Imagining Europe: Reclaiming Public Space; Democratic Practices Reinvented

The European Cultural Foundation (ECF) invited people and communities to submit “innovative, daring idea’s” for cross-sectoral collaboration which engages Europeans in re-defining and shaping “public space”. I was informed about this and told that Ragged should be put forward as a project.

European Cultural Foundation

The call has been put out to individuals, collectives or organisations working in the arts and cultural sector as well as in other fields and sectors of society including academic & educational, environmental, trade & industry, health & social care, human rights etc. Applicants can represent the private, public or social sector, and they should be based or active in wider Europe.
From the applications the European Cultural Foundation receive, they will choose the 50 ‘most viable and innovative ideas’. These ideas will be represented by the successful applicants at ECF’s first annual Idea Camp, co-hosted by Les Têtes de l’Art. The Idea Camp will take place in Marseilles between 23 and 25 October 2014 (arrival in Marseilles on 22 October).
The Idea Camp is proposed as a safe and inspirational space for the cross-pollination of ideas, allowing projects and partnerships to emerge to re-imagine and reclaim public space. The camp is suggested to be both a meeting place and a working place, which will be fuelled by workshops around topics and methodologies that will help the selected participants to:

Following the Idea Camp, participants will be invited to submit a concrete plan for further research or investigation of their ideas. A total of 25 proposals will be selected and consequently ‘rewarded’ with an R&D grant up to a maximum € 10.000. The grant will enable the research and development of, business plans, concrete project proposals, prototypes, research papers, media reportages etc.
They say “Over the past 60 years, we have brought together ideas, knowledge and experience to maximise the impact of culture across wider Europe, both through our activities and through our grants programmes. Our goal is to support and bring new ideas and inspired visions to diverse audiences across different countries in Europe and beyond”….
Between now and 2016, we will work through a networked approach, aiming to connect local cultural change-makers, raising awareness of their creative potential to generate new social, environmental, economic and democratic models through their cultural practices.
It is all interesting, and it raises lots of questions.  I put the following information in as an application feeling slightly aware of the zeitgeist of these ‘X-factor type’ grant situations which bring together lots of people to compete for support.  There are lots of these around and on reading the details, I thought it also had some mitigating balances.  One way or another, the activity which the Ragged project is involved in needs support.

One way or another the activity of the Ragged project will continue.  I will make sure that it will be around tomorrow, and next week, and next month, and next year, and in five years, in ten years, in twenty years and in fifty years…it is much more about a way of life than creating a moment. This is simply the ordinary business of everyday life.


Ragged University logo

Summarise your idea, including context, concept and motivation, in maximum 80 words:

Update the movement of the Ragged Schools to inspire and build communities to open out new opportunities and value people. Generate learning communities of practice and inclusive forms of social capital by using available infrastructure (Ray Oldenburg’s Third Places) and common technology (basic apparatus which is accessible). Modernising Dr Andrew Bell’s Madras peer led teaching method, people can form learning networks in their locale, linking into a larger network via the internet

Describe your idea: how will it engage people in the re-definition and shaping of public space. What issue would you like to tackle with your idea?

The idea is to generate free events which revolve around the exchange of knowledge and a community created meal. People come together around two individuals who give a presentation on something they love doing or have invested their lives in. In the break there is a chance to eat the food, which has been provided by the members of the community each of which has brought an item of food to share if they can afford to. The idea of the food stems from the Native American Potlatch.
Anyone can give a talk as long as it fits within the parameters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is non-religious, non-political, and non-corporate. The events themselves are held in independently owned spaces which are tacitly co-owned by everyone. In these ‘third spaces’, as Ray Oldenburg calls them, we learn through social interaction and constantly negotiate and renegotiate the rules of the space and behaviours.
Here the idea is to place sharing kno wledge and sustenance at the centre of the community and engender a culture of valuing people which has its archetypal roots in the village gathering. The organisers of the events are there to foster the atmosphere and act as facilitators of individual and collective trajectories rather than gatekeepers and authorities. It is important to engender a sense of place from a notion of space; a sense of place where everyone belongs and participates, knowing that they are a cherished element in the collective. The idea of home is helpful here in same way that Maria Montessori used home to designate a familial space to learn in her Casa Dei Bambini

Describe the context of your idea (local, regional, digital etc.). What is your motivation for this idea? What makes your idea urgent, innovative or ground-breaking?

