Utopia Works – Part 1



On the day we were preparing for Utopia Works Energy Hack at Derby Silk Mill, with partners from across a number of factories along the Derwent and Don Valleys I found myself reflecting upon the notion of hacking, and what it means to me, particularly in relation to my work on Future Works and Stories of Change.

Hacking is the altering of an existing object to meet a new use- sometimes driven by the availability of new materials or technologies, and sometimes by the desire to make something fit a new need, or meet a group of people that didn’t have access to a tool or resource that they need. Like makers’ communities, for many, to hack is a political practice aligned with DIY, sharing as ethics, self-organisation, playfulness, and even subversion. Important and high profile ways in which hacking has become associated with activism are in supporting the fight for privacy against corporate and government surveillance, and in enabling the free sharing of knowledge that has been enclosed by companies for profit.

In thinking about energy, I consider that hacking implies repurposing, modification or challenging assumptions, design or rules, using what’s at hand to alter something to better meet your needs… This could occur at a number of different scales- from that of a boiler, or meter, to a network or complex system. What I find interesting about hacking is it implies the engagement with the issue, the physical things, and developing the skills and know-how to make change- this is not something you hand on to someone else in another place. It requires careful and precise knowledges, which situate you as active rather than passive in relation to what you use and how you use it, and often collaboration and the free sharing of knowledge. Although responding to what is there, hacking needn’t mean minor changes- there may be radical transformation through making something more accessible, sustainable, altering its capacities, or changing the relation to resources, energy, or people. To hack is not just to analyse and critique, but also to propose something new and to figure out how to make it happen.

Hacking can have an important role in terms of climate change, because of its relation to agency- both personal and collective.  An example of such hacking that we have encountered in the Future Works strand of Stories of Change includes modifying the design of a rocket stove at Portland Works so that it can successfully run from waste sawdust produced by tenants of the building, or the redesign of machines at Gripple, and manufacturing them in-house to be more efficient, and suited to those who operate them. In each case people have taken something that is existing and modified it to suit their specific needs through a better understanding of the problem and possibilities in this instance. At Portland Works this was possible because there were a number of skilled makers on site, a range of tools that were shared between people, and driven both by limited resources, and an attitude of care, a culture of reuse and experimentation. At Gripple hacking was encouraged by investment in Research and Development and, together with employee ownership take a decision not to give people job titles, but rather to invited them to both find opportunities and take responsibility wherever they could.

Tomorrow will see people, including factory owners, employers and employees, apprentices, volunteers, artists, musicians, architects, curators, academics, and those working in the arts, cultural and heritage sectors come together to hack. We will turn Derby Silk Mill into a factory for the day, which each of us levelled as workers- we hope to critique and to dream together of alternative energy futures together. The question of connecting the user and the maker seems to be an important one for thinking about the future of energy and manufacturing.

Utopia Works



Post by Tom Beesley

Arriving for an 8.30am start at The Silk Mill in Derby with the prospect of a full days graft ahead felt a little daunting, after all, the mill stands on the site of the world’s first factory and therefore the birth place of the factory system. Could we expect twelve hours of repetitive back-breaking toil, amid deafening machinery with few breaks? Fortunately not, for today we were welcomed to Utopia Works, a working day as envisaged by Sir Thomas More in his book Utopia published five hundred years ago this year – six hours of work with a two hour lunch break and plenty of time for conviviality (unless you were a slave – More allowed two per household).

I joined one of several working groups with six others drawn from the wide network of associates of the project as we grappled with the tasks set for us. The Stories of Change team had put together a series of workshops challenging us to work together to explore our attitudes towards energy use – its generation, distribution and conservation. We created pithy slogans and transferred these onto letterpress printed pamphlets, we put our heads together (quite literally) in a photo opportunity to highlight the energy efficiency of the Human brain (less than 23 Watts of power!) and we toured the Mill’s stores finding objects that conveyed the attitudes to energy use of previous generations.

