Creative, social, innovative and entrepreneurial: Understanding local needs as developmental and economic potential

It could be said that humankind was gifted with everything they would ever need and it would be hard to argue, standing here in the 21st century, some 7 million years since we first learned to walk, that we are somehow deficient in any conceivable way.

Our mind, senses, memory and feelings have always been able to work together in such a way that our challenges; be they daily toil, community strife, or seasonal unpleasantness. Could all be comprehended and solutions could be discovered, formulated, agreed upon and put into action.

We needed warmth so we invented clothing.

We needed shelter so we invented houses.

We needed community so we invented ritual, ceremony and justice.

Everything manmade that we see in the world grew out of needs which have gradually become more complex. Just as we as a society, individuals, businesses, organisations and places have also become more complex. Ever shifting and adapting to the pressures and possibilities of our time.

The world is not fixed.

It is ever evolving. A change in one place, in one thing, in one behaviour, or in one idea can have the effect of reshuffling the entire deck.

In the same way, the problems we face can also force the need to change.

The big social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges of our time appear to be suggesting that a fundamental reshuffle may be the only hand we have to play.

It’s either that or we’re bust.

It’s terrifying but there is also excitement.

It’s perilous but the potential is hidden within all of the mess.

There is such desperate need and yet it guides us towards new vistas and a world of fresh opportunity.

It’s an intensely paradoxical situation and we may need to embrace both worldviews at the same time in order to act completely and intelligently. To use the horror as well as the hope to fully engage our minds, senses and feelings in the important task at hand. To be fully human and present so that we may save the day.

Will mankind have what it takes?

Or will we crumble at our greatest ever hurdles?

The need to change everything we see.

And the need to change ourselves.

There are numerous approaches to achieving the scale of change required.

Government can pull the big levers. Enact the policy. Inject the cash. And get the ball rolling.

Within organisations like Innovate UK and KTN there are already programmes which are incentivising innovation and entrepreneurial activity around sustainability and the circular economy and these largely align with the government’s future economic and industrial aims.

Government is not the only game in town though and we can find many pioneering organisations from business and civil society who have for many years and decades worked to shift practice and help create innovative new products and services which either reduce environmental and social harms or actively work to create additional social value.

Communities and local economies are also able to play a key part and it is likely that with their ability to organise, adapt and respond at the local level that they could achieve the greatest effect. The local effect multiplied is first regional, then national and ultimately global.

It’s all about acting at scale.

If communities and local economies decide to commit and to act. And if the resources were made available to support to do so them then the results may be rapid and far-reaching.

This sounds exactly like what we need right now.

Plus, wouldn’t it be rather splendid if communities and ordinary people saved the world?

What a heroic generation we could all be.

Happier and healthier. Wealthier in the widest sense, and also much safer.

Each and every one of us.

And every life yet to come.

Actually getting the level of engagement and action at the community level isn’t an easy task by any stretch of the imagination.

A lot of energy has gone into rubbishing climate change, environmentalism, and each other, and this cynicism, negative belief and polarisation is now embedded within our cultural psyche. It’s a potentially deadly side-effect of short-sighted politicking and profit seeking.

Not many communities are able to flick a switch and leap into action.

Not everywhere is a Transition Town. But we probably do need them to be!

There are amazing people and organisations working to help communities but they tend to be already committed to needs and activities of a more charitable nature.

There are also very few places or communities which also have the full quota or level of skills, abilities and competencies required to initiate or deliver on certain types of projects and local ambitions.

This doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

It only means that there is a starting point and that this understanding is useful in working out how to do something or at the very least have the questions at hand that allow us to move forward with creating a strategy.

To expand a little on the potential of communities and local economies I’m really grouping together elements such as:

Community Businesses, Community Development and Wealth Building, Localisation, Local food production and processing, Local manufacturing and assembly, Environmental Projects, Local social and environmental action by businesses, Social Value Procurement etc.

There’s no shortage of what communities and local economies can be doing.

But there is a massive gulf between where we are today and where we probably need to be in a couple of decades time.

So how could we approach things?

Society broadly consists of citizens, civil society, businesses and the state.

Each pillar (civil society, businesses and the state) performs specific functions which together help to create a well-functioning society.

