Developmental Ecosystems: Making the most of investing in place

Wes Hinckes
12 min readMar 28, 2022

There are a quite a few exciting things happening in Bridgwater and the local area at the moment. The town has been quite fortunate lately in that it won a bid for the Government’s Town Fund and Sedgemoor is also a Creative People and Places (Arts Council England) area.

For the purpose of anchoring this post onto something real I’m going to refer to another project in the town. The Bridgwater Blue Heritage project which is being run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT).

I’m not involved in any way so there will certainly be inaccuracies in what I’m saying here but I’m only trying to bring your attention to a few different things so that I can convey a larger understanding of what’s occurring and what’s ultimately possible.

The Bridgwater Blue Heritage project is currently focussed on The Meads Eco Park which is located quite centrally in the town.

The following section will introduce you to the location, the projects, and some of the organisations involved.

After that we’ll dig in to what’s going on.

The Meads Eco Park

The Meads Eco Park is an area of low-lying farmland to the south-west of Bridgwater, near St Matthews Field.

Bridgwater Blue Heritage

This Wildlife and Wetlands Trust project aims to use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall so easing the threat of floods, help nature recover and get the Bridgwater community involved. Addressing climate change, building flood resilience, improving wetland habitat, enhancing Green and Blue infrastructure, promoting sustainable transport through cycling and walking, celebrating Bridgwater’s maritime heritage and enhancing wellbeing are all priorities for this exciting partnership project.

Bridgwater is an ancient maritime town on the banks of the River Parrett.

We want to help Bridgwater be resilient, healthy and connected, a model of natural, urban sustainability, healthier people and lots of wetland wildlife — not just in open spaces but in the places where people live and work.

To do this, we will work with the Environment Agency and Sedgemoor District Council to restore and create wetlands, create blue/green corridors in the town to help nature and people deal with climate change and reduce flooding through more natural, sustainable drainage. We’ll build a whole new community of local Citizen Scientists and volunteers who have the knowledge and skills to look after their own environment.

The Blue Prescribing Project

The Bridgwater Blue Heritage project has also created an opportunity to include an innovative health and wellbeing programme by the WWT under the name of the Blue Prescribing Project.

The Blue Prescribing Project is a wetland health programme specifically designed, in consultation with participants, to promote a range of mental and physical health benefits through facilitated wetland nature engagement.

The project is similar to the growing health practice of social prescribing, which enables health care professionals to refer people to local, non-clinical services to improve health and wellbeing and make better use of community resources.

Social prescribing is a key component of the NHS’s Universal Personalised Care, an approach that moves away from asking ‘what is the matter with you?’ but towards ‘what matters to you?’

WWT are working with local health care providers, The Mental Health Foundation, The University of Exeter and participants to design nature-based health programmes that are delivered over several weeks and that enable people to be active, take notice of wildlife and connect with other people in wetland settings, all to help people improve their mental health.

Our Blue Prescribing aims to improve health by harnessing the link between people and nature, a link that is now well established. Spending time in nature can reduce psychological stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression; it can also reduce social isolation and increase physical activity. We will be combining the amazing wildlife and visitor experiences offered by WWT centres to create a unique health resource.

Ok. Now we’ve got much of the official description out of the way I’ll attempt to communicate some of my own ideas.

Recognising the Potential

From the perspective of an outsider, the project appears to be mixing asset-based and place-based thinking and practices in order to create a project which is larger than the sum of its parts.

Let’s face it this isn’t the WWT initiating a project solely for the benefit of birds and nature. There’s much more at work here.

This is a project which is connecting things in different ways and attempting to create multiple benefits and effects through those connections.

It is doing this as a collaboration between organisations and local authorities and with good understanding of the long-term shifts within the NHS and across various other local and national strategic concerns.

Here’s a quick list to illustrate its connectivity across different agendas.

  • Nature, Wildlife and Biodiversity
  • Health and Wellbeing
  • Heritage and Culture
  • Climate Adaptation
  • Public Awareness, Access and Usage
  • Behaviour Changes (Transport, Activity and Wellbeing)
  • Education, Learning and Participation (Engagement and Citizen Science)
  • Development of Local Assets

Note: All of these are what I would call local NEEDS but they also present themselves as OPPORTUNITIES.

As the project proceeds it will begin to meet local needs as per the defined goals.

It is my observation that it will also develop the assets potential to meet additional needs and create further opportunities in the future.