I have only recently become involved with SoC, having joined Julia, Renata and the Future Works students in Sheffield to explore themes around making, automation and resource use. I am currently undertaking practice based PhD Fine Art research at The University of Leeds entitled ‘Art, the Architectonic and Functionality’. My practice evolves from the appropriation of the everyday, the discarded and the found through processes of modification and re-purposing toward assembly and construction. These sculptural installations will often combine the found object with components produced using highly sophisticated technologies of production as I seek to reflect on the misuse of resources and the potential to re-engineer our manufacturing capabilities to address more pressing social and environmental issues. My work focuses on how visual art can address and engage with the new challenges facing society, particularly those concerning migration, precarity and climate change, through the interrogation of use, disuse and reuse. I hope to develop a body of work in response to the Future Works/ Stories of Change programme that will be exhibited in Sheffield in the Autumn.

Meanwhile back at the Mill everyone comes back together again at the end of the afternoon, as all the groups have created prototypes, proposals and performances to share their thoughts. There is a truly amazing array of presentations involving music, canaries, fun fairs, poetry and puppets. Perhaps the overriding theme that emerges from the day is the need for us all to be made more aware of the connection between energy creation and its use, unlike previous generations we have become disconnected from the physical realities of power generation. As anyone who has ever peddled a stationary bike in order to recharge their phone battery will attest, having to work hard for something tends to make you value it a great deal more.


All photos courtesy of @gorminator

Utopia Works is part of Stories of Change, more information can be found on their Website and Twitter 

The Utopia Fair – Imagining Our Future

The Utopia Fair was the centrepiece of ‘A Year of Imagination and Possibility’ a programme of events that celebrates the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s inspirational text, Utopia. A year of artists, designers, provocateurs and thinkers experimenting with ways we might live, make, work and play.



The Utopia Fair saw representatives from contemporary Utopian movements from all over the UK take up stands in Somerset House’ courtyard, celebrating the pockets of utopia that are flourishing around the country from Newcastle to Merthyr Tydfil, Sheffield to Scotland, Brighton to Doncaster plus a range of London sites.

Prototyping Utopias

This workshop was a more focussed and contained event, aiming to review the ideas and dreams shared by people in Bow and to create more tangible expressions of those dreams. To start, we reviewed all the different materials (audio, postcards, labels, models) and we tried to extract key themes. We found that people talked about universal ideals, like peace, solidarity, equality, nature and community but also reflected on the qualities of their own place and the value of local people. The audio recording was particularly evocative of those sentiments.

We then constructed two prototypes, building on the identified key themes. One (‘Smile Avenue’) aimed to bring together the recurring themes of environment, nature, and food with the themes of inclusivity, and local community. The other (‘Magic Boxes’) built on the discussions around the value of providing spaces/resources for creative random interactions from which community activities may grow.


Utopia Fair

Prototyping Utopias took part in AHRC’s Utopia Fair at Somerset House, 24-26 June 2016.

The Utopia Fair showcased creative outcomes from 25 AHRC-funded projects alongside 10 additional initiatives that were hand-selected by Somerset House. All these projects worked to bring together local community groups, researchers, activists and artists across the UK to explore how utopian ideals can be used to benefit the environmental and social future of our communities.

At the Fair we shared the visions of utopias created during the Dreaming and Prototyping events with people in Bow, and invited visitors to reflect on those visions and dream about the future of their own places using similar materials.

A film conveying the activities, dreams and reflections of those who took part in the activities was shown inside Somerset House. You can view it here:

Our stall showcased the generated voices, stories, artefacts, drawings, models and prototypes. It also offered a space for people to contribute their own visions of utopias for places around the world. Participants created a collective, diverse and colourful Big Wide World of Utopias, thinking about the very notion of utopia, their own place and relationships with others, and ideas that can make our places better.


Our key creative engagement activity was a ‘magic box’, a big suitcase containing arts and crafts materials enabling people to draw and make prototypes. An idea generated at the prototyping workshop, the box was particularly popular with young people, families, and children, and became a vehicle not only for the creation of visual representations of utopias, but also for in-depth discussions and exchanges.


