Bristol Futures: navigating bureaucracy with whit and purpose.

The Creative Bureaucracy Festival, celebrating its seventh year in Berlin, is set to debut in Bristol on April 23rd, organised by Bristol Ideas. Among the contributors is Stephen Hilton, co-Instigator of Slowmentum. Stephen reflects on his tenure as Bristol City Council's Director of Futures, highlighting achievements such as securing the title of European Green Capital 2015. He emphasises the importance of genuine human connections and advocates for a shift towards models of local leadership, departing from incrementalism towards authentic public commons partnerships.


Stephen Hilton

3/22/20245 min read

Embarking on my role as Bristol City Council's Director of Futures was a journey filled with both whit and purpose. With a playful quip, I often deflected accountability for unpopular council decisions, stating, ‘Don't blame me for the past; that's someone else's department.’ However, behind the humour lay a serious commitment to ushering in a new era of governance – one that embraced innovation, creativity, sustainability and community engagement.

In 2011, the seeds of this vision were sown by then council Leader, Barbara Janke (now Baroness Janke of Clifton). Recognising Bristol's unique strengths in environmental sustainability, creativity, and digital innovation, Baroness Janke sought to embed these qualities into the fabric of the city administration. The Bristol Futures Department was born - an innovative initiative aimed at actively cultivating and leveraging Bristol's potential for inclusive and sustainable economic progress.

My appointment as Director of Bristol Futures marked the start of a transformative journey. Guided by our principles of Creative, Smart, Green, Connected, Open, and Inclusive, we embraced a unique leadership style centred on personal credibility, authenticity, and the empowering question: ‘I don't know, what do you think?’ This ethos of humility, collaboration, and genuine concern for the human impact of our efforts became our driving force. Bristol Futures aimed to be a warm and approachable presence, a friendly face amidst the faceless bureaucracy.

For five years, the department surged ahead, achieving successes with the invaluable support of partners such as: Knowle West Media Centre; Watershed; Bristol Ideas and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership, as well as the city’s two universities. The department’s achievements included: securing the title of Bristol European Green Capital 2015; establishing Bristol within the Rockefeller 100 Global Resilient Cities network; launching Engine Shed as a hub for creative technology in the newly formed Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone; creating Bristol is Open (BiO), a city innovation platform; and setting up Invest Bristol & Bath, to promote the West of England nationally and internationally. In addition, we established a new council international team and the Bristol Bath Brussels Office, positioning the region to receive tens of millions in grants for locally driven infrastructure, demonstrators and “living lab” projects.

Not every initiative proved successful. Early efforts to catalyse investment in community renewable energy were derailed by the formation of an ill-fated city council-run energy company. Similarly, Bristol is Open, while visionary in its approach, faced challenges in achieving local impact due to organisational complexities and competing interests. The Resilient City programme, though bolstered by generous external funding, grappled with expectations imposed by the funder. Such issues, trade-offs and watered down visions will be familiar to anyone involved in instigating place-based innovation.  Personally, every time I pass Temple Meads station, I regret that the green gateway to the city vision that we tantalised the European Commission with as part of our 2015 Green Capital presentation appears as far away now as it has ever been.

While we may not have seen ourselves at the time as a creative bureaucracy, it is a title that offers a good framing of the opportunities and challenges that Bristol Futures faced. The term "bureaucrat" combining "bureau” signifying office or desk, with the Greek suffix "-crat”, indicating authority or power has evolved to depict those overly fixated on rules and procedures, often hindering innovation and efficiency in public administration. In response to bureaucratic rigidity, the concept of creative bureaucracy has emerged. It champions infusing innovation and collaboration into traditional systems, leveraging technology, fostering a culture of creativity, and promoting citizen engagement. 

Within this framework, Bristol Futures embraced a "Trojan Mice" strategy, inspired by Euan Semple[AK1] 's The Obvious blog, advocating for nuanced approaches to change within government and business. Unlike an overt "Trojan Horse" approach, "Trojan Mice" promote gradual adjustments, fostering adaptability and transforming governance structures incrementally. Through small-scale initiatives and experiments, we aimed to cultivate momentum and drive meaningful and sustainable change, leveraging this cumulative effect to fuel innovation. 

In practice, it was often the small system tweaks, and unlikely partnerships that yielded results. Adding an extra spreadsheet column to the council’s financial system facilitated the use of Bristol’s pioneering local currency, The Bristol £, for almost a decade. Collaboration with community activist group, Bristol Wireless, opened the council’s fibre network for community Wi-Fi access. Partnering with a community-run technology reuse charity, ByteBack, ensured safe wiping of redundant council computers, making them available at a nominal charge to households facing digital exclusion. It was this blend of passionate community enterprise working collaboratively and authentically with the council “suits” that constituted Bristol Futures’ secret sauce.

The Bristol Futures experiment concluded in 2016, following a pre-emptive decision to disband the department. This difficult choice stemmed from its constant vulnerability to the harsh impacts of austerity measures, and significant shifts in managerial and political leadership. A responsible Futures Director knows when it's time to step back! While I moved on to pursue other opportunities, many team members transitioned to different council departments. There, they persisted in nurturing innovative ideas, nibbling away at the wiring, embodying the spirit of "Trojan Mice" by actively fostering change from within.

I take pride in the achievements of Bristol Futures but  the present landscape for local government is undeniably grim. With many authorities teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and essential services facing mounting demands, the future viability of local government is in jeopardy. As council tax rates are hiked to bridge insurmountable budget deficits and access to crucial safety net services is restricted, including the withdrawal of universal provision like arts and libraries, we find ourselves caught in a downward spiral. Unless these issues are addressed promptly, we risk witnessing the demise of local government as a public service sector. 

What role can a Futures Department play with such challenges? It seems evident that the era of small, incremental changes has passed. Instead, substantial "paradigm-level" shifts are now imperative to shield communities from the harmful effects of excessively extractive, market-driven approaches that pervade all aspects of life and imperil the planet. 


Transitioning towards a public-commons partnership model of governance is essential, avoiding the commodification of public services and resources. This shift underscores the necessity of fostering collaborative relationships between the public sector, communities, and civil society. By embracing this approach, local authorities can re-prioritise citizens' long-term well-being. Through co-investment in community-led initiatives, participatory decision-making processes, and resource-sharing, communities are empowered to co-create solutions tailored to their unique needs. This strategy aims to amplify impact by nurturing interconnected networks of locally-driven approaches, departing from traditional top-down solutions that struggle to adapt to the swiftly changing landscape. 

Embracing the concept of the commons, encompassing shared resources, systems, and spaces, promotes sustainability, equity, and social cohesion. Imagine a council that invests in a connected network of locally-driven community land trusts; that works in partnership with allotment holders to create far more spaces where people can grow their own food; that provides investment in the development of social co-ops, especially in health and social care, diversifying supply chains and anchoring spending into the local economy. In essence, envision a council making the regenerative economy its key policy driver, and organising itself accordingly.

As we navigate these challenging times, reimagining local governance through the public-commons partnership lens promises more democratic, equitable, and sustainable societies. I see no other viable option for local government to survive and rebuild its value as a body that is trusted to advocate for its people. It's what a newly appointed creative bureaucratic should champion now.

The Bristol Creative Bureaucracy Day is taking place on 23rd April, 2024. Tickets available from Bristol Ideas


A large Trojan Mouse containing suited office workers
A large Trojan Mouse containing suited office workers