This structure exists at the scale of the nation and at the scale of a place.

There are also multiple economies.

There is ‘the economy’ and there is the ‘social economy’.

There is also when it comes to place and communities a ‘local economy’ and a ‘local social economy’.

Let me try to illustrate these pillars, their activities and their relation to the two economies in one diagram.

Hopefully pretty explanatory. It isn’t entirely accurate but as long as you understand that it isn’t intended to be then we should be ok.

If you’re interested in this kind of thing I’ve written a few posts about the future potential of economies from a number of different perspectives, but they are all connected to Socially Enterprising. I’ll add some links at the end of the post.

I’m particularly interested in how we get local ecosystems working together.

The areas of activity that exist in proximity to local NEED are Social Action (which typically sits within Civil Society), Social Innovation (which has a strong relationship with The State) and Social Enterprise (whose closest analogy is in Business).

Types of NEED at the local level could include; SOCIAL (care, community, resilience, preparedness), CULTURAL (arts and culture, access, belonging and inclusiveness), ENVIRONMENTAL (pollution, sustainability, green space, flood protection), ECONOMIC (community assets and businesses, local food, local production, local manufacturing).

Definitions and elaborations of Social Action, Social Innovation, and Social Enterprise.

Social Action

“Social action is about people coming together to help improve their lives and solve the problems that are important in their communities. It involves people giving their time and other resources for the common good, in a range of forms — from volunteering and community-owned services to community organising or simple neighbourly acts.” — https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/591797/A_description_of_social_action.pdf

I’d also like for you to consider the common usage of the term ‘social action’ which allows us to bring more possibilities to the table.

For example ‘social action’ could include any action with a pro-social intent or result — an organisation might change their hiring practices to be more open, inclusive of disability or diverse. Or a business may ensure that their procurement processes meet certain ethical criteria, benefit the local economy or create additional forms of social, economic or cultural value (these actions can also be included under ‘social innovation’).

Social action isn’t necessarily restricted to individuals or civil society and probably also includes ‘active citizenship’ by individuals as well as by organisations and businesses.

Social Innovation

“Social innovations are new solutions (products, services, models, markets, processes etc.) that simultaneously meet a social need (more effectively than existing solutions) and lead to new or improved capabilities and relationships and better use of assets and resources. In other words, social innovations are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act.” — https://youngfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/TEPSIE.D1.1.Report.DefiningSocialInnovation.Part-1-defining-social-innovation.pdf

If you read the document, you’ll find that ‘social innovation’ already covers a lot of ground.

For the purpose of this post, I would like us to use the definition provided above as well as considering ‘new ways of working’, ‘new ways of understanding’ and ‘new ways of organising’ which are well suited for operating relationally and within ecosystems, networks and collaborations in the 21st century.

Social Enterprise

“In essence, social enterprises are businesses that are changing the world for the better.

Like traditional businesses they aim to make a profit but it’s what they do with their profits that sets them apart — reinvesting or donating them to create positive social change. Social enterprises are in our communities and on our high streets, from coffee shops and cinemas, to pubs and leisure centres, banks and bus companies.

By selling goods and services in the open market, social enterprises create employment and reinvest their profits back into their business or the local community. This allows them to tackle social problems, improve people’s life chances, provide training and employment opportunities for those furthest from the market, support communities and help the environment.” — https://www.socialenterprise.org.uk/buysocial/whats-a-social-enterprise/

Social enterprises exist on a spectrum with some looking and behaving a lot like everyday businesses and others looking and behaving nothing like them in the slightest.

I’d also like for you to consider that traditional enterprises and organisations also exist on a spectrum. It is possible for all of them to review their actions, behaviours, processes, missions and values to ensure that they are minimising harms and maximising their contribution to society, culture and the environment i.e. they can be more social.

For me ‘socially enterprising’ as a definition includes all of the above.

Using it as a container for these other categories we’re able to connect the 3 pillars at the different scales, the multiple economies and all of the incredible organisations and business in the UK, plus the communities and any local ambitions, potential and needs that they may have.

It allows us to potentially create a diverse and national ecosystem which is focussed around the needs of people, place, and pro-social activity in all its forms.