The event was led by the Prototyping Utopias project team: Katerina Alexiou and Theodore Zamenopoulos from the Open University; and Louise Dredge and Sophia de Sousa from The Glass-House Community Led Design. The activities were organised and delivered with the help of artists Simon Daw and Paul Burgess. Many thanks to Vera Hale and Ruchit Purohit for lending a helping hand at the stall and to all the visitors of the Utopia Fair who shared their visions.



Dreaming Utopias


The Dreaming Utopias event took place on Saturday 30th of April 2016 at Bow Church.

The event aimed to provide an open space for local people to dream about their ideal places (their Utopias) and the future of Bow. The day offered a variety of creative activities and opportunities to reflect, to talk to one another, interact with artists and create visions of a utopian Bow.

One hundred and forty people engaged with the activities in some way.

We set up a table outside the church and a lot of people talked to us about their Bow Utopia. We asked them to write a word on a label to express what utopia means for them. The labels were tied to helium balloons that were attached to the church railings to create a tapestry of ideas and dreams.


Many themes emerged from the discussions and the artefacts, voices and texts produced. Participants valued the opportunity to walk into a space where they were free to wander around, explore other people’s creations, and share their ideas. The focus on dreaming helped create a playful and relaxed environment. People talked about community, and about core values such as understanding, listening, talking to one another. They talked about peace and conflict, about beating racism, about learning, about play. They talked about greener places. They talked about their love of Bow and about their fights to make places more inclusive for everyone.

There are many lessons to be learned from this event and hope to share more here as we analyse and collate our observations and experiences.

If you want to talk to us please email


When Tomorrow Becomes Yesterday


‘When Tomorrow Becomes Yesterday: Sustainability in Song’ is an AHRC funded project, part of the Connected Communities Programme’s Utopia 500 Festival.

When Tomorrow Becomes Yesterday’ examines how songwriting might help us to imagine the future in light of climate change concerns. It brings together musicians, climate change adaptation researchers, and civic movements such as Manchester a Certain Future, to explore how music can affect a wider cultural transition towards a more sustainable society.

The project – which examines how songwriting might help us imagine the future in light of climate change concerns – was led by Jo Collinson Scott (UWS), Gemma Lawrence (Creative Carbon Scotland), Angela Connelly (The University of Manchester) and Matt Brennan (The University of Edinburgh), and features songs written by Adem, Louis Abbott (Admiral Fallow), Craig Beaton (A Mote of Dust) and Jo Mango.

The film was made by WakeUpAdvice.


More information on Sustainability in Song can be found at Creative Carbon Scotland or on Twitter

‘The Reasons’ in the Bevills Leam Catchment


The Reasons in the Fens

As part of the Utopia 500 Festival Professor Mike Wilson, Dr Antonia Liguori and Dr Lyndsey Bakewell (DRY Project team members from Loughborough University) have created a new, performative methodology, based on traditional practices, to support communities in collective problem-solving and imagining their own secure futures.


The traditional Sardinian form of ‘La Rasgioni’ (The Reasons) has been re-imagined and framed as performative event to allow the community to expose and address the conflicting perspectives, interests and priorities around drought and water scarcity in the Bevills Leam catchment, in rural Cambridgeshire.

This project idea has been developed thanks to an ongoing conversation with the research team of CADWAGO , an international collaborative research project, led by the Stockholm Environment Institute, looking at climate adaptation and water governance. In October 2015, Professor Wilson was invited to attend the final project workshop in Sardinia, where he was present at a demonstration of ‘La Rasgioni’ (‘The Reasons’), a traditional conflict resolution tool used in the region of Gallura until the early 1960s. And it is from this that this project took further inspiration.

