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Understory x Amber Valley

Mapping community action and connections in rural Derbyshire.

Back in April we hosted a workshop with 50 community organisations connected to community action in Amber Valley, Derbyshire. It was part of a collaboration with Understory a new digital mapping tool that allows communities to reveal the hidden connections that bind them together.

Thanks to the workshop and the fifty organisations who contributed, you can now take a tour of the Amber Valley Community Network Map. It features 332 different groups and organisations bound together via a complex tangle of 1672 connections across 20 areas of shared purpose.

For anyone curious about using or being part of the map. Below is a bit more info on how the map was made, some of the conversations and learning that have emerged, and why we think making relationships visible in this way, can play a really important role in enabling community powered change.

What’s It All About?
Understory is a collaboration between two seemingly very different companies: Onion Collective, a group of place based social entrepreneurs and next economists from Somerset, and Free Ice Cream, a design studio dedicated to playful participation in complex systems. It has been designed as a participatory action learning tool, so that power resides with communities, rather than data being extracted. The team are currently working with 30 places from across the UK to map community action and build a macro-level understanding of how social capital and resilience works in different places.

Amber Valley is one of the first 10 places in the UK to collaborate with Understory and try out the new platform.

Why is it important?
We know that the relationships we’re inside of and how we are connected together as individuals, organisations, groups, and places matters. It’s been proven again and again that relationships play a crucial role in our health and happiness at every scale of organising. That who we are able to call on and connect with, in good times and in bad, has a massive impact on what we’re able to achieve and how well we are able to deal with challenges.

We also know that the building of this relational infrastructure, just like any other infrastructure, takes dedicated time, skills, care and investment and that this labour is often taken for granted, devalued, ignored, unrecognised, unsupported and unfunded.

Understory aims to make relationships more visible, so that communities can see more clearly what they’re inside of and work together to explore how they can turn their relationships and connections into mobilised community action.

How does the mapping work?
The Understory process brings together different organisations involved in civic and community action into a single mapping workshop. Everyone from sports clubs to council officers, theatre makers to community gardeners.

Our session was co-hosted with Amber Valley CVS at Greenwich Community Sports Hub in Ripley with some people also able to join us online. During the session, everyone answers a series of questions that begins to create a network node map in real time.

Understory Mapping Workshop in Ripley, April 2023

During the workshop, the fifty organisation who participated, named a further ten people and organisations both within and beyond Amber Valley that were important to their work and achieving their purpose. As the map began to emerge in real time, it was pretty staggering to see the volume and range of different groups and organisations active in the area. A total of 332 organisations were named linked together via a complex tangle of 1672 connections & relationships.

What does it all mean?
A month after the mapping workshop, Georgie, Sally and Sam from the Understory team joined us for a follow-up workshop at Strutts in Belper to talk through how to navigate the map and what the data was revealing about resilience, social capital and relational infrastructure in Amber Valley. It was a really fascinating conversations with around twenty of the organisations originally involved.

The tool is built on the understanding that the people who live in a place already hold all the insights & knowledge of that place, but that this knowledge isn’t collectively visible to those people. During the follow-up session it definitely felt like the map provided a way for people to see their community from a new perspective and start conversations from a different place. Acknowledging that there is always way more going on than any one organisation, sector or service can ever know and that working together across these silos is the only way to achieve meaningful change.

Some people were a bit bamboozled by the complexity and messiness of the map. We’re not used to seeing data contextualised in this way. But making this complex web of relationships more visible felt really powerful. Like spraying water on a spiders web, helping us to see the complex systems and structures that are shaping what is and isn’t possible for us as individuals, organisations and communities.

The map doesn’t provide any answers, and we’re only really scratching the surface in terms of exploring and analysing the data. But what feels clear, is that if we want to take a collective approach to change and we want communities to have some agency over the way that change comes about, this first step of understanding how people are currently connected and what relationships they’re currently inside of, feels essential.

What next?
We want to put communities and their collective creativity at the heart of making positive change in the places that they live. We want communities to feel more confident about leading on change and we want public agencies to learn alongside communities about how to shift more power and resources to a grass roots level.

