Socially innovating heritage and memories


Author(s): Ursula Holtgrewe, Centre for Social Innovation / ZSI

On 19th and 20th September 2019, ZSI’s Ursula Holtgrewe taught a workshop on social innovation, partnership, co-creation and stakeholder engagement for the participants of the Horizon 2020 European Training Network POEM at Uppsala University. The POEM network investigates participatory memory practices in the heritage sector and trains researcher-practitioners in this field. Participants engage young people, refugees and other sometimes marginalised people in co-creating memories in places ranging from Namibia or Greenland to Berlin or Glasgow. Participants gather and crowd-source digital and material memories, explore users’ ways of accessing them and museum professionals’ new job demands, and investigate business models and digital ecologies of sharing cultural data.

These approaches depart considerably from conventional museum and other heritage institutions’ modes of showing material artifacts that represent particular and often hegemonic histories and identities. They change the heritage-related practices of representing, remembering, showing, learning and debating and aim to include new, also marginalised people and bodies of knowledge. They also reconfigure expertise, identity, and both virtual and physical spaces and objects. Doing this, they use familiar, but often more creative and colourful methods of stakeholder engagement, participation and empowerment. Yet the perspective of social innovation is not very common in the sphere of culture and heritage in particular, apart from the field of urban renewal and revitalisation. Drawing on a range of workshop participants’ own and “adopted” projects and examples, this made for lively discussion of the meaning of participation and intervention, the depth and reach of change and of desirable and demonstrable impact.

To give a flavour of the workshop’s conclusions, here is an edited version of a final Q&A session conducted through sticky notes (for Ursula to ponder on her way home) and e-mail.

Q: How do the concepts and terminology of social innovation apply to our research?

A: I really can’t answer that for everyone, but quite simply, the concept of social innovation and community, transdisciplinary as it is, may provide you with wider contacts, collaborators, publishing outlets beyond the memory/GLAM/humanities contexts you’re working in. If your actual and potential fields aim for more social inclusion, outreach and societal impact, the social innovation terminology may provide common ground and a common framework for collaborations with social, education or urban activities.

Q: In the context of satisfying social needs, providing help and relief in emergencies (the 2015 refugee influx): how can you distinguish social innovation from just doing the necessary and decent thing?

A: Good question. Normatively, I like the critique that this distinction implies, that something like helping people in need that should be common practice needs the extra legitimacy of being an innovation. Yet it seems that some parts of contemporary societies can be more easily persuaded to be “innovative” than “decent”.

Analytically, however, I should argue the following: IF the practice of common decency requires changes in social practice of certain actors and these changes are sustained, THEN it is a social innovation in that respective context. Social innovations generally may have a way of getting re-invented as they are lost or eroded though other social changes. For example, recent debates on reinventing municipal housing in Berlin and elsewhere, rediscoveries of cooperative movements in digital contexts, and so on.

Q: How does participation relate to empowerment?

The general assumption is that of a virtuous circle. People are invited to participate, learn skills for participation in the process, get better and more effective at making demands and developing solutions etc. This would mean (potential for) empowerment, if it works that way. But it requires a bit of ambition, so the term should not be used synonymously with participation.
Beyond “helping people”: the hope is that participatory approaches have more potential for helping people help themselves. That may not be total self-help (and the rhetoric of giving someone a fish versus teaching them to fish is often a little too pat), but people and end-users voicing their needs, requirements and demands may also enable institutions to provide more effective help or contribute to designing a better mixture of self-help and institutional support.

Q: Is there a positive side to projects with participation for the sake of it as compared to those in which participation has wider ambitions for change?

A: It may well be, if the experience of participants is good, fun, empowering, learning something. Nothing wrong with that. On the one hand “participation” in itself may not empower people automatically. .  Just putting post-its on flipcharts in a one-off event may not empower anyone, that is more like a consultation. It has its uses, but is something different.
On the other hand, there may be a more or less explicit promise involved of improvement (in your living environment, for example). If there is no clear pathway on what is happening next, you may generate disappointment. But gaining some practice in voicing concerns, diagnosing the situation etc. may well be good and necessary steps already.

Q: is there a handy framework for conceiving of participation in the context of our PhD projects?

A: Not easy and the literature is somewhat scattered. Maybe theinformation/consultation etc. continuum of stakeholder engagement helps, there is action research in various flavours, participatory design and design thinking. Being very clear and honest about your own aspirations, then finding the references that fit will be the way to approach.  Some of the more inspiring ones may even be less recent, like Paolo Freire’s pedagogy, Ivan Illich’s critique of institutions …

Q: If you look at systemic change, how much complexity can you take into account?

A: Phew! I wouldn’t recommend for any local project to relate itself to the systemic level in the most abstract sense. In a PhD context, then either you get lost in the complexities or become very deterministic. There are risks in either interpreting your project in terms of world history or world history in terms of your project. Neither is the most scientific and interesting road to take.  But being clear on the need /problem / challenge that you are addressing and then drawing some lines towards the “root causes” underlying it, and the complementary developments that would help address them and increase success or impact will be helpful. For example, if we’re talking about participation of young people, some idea of relevant inequalities in your context (urban decay, colonialism, immigration, declining industries, unemployment) will be good, most often through some social/historical insight. Then exploring how for example a museum initiative could be taken up in schools …. even if your project won’t deliver major impacts by itself, providing some insight into its limitations and into possible ways forward is a good idea and will give it more weight.