Understanding Need

Every person, place and organisation has needs. The state, civil society and business too.

Our governments, economy, and traditional approaches treat these needs in isolation. People, places and organisations also consider them separately. This is symptomatic of the linear and reductive way we approached our problems in the past.

Today in our connected age it becomes possible to do things differently.

It’s possible to connect needs together in a way in which they can be resolved in a far more ecosystemic fashion. If you know of permaculture ‘stacking functions’ and ‘companion planting’, you’ll already be well on your way to thinking in this more natural way.

Example — Perfect Companions (Co-locating Child and Adult Day Care)

There have been a number of recent experiments where child day-care has been invited into adult day-care settings. This is an example of separate needs being placed together in such as way as they are able to resolve each other.

  • Modern families and young children can lack access and input from grandparents.
  • Adults in day-care settings can also find themselves isolated, estranged and distanced from their own families or from society as a whole.

There is much social, emotional, cultural value and learning that can be transmitted and facilitated through contact and relationships between the young and old.

It’s a win-win.

Think ‘companion planting’ as being Gardening in Miniature.

Social action, social enterprises and social innovations are all able to (and many already do) create new solutions by connecting needs together in different ways and for different purposes.

The day-care example works well to convey the basic principle.

Now let’s zoom out from the project scale and consider an example which is more involved and where the economic outcomes become more evident.

Transform Ageing

Transform Ageing was a pioneering programme taking a community and design-led approach to improve people’s experience of ageing.

The programme was delivered through a partnership of Design Council, UnLtd, South West Academic Health Science Network and the Centre for Ageing Better. It brought together people in later life, social entrepreneurs, and health and social care leaders to define, develop and deliver new solutions that better support the needs and aspirations of our ageing communities.

Transform Ageing does much which is of value.

It is a collaboration between organisations and communities which seeks to make the best use of their strengths and realise outcomes which match with their individual needs (why else would they be there?).

As you would expect from the Design Council it makes use of design, design thinking, innovative and participative practices and community engagement.

Demonstrating all of these is of value to the Design Council who would like for greater visibility, understanding and adoption of design, design thinking and new ways of working in society, civil society, the state and business.

Direct experience of the design processes and practices educates and informs the programme participants who become more aware of the possibilities which open up when they are applied.

Can you see how the needs, and forms of value or benefits begin to resolve themselves in different ways within the collaboration?

Reciprocal? Mutual? Multiple?

If you consider each of the participating organisations and communities, you’ll notice that they are all able to contribute, generate and receive multiple forms of value through the collaboration.

This value/need exchange can occur through the collaboration because of how it is designed, implemented and facilitated.

The programme outcomes could actually be considered one group of value and the participatory value another. It would be interesting to measure this (note, you do not need to solve a problem in order to generate value, there is much value to be gained through participating in a process).

Moving on, the process demonstrated by the Design Council is fundamentally about understanding the needs of ageing communities by engaging, listening and involving them.

By understanding this need, new products, services and policy can be conceived and designed.

For this programme the understanding led to a number of design briefs as follows.

  • Steps to a positive future: People in later life have positive experiences of ageing
  • Mobility and transport: Enhancing independence and wellbeing through improved mobility
  • Life Transitions: Supporting people to prepare for life changes
  • Caring about carers: Supporting, valuing and celebrating carers
  • Right information, right time: Making information accessible, relevant and meaningful
  • Making connections: Creating opportunities for people in later life to connect with other people, communities and activities

I’m going to bring this section to a close but before I do I would ask that you watch the video and look closely at the list above.

The collaborative space has connected across Social Enterprise, Social Action and Social Innovation as per the diagram (and the participating organisations).

If you view the video you’ll also see the generated economic contribution.

What detail the diagram is missing has hopefully been highlighted in this section.

If we expanded NEED we would find COMMUNITY (person, group or place), and if we want to more fully understand that NEED then we can make use of design thinking, innovation tools, collaborative practices etc.

I tend to use two main containers to hold all of the relevant tools, practices and approaches together, ‘design thinking’ and ‘new ways of working’.

I also understand all these things as being highly correlated to 21st century skills which makes all of this very relevant to future skills development for individuals, organisations and businesses.

