Immy Kaur

Ashoka Fellow
Immy Kaur
United Kingdom
Fellow since 2020
This description of Immy Kaur's work was prepared when Immy Kaur was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2020 .

Introduction

Immy envisions a world in which local communities rely less on governing councils, gifts of grants, and landlords and more on themselves and the natural resources around them to effect regenerative change. This will lead to impactful action that challenges profit-driven gentrification and landlord absenteeism, and results in more relational and participatory neighbourhoods where people really do come first.

This vision is why Immy co-founded CIVIC SQUARE. She was determined to understand the deeper dynamics around why we end up with purposely marginalised and under-resourced neighbourhoods that are often left behind by conventional models of development, as well as how we could change this structurally. Immy wanted CIVIC SQUARE to generate, pilot, and scale transformative ideas around more long-term urban renewal.

Immy is passionate about the models that underpin long-term equitable and just futures. These models allow communities to move away from philanthropy and charity and towards unlocking the value that already exists there – value that is currently being extracted from communities rather circulating within them.

The New Idea

Immy has spent more than five years designing and developing a new kind of town hall through Impact Hub Birmingham and now CIVIC SQUARE. It was inspired by the need for new institutional infrastructure during times of great transition, and understanding what that meant in a social and civic sense. An example was Andrew Carnegie’s public libraries, and the democratisation of learning and access to learning infrastructure at the community and neighbourhood level, that they promoted in late 1800s America. Even though this had problematic intentions, the central idea was that times of massive transition and change require massive institutional responses. Now Immy, her team, partners, and communities have developed a blueprint for urban renewal that truly puts people first. She believes that today, we need our social and civic institutions to take us through an equally massive period of transition.

The CIVIC SQUARE model recognises three things, Firstly, the centrality of land and the power it holds. Secondly, that crucial equitable models exist to create truly sustainable communities and the infrastructure that helps them to thrive. And thirdly, how often land is used to extract value - the benefits of which rarely reach those who actually live on it. This value is, in reality, often created by the public and common goods around it.

CIVIC SQUARE's approach bucks this trend. Immy places neighbourhoods at the core of partnerships with municipal authorities and private developers. By doing this, she helps to ensure that the land uplift brought by publicly funded gentrification and speculation is reinvested and circulates locally.

Immy and her colleagues began by securing a large-scale site at the heart of Birmingham’s Ladywood neighbourhood. Along with her colleagues, she is developing community civic infrastructure and community-led housing with residents and a broad range of partners. CIVIC SQUARE is developing a range of regenerative, capital-circulating mechanisms. These mechanisms will battle to ensure uplift reinvestment in a neighbourhood fund over the long term. This fund will support locally generated, community owned solutions around wellbeing, skills, and environmental sustainability.

Much of Immy’s work to date has focused on piloting her ideas at Birmingham’s Impact Hub, which she helped to found in 2014. From the start, Immy was concerned that the Hub’s franchise model prioritised a real estate business model. Instead, Immy wanted to experiment with how we moved beyond real estate models for deep equitable change.

Landlords and professionals who could pay rents benefitted the most from the franchise model. Instead of transforming the Digbeth neighbourhood in which the Hub was located, Immy and colleagues often remained stuck in battles around rents and leases. This was, they knew, a problem that plagued many social ventures, as well as artists, creatives, high streets, neighbourhoods, and more.

Immy wanted a different kind of Hub. One that engaged and supported the community in which it operated. One that was open and accessible to all. One that knew this was going to be a long journey that involved a total re-imagination of how we live, work and play together. The mission and the learnings from Impact Hub Birmingham drives her work for the CIVIC SQUARE initiative today.

The Problem

The current model for urban renewal works for the few. Why? Because when faced with urban decay, municipal authorities rely heavily on property developers to drive publicly funded projects. Monies spent enrich private companies and those who own property near redeveloped areas. Landlord absenteeism grows. Those wealthy enough to buy property at inflated rates often rent space for profit. In fact, more than half of the land and buildings adjacent to Birmingham city centre is owned by absent landlords. Renters doubt their sense of agency because money alone talks. And of course, they don’t have enough of it to invest in the land on which they live.

