Glasgow 2020. What was the point?

About seven years ago I worked on a project at Demos called Glasgow 2020. Billed as ‘an attempt to imagine the future of one city through the creativity and imagination of its people’ – Glasgow 2020 was an 18 month long series of 30 public discussions about the future of Glasgow, several story-writing competitions, a public campaign to collect ‘wishes for the future’ and a series of quirky events – including a forum in a hair-salon, a discussion on a train and a day when we encouraged people to hot-desk from a boat.

The idea was that these different events would feed into each other – wishes and stories would provide a stimulus for public discussions which would produce more stories which would feed into other discussions and so on. This exploration of what people wanted Glasgow to be like and how they imagined it could be, would go on-and-on and somehow this would lead us somewhere – maybe to a new version of what public consultation is, maybe to new ideas for the future of Glasgow, perhaps a Porto-Allegre system of participatory budgeting, maybe some kind of new institution or festival… But as the project was about opening-up possibilities – it didn’t seem right to set it out at the start.

If we didn’t know exactly where we were going we knew what we were against – policy documents that obscured the future in technocratic language, politicians who hid behind them and a determinism that the future was no longer something that could be discussed or shaped by politics, values and culture as other uncontrollable forces – markets, globalisation and so on – would take care of it.

In this way Glasgow 2020 – a new process, that opposed something, without a clear goal, was a sort of clunky publicly-funded precursor of the Occupy movement.

I have been thinking about the project again, as I had a coffee with a Masters student yesterday who was asking me about the project for an essay she is writing on the subject of storytelling in public regeneration. She basically wanted answers to two questions – (a) what was the point of the project? (b) what was the point of using storytelling, rather than other art forms?

I didn’t give very good answers. Here’s a second attempt:

(a) What was the point?

Read as a consultation exercise Glasgow 2020 was always going to fail. Although we had a go at it, the aim was not to accurately represent what a representative sample of people in Glasgow felt about the future of the city, but rather, to illuminate and draw attention to a whole area of life that we perceived to be ‘missing’ – namely an ongoing public dialogue, lead by civic leaders, about the future of Glasgow. There was no way that Glasgow 2020 could plug this gap all by itself – the discussions in the project might have been a start, but their value was as symbols as well as events. This isn’t to say that they were just pr but rather, in common with projects that fit in the realm of ‘socially engaged art’ projects, they had a symbolic meaning too. i.e. Why isn’t there a better public dialogue about the future? How far should institutions stretch to find and solicit the opinions of the people they serve? Can people find hope in politics? Where does public deliberation happen and does it contribute to social change? That’s why the book doesn’t end on a distillation of what people in Glasgow think, and what Glasgow City Council should do about it – but rather on a coda for a more ‘open city’ – the like of which we had experimented with during Glasgow 2020.

(b) Why use Storytelling specifically?

The whole of Glasgow 2020 revolved around telling stories, commissioning stories and circulating stories. I’m not sure what exactly we could have used for this project other than stories – we use stories to make sense of the world, leaders use them to make sense of it for us. In this project they were just a glorified, but very useful, way of encouraging people to talk about the future. I’m not sure how much further you can go with it than that. If the project had a more specific end – e.g. generating ideas for designing a new library – then using stories might not have been so appropriate. Or at least if they were used they, might be used in a different way. Involve have a very useful library of participation techniques and so on here.

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