We’re working with Understory and a small group of grass roots community groups to explore some new ideas about how we might work together to test the mapping process at a more hyper local neighbourhood level.

Watch this space for more details and get in touch if you’d like to chat more.

>> If you’d like to be added to the Amber Valley Community Network Map get in touch with us at and we’ll share a link.

>> Anyone can take a tour of the Amber Valley Community Network Map so feel free to dive in or share with anyone who might find it useful or interesting.

Everyone who contributes to the map gets access to the full map and the data it contains as well as added features and filters to explore the map. To add yourself to the map get in touch

Rachel (Make/Shift), Georgie and Sally (Onion Collective), Sam (Free Icecream) at The University of Derby Civic Lab Conference in July 2023.

Make/Shift s a small team collaborating with others to create projects which support communities in Amber Valley to make, do, create, repair, grow, share, care for and connect with what matters to them in the places that they live. Their vision is for Amber Valley to be a place full of makers, where everyone’s creativity matters as part of everyday life.

Onion Collective is a social enterprise working to tackle social, cultural and environmental injustice in Watchet, while fighting for a brighter, distributed and attached economic future across the UK. They deliver wide-reaching and ambitious regeneration projects that are holistic in nature, benefiting people and planet. Locally, we aim to create purposeful and interesting jobs, build local economic resilience, widen cultural engagement and enhance aspiration. With a macro lens, we are showcasing what is possible when you put belonging, connection and hope at the fore.

Free Ice Cream is a design studio that uses playful design methodologies to make existing structures visible, help people ask better questions of them, and imagine alternatives. To do this they specialise in the participatory mapping and playing of complex systems, and creating the conditions to imagine alternative futures and infrastructures. They also work with activists, campaigners, civil society and academia to influence policy.

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‘Co-designing’ Communications

Can Communications be truly collaborative?

Earlier this year, in an attempt to get fit, I started running. Well, jogging really. Okay, fast walking. Only instead of becoming the streamlined, long -distance runner I’d imagined, I took a nasty fall and tore up my ankle. It was bad. Really bad. Can’t leave the house for a month, bad. Months of pain and physio ensued. In a cab on the way back from my final physio appointment, I relayed this story to the driver. He offered his own anecdote about his Dr telling him that he should go to the gym. He lamented that he worked 12 hour days and the last thing he wanted to do at the end of that was go to the gym. He then told me about the time he owned a takeaway, and his plan to up sticks and leave for sunnier shores in the coming years. He spoke about his dismay that neighbours no longer speak to each other and shared a vivid childhood memory about his father. At the end of the ride we thanked each other for the conversation, each leaving, I think, a touch fuller, feeling a little more connected.

I’ve always been fascinated by the power of stories. I write and perform stories using various mediums, theatre, film, short stories and have worked in communications for over 15 years — mostly internal communications where I have been tasked with sharing the stories of an organisation with and to the people who work there. I have generally kept these two sides of myself separate — the creative and the corporate. Organisations generally do not see the value in creativity and storytelling — however much they like to convince themselves otherwise. Marketing and communications can often just be seen as completing a number of tasks and hoping for the best. Define your audience. Create a newsletter. Build a website. Set up a Twitter page. Evaluate. A to-do-list to be ticked off.

While of course there will be many tried and true communications principles that underpin the work I do, at Make/Shift I am keen to experiment with different ways of working – to shift communications and marketing away from something that is done by rote, using tools and processes that are always used, only because they have always been used rather than because they are truly effective or joyful or needed. My questions are these:

How can we tell the story of the Make/Shift project?

How do we do that effectively in a way that is collaborative and impactful?

How can we make sure that the storytelling is respectful and dignified?

Can we co-design communications?

Can we do this in a way that is iterative?

I plan to blog about the experience of exploring these questions with all of the highs and lows that will inevitably arise. This is the beauty of an action-research project — we get to try, fail, try better.

