting up new ventures; or just times of uncertainty where people were looking for additional insight into themselves and where they wanted their practice and trajectory to take them. Whether Fellows found their way to Civic Futures because of those transitions or vice versa, the programme was referenced as part of successfully navigating those moves. These personal developments were facilitated by new information, connections, support, reflection, credibility, confidence, or some combination.

“I’ve definitely experienced transition. I was working in more conventional architecture practice when I began. It was quite rewarding to be working full-time on more conventional architectural projects while having, through the Civic Futures program, an opportunity to reflect more widely about what my role could be. That changed in November 2021. I’ve been working full-time for two years now at [organisation] which I started with some friends. I’ve seen the opportunity to really put it into practice or to experiment with a lot of what the Civic Futures programmes are exploring.Year 1 Fellow, Architect & Writer

Fellows frequently mentioned a growing confidence as a result of taking part in Civic Futures, a confidence facilitating ongoing development and progression as a result of taking part:

“It really helped me think about the bigger picture and systemic change. At that time, I moved to [a new programme], which was between delivery and policy, so it was an amazing experience. It also helped me to get a promotion, as a Principal. I felt more confident to engage with all the teams, to bring them to my programs, and to help and work with them. So I went to work with the innovation team, with the policy team, and it helped to have this confidence that I can do it.” Year 2 Fellow, Policymaker

‘It opened me up to training and development. If I hadn’t been on Civic Futures, I wouldn’t have applied for the [leadership programme 1], which I got on. I also wouldn’t have applied for the [leadership programme 2], which I also did last year. It set me on a totally different track of thinking.’ Year 2 Fellow, Campaigner

“Because of the confidence and understanding of how to work as a collective from Civic Futures, I felt more confident going into the [cross-sector] community of practice]. I could see how strangers could find some commonality and also work through those spiky challenges. Those things felt like a very natural transition to move from Civic Futures to the community of practice, which is something I love.” Year 1 Fellow, Charity Manager

For some, that growing confidence started by being nominated for and/or accepted onto the programme in the first place. There was a consistent theme of Fellows being surprised to be accepted onto the programme. Connected to that, there was also a significant sense of imposter syndrome noted on first joining the Fellowship.

“It was a really big thing for me to be nominated for Civic Futures. To be picked out of all of those people. That was huge for my confidence. The work I was doing -, people didn’t want to talk about it or appreciate it — but [through Civic Futures] somebody had recognised the work I’d done.” Year 1 Fellow, Local Government Programme Manager

“I was really excited to be nominated and excited to do the application. I remember writing that was a good process of realisation and thinking I can probably add some value to this. My main concern was will I be leeching off everyone else’s amazing experience and learning and I won’t have as much to contribute myself. But the application process made me a bit more confident that I could contribute and it’s totally worth my time. It felt like it was going to be an introduction to people, ideas, projects and ways of working, ways of being that I wouldn’t have otherwise come into contact with.” Year 1 Fellow, Civic Technologist

That imposter syndrome seemed to dissipate due to the space created, the relationships developed between participants, and being able to contribute to group discussions and reflective exercises. The process of having dedicated space for experimentation through learning probes also increased agency and confidence.

Value of Application vs Abstraction

Through this review it’s been interesting to reflect on how Fellows valued different parts of the programme.

The most consistent challenge, and one that was referenced frequently, was questioning how relevant, helpful and/or accessible the more conceptual, abstract or theoretical parts of the programme are. The provocation series in particular was mentioned here. This gathered input from partners but extended to some of the theories/frameworks shared. The programme journey itself was referenced, which prioritised reflection and provocation in its early stages.

“There’s this constant tension in the civic innovation space where it sometimes gets a bit lost and it’s really hard to know how to bring it back down to earth and root it in the real frontline experience, which is brutal and messy and hard to find. The shininess of academia and theory hits the reality you’re trying to implement stuff with real people and spiky challenges. [Civic Futures] exists where at least these things can meet each other and try to find some way to learn from each other and be together. They’re both important and both need to inform the other.” Year 2 Fellow, Social Entrepreneur

For some this provided an interesting challenge to react to, for others it felt familiar and interesting but not what they needed, but for many people it felt abstract to the point of off-putting. In these cases, it was felt it didn’t add to the understanding of their work or the value of the space. It likely contributed to some Fellows experiencing a lack of clarity on the programme and its purpose, possibly contributing to a small number disengaging from the project.

“It exposed me to a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. If I’m honest, I found that a little intimidating at times. I’m generally a doer. I struggled with how cerebral some of the conversations were and how academic it was at times, as I wouldn’t describe myself in that way. I’ve worked on the front line in the voluntary sector for a really long time and it was a see-and-do type of existence. This was a completely new space for me to occupy. There was a certain amount of discomfort but also there were real spark moments. There were moments where I was able to connect the idea, sparked by Civic Futures, with the action and that’s quite important for me otherwise I struggle.” Year 2 Fellow, Local Government Director

Certainly, in the year we were doing it, elements of the abstract were just a bit too abstract. If the abstraction had been taken down to thinking things through, with different ideas and different detail, but with a focus on what are the challenges facing London? I think that could have been very good. Some stuff went quite a long way beyond that often in a range of weird and wacky directions. I might well have enjoyed that in an evening course that I chose to study personally, but I’m not sure how relevant it was to our work.” Year 2 Fellow, Community Journalism Director

Read the full report on the Koreo website.

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Koreo

A learning consultancy dedicated to imagining and building a better world.