Profit-driven urban renewal means residents’ quality of life is largely at the mercy of municipal tenders and developers’ interests. ‘Community wellbeing’ becomes more about the extent to which the economy hums than affordable childcare, green space, and clean air.

Traditional power brokers such as local authorities control and determine how resources are allocated. But because those in the UK have been under increasing pressure brought on by funding cuts, they’ve had to prioritize profit over community ownership. Only small pockets of great practice exist. Even those authorities who want to move to more participatory models find that their incentives make it incredibly tough. This hamstrings community-driven solutions that promise more informed participation and long-term success.

Birmingham is an excellent example. The city is home to one of Europe’s largest local authorities. It’s full of pockets of great practice, works, and efforts. Even so, systemic challenges described above have frustrated true citizen empowerment and economic justice.

The Strategy

CIVIC SQUARE will have local Birmingham residents at its heart. Involving a range of partners, it will build a space for community members to learn, dialogue, design, innovate, rest, create, experiment, imagine and celebrate.

Incubators called Open Project Nights will provide space for residents to propose and pilot ideas and work together on community challenges such as offering after-school programmes, addressing overpriced and inflexible childcare, and helping those who live in poor quality, precarious tenancies and who are being pushed out by rising house prices and demolition. Birmingham initiatives to help local youth develop their self-confidence and public speaking skills had their start at these Open Project Nights during Immy’s time at the Hub. So did a local version of #RadicalChildcare. This engaged local parents in conversation about the downsides of monetising care and has aimed to place play at the heart of nursery care to promote children’s psychosocial development. DemoDev, a project mapping small sites of land for modular housing, also grew.

Start-up investment from charities, social entrepreneurs, and civic activists has prioritised equity over repayable debt to ensure the model’s long-term sustainability. New financial instruments are being developed with a range of partners. These are exploring how residents and communities can share in the common value created.

Immy’s team is working with a range of long term partners, too. They are negotiating new types of leases that will act as the foundation on which CIVIC SQUARE is based. Examples include the affordable land leasehold, through which land is licensed by the local council and therefore immune from developer speculation. Housing units can be built and sold. Profits from land uplift that results – called the ‘citizen dividend’ – will go into a shared neighbourhood trust. Local residents will then decide how to spend that money in light of shared priorities. In addition, CIVIC SQUARE’s physical infrastructure will enjoy a more sustainable, long-term revenue steam. Metrics outlined in Doughnut Economics will drive how decisions impact the environment and the extent to which local people are thriving. In fact, a bespoke Neighbourhood Doughnut for CIVIC SQUARE and Port Loop will guide the co-created community agenda. From procurement to profit, CIVIC SQUARE will focus on circulating capital locally.

And because all components of the CIVIC SQUARE model are open-sourced, both public and private actors have sought partnerships to scale its solutions. The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) are supporting CIVIC SQUARE. They see it as a living, breathing example of inclusive growth strategies. The Cambridgeshire City Council and Edinburgh-based arts organisation Creative Scotland have learned from #RadicalChildcare model’s to ensure that families in particular have access to a welcoming, childcare-friendly workspace. Through partner Dark Matter Laboratories, the Stockholm-based CSO Mind//Shift has also adopted some of CIVIC SQUARE’s strategies for community-generated and -owned solutions. It’s targeting systems-level change in mental healthcare across Scandinavia.

Because she’s steered clear of partisan politics, Immy has earned the trust of regional authorities from across the political spectrum. This enables her to continue to scale CIVIC SQUARE solutions. CIVIC SQUARE’s partnership with WMCA, for example, will stretch well into the coming decade. This authority has set 2029 as the date by which the West Midlands will have developed a robust social economy.