One of the areas that I am interested in trying a more iterative approach is with the creation of our visual identity. Can we create an identity that is informed by the community, shaped and refined by their explorations with making and creativity, which also develops over time as we continue our work with this community? It’s going to be uncomfortable and slower than the conventional process of creating a visual identity but I think it’s also an opportunity to surprise ourselves by what is created.

I also hope that this is the beginning of my own research and greater understanding of how to work in a way that aligns with the values that underpin the foundations of Make/Shift. It’s a chance to generate learning and explore the possibilities of how we can tell the story of a Creative People and Places project.

In my upcoming blogs, I’ll be delving a bit deeper into our decision to approach the creation of our visual identity by piloting a designer-in-residence model. I’ll also be sharing some of the work of people and organisations who are re-framing storytelling, and positioning organisational and societal narrative as a tool to create change. But before all of that, I’ll be getting back to some outdoor exercise — only at a much gentler pace.

Hayley Davis — Communications and Storytelling, Make/Shift

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What Shall We Make Here?

This is the first in a series of blogs by Rachel Smith, sharing a bit more about the beginnings of Make/Shift and what it’s all about!

Beginnings …
It’s almost eight months since I started in my new role as Creative Producer for Make/Shift. I had high hopes of blogging and sharing about these first months. But alas the weeks have raced by and here we are, already eight months in. It feels like time travels faster through newness. And there’s certainly been a lot of that. New job, new home, new place, new schools, new project, new team, new collaborators, new challenges … a whirlwind of newness that has gobbled up time at a voracious speed.

Over the years, I’ve been lucky to work on lots of new beginnings. Setting up new programmes, projects & teams. I’ve learnt (sometimes the hard way) how important beginnings are. They set the tone and the trajectory for the future. They contain a potent mix of energy, naiveite, possibility and strategic momentum, counterbalanced by a healthy dose of confusion, messiness, uncertainty, and practical challenges.

This combo can feel overwhelming at times, and yet starting out with Make/Shift, I’ve tried really hard to relish and to linger a little longer in these uncomfortable beginnings. These are complex, messy, challenging times. We can’t pretend we don’t know this. Stewarding resources and beginning something new within this context feels like a huge privilege and a massive responsibility. Ploughing forward in a linear way, isn’t helpful right now. So, we’re embracing the messiness, resisting the urge to rush into solutions, remembering that the process matters, that how we’re being and organising matters, that relationships and stories matter and that if we want to shift towards different outcomes, we must start differently too.

So What’s Is All About?
When you start something new, the inevitably question on everyone’s lips is, so what’s it all about then? And with something like Make/Shift, it’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The whole point is that we have to make it together. If we started out with a set idea about what we wanted to do, we wouldn’t be doing our job properly. And yet, it’s so much easier to talk about defined outputs and tantalising things, and so much murkier to talk about how we’re working and what might become possible over time.

In those moments, when you only have a couple of minutes to answer the question, it can feel incredibly frustrating (for everyone!) not to be able to give a simple answer. There feels like such a tangible correlation between not having clear answers and a sense of shame, failure and disappointment. And yet it’s amidst these unknowns that the magical things can start to happen and that the real possibilities start to emerge … so here goes with a bit of an explanation!

Communities and their creativity
Make/Shift’s purpose is to put communities and their collective creativity at the heart of making positive change in the places that they live.

We think that when people have the opportunity to create, make, do and share what they love with their neighbours, connections grow (with self, others & place) and change becomes more possible.

We’re part of a national action research programme called Creative People and Places funded by Arts Council England. The programme is about more people taking the lead in choosing, creating and taking part in creative and cultural experiences in the places where they live.

We’re at the beginning of shaping a 10-year strategy with communities in Amber Valley, and we have funding secured until April 2025 for phase 1 of working together. Testing ideas, learning through doing and building the foundations for a thriving network of makers, doers and connectors to grow. Rooted in Amber Valley and reaching out beyond.
A place full of makers, where everyone’s creativity matters.

“Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that shape and inform our lives” Joseph Beuys

We start from a belief that we are all creative, that everyone is a maker, and that making together is an elemental part of who we are and how we contribute to shaping, and being shaped by the places we live.