The Reasons in the Fens‘ takes the form of a mock court, presided over by a community elder with other community members playing the part of the jury. In turn, various stakeholders (including the National Farmers Union, the Great Fen Project, environmental organisations, angling groups, water companies, etc.) are invited to tell their stories and may be questioned for clarification by either the jury or the general public, who are gathered as the audience. After all the stories have been told, everyone (judge, jury, witnesses and general public) retire to enjoy a communal meal, before returning to the hall, where the jury delivers its verdict, for which the judge then provides an ‘Azdakian’ interpretation (cf, Bertolt Brecht’s Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis), combining vernacular wisdom with a healthy disregard for traditional power structures to provide a resolution that unites, rather than divides the community.

The event is both ritual and celebration, but is ultimately a forum for public storytelling which enables communities to collectively imagine their future.


‘There’s something in the water’. The Reasons: Community Stories and the Fens

The Reasons – Stories about water usage, drought and the future of the Fens.

Ramsey Rural Museum, 7th June 2016:


A River is a Snake by Sharron Kraus


Photographs from Ramsey Rural Museum, 7th June 2016


Caricatures by John Elson


The Reasons at the Utopia Fair


The Reasons was developed by The DRY Project.

More information can be found on their Website and Twitter.

The Peoples Platform Merthyr Tydfil

Theatre as knowledge exchange

Blog by: Dr Ellie Byrne

Photography by Jon Pountney

The People’s Platform was an event we held in Merthyr on 16th June. It was a piece of immersive theatre, held in a social club, with performances based on data from research we have been doing since 2013.


Performed to an audience of at least 200, sitting on round tables to facilitate discussion, it was developed as a finale to our case study within our project, Representing Communities, in collaboration with POSSIB: Lleisiau mewn Celf/Voices in Art. The research looked at how the arts can help construct different types of knowledge on health and wellbeing, and whether or not arts-based knowledge can be used by policy makers as a form of evidence. And, in relation to The People’s Platform, how arts can facilitate knowledge exchange between community members, policy makers and service providers to contribute to better understandings of health and wellbeing.


The show was co-created by local residents, the team at Cardiff University, and a number of other collaborators:

  • POSSIB: Lleisiau mewn Celf/Voices in Art is a bi-lingual arts project with whom we have collaborated a lot over the course of the project. POSSIB partnered with us to commission National Theatre Wales TEAM for the show.
  • National Theatre Wales, through their TEAM programme, was always going to deliver the show; they were identified in the original funding application as supporters of the research. We wanted to base the show on their Assembly model, which is described as a ‘performance debate’.
  • Common Wealth Theatre: after meeting Rhiannon White, artistic director and co-founder, we knew we wanted her to direct the show. I went up to see one of Common Wealth’s shows in Bradford, and left feeling mesmerised. It touched my senses and emotions in a way that no other theatre had done before, and I wanted our show to do the same.

I had also met writer Kelly Jones about her previous work in Merthyr and her interest in our work, so we asked her to come on board as a dramaturg. Her role was to act as a conduit between the data and Rhiannon’s creative direction. With some extra funding, we brought Charlotte Lewis on board as a director for a newly established Young Company with pupils at Pen Y Dre High School.

We knew that by involving NTW team and Common Wealth it would be an excellent piece of art, and that was really important; it had to be excellent, otherwise people wouldn’t be moved by the messages in the data. But that also meant relinquishing control and ‘trusting the process’ as Rhiannon kept saying to us. She was right, of course, but it was an unsettling journey nonetheless!


We wanted a hook for policy makers to feel that the event was something worthwhile to them, so we linked it to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act as a lot of our data spoke to the 7 goals of the Act.


We had collected data through interviews, focus groups, and a range of visual and creative methods during the three years of research. We really wanted these to be reflected in the show as far as possible, but the range of voices, themes and issues was so broad that it sometimes seemed like an impossible task. In terms of the process we worked Kelly, Rhiannon, Charlotte and a huge team to devise the show. The directors held weekly workshops with the young company and a group of working age men at 3Gs Development Trust to explore the themes and content for the show, and to develop their confidence to get them ready to perform.


