What can we learn from CiviCon24?

Written by Darren de Souza, Senior Policy and Projects Officer, London Higher. 

Last week, the hot topic at CiviCon24 was of course the looming General Election. With the knowledge that Labour are particularly keen on seeing how universities can (i) boost economic productivity; and (ii) contribute to place-based growth and recovery, CiviCon really highlighted why #PlaceMatters. 

An address by the Right Worshipful the Lord Mayor of Sheffield highlighted how apolitical actors can convene civic stakeholders – and that true partnership in place means a coalition of equals, not one party dominating discussion. This teed up the first panel discussion, led by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), which focused on creating and embedding a culture of engagement in universities and building authentic relationships. Too often, communities feel that university engagement only lasts the length of a funding cycle – and avoiding short-termism is key to laying the groundwork to ensuring that places and people can flourish sustainably, ultimately improving lives and benefiting the economy. 

What London does well 

A round of lunchtime lightning talks highlighted some fantastic initiatives, including examples from London HE, with Carol Shiels from St George’s, University of London, outlining the institution’s museum community engagement project in Tooting, South London. This initiative, and others similar to it can be seen on our Civic Map, which is ever growing thanks to the work our members do in their localities.

Following this, a breakout session run by King’s College London focussed on working with community organisers, drawing on how the university works with Citizens UK to co-create true change from the grassroots up. Parent Power – which recently won the London Higher Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Local London Community – was highlighted as a model of practice. Reflecting on what power means – and how universities can empower local communities to lead on place-based change that acutely impacts them was a core tenet of the session.  

What can we learn from others? 

A session by the University of Southampton was around placemaking and outlined their Future Towns Innovation Hub (FTIH) and the role the institution plays in school enterprise education, followed by an exercise in designing sustainable solutions that work in our localities – via the medium of Lego! FTIH is a fascinating exercise which focuses thinking on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – including affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), decent work and economic growth (8), industry, innovation and infrastructure (9), sustainable cities (11) and partnership working (17). This is a useful lens through which to view civic sustainability – for example, the University of Westminster has adopted the SDG framework to better record, measure and improve its contribution to a broad range of outcomes. 

The afternoon plenary focused on the theory of civic change, via the allegory of a nautical journey…there is no uniform voyage to successful civic work, and we must recognise the wider political context (and constraints), that affect an institution’s ability to engage with this agenda. To finish off Day 1, a panel comprising the Vice-Chancellors of the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University, alongside local civic figures such as the leader of the City Council, discussed the importance of aligning institutional expertise with regional need (much in the vein of European smart specialisation) and investing in infrastructure – noting the financial pressures incumbent upon institutions in the current landscape. There was clear messaging to take away – a reaffirmation to avoid short-term work, and a call to create authentic, consistent and persistent civic engagement. Clearly, universities cannot (and should not) do everything everywhere all at once. Given the context of limited resource, and the need to be sensitive to local needs, there is immense opportunity for London’s universities to continue collaborating in order to leverage their collective expertise and capacity, and maximise their societal benefit. 

Day 2 of the conference featured remarks from Lord David Blunkett, who reaffirmed the important role of universities in knowledge transfer, enterprise and scale-up. A champion of the civic role of universities, Lord Blunkett highlighted that beyond the societal and wider benefits of higher education’s presence, universities contribute £273 million a year in impact in Sheffield Central. For a broader evaluation of economic impact to the region, a UUK report highlights that Yorkshire and the Humber saw £5.3 billion in gross value added (GVA) by universities in 2021-22. In London, this figure stood at £14.8 billion in GVA – providing a snapshot of the value of universities’ presence for prosperity. 

There was also an international dimension to the local: City-REDI (University of Birmingham) made the case for how the UK can look to our counterparts in North America and Europe for successful models of civic activity. A particularly interesting point was the involvement of philanthropic donations and democratic mandates (or even expectations) for civic impact in North America, compared to the narrower focus on regional economic development in European contexts.  

Inspiration was drawn from Parisian and Andalusian models, and looking at how wider university strategies are fundamental to helping (or hindering) civic activity. Framing is also key – broadening the definition of ‘innovation’ to include the civic, knowledge exchange, and technology transfer could be increasingly prevalent, especially the stated desire of UKRI and funding councils to potential highlight the place-based element in funding policy/allocations moving forwards. Raffaele Trapasso from the OECD echoed the growing geographical dimension to innovation and policy, highlighting ecosystems that are better equipped to handle innovation in place. 

CiviCon24 was incredibly thought-provoking, and there was a real buzz around Sheffield as the great and good of convened to discuss how civic work can be embedded in policy and practice. London’s universities are deeply rooted in their places, and should continue to serve as enablers and drivers of place-based advancement, through partnership and with local people. There is plenty to discuss within the London sphere, namely how we support our institutions’ capacities to deliver civic work, and how we work with other anchor organisations to be of service to London and Londoners. 

London Higher’s Civic Map, which celebrates the many ways in which London’s higher education institutions work beyond, the traditional ‘campus’, can be found on our website.