We also recognise that the places we live, work, learn and play are often designed to dim this creativity rather than nourish it, and that many of our daily interactions position us as consumers, users and subjects, rather than as makers, doers and active citizens. In his book “Citizens”, Jon Alexander shares that the average person sees somewhere between 1500–3000 messages a day, telling them they are consumers. What might become possible if we lived in places where we received 3000 messages a day that told us that we are makers, creators, growers, and producers instead? What would it feel like to be part of places designed to nurture our inner maker and fan the flames of our collective creativity? What might become possible, if a vast array of different types of creativity mattered. Both in terms of its value and in terms of its physical manifestation as part of shaping our everyday lives?

Q: What if we could all be part of places where a vast array of creativity matters as part of everyday life?

Rekindling the maker in everyone

“The potency that comes from doing and making things yourself is irresistible, and means that we can face future challenges with originality, daring and joy” — David Gauntlett

Over the next 10 years we want to work with communities to discover, connect, nourish and let loose their creativity. We are all bundles of potential waiting for the right conditions and connections to make magic happen together. Just like a flame, our creativity needs to be tended to, connected with the right elements and kept away from the wrong elements, in order for it to be kindled, glow more brightly and spread it’s warmth!

Much of our focus will be on working alongside communities to make, do, create, repair, grow, share, care for and connect with what matters to them in the places that they live. Learning together about what’s already working, what’s wanted, what the future needs, what’s missing and what’s getting in the way.

Q: How might we work together as neighbours to rekindle the maker in everyone?

Letting creativity loose to shift the direction of where we’re heading

“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently” ― David Graeber

As makers, doers, creators, producers we can activate our personal and collective agency and begin to craft our own stories and futures. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are can change everything. Absorbing 3000 messages a day from marketing companies, service providers, brands, public agencies, schools, workplaces and more … that position us as users, passive recipients, consumers and needy beneficiaries of their products, services and wisdom is like chucking a massive bucket of water over our inner spark.

The relationships and stories that we’re inside of matter. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are matter. Untangling our creativity from the dominant stories, power dynamics and systems that keep us trapped in solutions that aren’t working, matters.

If we want to shift towards healthier futures, we have to shift away from the delusion of exceptionalism and the idea that there are only a few extraordinary people, organisations, places who have the ideas, answers, solutions & creativity needed, and start telling the story of ordinary people, everywhere, who are capable of extraordinary things together.

Q: How might we let loose the collective creativity of our neighbourhoods to shift us towards healthier futures for people and planet?

Make/Shift Compass:
We know where we need to start (with communities and their creativity) and we know where we want to get to (places full of makers, where everyone’s creativity matters) … but there’s a whole load of unknowns to navigate in between.

This is the work!

And this is where being an action research programme comes in.

We don’t have the answers. We’re here to learn together. By doing lots of different things together, taking the time to monitor and understand what changes (or doesn’t!), and then doing more of what matters and less of what doesn’t.

To help guide us along the way, we’ve created the compass above, that brings together the values that we want to lead with, the approaches that we’re committed to taking and the underlying stories that we want to bring to the fore in our work. These will shift and grow as we start to involve more and more people in shaping them together.

We think that focusing deeply on how we’re being and what stories we’re telling is one of the most powerful ways we can create the conditions for change. In many ways, given the complex nature of communities, places and change, these are the only things in our direct control.

So, What Shall We Make Here …?

Well, this is something that we can only figure out together …. and we can’t wait to find out!

If you want to find out more, have a chat or share your ideas, get in touch!

A place full of makers, where everyone’s creativity matters as part of everyday life.

Working with communities to make, do, create, repair, grow, share, care for and connect with what matters to them in the places that they live. Working together as neighbours to unleash the maker in everyone and let the creativity of Amber Valley loose.

Things can be different than how they are now

Things are better done with others than individually

I am because we are. We each owe a duty of care to those around us, as human beings, and to our natural environment

Our future is in our hands. As makers, doers, creators, producers we can activate our agency and craft our own stories and futures.