Alongside the workshops, Kelly came to our office and looked at the data in all its forms – interviews, drawings, video interviews, poems, music and film – and wrote a series of monologues from it all.


There were points where we felt the inter-disciplinarity of the collaboration quite intensely, and where our priorities clashed. We’ve referred to ‘logics of representation’ when we’ve talked previously about the priorities held by different players in a single project, and it’s the same here. Our own logic of representation was one of maintaining the integrity of the data, and representing it as plainly and as ethically as possible. We didn’t want it to be abstracted too much, or turned into metaphors that people might have to work hard at to understand. We wanted the show to reflect real life. The logic of representation for Rhiannon, Kelly and the creative team was about creating a powerful and coherent piece of art, and although they knew the data was important, their first priority was integrity for the art. For participants, the logic of representation sat with their own personal experience, and being able to represent that within the theatrical context.


For 5 days leading up to the show, we were in rehearsals with the creative team, professional actors, devisors and community members, some of whom performed in the show. Devising consisted of group work, with actors working together and with the community to come up with ideas for each scene, working with the script that Kelly had written and Rhi had edited. Scenes were performed to everyone and everyone had the chance to contribute to the creative process. Having had no experience of theatre production before, it was amazing to see what a collaborative and supportive process this was.


The power and conviction of the show was incredible.


There were a few key moments that really touched us, and made it completely worthwhile. At one point, one of the community members who had found it difficult to articulate himself during rehearsals, said his line with such emotion that he got a spontaneous round of applause. At another point, during one of the monologues, the actor, who had been cracking jokes as part of his monologue, said “I’ll end with this last one – what do you call a room full of people who can actually make a difference?” and after a moment of silence one of the audience members called out “us” – it doesn’t sound like much, but at the time it was golden.


We’re still trying to make sense of what happened at the people’s platform, and how to take forward the energy and spirit of the night. We were overwhelmed by the people that came to the show, including the children’s commissioner for Wales, Baroness Kay Andrews who wrote the report on poverty and culture, representatives from the Welsh Assembly and Welsh Government, the chair of the Arts Council and several Arts council staff, representatives from NTW and the national theatre of Malta, community development workers, local leaders of the community and of course people living in north Merthyr. We’ve been contacted by Baroness Kay Andrews and Dawn Bowden, the AM for Merthyr, both of whom want to carry on the conversations with us. We’re planning to do some debriefing with participants as soon as we can, to go through the table cloths and post it notes, and decide what might happen next. We have already met with Welsh Assembly colleagues, who have already begun to use our work as an example of how to do engagement, and it is informing their engagement strategy for the coming term. We will be going back in the autumn to discuss the potential for further work with the Assembly.


This performance was developed by the Representing Communities project Representing North Merthyr.

You can find more information on their Website and Twitter 

CAER Model Village Project

CAER Model village image


On 9th June 2016 CAER Heritage Project lead artist Paul Evans and film maker Jon Harrison led the first of two Model Village creative workshops at The Glamorgan Archives with students from Michaelston Community School. This was the first stage in the creation of The Model Village film for the Connected Communities Utopia Festival at Somerset House

Featuring as part of a intensive, full day of activities within the archives entitled Past Detectives, the Model Village workshop was also designed to draw connections between research into Welsh Garden Villages with Cardiff University researcher Dr Stephanie Ward and the CAER Heritage Project Dusty Forge WW1 project with Dan Jewson.


CAER Model village image 2

After a brief collaborative drawing exercise the young people developed their own individual cartoon characters – inhabitants for the Ely Garden Village – and worked on scripts for their characters. These characters were then scanned into iPads and imported into a user-friendly app that allowed them to create short animation sequences. Photographs from the Ely estate were used as backgrounds or scenery for these sequences

The young people then carefully rehearsed their scripts and recorded their films/animation sequences, making the characters move in rhythm with their words.

CAER Model village image 3

Selected animation sequences from this workshop will be featured in The Model Village film, along with an interview with Dr Stephanie Ward made at the Glamorgan Archive, and film sequences from the Ely estate made by local film maker Viv Thomas and Jon Harrison.

