I’m interested in social infrastructure and co-operation — what it means for people to be in relationship, as a community, a neighbourhood, a town, a City. And if those relationships are nurtured, how they continually aide the prevention of things like social isolation but how they might also usefully be activated when change is necessary, or just drawn on in an everyday way as engines of a community.
Places as a patchwork of assets
Following on from my posts about a networked mindset and networked organisation, I wanted to share some ideas about how organisations that are already networks in terms of their assets, can be useful in communities. Some of this has been informed by user research I was doing last year with the Co-op’s communities team, some of it links to a proposal Doteveryone included the Co-op in, about the future of civil society, and some of it has been informed by the Applied Positive Psychology MSc I did in 2008, where I focussed a lot on collective efficacy.
It’s a common line now that system-level, co-ordinated approaches are our best way of tackling major societal challenges, and we need new models for organising ourselves around change and for public engagement. If you are an everyday brand, who is visible in every postcode in the UK, how can you be useful beyond convenience and markets?
Direct fundraising efforts in new and different ways
Whilst it is great that organisations like Waitrose, Asda and the Co-op invest in local communities through charitable giving, it still feels like there are all kinds of missed opportunities.
Charitable giving can be useful for some initiatives, however, in many instances it is sticking a plaster on things. It doesn’t necessarily address the root issues. I’ve always loved the diagram below as a way of highlighting the direction to head in — towards co-production and peer-to-peer investments and away from donations and volunteering.
“There are other ways of being present and active in the local community which isn’t just about giving out money.”
There are some local initiatives doing good, long-term work that needs long-term investment for things like maintenance and renewal. Funding opportunities often put pressure on organisations to come up with new things that bias towards quick wins that create a good story to tell.
“ We have applied for grant funding, but our experience of grant funding is that if you launch a new project then you can get some significant funding. It needs to be new and innovative and all the rest of it. Whereas if you are just looking for funding to continue doing what you are doing, pay the salaries, pay the maintenance of the vehicles, nobody is interested. It is very disappointing. They are the innovation projects of a few years ago, and what do you do, just drop them and walk away?”
It would be interesting to see some funds being used to take a stand about maintenance rather than innovation — this is what I heard local organisations often need and this kind of resource is hard to find.
Find the things we most often have in common or do in common
The starting point or focus for a lot of change work often comes from needs and problems. What is the problem you are trying to solve? What are people’s needs? This can be a really important place to start, sometimes, but it can also be unhelpful — problematising people can disengage them as much as only seeing them as a service user. Additionally change or “making things better” might not always be the focus — it might be about strengthening, reviving, and supporting communities rather than changing them. That’s why I’m interested in what people do that they most have in common, and using that as a lever for introducing new things. Going shopping around the corner is a common activity, if you are a brand like the Co-op, imagine all the other common activities people do in association with your brand and the opportunities for engagement that this affords you.
“Citizens not only coming together in response to an issue or need but coming together to positively build and create the kinds of neighbourhoods and communities that they want to live and be in. Neither government services and commissioning cycles nor top-down organisation of services find it easy to support such efforts. They tend (just as market forces do) to segment and separate people from each other — serving one-way relationships of dependency and service for the elderly, the disabled, the Spanish speaking, etc. This can diminish community and make it harder to build networks and collective efforts.”
Make use of existing infrastructure
Large companies have an infrastructure that could be useful for other purposes. A bit like Newspaper Club making use of printing presses out of hours, what kinds of infrastructure lay dormant at different times, and how else could this be useful in communities. I spoke to some food banks who wondered why some of the large chains of supermarkets weren’t doing more intelligent distribution of food waste for example.
Repurpose or reimagine physical spaces
A study by the Eden Project and Big Lottery found that disconnected communities could be costing the UK economy £32 billion every year. Public space is also in demise — “what was small and/or public is becoming large and private” writes Saskia Sassen. There’s a lot to be said for small scale and local. I’m not so naive to ignore that many supermarket brands are privately owned corporations, but organisations like the Co-op are in a unique position as a membership organisation in this respect. If there are unused parts of physical spaces ( e.g stores with empty space upstairs, or the delivery areas that are only used at certain times of day), can these spaces be used for community meetings or gatherings, or as store space for the community?
Design digital infrastructure at a micro level
As large organisations go through their own changes to become networked and digital, there is opportunity to explore what kinds of tools could be useful at a local level too, in neighbourhood stores. For example, tools to help manage how local information gets published in a community, tools that enable citizens to take part in collective decision-making, or a platform that helps distribute resources to where they’re most needed in a community (supplies to food banks or volunteers to causes). We explored some of this in our libraries work, but there is no reason this can’t be done through other organisations with community roots.
Connect local information
This builds on a point mentioned above — local stores in communities often have a unique view of community activity and can act as a resource for local information, helping to join up dots and create ways to share information. This is especially useful when knowledge is spread across community groups, key individuals and local initiatives.
“Can you help spread information better around the community? That’s what we need your organisation to do.”
Be a digital hub for the community
There continues to be a real need for basic digital skills, and a growing (and urgent) need for greater digital understanding amongst the general public. These are important in equipping people to have everyday influence over civic and public life. Interactions could be designed in to people’s experiences in local stores or through online services, to develop the publics digital understanding. Additionally, networks of local stores could also become digital hubs through the provision of dedicated spaces for digital training.
Develop shared community intelligence
With such a view on the community, organisations like the Co-op can help to identify patterns and emerging trends. This kind of information could really help shape a place, as well as influencing national and local policy. It would also be interesting to think about what (publicly owned) data could be collected for feedback loops back into the community. This might be through community or “performance” dashboards or something more creative like we started exploring with LondonScape back in 2013.
Co-ordinate for collective impact
Familiar brands like the Co-op can be used to rally efforts around particular causes in the community that might require collaboration and new ways of working together. Local stores and the brand should play the role of convenor to encourage co-ordination between a group of local efforts as well as build stronger community links.
“ The cause of people needing food banks is a deeper issue, and we didn’t want to just be giving food to people for the rest of their lives. We wanted to co-operate or collaborate with people and other organisations locally so that people got the longer-term help they need as well.”
“There are lots of small organisations in a town like Blackpool that are trying to do good. But actually often they are trying to do similar things and it was a case of trying to say “how can we all work better together and co-ordinate what we are doing, so people aren’t duplicating effort.”
In a collective impact model you always need an organisation to be that facilitative platform underneath.
Staff as community champions
In Asset Based Community Development they are called Local Area Coordinators, in health as a social movement they are called Point People, at the Co-op they had Community Pioneers and now have Member Pioneers.
It’s commonly understood that the intricacies of communities are typically understood best by individuals. Individuals who understand their communities through a combination of listening, talking and observing — gathering new information often. These are local people and National organisations have networks of them on the ground through their staff base. People in these roles can keep an organisation connected to the ground, they can make activity happen, find people and resources to do it and also spot other opportunities for action and collaboration.
It’s interesting to think about what brands can do in reference to the list above that takes convenience beyond consumerism — how they can make it convenient to participate in your community and convenient to co-operate around local activity.
By the way, if you don’t already know about it yet, Participatory City is a pioneering example of how you can build, renew and strengthen existing communities towards the future. They’ve just raised £6.4 million which is such a testament to the quality of the work and its potential impact. I’m very glad to be on the (large!) Global Advisory Board and I’m looking forward to seeing the work develop, having been watching it grow since 2008.