Starting With Strengths: We will start by making visible the hidden assets of communities and by shining a light on assets that are not yet sufficiently valued. From here we can explore together what might be missing and what might be newly wanted/needed.

How can we start with what we already have?

Moving at the Speed of Trust: We know that relationships matter and that building relationships takes time, patience and relies heavily on trust. To collaborate and make meaningful work together can be hard and throw up lots of challenges and vulnerabilities.

How can we take the time that is needed to get to know people and build safe spaces and high levels of trust?

With Not For: We want to build genuine, reciprocal, equitable collaborations with communities. This means paying close attention to context, power and positionality and making sure that there is a two way exchange of knowledge and resources.

How can power flow differently so that it is shared more diffusely?

Learning From Nature: We know that nature has been organising and growing healthy ecosystems for millions of years. We want to learn from more than human ways of organising, to help untangle ourselves from dominant stories and systems that keep us trapped in solutions that aren’t working.

How can we use nature as a model and mentor to re-imagine how we are being, doing and learning together?

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Join Our Team

We’re on the look out for a couple of fantastic people to join our small friendly team. Helping to shape two brand new roles as part of a dynamic and evolving new programme working with communities in Amber Valley, Derbyshire.

Creative Community Builder

We’re looking for a part time Creative Community Builder.

We want to work with someone who enjoys collaborating with others and is excited by the opportunity to shape a brand new role as part of a dynamic and evolving programme.

As Creative Community Builder you will play an essential convening role as part of the Make/Shift team. Helping to grow a network of makers, doers and connectors who have access to the resources and platforms they need to make things happen together in the places they live and to invite their neighbours along to join them.

To thrive in this role you will be passionate about the power of peer-to-peer networks, committed to strengths based community development and curious about working proactively with communities to self-organise, solicit resources and make decisions for themselves about the cultural and creative experiences they want to grow in the places where they live.

You will be interested in how to create space for colleagues, peers, communities, and neighbours with different lived, learnt and practiced experience to share, learn, collaborate, make decision and take action together.

Part time

£30k-£40k (pro-rata)

Assistant Producer

We’re looking for a full time Assistant Producer.

We want to work with someone who has the ability to juggle multiple priorities and provide practical support across a diverse range of projects and programmes.

As Assistant Producer, you will collaborate closely with the Make/Shift Creative Producer, to activate and bring to life ideas emerging from a dynamic network of relationships with residents, community organisations, creatives, venues and businesses based in Amber Valley and beyond.

To thrive in this role you will be a proactive team player with excellent communication skills, open to learning through doing and comfortable working within an emerging role to develop a brand-new programme from scratch.

Full time

Interview date 11th or 12th September.

About the Make/Shift Programme
Over the next ten years we’ll be working with communities from across Amber Valley to unleash the maker in everyone. We plan to do this in cycles — Discovering — Connecting — Nourishing — Letting Loose creativity, connection and new possibilities in homes, streets, neighbourhoods, villages and towns across Amber Valley.

We want to grow a network of makers, doers and connectors who have access to the resources and platforms they need to make things happen together in the places they live and to invite their neighbours to join them. They will be supported and inspired by an evolving network of thinkers, creators, artists, makers, activists, dreamers, and story tellers that we will develop together, branching out of the Amber Valley to connect local makers and communities with local, regional, and international ideas.

We have funding secured until April 2025 to pilot a range of Make/Shift platforms responding to needs. These might include physical spaces, events, festivals, gatherings, hubs, tools, resources, funds, equipment, technology and more that support people to make things happen together and let their creativity loose.

As a new action research project, Make/Shift will be experimental and innovative in its approach, testing new ideas, tools and participatory practices.

Make/Shift is a small team, collaborating with others to create projects which support communities in Amber Valley to make, do, create, repair, grow, share, care for and connect with what matters to them in the places that they live. Our vision is for Amber Valley to be a place full of makers, where everyone’s creativity matters as part of everyday life.

