Participative intimacy

Changing everyday practices towards just and sustainable futures might sound like social engineering. It might increasingly be the preserve of Behavioural Insights Units promoting energy savings and other tweaks to life-as-usual. But scientists from many fields are clear that small changes are not sufficient to head off the climate impact of prolonged fossil fuel use. Normal life in countries with unsustainable consumption patterns needs to change – and fast. How, then, to do this so scale of change is not part of the problem? And how might seemingly unpalatable choices become part of a bigger movement towards living better?

I’m interested in initiatives attempting social transformation and going beyond behaviour change to full-blown culture shift. The ambition of these change-makers is not to nudge behaviour but inspire care and imagination in so that different relations and ways of being/doing fall out of new values and priorities. Particularly effective are forms of creative practice that seek to intervene at diverse and multiple points in a system, staying approachable while keeping ambitious changes in sight. This links the big scales of society and social justice and even bigger geological and ecological concerns of climate futures with the experience of everyday life at more meaningful horizons, such what goes on in the household and neighbourhood. Thus, inter-scalar creative producers address practice to different horizons, encountering person by person and group by group the meanings that underpin societies and civilizations and acting as a bridge. They act as conduits, not for scientific facts but for visions of the future, providing paths to reach new ways of thinking, being and doing.

For the creative practitioner, this might be to use spectacle and/or to loop through the media and work with shock to attempt to change relations. We have seen this in speculative design and arts traditions. Certainly, presenting dystopian futures and current horrors can capture attention. However, evidence suggests that denial and a sense of impotence are overwhelmingly the response to dramatic negative messages. The science of climate change has not scared populations into action over 50 years. The slow but all-encompassing nature of the crises that come with it are particularly difficult to break into manageable actions for change.

So, if shock and other arresting, but short-term, measures do not inspire action, what does? If a slow drip of bad news just makes things worse, what makes things better? A more intimate but less sensational approach offers an alternative. It is not glamorous or newsworthy. It is time-consuming. But decades of purposeful positive change demonstrate that it is effective. Creative work to make change involves staying and collaborating over time, guiding reflection, promoting mutual care and affecting sense of agency in the contexts of ordinary life and among familiar or soon-to-be-familiar others. I call the quality of this engagement participative intimacy. It is less grand than big aesthetic or political moves, but it creates a process by which experiences of hope, shame and desire for change can be converted into constructive next steps, in company and with a sense of purpose. It is the work of making and gently shifting the emotional, political and philosophical connections that cannot be seen in the moment, but suffuse the acts we take. This, more than anything, can be transformative for groups reflecting together, with the final ambition to change whole cultures and systems. Individuals can see differently in a moment; societies hold onto their assumptions and the systems that stop shifts progressing. So to effect noticeable change is slow, which is why ecologies of socially engaged inter-scalar creative practice is needed, working together in ways that are contextually relevant to where they are placed, staying intimate but with an eye to the whole.

As an advocate for participative intimacy, I can point to moments in my research when things shifted in groups in just the ways that I describe here. Knowledge independent of affective engagement does not achieve this. I draw from this research here and also give a couple of more sustained examples to show how this plays out over a bigger canvas. Common to all of this is an attention to details of place, current dilemmas and what local people are concerned with.

In a studies of community activists (i.e. strongly motivated people working for change in their neighbourhoods) and how they shared practices, there was a difference between offering ‘news of others’ circumstances at a remove’ (p208) and ‘care generated by working together to share learning and recognise the value of one’s activities’ (p204), particularly in trying to engender ‘feeling for others’ situations’ (ibid). 

In one study, activists visiting Oxford for a workshop ‘went to lengths to offer the Oxford boatyard campaigners their support on hearing of their battle [to keep open a boatyard], assuring them that if they had known about the campaign they would have joined forces. The subsequent presentation by the Oxford group included the national media coverage the campaign had received, leading the visitors to reflect, apologetically, that they had probably seen the news with no interest in the campaign until they knew the stakeholders. Being together created solidarity and concern for each other’s circumstances, as well as an understanding of the importance of each platform to the local scene.’ (p203 Light and Seravalli 2019). The results of the study showed that ‘care does not scale as systems do.’ (p207-8). ‘Where affect and interest exist, the device of sharing stories worked well … [but remote but informative] programmes were unable to turn idle interest into a matter of concern. … Reflecting and learning together is key … collaboratively articulating issues and creating opportunities for caring and being cared for.’ (p208)