Note: It would be useful to picture the need ecosystem and the value ecosystem and how this could flow and interact to resolve need and exchange value within itself (participatory value) as well as being able to contribute directly to the purpose of the collaboration (outcomes value).

Let’s call this section a Garden of Possibility.

Now we’re going to take another step outwards.

Here we’re going to look at society as a whole and be more generalised, by that I mean we’re not going to look at any specific projects or initiatives, I’d just like you to understand that all of society and the economy can benefit from participating in collaborations.

Society has the potential to be far more collaborative and participatory than it currently is and with increased collaboration and participation it’s possible for society to generate and exchange far more forms of value than it does today.

The example diagram above illustrates; a general social context, a mix of needs/value contained within each pillar, and some of the actions and practices which can benefit place-based initiatives (it’s a bit scrappy but should do the job).

What I’m trying to illustrate is that when you create collaborations it becomes possible to surface the needs (this could be skills updating for example by the local business community) and the contributory value (strengths, assets and resources) of the multiple participants.

  • With these aspects visible you can better work together to attempt to deliver a project that improves the local context.
  • At the same time, thought can be given to ensure that every participant can benefit from participation through the gaining of knowledge, skills, learning or experience.

When places begin working together in this way it should be possible to realise multiple beneficial social outcomes as well as incentivising participation in collaborations.

Let’s call this level The Garden of Potential.

I have noticed that I have drifted away from the mention of economic and developmental activity in the title.

So, to quickly attempt to tie the ends together.

If you collaborate in a; creative, social, innovative and entrepreneurial way it’s possible for all of the participants to become more; creative, social, innovative and entrepreneurial through the design, facilitation and process of the collaboration.

Think of it as an extension of ‘action learning’.

This has wider developmental and economic effects as demonstrated by the Transform Ageing programme (there should be plenty of evidence there).

Developmentally it should be possible for all of the participants of well-designed collaborations to benefit intrinsically. This could be in the form of skills, experience, mindset etc or the working towards organisational aims and objectives.

Economic effects extend to; the local economy, the social economy and the traditional economy.

It’s vitally important to engage the three pillars as they each have strengths, assets and resources which the others don’t, but it is only when they work together that they are able to generate the greatest value.

A collaboration should be able to offer something to everyone.

The 21st century demands different skills from what our education system provided us with.

Collaboration, Communication, Critical thinking, and Creativity are key requisites.

A well-designed collaboration can help transfer these skills to the participants.

I tend to use ‘21st century skills’ as a container for all of the future skills requirements.

Individuals, businesses and organisations all need to become 21st century organisations in order to succeed in the networked and collaborative world.

Modern organisations can also make much use of internal coaching and mentoring as well as peer networks and support. If this is a need or an interest then it is possible to bring these into the collaborative space so that experience and learning can develop as well as relationships and trust.

Once you begin to think in this way you have to ask how much learning and development could be facilitated in this way. Why take an organisation to the classroom when you could engage several organisations in a cleverly designed collaboration?

You don’t need to solve the (social, environmental, economic) problem to meet their needs.

You just need to work on the problem in the right way.

Final thoughts

Please consider that all organisations can operate in an open and collaborative way.

When we look at ‘place-based’ it’s easy to associate it with programmes run by the state or civil society but we shouldn’t forget about the social fabric which already exists everywhere we look which is local civil society, community and sports organisations.

Almost all of these smaller organisations work in a very closed way but this is only due to the ways we needed to do things in the past.

With modern networks and collaboration tools there is an opportunity to do things very differently and more collaboratively and intelligently at every scale.

There is a vast learning and development space which is currently latent and unrecognised and it’s available right on everyone’s doorstep. It is quite literally ‘everywhere’.

It just needs the right mix of funding, thinking and engagement to release it.

Oh, yes, and that list of things communities could be doing to save the world and improve the local context.

They are local needs too.

They’re not easy to solve and communities need help.

But if you can bring the strengths, assets and resources of civil society, the state and business into the mix then you’ve got a chance of doing it.

Perhaps we save the world and create a future together after all.

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Founder of Socially Enterprising / Commoner / Mostly Unemployed.