Emerging Futures Fund announces £2 million in grants to diverse communities across the UK
It is hard to imagine the future right now. To make it easier, we have made 51 grants to diverse communities across the UK, funding practical activities that give new thinkers and storytellers the chance to share the worlds and communities they want to create and be a part of.
Back in April, in the early months of the pandemic, immersed in the crisis response, we could also see many conversations starting about the "new normal.” We noticed where those conversations were happening, and wondered what other voices and perspectives might be needed if we were to start thinking further ahead. The future belongs to everyone in the UK, and at The National Lottery Community Fund we wanted to make sure a diverse range of communities had a chance to contribute to and shape that future.
And as Rebecca Solnit wrote in Hope in the Dark, “Inside the word emergency is emerge; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast but danger and possibilities are sisters". In among the flurry of reactive, emergency response, where people in communities stepped up to support each other, we wanted to create an enquiry space to begin a process of regeneration - where communities could seek out, together, how they might restore, renew and revitalise.
The purpose of the Emerging Futures Fund
The Emerging Futures Fund was set-up to resource communities to process what they are going through, to listen across their shared and different experiences, to narrate and tell their stories and to imagine, together, what might now be possible. Communities have been creative and inventive, compassionate and resilient, and in this drawn out, long crisis, we want to give visibility to community spirit and bring people together around a vision.
The intent for this was always to be more than just a process of engagement, more than an open conversation - we wanted to open up a possibility space, going beyond conversation, to invite new thinking and support a place to experiment with community-led ideas. The grants themselves are enquiries, which makes them distinct from the narrow prescribed set of options that characterise many public engagement or deliberative democracy exercises where the questions are already defined. Through these grants communities get to define their own questions.
Another aspiration of the Emerging Futures Fund is to seed a UK-wide infrastructure for community listening, storytelling and imagining. What does this mean? It means that if we believe communities need to be at the heart of shaping our futures, then we need to find ways to build their capacity over the long term. Infrastructure builds capacity - it finds ways to scaffold, support and strengthen what is emerging. Through this funding programme we are laying the foundations for communities to bring their insights and ideas to the table, and helping to organise and give power to them. Over the longer term we see this infrastructure being anticipatory too - a way for people and communities to be in the lead because they can anticipate what’s coming ahead.
Why imagination is important at this time
The fund also exists to create the space for imagination, and to try and build futures literacy and foresight capacity in local communities across the UK. Imagination is the act of forming new ideas, images or concepts beyond what we can see, directly experience or understand - something to be regularly drawn on to keep our minds flexible, creative, and able to see beyond what is accepted, known, normal or understood. Foresight is how we anticipate, forecast, envision and make informed predictions based on the signs, signals and data all around us. Imagination, new thinking and fresh insight are crucial for shaping a future that communities desire.
Building this capacity is important for at least two reasons - it is hard to look further ahead or to imagine better or alternative futures, because of cognitive and social bias. People underestimate the complexity of things, or look at things that confirm our own beliefs, are easily swayed by recent events and ignore uncomfortable truths. This can mean important changes get missed, and it's hard to imagine how these changes might combine to bring a different outcome in the world or to ensure that our mental models (our understanding of how the world works) don’t become swiftly out of date. That’s the moment communities find themselves in now, which is disorienting, confusing, uncomfortable and incapacitating. Second, the space and capacity to think long-term about the future and to shape it is an unequal one, dominated by experts in technology companies and other large businesses, academia, consultancies and government foresight teams, whilst many communities are on the frontlines of the crisis where it can feel almost impossible to step back. As John Burgoyne, from the Centre for Public Impact, says: “At a time like this, though, who has the time, resources, and headspace to ‘imagine their world anew’? My fear is that those who will have the privilege of shaping the new normal will be people who have remained healthy, economically secure, and not burned out from crisis response".
That’s why it’s important that the Emerging Futures Fund is creating new capacity among many more communities to explore and articulate their preferred futures.
What we were looking for
This time is as much about rethinking as it is about rebuilding and we designed three different strands in the funding programme to reflect this.
