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Informal power in the city: where does change come from?

Caroline Bird is a Research Fellow in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. She’s also involved in city initiatives such as the Bristol Energy Network and her research connects across academic and city sectors to share knowledge for urban sustainability.

An event on Monday 11 December will share the findings of a new collaboration between the University of Bristol and Bristol Pound into the use of informality and how informal approaches at a city level can extend influence, support innovation and ultimately inform policy.

“So, what is informal power? An academic term is ‘informal governance’ and it’s the unseen and undocumented activity that contributes to city and policy change. It might be a conversation in the street, meeting a colleague or friend for coffee, or a networking event where ideas are discussed and developed. To an extent therefore it’s about who you know and who you feel comfortable discussing a new project or approach with, drawing on shared values and aims.

Over the course of this year, Sarah Ayres and myself at the University of Bristol have been working with Ciaran Mundy and colleagues at Bristol Pound to see how our academic understanding could be translated into the way that a city-wide social enterprise could play a part in city leadership, how its values might be shared and ultimately might influence policy. Bristol Pound is a great example of an alternative form of city leadership and it has been really interesting to explore with the staff, directors and city partners how informality works for them. We have found that there are many people in the networks of informality that exist in the city, but that they are not always conscious of how their informal interactions can influence the more formal decisions. As one of our participants said:

‘Informality helps to inform the making of strategy and policy - and informality helps to actually get it done once you’ve got that context in place’

These informal networks can bring together a range of people who might not normally come into contact – but they might also, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuate old power structures. Our aim, through this research, is to recognise how these networks operate - and then to challenge the things that might lead to some people feeling excluded. Happily, many people are keen to challenge the status quo, to seek out new voices and ensure that other views are represented - and informal approaches can be very effective in making new connections and bringing in other perspectives.

Informality is particularly useful where there are new ideas to be tried out, explored and developed and where a formal meeting might limit creativity, reduce the number of people involved and constrain what is discussed. It can be a more flexible and enjoyable way to work, but we also recognise that at some point these informal discussions need to be brought into formal decision making if city change is to happen.

There are many people in the city who feel strongly about making Bristol ‘the best it can be’ – drawing on long-held ‘collegiate’ approaches to city leadership which stretch far beyond the council, incorporating both key city organisations and strong grassroots innovative thinking. If the city of Bristol has always been good at making space for informal approaches and a wider ‘diffused’ city leadership, in resource-strapped times this confidence in alternative approaches can only be helpful - but the reduction in council resources still has an impact. Whilst the council has allowed (or not interfered with) the many activities and collaborations flourishing independently across the city, it has also provided some ‘webbing’ to bring groups and individuals together and facilitate collaboration. There are opportunities in this new void, for other organisations like Bristol£ and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership, to facilitate these informal dialogues across the city, steering a course for more ‘sustainable city with a high quality of life for all’.

'Informal power: the opportunities and risks in using the personal touch...' takes place at Watershed on Monday 11 December at 5.30pm. The panel, chaired by Robin Hambleton, includes Sarah Ayres (University of Bristol), Ciaran Mundy (Bristol Pound), David Relph (Bristol Health Partners) and Sharon Woma (entrepreneur and business mentor). Book your free place here.

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