The context of the idea is local, but linking upward across boundaries to national and international networks through the digital. The motivation is to build the positive forms of social capital in inclusive networks that generate opportunities for the people who need them. It is to improve the health, welfare and prosperity of communities as well as increase civic engagement. There is a great deal of research which shows that social capital has been on the decrease since the late 1970s and that this correlates with various markers for poor aggregate economic growth, some negative health and welfare trends, decreased civic engagement and less effective local administrations.
Some project is vitally needed to regenerate to social bonds and ties which form the fabric of a supportive functioning society which has a dynamic of its own outside of institutional functions. People are losing touch and faith in the societies they are living in. Th is idea is ground breaking because it is to implement a carefully devised set of dynamic activities which are designed around innate behaviours, both individual and collective. It is ground breaking because it moves away from the clumsy outcomes and measurements systems which have been used to administrate projects before that have ultimately caused the failure of many initiatives to reach large sections of the population and engage the hearts, minds and lives of the people who most need a social network. It brings with it an entirely new way of measuring success through outcomes which has been carefully developed and tested over four years of testing.

Describe the involved target groups that will be most impacted by and engaged in the realisation of this idea.

The target groups which will be most impacted are those who are undervalued and under-represented in terms of cultural and social capital. The lower socio-economic demographics. That said, it is important that this is an idea which involves all groups of society; the old, the young, the rich, the poor, the formally educated, the non-formally educated, the unimpeded and those who suffer from impediments. Without this mix, the possibilities are severely limited and social divides continue to widen. The idea at play is to generate all three main types of social capital – those of bonding, bridging and linking.

Describe your (potential) partners. Which sectors/professional fields do they represent?

The project and networks which will be cultivated as rhizomes will be aimed to align with all the major institutions of a society. Taking a structure from Umberto Eco’s anthropological analysis of elements which exist in advanced cultures. This is by appeal to the noble ideals at the core of institutions. Thus this is not an alternative to formal education but an annex to it; it is not a business but a facilitator of local trade through knowledge. Educators, entrepreneurs and communities were all one in the history of the Ragged Schools

Which skills and/or experience that you already have are relevant for the realisation of this idea? (if applicable, name examples of projects/partnerships you or your organisation have been involved in)

This idea has been developed from a long list of contributors over four years of testing and piloting various events, intitiatives and schemes to understand what is wanted, needed and required by communities. A large academic endeavour has been mobilised in terms of documenting the key ideas at work, and links to various university academics have been firmly established. This includes Susan Brown, a key coordinator of the Ragged University in Manchester who works at the University of Manchester in the School of Education. I have learned through experience and contribute a critical understanding of grass roots community and poverty.

Which skills/resources/partners etc. do you think are needed for the realisation of your project and what would you like to gain from participation in the Idea Camp?

Knowledge of other projects, initiatives and schemes is vital for the continued trajectory of the Ragged University project. Every skill is needed, just as – in theory – every person is needed for the idea to ultimately achieve its full potential. This is about partnering and facilitating other groups, networks, communities and initiatives as much as propagating a methodology which will benefit the wider community through ownership of the model. Funding is also needed to take the idea further as digital resources to support the rhizomatic spread of the model; for this certain expert skillsets need co-opted by salary.


After an opening address by Charles Esche, the following podcast is a recording of a debate which explored the ideas of alternative models for democratic practice in Europe, starting from an artistic perspective. We are living in dynamic times for Europe and its public spaces. It begs the question – What role can artists and cultural actors play in new forms of civic participation?

Moderator Farid Tabarki – the founder and director of Studio Zeitgeist in Amsterdam – invites Peter Vermeersch (lecturer, poet, G1000 Belgium), Tiffany Jenkins (sociologist and cultural commentator, UK) and Juan Freire (innovation manager, Spain) to explore alternative models for democratic practice in Europe. Imagining Europe took place on 4–7 October 2012 at the renowned cultural space, De Balie in Amsterdam.