New Narratives, Perspectives and Storytellers: we wanted to fund proposals that saw opportunity to build new narratives about what or who needs to be centred differently. Narratives that help sustain community togetherness beyond the crisis; that could tell the story of new kinds of relationships formed through the crisis response or that encourage us to focus on what we now know is essential.
Community foresight and public imagination: we wanted to fund proposals that experiment with approaches for public imagination at scale, or that activate and strengthen social imagination so that the voices and ideas of local communities can contribute to the renewal of civil society. We looked for proposals that would support communities to develop and use community foresight practices together, supporting how communities can think differently, not just what they do. And put diverse voices at the centre and in the lead in shaping where we go from here.
Investing in strong signals of transformation: we wanted to fund proposals that show potential in terms of where we go from here. They offer practical hope about alternative ways of people and communities being in the lead and reconfigure relationships and resources towards a different purpose. Some of these ideas might have been trying to land for a while and the crisis has meant their time has come. Others are pointing to alternatives for specific challenges like different patterns of work, community togetherness or the resourcing of care.
What we’ve funded
We’ve made 51 grants, which you will be hearing much more about over the coming months, and we’ve taken a portfolio view. We know this isn’t the time for a singular narrative, we need plurality and it requires us to resist the desire to package futures into neat solutions and roadmaps. We need to hold the space for not yet knowing many of the questions, let alone the answers, and be open to multiple views of the world.
I’m really inspired by the diverse range of initiatives we’ve been able to support across the UK. In the portfolio we’ve got work that starts from very different scales - the very micro like five streets in a pocket of Cardiff, to Carrickfergus a small town in Northern Ireland, a city-wide initiative across Bath, and then others that are cross-scale, and looking at macro issues - the kinds of national missions that transcend place and that affect all of us across the UK.
We’ve also been able to support initiatives led by some of those communities most impacted by the crisis - young women of colour, disabled people, refugees and migrants, all of whom are bringing their experiences and creativity to imagine and shape the futures they want through their Emerging Futures enquiry.
There are community-led enquiries that will directly feed into local town and city planning ensuring that communities are shaping the places in which they live in any renewal efforts.
Some of the enquiries we’ve funded will ask important questions about what kinds of social infrastructure is needed now in rural areas given all that has been learned over the last six months, or how to better link up local government with local community effort.
We have also funded enquiries that focus on important and timely themes like work, looking at how work has changed during the crisis and communities defining what they need as we face a growth in unemployment. One grant will experiment with an innovative approach to communities designing new jobs. And we have several enquiries that are focussed on community land ownership and community-led housing.
Some of the enquiries have direct routes into local and national policy-making and will offer opportunities for community-led policy, focussed on rebuilding around upstream thinking and practice and moving away from downstream plaster sticking.
Most inspiring of all are the mix of partnerships that we’ve funded, bringing together culture and art practices, with different futures practices, with the primacy of local knowledge and wisdom in communities.
What can we expect to see?
Over the next six months we can expect to see lots of content being created - from films, writing and podcasts, to toolkits and frameworks that can be reused and reinterpreted. Everything will be shareable. At The National Lottery Community Fund we will be doing a lot of listening across the UK, a lot of sensemaking and a lot of publishing. We’ll also be thinking carefully about who needs to hear what, and creating different platforms for all the work that emerges.
Alongside the 51 funded initiatives, we’ve also made a commitment to those we weren’t able to fund, running a weekly event throughout September to build relationships, listen, and to design ways for their experiences, ideas and expertise to connect into the programme as it grows. This is a long-term endeavour after all, the seeding of a new infrastructure. We’ve also created an openly available Community Toolkit for all the applicants to the Emerging Futures Fund to use. We’ll be publishing this on the website next week so that any community can use it for processing what they are going through, collective storytelling and imagining together about how they want to shape the future.
Through these grants, and thank you to National Lottery players, we hope we’re building community power – to not only build back better but to build back differently, and to hear what is being beckoned from the future.
Click here to see who has been awarded an Emerging Futures Fund grant.