See the Modern Village film below!


The Model Village - CAER Heritage Project


For more information on the CAER Heritage Project visit their Website or Facebook 


CAER Heritage Project

Spiritual Flavours

2016 Copyright © Laura Cuch. All rights reserved.

Spiritual Flavours is a collaborative arts project with members of different faith communities in the area of Ealing and Hanwell, who contribute recipes that they relate to their spirituality and religious practices. Through interviews and cooking sessions, the project pays attention to affective relationships with food, as a vehicle to explore ideas about inheritance, tradition and belief. These sessions are the basis of a ‘multi-faith’ cookery photo book and a short film.


A Multi Faith Recipe for Sweet and Savory Vegetarian Cous Cous


The three protagonists of the film Spiritual Flavours, Betty, Aziz and Ossie, met at a one-day workshop where together they developed, cooked and ate a dish inclusive of various different faiths. Here’s the recipe of their Sweet and Savoury Vegetarian Cous Cous. This is a sharing dish and is best served on a big plate in the middle of the table for everyone to dig into! (Serves 10)

2016 Copyright © Laura Cuch. All rights reserved.


1kg couscous

400g cooked chickpeas

750g white onion, 1cm sliced

200g sweet potato, peeled and 2cm diced

200g butternut squash, peeled and 2cm diced

200g carrots, peeled and 2cm diced

200g courgettes, 3cm sliced

200g broccoli, cut into florets

100g raisins or sultanas, soaked for 10 minutes in water

50g almond flakes, lightly toasted

4 eggs 10g fresh parsley, finely chopped

50g butter

50g brown sugar

10g rose water

15g ground cinnamon

15g ground white pepper Olive oil, to cook with


Most of the following steps can be done simultaneously. In a deep frying pan or wok over medium heat, add the butter and a splash of oil, as well as the onions. Cook with a tight lid and stir occasionally for 15 minutes, or until softened. Then add in half the cinnamon, half the white pepper and the rose water and 4-5 tbsp of brown sugar. Stir, then leave for another 10 minutes, or until the onions are caramelised and sweet, then reserve. In another deep frying pan or wok, add 2tbsp of oil and the sweet potato, butternut squash and carrots. Cover with a tight lid and sweat the vegetables for 10-12 minutes, or until tender. Stir occasionally to prevent scorching and, 2 minutes before cooking has finished, add in half the cinnamon, half the white pepper and season to taste with salt. Remove and reserve once cooked. Fry the courgette slices in a hot pan for 1-2 minutes per side, or until lightly browned. Fry the broccoli for 3-5 minutes in a hot saucepan. Season both the courgette and broccoli with a bit of black or white pepper and salt.

Break the eggs into a mixing bowl and beat with a tbsp of milk, 1 teaspoon of butter, black pepper, the parsley and salt to taste. Over medium-high heat, fry the eggs as an omelette for 3-4 minutes or until just set, then remove from the pan and roll up once cool. Cut across the roll into bite-sized pieces. Cook the couscous according to packet instructions, making sure to fluff up the grains with a fork afterwards and mix with a dollop of butter, black pepper and salt. Mix the couscous with half of the almonds and place on a big plate in a pyramid shape. On top of the couscous put the onion and almond forming fours lines in a cross shape. Make a different cross shape with the raisins. Place the courgettes and the broccoli around the plate. Scatter the chickpeas all over the couscous. Do the same with the squash and sweet potatoes all over the pyramid shape and decorate with the rolled omelette slices. Add any extra cinnamon you may have and eat!


An Introduction to Spiritual Flavours

The five-minute preview of the film Spiritual Flavours was screened at the UtopiaFair at Somerset House and can be viewed below:

2016 Copyright © Laura Cuch. All rights reserved.

More information about Spiritual Flavours can be found on their website.

Spiritual Flavours is part of the Making Suburban Faith project.