Another study looked at how ‘sharing a meal, drinks, a walk or an informal conversation can often matter in a project […] because these activities can begin to knit a considered way of engaging with one another that is appropriate and specific to that encounter. In taking the time to attune and sensitise to each other, we are able to make connections.’ It concludes that ‘care acknowledges the huge role that building trusting relationships plays, shaping our willingness to take part.’ (p???7 Light and Akama 2019) and the ‘nature of trust is that it emerges from a personal rather than a professional relationship. It is situated in the moment and in the relations of the encounter as well as the wider social and political frames of our meeting. Arguably, trust is another kind of knowledge into which people develop insight over years of experience with social situations. …To see it as informed judgment is to invert normal research discourse. Yet, it is sensible and fair that any judgment made … is about the people as much as the activities.’ (ibid). 

These patterns are visible in other people’s experience and data collected to understand such phenomena. 

The Stove Network in Dumfries has worked for many years with the people of Dumfries asking the question “What is this place?”. By doing so, they have mobilized residents to work together and renew a town centre that had been ailing since industry left the south of Scotland. ‘As the only arts-led development trust in Scotland, we work alongside our local authority, community organisations, local businesses and charities to create a vision for the future of Dumfries High Street,’ says the mission statement. ‘At the heart of The Stove is a creative practice led by the whole Stove team. It is a constantly evolving experiment about embedding creativity within a community. Stove practice is so integrated in the place that the question of ‘where is the art’ becomes active. Ours is an invisible art within currents of enterprise and civic activism. An enabling art, that widens possibility and change in society, one that values the creative spark and the need to innovate and create, holding the wellbeing of our community as its primary purpose.’ (

Innovation theorist Margaret Heffernan explains that all organizations can tackle big problems by starting on a “local” level. She has written about this in her book on futures, but here I quote from an interview in Forbes: ‘Instead of an image of a general and his staff coolly surveying the business landscape for a solution, the idea is that lots of different initiatives are allowed to emerge. It’s an approach that fully embraces uncertainty and leaves it to human ingenuity to come up with new ideas. 

‘Heffernan tells the story of Rebecca Hosking, a former BBC producer who is passionate about the impact of plastic bags. In 2007, she convinced her local independent stores in the village of Modbury that going without plastic bags was possible. Together they called a public meeting to persuade the big retailers to come onboard—which they did, providing a free canvas bag to every household in the village. The following Monday, the village went plastic free.

‘Soon the media got wind of the story, arriving in force. And other places started to take note. Chinese officials presented Hosking with a bag emblazoned with: “Our Province follows Modbury!” Overnight the province had banned plastic bags for 32 million people. Others followed suit. A small experiment came up with a solution for a big chunky problem.’

Hefferan relates that, valuably, Hosking had friendly relationships with the local shops. She was passionate enough about the topic not to quit when her moving documentary about devastation in Hawaii and surrounding waters caused by plastics and their legacy failed to create change. As Heffernan puts it: ‘she had earlier tried to stir up the public with a documentary on plastic waste and its impact on sea life. That failed to create any change. She did not give up. The village initiative was just another experiment with no guarantee of success in advance.’ ( My point here is that the work of changing Modbury to abandoning single use plastic was involved participative intimacy. Yes, she showed her film, but without the process of embedding it in more intimate relations and a plan of action, it made no difference to the lives of those watching it. There is more on this delightful story at: and

As a result of some of the research I’ve been doing, I am in a more intimate relationship with change than I would have been as an ordinary citizen. I know that the way to make this stuff happen is through connection, imagination, participation and determination. And it happens street by street, heart by heart, group by group. It’s a pity there’s no fast fix, but the effect of equipping every neighbourhood with a sense of agency and some tools to explore what people want to make offers more than a tweak in behaviour. It offers the chance to make futures more democratic and responsive and the outcomes more just and thus more sustainable (for sustainability of systems hinges on people’s willingness to be party to them).

Light, A. and Seravalli, A. (2019) The Breakdown of the Municipality as Caring Platform: Lessons for Co-Design and Co-Learning in the Age of Platform Capitalism, Co-Design, 192-211

Light, A. and Akama, Y. (2019) The Nature of ‘Obligation’ in Doing Design with Communities: Participation, Politics and Care (eds) Fisher, T. and Gamman, L. Tricky Design: ethics through things. London: Bloomsbury

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