We are supported by a consortium of partners bringing together expertise from across culture, environment, and community. This includes Amber Valley Community Voluntary Services, Belper and District U3A, Derby Museums, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and University of Derby.

We are hosted and employed by the University of Derby as part of their CivicLab.

About Creative People and Places
Make/Shift is part of the Creative People and Places programme, initiated and funded by Arts Council England thanks to the National Lottery. Creative People and Places is about more people taking the lead in choosing, creating and taking part in creative and cultural experiences in the places where they live. There are now 39 projects, covering 56 local authorities across England.

You can find out a bit more about our approach here and on our website

How to apply
You can apply by submitting an online application. Once you have signed in or registered with us you will be able to begin your application. If you are creating an account for the first time, please ensure you provide an email address that you access regularly as this will be our main means of contacting you regarding your application.

Apply online Apply online
If you require any assistance, including the provision of any documentation in an alternative format, please contact the Recruitment team at

Please note all applications must be submitted online by Midnight GMT on the closing

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‘Transported’ to Boston

In December 2022, we bundled into a minivan and took a road trip to Boston in Lincolnshire, to visit fellow Creative People and Places project, Transported. Transported were one of the first Creative People and Places Projects to be set-up back in 2013, so have been up and running for nearly 10 years.

We were joined by colleagues from our Consortium partners, University of Derby, Derby Museums, Amber Valley CVS, and U3A alongside researchers Mark Robinson from Thinking Practice and Victoria Baker from Coventry University.

Dolphin Lane Heritage Mosaic

We wanted to learn more about the 10 year journey that Transported have been on, exchange ideas and glean valuable insights into the successes, pitfalls and challenges that come with being part of the Creative People and Places programme.

We were hosted by the full Transported team and Management Group who shared generously about their different roles and experiences of being part of the project. The project is hosted by the Centre of Culture and Creativity at the University of Lincoln, so there is lots of synergy with our relationship with the University of Derby and the CivicHUB.

The morning session was led by Sukhy Johal, who is the founding Director of Centre and chair of the Transported Management Group. He led a passionate discussion about the role of arts and creative thinking and the difference they make to lives and places. We also heard from researcher Mark Robinson who ran through some of the highlights from his 10 years of Learning report, that was commission by Arts Council England to mark the 10 year anniversary of the Creative People and Places programme.

Following the discussions, Nick Jones, Programme Director for Transported, led a walking tour around Boston to visit Transported public art projects which included the Boston Buoys and the Dolphin Lane Heritage Mosaic Project.

It was great to meet the team and hear them speak so passionately about their work and the impact it’s had.

It was also brilliant to spend some time with the Make/Shift team and consortium and start getting to know each other a bit better. There is really nothing like four hours in a minibus to help build new friendships!

Massive thanks to Tony from Derby Museums, Lynn from Amber Valley CVS, Bernadette from U3A, Rhiannon and Ian from University of Derby and collaborators Mark & Victoria, for taking a day out during the hectic run up to Christmas. And a huge Thanks to Nick, Anna and all the Transported team for welcoming us to Boston and sharing their experience and passion so generously.

We’ll definitely be keeping in touch with our peers at Transported as we begin our journey here in the Amber Valley, as well as getting to know some of our other neighbouring Creative People and Places projects here in the East Midlands.

Some key take-aways from the day that we’ll be holding on to:

Move at the speed of trust
Relationships take time. Patience, kindness and curiosity are key if we want to find our way together.

Stories of hope
Focus on strengths and possibilities that can guide us towards a brighter tomorrow rather than trying to fix problems.

Think long term
Don’t let short term funding cycles limit long term ambition. This work takes time and we need to be in it for the long haul.

Try things out
Be bold and take risks. Its normal for things to be messy and imperfect when trying new things out together. We’re learning. That’s the point.

Have fun
Make sure to have fun, celebrate the successes and look after each other along the way.

We’re steadily building relationships, meeting people and laying the foundations for something remarkable. We hope you’ll join us on this journey. You can get in touch with us via email

Keep watching!

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