Collaboration and a hands-off approach – the key to community engagement

May 31, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

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

Neighbours uniting around a threatened pair of nesting swans, teenagers painting a bus-stop, householders feeling more secure after taking part in a street lunch – these were all stories of positive community spirit told at the Sustainable Communities roundtable, hosted by the RSA in partnership with Kingfisher plc.

While it’s useful to have a trigger – such as a new development or hospital closure, sometimes people simply want to make their neighbourhood a better place to live. This is an idea that Kingfisher has seized on and is hoping to tackle through its Streetclub initiative – an attempt to foster neighbourly co-operation at a local level. Streetclub is part of Kingfisher’s corporate-wide Net Positive plan: a way of enabling the entire company to add value to society as a whole (and not just its share price).

How does business persuade people at grassroots level that they have their best interests at heart?

The roundtable set out to answer some key questions. While there was little discussion around whether or not facilitated skill sharing (through Street Club or otherwise) could be a good way to improve local communities – it seemed generally accepted that it was – attention focused on how to mobilise people, how to engage recalcitrant ‘non-engagers’ and how businesses and other organisations can persuade people at grassroots level that they have their best interests at heart.

But the most important question, and one which remained perhaps to some extent unanswered, was whether or not businesses are really best placed to do this. At the end of the day, corporate investors will have a say. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. As Pepsico’s failed 2010 Super Bowl experiment showed (instead of running ads for soft drinks, it launched a marketing campaign for social causes), a social conscience is all very well, but if it doesn’t give a clear return on investment, a company’s shareholders revolt. Before long, that carefully honed sustainability policy may be recycled – and not in a good way.

To be fair, both Ian Cheshire, Group CEO of Kingfisher plc, and John Compton, Manager, Streetclub, appear well versed in putting forward a clear business case – the case for innovation: “Net Positive is going to unlock future business opportunities for us,” said Ian. “We may be moving away from ‘selling stuff’ to a very different kind of business model”. He added that initiatives like Streetclub made sense because “the more connected with local community, the more successful our stores are”.

“People always ask why B&Q is behind Streetclub”, said John. “Well, if you like your street, you’re more likely to paint your front gate and where are you going to get the paint from?” John also said that Streetclub had been clearly inspired by the collaborative consumption movement – if car companies can invest in carpooling, then it must make sense for DIY chains to be investing in tool-sharing clubs.

But getting the balance right is a problem: once you’ve convinced shareholders than investing in sustainability is profitable, how do you persuade the people who live by your stores that you’ve also got their best interests at heart? We are used to the two things being diametrically opposed. But maybe that’s a Twentieth Century hangover – maybe it really is time for a rethink?

The problem with community-building as a business interest is that businesses are by their very nature driven to monopolise. Most are not inherently collaborative. Streetclub may be keen to partner with other community initiatives such as The Big Lunch and Timebanks – but how keen would it be to team up with, say, a Homebase-led project? John Compton said he saw a future of community engagement led by a handful of players. But there is still a feeling of ‘big’ leadership and ‘big idea’ ownership around all this.

You don’t want to create change, you want to create an environment where change is possible

The participants at this roundtable repeatedly emphasised a hands off, softly softly approach. One interesting idea was that you don’t want to create change, you want to create an environment where change is possible. But do ‘light touch’ approaches favour the already-engaged over the disadvantaged? One theme which has come up repeatedly in academic research is that individuals need support for participation. Most people aren’t at all interested in the managerial aspects of community organising, said one speaker – what they want is control, ownership and a sense of possibility.

Read a summary of the talks and debate here:

Sustainable stronger communities through enhancing practical skills

Watch the videos below for more reflection on the event by some of its attendees.

The revolution won’t come from above: young people driving the future with 2020 Education

April 12, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

Andrew Hadley and his team has set up 2020 Education with support from two RSA Catalyst grants to recognise the powerful work of young people to make a difference in their future.  In this guest blog Andrew sets out the thinking behind the idea and calls on Fellows to get involved:

2020 Education is a movement in the making. In a nutshell it is about showcasing what schools and community groups can do to prepare young people for the challenges facing them – and the world – in the decades ahead.

