Published on 17 April 2024
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Bristol Ideas’ impact

Bristol Ideas exemplifies how a not-for-profit organisation can collaborate with citizens, businesses, and local authorities to enrich a city's cultural assets, thereby bolstering its economic and social welfare. Owen Garling offers insights into the efforts and influence of Bristol Ideas, alongside his personal recollections of the city.

Evaluation and assessment of impact was always important in the work of Bristol Ideas, although cultural programmes are hard to measure. In 2023, Bristol Ideas worked with Owen Garling, Bennett Institute, to study their work. Eighty-five in-depth interviews were conducted and transcribed and the first report, The City is the Project, was published in late 2023. Here, Owen looks at the organisation’s work and his own experiences of Bristol.

The only real connection that I have to Bristol is through my mum. Her father, my grandfather, worked for BBC Schools and, during the Second World War, the organisation was evacuated to Bristol from central London. As a result, my mum was born in Iron Acton, just outside Bristol, and spent the first few years of her life there. She subsequently returned to study English at the University of Bristol in the early 1960s and used to regale us with stories of both her lecturers and landladies. I remember talking to her a while ago about the Bristol bus boycott, which took place while she was in her final year at university. Much to her shame, Mum had no recollection of being aware of the boycott when she was in Bristol; she may have forgotten it or perhaps, more likely, the events of the city did not make an impact on a young student with a head full of Shakespeare.

This conversation came back to me numerous times while talking to Andrew Kelly, director of Bristol Ideas, as we planned our report on the work of the organisation. Had Bristol Ideas been in existence at the time of the bus boycott, I can imagine that a number of events would have been organised to create both the spaces within the city to learn about theevents, and to enable debate between different communities within the city. There might also have been a series of cultural events taking place, perhaps similar to the events funded by the Community Grant Scheme in 2023 as part of Bristol 650 for projects honouring the 60th anniversary of the Bristol bus boycott.

The ability to respond to events –  from the recent or deeper history of the city – and look at them in a way that casts light on the present and future of the city, as well as reflect them back onto the past, is, I think, one of the key lessons that I have learned from the work of Bristol Ideas. For Bristol Ideas, the past is not another country. The past is still present in both the physical form of the city, the memories and feelings of the people who call it home, and in the way that the city can respond to the events that will shape its future.

Another key lesson has been the ways in which the work of Bristol Ideas has contributed to the civic life of the city. Over the last few years, one strand of my work at the Bennett Institute has focused on questions relating to social infrastructure: in short, the spaces and places that bring people together. Being an academic research institution, our work focused on the ways  in which the value of these spaces could be quantified, how they contributed to other related concepts such as social capital – ‘the glue that binds communities together’, in the words of Andy Haldane of Royal Society for the Arts – and the role that policymakers at the national, regional and local levels could play in supporting these types of places.

The opportunity to work with Bristol Ideas enabled me to move beyond the sometimes narrow confines of the academic debate and consider how social infrastructure could interact with questions of culture in a specific place. What struck me about the work of Bristol Ideas was that it was not centred on a specific venue – in many ways, Bristol Ideas is an organisation without a home – but rather used the existing assets spread out across the city. And this was not confined purely to ‘art spaces’. Projects took place against a wide backdrop of assets such as traditional art spaces, and also took in the city’s housing estates and the public realm across the city. This ability to use the most appropriate venue for each project meant that the role of the organisation was much more about animating the space in a way that brought it to life for participants. Sometimes when thinking about social and cultural infrastructure, we focus too much on physical spaces at the expense of those people and organisations that breathe life into them and connect people together.

In Andrew Kelly, Bristol Ideas has had a director who implicitly understands the importance of this, and who has continually looked to bring together different partnerships centred around the organising principle of ideas.

Having spent time working with Andrew looking back over Bristol Ideas’ proud history of projects,   the one that stands out for me as typifying the organisation’s approach is the very early project that helped to waymark the city, Bristol Legible City. Rather than imposing its own design on the project, the ways in which the signage across the city was rethought worked with the grain of the place and helped to open up the city and make it legible, while demonstrating the connections between different spaces. The project’s approach also typified the mindset of Bristol Ideas – working with  local authorities, private sector organisations, including  companies providing advertising space and, perhaps most importantly, the people of the city and those who visit.

And now, 60 years after my mum left Bristol, my niece is studying in the city. On the morning of the 2023 Festival of the Future City, we both went on a guided walk of Bristol led by Eugene Byrne, looking at the urban myths of the city. As well as seeing the city through my niece’s eyes, it was also a great opportunity to see the warp and weft of the city in a different light, and think about how stories are created, shared, remembered and – perhaps most importantly – connected.

Image: Bristol Legible City Project

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Owen Garling

Knowledge Transfer Facilitator

Owen Garling is the Bennett Institute’s Knowledge Transfer Facilitator and he provides an important conduit between our own researchers and policymakers in the UK and internationally. His work helps to...

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