I recently took part in a workshop with other fellows from the digital placemaking research programme. Using colourful wool, we traced the connections, conversations and communities we each brought with us. Stretching out across the room, the threads mapped our “cultural ecology” (or the networks and systems of culture) which determine who gets to be involved in how we think about, produce and consume arts, tech and culture.
This experience, that found me with multiple threads passing through my fingers, reminded me of the complex web of connections, conversations and responsibilities that I hold as an inclusion professional. My work - with organisations like Rising Arts Agency - sees me questioning how networks of cultural production are currently set up, and what we can do to make them more open and equitable - particularly for young creatives of colour who are underrepresented.
Who is not here?
“Inclusion” is a term that has grown in popularity across cultural, government and commercial sectors. It means broadly the idea that everyone should be able to be included - in opportunities, activities, experiences and spaces - no matter their backgrounds or needs. In the emerging realm of digital placemaking these personal and political dimensions are also important. To me, digital placemaking is the way we use digital technology and its infrastructure to enhance relationships between people and place. It’s also a way of understanding relationships between people in specific places. Importantly, these places - or spaces - can be both digital (for instance - online maps, social media platforms) and non-digital (clubs, highstreets, street corners).
And, because I work on creative projects, I am interested in how digital placemaking can provide platforms for new ideas, connectivity and representation which can enhance our cultural and social lives. I find myself asking: What will the cultural spaces, content, behaviours and networks of the future look like? What will these things feel like to engage with? How can we ensure they are more inclusive than the current arts and tech scene?
In practice, inclusion in digital placemaking for me, means highlighting the political and ethical dimensions of a process or conversation and asking who is not present here? It means fostering connections - between those in the network and those not currently represented. Importantly, it means ensuring the quality, equality and equity of these connections within the environments in which they play out.
I find strength in my Inclusion Fellow counterpart Grace Quantock; Inclusion Producer Zahra Ash-Harper who is blazing a trail in this field; and my collaborator and fellow creative producer Will Taylor. I feel blessed to be a part of a programme which places inclusion at its heart - I know and I understand that we are here to do things differently…
Some thoughts on sticking points
There are, however, challenges. Things that keep surfacing. Let’s call them sticking points in conversation. In the spirit of openness, collaboration and of expansion, I wanted to share these three thoughts with you…
- We need to expand our idea of cultural ecology and cultural assets
Through this programme we have a huge opportunity to shift and repattern the emerging “cultural ecology” of digital placemaking to make it more inclusive. Currently this ecology mostly includes arts organisations, tech companies, urban planners, architects and local authorities - but what happens when we expand our ideas about cultural ecology and cultural assets?
Time and time again those who get approached to get involved are those with power, resources, space and reputational clout who are already on the radar of institutional, mainstream networks. This often leaves out other cultural forms, assets and networks in places like homes, community centres, and informal and grassroots settings. When we delineate the same spaces, and uphold the same values driving current systems of production, we limit who gets to shape this emerging field and its design. That’s where people with an inclusion mindset and practice are invaluable. We challenge the dominant rhetoric of cultural production to expand networks and possibilities.
- We need to convert enthusiasm to action
Let’s face it. Inclusion is often an exciting conversation point and/or a bit of an afterthought. I’ve lost count of the many conversations I’ve had with those excited about new possibilities and new ways of doing things - ecstatic at the potential of opening things up. We talk. Share opinions. Dream. But what happens when Monday 9am rolls around and your inbox is full. The everyday grind commences and the heady possibilities and promises of the week before are forgotten. Finding time to rewire ways of thinking in an already over-programmed, overworked sector is tough. I get it.
It’s frustrating, though, that whilst it feels like the motivation (and the money) is increasingly there, the time and the respect for the process of when and how you bring other people into the conversation and create change - isn’t yet understood by the majority. We need to talk about inclusion early and often. We need to find ways of understanding and activating our own personal and professional power. This applies in particular to institutional and organisational contexts, where people have the power to shape what comes next.
- We need to think about ‘design-after-design’
I come from a talent development and engagement producing background. For me, that has meant specialising in bringing groups of (mainly young PoC) people together to collectively engage in creative and collaborative processes. Usually this involves working with under 30s to identify together where we can shift networks, create connections and grow confidence and skills. It means we’re always looking to encourage growth whether that be through individual learning, peer to peer support, mentoring or leadership opportunities.
This means I’m often thinking about processes holistically. It involves informing myself adequately to think about what care might need to be taken or what exciting things could happen, and how we can best leave space and prepare for more inclusive futures.
This, I am realising, comes down to a human-centred approach which starts and continues with the people involved - their ideas, their needs, their desires. When we’re designing anything to be more inclusive (a project, a programme, a campaign, an event, a network, a sector) we need to ensure we’re feeding into a vision for the longer term.
No woman is an island
I’m currently working on lots of projects which are changing and influencing things around me. But when I venture out of my own circles, I realise there is still much more work to be done. So it feels important to find ways to visualise and share practice, to trace the connections, conversations and turning points we bring with us as people interested in inclusion.
My research is currently in process. My practice is developing every day. I invite anyone with stories to share or who wants to contribute to my research to get in touch. I am so open to learn from your perspectives; to find more allies and collaborators; to extend the threads of this work further.
Get in touch with me on firstname.lastname@example.org