CIVIC SQUARE has looked to learn from pioneering projects Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative and Winnipeg Boldness Project. It seeks to gain insights from urban housing and neighbourhood renewal and policy on both sides of the Atlantic. Immy cares deeply about being part of global communities of practice, experimentation and action. In these communities knowledge, learnings and models are shared openly. This allows Immy and her team to learn to quickly build the infrastructure needed in rapidly changing times and in the face of existential threats. Immy has also mapped successful examples of what she and her colleagues call ‘city experimentation’ for future partnerships. These include Alternative Camden, Open Bristol, the Sheffield-based Urban Living Labs, Foodlab Detroit, Helsinki Design Lab, Participatory City, and Cincinnati’s People’s Liberty. She believes learning and collaborating with projects around the world is key to moving forward at the pace needed.

Immy’s own membership in the London-based collaborative studio Project 00 – which has generated global open-source initiatives such as WikiHouse and Open Desk – will enable her to engage with leading architects, urban designers, social scientists, and economists. And CIVIC SQUARE’s involvement in leading programmes such as Lankelly Chase’s Systems Changers initiative provides ongoing exposure to CSOs that are just as keen on empowering grassroots change.

At the core of the CIVIC SQUARE model is a vision for ‘creative resistance’. This informs a long-term approach to programming that embeds in neighbourhoods, helping them construct the worlds in which they want to live. Products of this creative resistance provide evidence of this vision’s success. They range from incubators for community-generated solutions to festivals where artists, writers, and designers use performance to challenge dominant narratives.

The Person

From a young age, Immy has grappled with her identity. Born in Birmingham and raised in the Sikh community, she felt a constant battle to understand where she fit in amongst family and friends. Her passion for sport did not always align with family priorities. Her desire to study was often also at odds with what her friends wanted. But she pursued both interests with passion.

Eager to help others, Immy planned to study medicine and become a doctor. Then she pivoted to International Development, following a trip to her parents’ homeland, Punjab. Immy learned more about her grandparents’ and ancestors struggles during Partition in India and re-settlement to the UK, and heard stories about her parent’s particularly difficult childhood. As she did, Immy considered deeply what ‘change’ meant for her, and what role she might want to play in it.

She had also become more interested in power and those who hold it, as well as in what it might take for more inclusive decision-making to occur at a structural level. Immy attended university in Cardiff, and then moved to London for work. She travelled to India, too. There she participated in various women’s empowerment projects, and founded a sewing studio to help girls become self-sustainable.

Through volunteering, Immy nurtured a heartfelt passion for working in communities. But she asked herself, ‘How can I understand local needs if I am not a local myself, and in close proximity to my community and elders?’

With a richer understanding of more of the world, Immy realised that going back to Birmingham meant ‘home’. She returned with a new mission - to be part of the place where she grew up, alongside Brummies who wanted to make change that builds a better city that is both more fair and more equitable.

While studying for her Masters in International Development at the University of Birmingham, Immy analysed the global fight against poverty. She was critical about the deeply extractive and colonial methods of industry and wanted to learn more about it. She helped to found Birmingham’s first TEDx event the same year she graduated (2011). TEDx Brum proved incredibly successful over the next four years – so much so that Immy and her colleagues decided that a permanent space in the city for dialogue and ideation was necessary.

Immy also knew that because Birmingham has such a large proportion of young people from diverse backgrounds, engaging them in dialogue with each other and elder Brummies was pivotal to keeping up the momentum for community-driven change. She co-founded Impact Hub Birmingham in 2014 to meet this need. The departure from the Hub franchise model that she initiated through Impact Hub Birmingham subsequently laid the groundwork for CIVIC SQUARE.

Today, Immy convenes her fellow Brummies to create unlikely collaborations and local change with global ambition. She is rooted in wisdom from her elders, her homeland, innovation and shared / open knowledge. Immy seeks to create the tools, models, and frameworks for people to find and embrace their own identities while also building a community within models that enable them to thrive, not merely survive.