Participation Culture is like Gizmo

Hamish Lindop
3 min readMar 9, 2024
Gizmo the Mogwai, from the 1984 hit movie “Gremlins”

I’ve been working with Maree and Kaiya, a couple of really cool people to adapt and apply the Participatory City Approach to a project called “Strengthen Our Streets” in Manurewa, South Auckland (thanks Manurewa Local Board for your support!) It’s been working like this: Maree, a facilitator puts a call out for people who want to do a “street cafe” with her, basically like a zhished up version of tea and coffee with your neighbours. This allows people to connect more with those in their street. From there they might doing more stuff together like cooking, composting, sharing stuff, and so on. When people start doing all this type of stuff together in neigbourhoods we call that participation culture, and it has many benefits

One of the reflections that we had is that participation culture is a bit like Gizmo; bear with me here. In the movie “Gremlins”, Gizmo is this cute furry little dude that the main character buys from a strange antique store (if memory serves correctly). the main character loves Gizmo, but he’s got some instructions on what not to do: you can’t get water on him; you can’t feed him after midnight. These things of course happen, Gizmo turns into Gremlins, and hilarious mayhem ensues.

I’m using this as a fun metaphor to describe a challenge with growing participation culture which was identified back in Made to Measure, the year one report from Participatory City.

What they found when working to support Participation Culture to grow is that because people aren’t used to just keeping doing stuff together like cooking, composting, making things, sharing things, in a peer to peer way, they’ll revert to another way of doing it that’s more familiar, like service delivery, or setting up a trust (NZ has got the most trusts per capita in the OECD!) Or sometimes people see how good the “engagement” is from people in the street and want to channel that towards other ends like political engagement, consumer engagement, etc.

So what we’re finding is there’s a bit of a trick to growing participation culture: you can’t shut out those other ways of doing things; those other ways of doing things are the rest of life! But if you let them in totally then participation culture kind of evaporates and turns into those other things. So maybe there’s a bit of an art form to holding a “porous boundary”, knowing people come as they are with whatever ways they do things, letting participation culture and peer to peer interaction influence them, and be influenced by them.

It’s a bit like that classic thing of “trusting the process” in social innovation. What I’ve learnt is about trusting the process to hold it lightly; note that this is a goldilocks state, between grasping the process (which I still have a tendency to do if I get nervous!) and letting it go altogether.

How do you find this art of holding lightly showing up in your practice/life? If you’d like to talk about it or know more get in touch!



Hamish Lindop

Sharing insights from community building and social innovation, and reflections on ways of (well) being