Improved physical infrastructure (paths, gates, signage, landscaping), nature improvements (water features, increases in wildlife populations, species and biodiversity) plus awareness within the local population and local organisations all combine to create a physical platform for other groups and organisations to utilise the ‘socially developed’ asset for new and emergent social, cultural, environmental and economic benefit.

To briefly sum up this section.

What we’re seeing occur with the Bridgwater Blue Heritage Project is an asset (a local natural asset in this case) being developed in such a way that it connects, overlaps and mutually supports other networks (collaborating organisations, local communities, local organisations, agendas and strategies etc).

There is not just one ecosystem operating here (the natural geographic location). It is multiple levels (natural and non-natural) coming together (layering or stacking as per the permaculture term) and consisting of; communities; civil society organisations; aspects of the state; types of thinking and practice; and normally distinct and separate local, regional and national strategies in government, public bodies and civil society organisations.

The project as a whole is demonstrative of the potential of place-based collaboration and working.

Here are some observations and insights;

  • multiple overlapping collaborations and activities are able to take place at the same time.
  • different types of value (social, environmental, biodiversity, economic etc) and flows between them are being generated.
  • the developed asset provides a platform for future emergent possibilities.
  • ecosystems contain systems and also other ecosystems etc.
  • improving the health or functioning of parts can lead to an improvement in the health and functioning of other parts. The health of the ecosystem is the result of healthy sub systems/ecosystems and vice versa.

Understanding the Context

So now that we’ve taken a look at a particular place-based project — the collaborative development of a natural local asset. I’d now like to bring your thinking to other types of local assets that exist.

There are for example; community buildings, parks and spaces, local authority buildings and land, empty buildings on high streets and in industrial areas.

Some physical (community buildings etc) and natural assets (parks and spaces etc) are very fortunate. They may have a local community organisation, charity or voluntary group who are actively committed to using the asset or space to engage the local community in different things such as activities and events.

But this is not always the case.

Assets and spaces can be underutilised; community organisations and local charities can be busy just performing their local role without any additional considerations and voluntary groups can be under-numbered or find themselves constrained in other ways.

Local authorities don’t always get it right and can sometimes just keep things ticking along with very little opportunity for creative thinking or innovation.

If you look around the UK then this picture could be quite representative.

Please understand I’m not complaining and I’m not pointing fingers. I could also be quite wrong in many ways.

But I do believe that it’s possible to do much more with the assets and spaces we have and around the UK there are some amazing examples of people, communities and organisations doing exactly that.

It very obviously can be done but that doesn't mean that it is easy.

Having a major UK charity come into a town and embark on a project of the magnitude of the Bridgwater Blue Heritage project is not what most communities can expect.

Most assets are much smaller in size and the organisations involved are also operating at a very different scale.

Additionally, reproducing the work seen in other areas so that all forms of local asset are as well utilised is not as simple as replicating what others are doing.

The actual local conditions and context (which are environmental factors of a different kind) will always be unique and can be the primary reason why some places are successful and others not.

Some projects may grow and develop due to;

  • a particular individual with well-matched skills, experience or available time.
  • an organisation taking a different or innovative approach.
  • a way of working which is engaging and involving different people and organisations (collaborative/open).
  • the location of the asset which could provide a pool of people and volunteers with professional (managerial, administrative, projects) working experience.
  • a person or persons with a wide contact network that they can call upon.

All of these kinds of things play a part in whether some local communities get something wonderful or not.

It’s all rather patchy, uneven, unfair and time sensitive.

So, is there a way to improve this situation?

Realising the Potential

I’d like you to consider that collaboration is the key to unlocking the potential which is currently locked away in people, places and assets and spaces (and organisations, businesses, ecosystems etc).

I’ve written elsewhere about this so I’ll be brief here.

Individuals, communities, civil society organisations, businesses and the state all have different strengths and resources which if brought together can fill in all of the missing pieces of a functioning collaboration.

Collaborating allows you to bring a mix of people and organisations together so that you can improve local conditions with new projects and ideas.

This is how you create a set of beneficial conditions (positive environmental conditions) from which new community projects, ideas and organisations can form, develop and grow or existing organisations can collaborate and achieve more.

I’d like to introduce an additional line of thinking at this point.

