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Opus Independents - Platform for Meaning

Author: Simon Duffy with James Lock

In the City of Sheffield a very interesting social innovation has emerged called Opus Independents. If you look at it one way it is a small business, a non-profit organisation which produces:

  • Now Then - a monthly magazine which mixes art, stories and political debate with regular advertising for the independent businesses in Sheffield
  • Festival of Debate - an annual programme of political and social debate, combining exciting speakers from outside Sheffield with local initiatives to explore better solutions for our problems.
  • Opus Distribution - a system for distributing flyers and leaflets for independent traders, community groups and charities across the city and for collecting unused leaflets for recycling.
  • Word Life - a programme of activities supporting live literature performances and innovative AR & VR digital literature projects across Yorkshire and beyond.

But if you look at it another way it is increasingly a powerful platform for creativity and community action. I met with James Lock, who with a small group of friends, began the development of Opus Independents back in 2005.

James, originally from a village in Buckinghamshire, studied History and Sociology at Sheffield University. To him, life is about understanding meaning as a socially influenced internal construct as well as a process, which enables us to value and re-value our choices and actions. He found himself questioning some of our traditional constructs and the purposes we collectively derive from them, and instead sought to understand better what experiences he had attributed the most meaning to. In doing so he realised that what inspires critical thinking and empathy – two traits he holds dear – is our experience of the creative: The album which blew your mind and made you weep, the book or article which changed your view on a topic or person, the gig you went to which broadened your horizons. James, as a spoken word poet, was also particularly interested in the importance of story-telling to our lives and the central question of how we all live together equitably.

After University James did not see much meaning, or better put – fulfilment, in the work opportunities that he found in front of him. So he began to think about how he might create something that had more real value. James thought that by finding a way to share creative outputs with others, through mechanisms like a distribution service or a magazine or a live events programme, that he and his friends could contribute in a meaningful, ethical way - finding meaning by helping others encounter new meanings, in a sense.

Just one example of this work is the Now Then magazine, which has been running for 10 years. It is not uncommon to find magazines that are funded by local advertising. What makes Now Then so unusual is that local advertisers (all local independent traders, community groups, local governemnt and charities) are funding a magazine which also hosts the work of original local artists - printed to a very high quality - combined with great writing on many different topics. It is rare to see the creative combination of political writing, art and ethical business - all of which is combined without any undue worthiness. Now Then is a good read - fun and engaging.

In the past couple of years the Centre for Welfare Reform has been lucky enough to get involved in running several events within the Festival of Debate. The festival, run by Opus Independents, is now huge - with about 80 events in 2018. It is a great opportunity to bring together diverse people, test out new ideas and listen to what local people really think. It was out of the Festival that we worked with Opus Independents to develop UBI Lab Sheffield. This year we’re also exploring the possibility of the reform of local democratic structures in Sheffield.

There is a gentle spirit to Opus Independents which is very Sheffield. Its mission is to help share creative ideas, products or businesses. But behind this mission people are connecting in new and unusual ways and doors to community change are swinging open.

Find out more, visit: www.weareopus.org


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Opus Independents - Platform for Meaning © Simon Duffy and James Lock 2018.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.