Participation Now and Open University

Participation Now is a new project that aims to support the ongoing development and innovation of participatory public engagement initiatives. At a time when many established public organisations and forums are in crisis and many familiar forms of public belonging are being questioned, the number of problems we collectively face appears to be increasing. Partly in response to this situation, we are seeing a growth in the number and variety of participatory public engagement initiatives that attempt to address such problems.


open university

We need a way to support active debate about the possibilities and difficulties of these initiatives and an infrastructure that can support ongoing innovation in this area. This is what is driving the development of Participation Now.


As the project develops we’ll be expanding the collection of initiatives and adding further resources to support reflection, debate, research, knowledge sharing, learning and networking. By getting involved you can help us develop this. Whether it’s suggesting new initiatives, commenting on existing ones or comparing experiences, as a participant or as a researcher, you will be helping to build a richer understanding for all involved.


The project has emerged out of research undertaken at the Open University that explores how publics may be changing and how contemporary participatory public engagement initiatives are working to support and respond to these developments. The project was born out of recognition that the best way of developing thinking and practice in this area is to support practitioners, researchers, students and citizens who are interested or already engaged in these developments. Our approach builds on lessons from action research and citizen science, and takes inspiration from the many experimental initiatives in the Participation Now archive.


The Open University has 40-year history of widening participation and opening up access to research, knowledge and expertise. Participation Now seeks to build on this legacy in new ways, by experimenting with digital and other tools to involve researchers, practitioners, students and citizens in the ongoing development of this publicly significant research area.


At the heart of Participation Now is a rapidly growing collection of contemporary public participation and engagement initiatives, which you can use to explore different forms of contemporary practice. Each initiative in the collection is unique—but there are many fascinating points of similarity and contrast, emerging trends and revealing tendencies.


We have developed a set of tools that allow you to filter and compare initiatives that have one or more characteristics in common, organised around four axes. Our categories provide a vocabulary for self-reflection and analysis. Or they might just give you some good new ideas… These categories describe the different issues that people are mobilising around, allowing you to compare initiatives that have similar aims.


To start exploring the initiatives, visit the Participation Now home page. There you can select a category from one of four axes to display all the initiatives that fit within that category. For example, if you select ‘online platform’ from the How axis, this will display all the initiatives that seek to mobilise people through online platforms, or if you select ‘local’ from the Scale axis, this will display all initiatives that operate at a neighbourhood or town level.


This contribution was been commissioned for an editorial partnership between Participation Now and


Ragged leaf logo


The Ragged University project rests on the concept that everyone is a unique and distinct body of knowledge, accredited with their own life experience and with a membership of one. The events we organise at the heart of the project are designed for sharing and learning in informal social spaces. Using available infrastructure and common technology, we can all open a learning space in the sorts of ‘third places’ which Ray Oldenburg describes : pubs, cafes, libraries. These are spaces we all own. The common technology around us—talking, projectors, computers and so forth—is all we need to begin to facilitate communication and create these knowledge landscapes.


Ragged University takes inspiration from the grassroots community achievements of the Victorians where informal schools proliferated, so much so that the collective movement improved everyone’s lives and created free education in the UK (1870 Forster Education Act). The Ragged project is an attempt to rekindle and update the philanthropic traditions which brought about and cemented the free education system of the modern day. By adapting Dr Andrew Bell’s Madras peer-led teaching method), and learning from Thomas Guthrie  who spearheaded the Ragged Schools movement, the project aims to generate events and facilitate groups working together more, to aggregate the contributions of various individuals.


Anyone can do a talk, often held in pubs, where we bring food to share. This occurs in many traditions, but is neatly described by the Native American Potlatch . By putting shared food at the centre of the free events where people share their knowledge and experience, in environments which are co-owned, and by working to underpin all these self motivated individuals in their work, positive externalities emerge.


The events are all held in the informal places where we meet and socialise. These are an annex to formal spaces but are distinct from them. The result is that dynamic conversations, crucibles and encounters arise under friendly circumstances less bound by conventions or policy practices. The theory of learning here is part predicated on the notion of how we go to formal meetings, run through formal rituals and then adjourn to informal spaces where the real work gets done—we have extended conversations and cement collaborations over drink or food. By acknowledging and valuing this, and also by not interfering with its nature, a positive learning environment is set.


In the background and through the website, the project is exploring the theme of generating inclusive forms of bonding, bridging and linking social capital using education/learning as a lens to focus community. These are fancy words for working together and supporting individuals and the groupings of individuals if they are open. Adopting and adapting educators’ ideas which have proved fruitful, and mixing them with a bit of relaxation and fun serves as the engine for the communities we need and want, forming a richer, happier society.


All are welcome to give a talk or guest blog post on the website about education and sustainability, adding to the mix their knowledge and experience…



Do you know of any participatory initiatives that you think should be included in the Participation Now collection? Or do you have any ideas for how Participation Now could be improved? If so, we’d like to hear from you!


We want to develop Participation Now in a collaborative way, to make it useful for people who are interested or involved in participatory public engagement. So if you have any suggestions for resources or links you would like to see featured on the site, please let us know.


To get in touch, email the researchers behind this project, Nick Mahony and Hilde Stephansen. You can also follow the project on Twitter: @nowparticipate .


Dr Nick Mahony (Department of Politics and International Studies, The Open University)
Nick is an interdisciplinary researcher who investigates contemporary public participation and emerging forms of popular democratic culture.

Dr Hilde Stephansen (Department of Politics and International Studies, The Open University)

Hilde is a Post Doctoral Research Associate with a focus on research into public engagement.