Sustainable communities through skill sharing

April 29, 2013 by
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

This post is by Jemima Gibbons FRSA.  Follow her at @JemimaG

Tomorrow (Tuesday 30 April) the RSA in conjunction with Kingfisher plc will host a roundtable discussion looking at ways to build sustainable communities, with particular focus on skill sharing. The discussion will be chaired by Matthew Taylor, and will kick off with presentations by Ian Cheshire, Group Chief Executive of Kingfisher plc and John Compton, Manager of the Streetclub initiative. Participants will include 30 stakeholders from business, government and the third sector.

Since 2010, the RSA’s Connected Communities programme has been exploring communities of place as social networks. The project team is now testing the concept of informal skills sharing as a way of connecting people based on common interests and concerns, with the belief that this may lead to more sustainable, inclusive and empowered citizen networks. Meanwhile, Kingfisher plc is implementing a new approach to doing business which seeks to create social, economic and environmental value for business and community alike: its ambition is to make a ‘Net Positive’ contribution to society. This event is part of an ongoing series led by Kingfisher plc, exploring ways of building resilient, sustainable communities.

In the business world, an increasing awareness of finite resources at global level, combined with the ongoing need to solve big social problems and the change in consumer expectations have led to a boom in revenue models based on collaborative consumption. A host of new companies has been created with a sole remit – to encourage sharing between neighbours. Such businesses include Zipcar (shared cars and vans), Gocarshare (carpooling) and Storemates (space sharing). Big corporations ignore this new space at their peril – it is no surprise that major car companies like Hertz, BMW, Ford and GM have all announced partnerships or investments in car-sharing businesses in recent years.

For nonprofits too, sustainable communities seem to be a key obsession. Initiatives like The Big Lunch (founded in 2009 by Tim Smit of the Eden Project and funded by the National Lottery), Incredible Edible (led by RSA Fellowship Councillor Pam Warhurst), The Amazings (an offshoot of London agency, Sidekick Studios) and We Will Gather (set up by social artist turned activist Dan Thompson) all seek to foster community spirit in different ways. Meanwhile, new social enterprises and charities have been created to address specific social problems at a local level – such as repurposing disused shops and office buildings (3Space) or finding voluntary activities for under-employed young people (vinspired).

Even broadcast television has got in on the act, with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall/ Channel 4’s Landshare and the BBC’s DIY SOS – The Big Build calling on local communities to contribute time and resources to help their neighbours.

So, is facilitated skill sharing a good way to improve local communities? And how can businesses and other organisations persuade people at grassroots level that they have their best interests at heart? Will a ‘commercial edge’ start to become apparent (or harden) in business led community-building initiatives, or will they resist forms of direct marketing to participants (StreetClub, for example, has made it clear it will never direct market to its members)?  Should we be leaving people to self-organise, or is a helping hand essential? How are common needs and interests brought to the fore? How can we motivate people? And how do we ensure that help reaches those who most need it? Tomorrow’s roundtable will seek to answer these questions – and more. Follow the #NetPositve hashtag on Twitter from 12.30pm for live coverage, and look out for our roundtable review in the next few days.

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