The Possibility Club

What is community innovation?

Richard Freeman asks tricky questions about Worthing.

Not the Big Society

When the Cameron coalition government launched (and relaunched) the Big Society agenda amidst a deep and broad austerity programme – it wasn’t just the cynical who interpreted this as a way for public services to be delivered without government paying for them. Whatever the truth of that, community innovation is different.

According to NESTA, community innovations, are the mobilising ideas and inventions that ‘support people and places to thrive, alongside public services’. So, we’re talking about additional, embedded, bottom-up?

Julia Unwin, formerly of the Rowntree Trust, and now Chair of the Civil Society Futures is clear in a recent article that just as the  corporate sector doesn’t wait for permission to test new ideas – neither should organisations focused on social value –  ‘Change can’t wait’, she says. ‘Are we going to be the problem or the solution?’

Place-based questions

always possible have been helping shape a number of place-based action projects on the south coast over the past few years:

• Establishing The Bexhill Hive
• Producing the Starboard Festival
• Convening a Big Education Conversation on life-readiness

• Debating and provoking joined-up response to challenges around identity, skills and social responsibility in Brighton

What matters in Worthing?

Recently, we have been starting to understand the community heartbeat of Worthing – a large seaside town with a growing economy, but one that could be hit badly following the UK leaving the EU.

Our roundtable podcast from March last year explored the idea of creativity in Worthing and where change is coming from.

On January 17th 2019, following three months of development workshops and wide conversations, we kicked-off the early stages of a Community Innovation Network – assembling around 30 of the town’s do-ers, thinkers, social entrepreneurs and visionaries.

I asked them what matters.

What matters is people, and people having something tangible to gather around. Like the rest of the UK, communities in Worthing thrive on the paradox of shared values and individual need. But what matters is that there is space for conversations, connectivity, visibility of ideas, the sea, the South Downs, neighbours knowing one another, and neighbours respecting/driving each others’ passion.

I asked them what innovation might mean in this context.

It doesn’t have to be new – and being innovative can be often more valuable when something existing is simply strengthened or repurposed. Worthing has an abundance of skills – from families who have shaped the town over the past century, and those who have recently arrived with technological know-how and different entrepreneurial ideas. There need never be ‘othering’, but ways to harness both together. We heard examples of beautiful projects and businesses – like Lauren Roffey’s Baked, Bianca Donnelly’s Greate2Create and Naqeeb Saide’s Ping!– developed out of hardship, an absence or a clear need. But they have been developed without anyone waiting for permission or policy.

And there was a clear message that innovation comes from people really understanding and loving the problem – focusing on the need that is right here and right now – and as it grows, stepping back and planning for where it might grow to.

And who owns this?

The town has challenges. Does it offer enough to young people? Is it easy to make new friends and to overcome loneliness? How does Worthing collaborate with it’s noisy, colourful Brighton & Hove neighbour, without being overshadowed or subsumed by it?

No-one and everyone needs to own whatever comes next. And that’s not easy. With 30 people gathered we had valuable voices – there were business owners, educators, charity leaders, council executives, the local magazine, sports enthusiasts, faith leaders, artists and people who just consider themselves to be of, from and for Worthing & Adur. But 30 is obviously not a complete and diverse representation of a 110k-strong population.

Monica Needs from the London borough of Barking & Dagenham walked us through some radical decisions made there about participation, community ownership, social entrepreneurship and how to rethink trust. Let things fail, she said. The best stuff with the highest impact and the deepest transformation comes from trying stuff out. We all need the confidence to enable that.

But this can’t be a council initiative, or all couched in the language of the voluntary sector or the chamber of commerce – the trickiest bit is to have something that everyone can drive.

A network?

The strongest theme of the night kept recurring. We need pollinators – grassroots people who can connect the private, the public, the community ideas. Spaces to build shared ownership of ideas>action>impact that happen face-to-face and online.

A persistent group, but not a closed group, that gives traction to the stuff that matters and finds the issues around which to obsess. And with the local authority and the voluntary sector networks in the room and listening hard, part of the conversation and feeling the energy – any big investment and leveraged funding will be better distributed and better designed because the ideas come first.

Anywhere?

None of this is rocket science. None of it is new. And every place has – and needs – its community innovators. But taking stock, and being conscious of what this means and why it is important refreshes the ambition and focuses the mind.
We’re really excited about what ever comes next – and where else we can harness this energy.

Does any of this resonate with you? We’d love to hear, so email us at ideas@alwayspossible.co.uk

You might enjoy our interviews with business, culture and education pioneers with unique perspectives on place-making and community innovation. Stella Duffy OBE has created community-driven Fun Palaces across the UK; Dr Mick Taylor is a mathematician with a mission to change the way money works in local economies; Isilda Almeida-Harvey talks about heritage as a tool for community cohesion; Rachael Perrin explores how music can help fix broken families, businesses and communities.

 

 

Richard Freeman is CEO of always possible and Founder of The Possibility Club.

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