Just as place or an asset can be used to connect with other strategies and organisations in order to resolve local needs or create additional social, environmental, economic or cultural benefits. So can strategic needs or organisations operate in the other direction— they can actively look for (or be open to) opportunities to create reciprocally beneficial relationships with assets, communities and places.

So, there will be ways of overlapping strategies such as Net Zero, Sustainability & Circular, Local Economic Development, Skills & Training etc beyond their normal top-down delivery in such a way that they benefit local; assets, communities, people, local organisations and businesses.

The counter to traditional top-down and isolated approaches is to connect the dots between needs, opportunties and agendas ‘and’ collaborate-at-scale with local; people, organisations and businesses.

Collaboration at scale between local; communities, civil society, the state and business is exactly where the Socially Enterprising platform fits in.

We provide a way for;

  • local collaboration to happen at scale.
  • place-based strategies by government, public bodies, and civil society to coexist in the same platform where they can overlap and intersect.

Everything you’ve read in this post, all of the projects, all of the organisations, all of the needs, opportunties, agendas and strategies, and all of the creative potential and untapped possibilities.

The Socially Enterprising platform brings all of this together to create something entirely new.

Incentivising Collaboration

Collaboration isn’t easy but it can create widely shared benefits if designed and facilitated with these in mind.

As well as the benefits I’ve hopefully illustrated above there is also a need to incentivise participation in collaborative projects.

What I’m proposing isn't the same as volunteering for an hour. If you want individuals, communities, civil society organisations, the state and businesses to commit to collaborative projects then you need to provide something in return.

You need to create reciprocal benefits for everyone involved.

Some of these are extrinsic. As in helping the local community, people or environment in new and worthwhile ways.

But there is also an intrinsic aspect. How do you benefit people and organisations in ways which keep them committed and produce positive effects in their success away from the project.

How does, or can, their entire organisation benefit from involvement?

I’m going to suggest that delivering an expanded form of ‘21st century skills’ which includes modern social and environmental literacies is the way to do this.

21st Century Skills and Literacies

Collaborations create opportunities to introduce local people, organisations and businesses to new knowledge and provide the possibility for them to develop new skills and literacies which can be of benefit to their; lives, careers, organisations or businesses.

The 21st century economy requires workers and businesses to become more creative, innovative and adaptive to change.

Our 21st century social and environmental challenges necessitate similar continuous adaptations within civil society and the state.

It isn’t possible for every person and organisation to enrol in college to get an introduction to a 21st century curriculum and begin to shift their practices, ways of thinking or habits.

But it is possible to use local collaborative projects to;

  • provide the introduction
  • demonstrate their effect and working
  • create sandboxes for experimentation and practice
  • relationship build between people, organisations and networks
  • connect across normally separate interests and create unique and diverse innovative interdisciplinary spaces

And most importantly to do all of these things while realising actual positive social, environmental and cultural effects at the same time.

It’s an alternative form of community and place-based levelling up which has the effect of operating across the entirety of the multi-level ecosystem.

You demonstrate what good collaboration looks like and feels like while you work together and innovate to achieve something locally beneficial and introduce new literacies and knowledges as you progress.

It doesn’t mean that everyone is following the same learning journey like a linear course would offer.

Instead you mix; facilitation, action learning, online/offline educational material, peer groups, networks of interest, communities of practice, mentors/coaches, and support organisations to create a flexible and adaptable learning and development environment.

It’s adaptable to local; conditions, needs and opportunities at the same time as being adaptable to the needs, desires and interests of the collaborating participants.

Everything required to do this already exists. It just needs intelligently connecting together.

There’s no shortage of relevant courses and educational materials or support organisations and consultancies.

Or ways on which local collaborations, projects, and challenges could be delivered at scale and in partnership with local communities and organisations.

It just requires a shift in how we think about and approach the way we do things. The right platform and strategy can help enable that shift by making a new way not only possible but actually much more efficient, effective and beneficial for everyone involved.

Stacking of Development Opportunities

Finally, it may be useful to picture place-based collaborations as a way of creating multiple types of developmental opportunity for participants and the lives, organisations, networks and ecosystems of which they are a part.

I’d like to suggest that there are no limits to; needs, opportunities or developmental potential.

Many of the limits we face today may actually come from how we approach all of them separately.

By bringing them together and we may find that we can move beyond what could in fact be artificial and self-imposed limitations in each area.



Wes Hinckes

Founder of Socially Enterprising / Commoner / Mostly Unemployed.