INTERVIEW: CASSIE ROBINSON, CIVIC SHOP

By Krisi

This week we’re talking to Makerversity member Cassie Robinson about the Civic Shop, an Open Invitation & retail space which showcases the work of a new generation of civic activists and social designers who are the inventors of new public spaces, economies and champions of public good in everyday life.

The Civic Shop is located on the ground floor of the New Wing of Somerset House and is open Wednesdays to Sundays from 12 to 6pm until the end of March.

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Where did the original idea come from?
The original idea was completely inspired by the opportunity of space in Somerset House’s New Wing and that fact there were two other residencies doing retail units, so we thought we’d do a shop too.  I get frustrated sometimes at how few of the social / civic initiatives reach a more general public. I saw this as an opportunity to use a retail format to show a set of work for the public to find out more about and potentially get involved with.

We also wanted to purposefully play on bringing the two words civic and shop together, as a way of questioning how consumer culture has taken over our civic realm.

Has the world of commerce encroached too much on our civic spaces, and how much do we care? How much is civic exclusion growing because of what participation demands or expects of us? The Civic Shop is designed for people to explore these kinds of questions and their own attitudes to the commerce and privilege of modern life. But it really is an experiment, I had no idea what the Civic Shop would actually be until it started to materialise.

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Has it gone according to plan? Has it changed along the way?
Plan? What plan?! It started out with an email to a group of people who are doing work in the social and civic innovation space, asking if they had things they could put in the shop or that they wanted to create specifically for the shop. At this time I had no idea who would reply or be willing and yet we had committed to opening the shop within 4 weeks, so I had to hope something would appear!

As people started to come back with products, information and ideas we were able to start to see how they fitted together and how we could frame the Civic Shop as a space. A later addition to the space has been the introduction of Civic Radio, which is now a weekly pod-cast (soon to be aired on Resonance FM too) that means we can have a wider and more critical conversation about civic spaces and our consumer orientated world.

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Highs and lows?
The lows have really just been about time. We wanted to open before Christmas and that felt like a real pressure. As it turned out we realised that opening in January was actually much more suited to what we were trying to do. We were the shop you came to when you had no money.

The highs have been seeing the space fill up with things, with stories, with other invitations for the public to get involved and of course getting feedback from people who come in and visit. It feels like this is the start of something that will continue beyond our time in the space. We have ideas of what else we’d like to do with it and where else it can go, so the opportunity to have prototyped it here has been a real gift.

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What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the fact that we managed to pull it all together in the time. I’m really proud of seeing everything together in the space. What I hadn’t really considered when we decided to do it, was how bringing everything together in this way would create a new collective story about what all those things mean as a whole. Seeing one initiative alongside a collection of others has given them more cohesion and wider context.

I’m proud too of how we’ve created a public space for others’ work – it has felt like a really good use of the space, not there to promote one person’s work or brand or agenda, but as a platform for multiple people’s work.

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What collaborations have happened during the project?
We’ve been able to collaborate with several Makerversity members: Good Gym made some vouchers specifically for the shop, as have ReStart. The technicians at Makerversity have been great in terms of making the shop fittings. During fashion week we lent the space out to Birdsong, from upstairs at Bethnal Green Ventures. I also feel like we’ve been in constant collaboration with Somerset House itself, who are exploring how an institution can support these kinds of spaces and platforms in the future.

Who’s your dream collaborator?
For the Civic Shop it would be Wetherspoons or local Parish Councils. We want to go to spaces where people are in their everyday lives. For the Civic Radio it would be Michael Sandel as we’d love to interview him about “What money can’t buy

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Are making and social innovation natural bed fellows?
The idea that making and design – in particular the way you prototype and test and visualise – provide an important set of methods for social innovation has been well documented. But, I think we often leave out important questions in the narratives of making – where you make, what you make, what you don’t make. I’m much more interested in making as part of a more holistic approach to change, that is about building and systems thinking. I also worry about the concerns Debbie Chachra raises in her article “Why I am not a maker” about the value we give to the visible and tangible over that that is unseen.

The Civic Shop is located on the ground floor of the New Wing of Somerset House and is open Wednesdays to Sundays from 12 to 6pm until the end of March.

Read more about the thinking behind Civic Shop here.

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Posted By Krisi
Managing Director