This initiative has been started by a group of Fellows and others. An RSA Catalyst grant has helped us get the programme off the ground, and we’re now starting to roll it out more widely across the UK and internationally. We hope Fellows will be instrumental in making this happen so we’re calling for the support of everyone who shares our belief that education needs to be more than simply classroom learning and exams.

  • Could a school run its own fair trade coffee business?
  • Could it propagate rare orchids and sell them on the commercial market?
  • Could you link up students from a deprived rural area with the astronauts on the international space station?
  • Could you excite young people about engineering by getting them to build and race electric cars?

We’ve already found examples of exactly these things, and more.


We’re not creating a prescriptive model and asking schools to adopt this (and we’re well aware of the pressure that teachers are under). We’re not setting fixed criteria of what a “2020 Education” project looks like. Quite the opposite: if we want to inspire more people to start something, the best thing we can do is to show them the variety of outstanding examples of innovation already happening in schools and communities, and then let them replicate these ideas or come up with their own. At the same time we will create opportunities for peer-to-peer education among young people , via social media and face to face. And we will show the teachers involved that their projects are not isolated examples but a powerful model of what education can be in the 21s Century.

Projects can be based around all sorts of themes, such as social enterprise; science, technology and engineering; environmental protection or ecology; humanitarian and social issues; intercultural understanding; and more. Broadly speaking, they:

  • are school or community based
  • raise awareness of global issues
  • make an impact locally
  • empower young people through active participation, and so develop employability skills
  • are innovative and newsworthy

So how can you get involved?

First, sign up to the 2020 Education site where you will find more information, including films of individual projects. Then put us in touch with any school, youth group or other organisation you know of which is running an amazing project, or where there are inspiring adults and motivated children who would like to do so. Finally, tell us if you would like to become a mentor to a project (giving as much or as little time as you are able) – or any other way you feel able to contribute.

As Sir Ken Robinson says, don’t expect the revolution to begin from above. With your support, 2020 Education will harness the energy of the people who are already making it happen on the ground.

Andrew Hadley and his team want to hear from you, please send him an email if you can’t find what you’re looking for on the website and remember if you want to get your idea off the ground you can contact me via email or twitter @pickfordrich.  I’m currently working with Fellows in Derby to develop a project that will supply Raspberry Pi’s to schools across the area.  What are you doing?


A day in the life of a cheese slice: Fellows driving ambition

February 7, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

I often leave Fellowship events with every intention of blogging about them, but time slips by, my inbox beckons and the moment passes.  But last week I went to an event that has inspired me to pull my finger out for three key reasons – it showcased a brilliant and practical FRSA project, is a great example of ideas being shared between different groups of Fellows in true RSA collaboration style, and (most importantly) it taught me something new about how RSA Fellowship enables people to provide unique approaches to today’s problems.

RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children
Sue Child, Headteacher Oakwood School 

Driving Ambition is a project that has been running in Banbury since early 2012.  It brings together RSA Fellows, schools and industry to attempt to raise the ambitions of students in the local area.

Fellows in Surrey, keen to hear good ideas put into practice, invited project lead Peter Jordan FRSA to share his experiences with a room full of forty-odd professionals, including three local head teachers.

I won’t try attempt to précis the entire Driving Ambition project (you can read more about it here), but Peter made some pretty common sense points for anyone wanting to bring together the worlds of industry and education in their area:

  • Work with your local schools.  You need a key point of contact at each of them, and success depends on the quality of these relationships.  Also, be patient and prepared to work around busy school timetables.  In Banbury this paid off – the North Oxfordshire Academy (where the original contact was a brilliantly innovative Head of Catering) has now employed someone to work full time on student career development partly as a result of the Driving Ambition project.
  • It is hard to involve local business.   Do everything you can to attract them – attend local working breakfasts, send letters, pitch to companies – but don’t expect too much from them.   This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
  • Use your RSA network of local Fellows.  In Banbury local MP Tony Banbury spoke at the launch event.  A local vicar is now working closely with the ethics teams in two schools.  National Grid (a Director is a local Fellow) are running one and two-day workshops on energy use with props, including a model town.  A local photojournalist is working with students who find it hard to express themselves verbally, documenting local work life to share across school.  And Peter, with his 15 years at Unilever and 20 years at Kraft Food HQ, knows an awful lot about supply chain – he’s running classes for year 11′s on turning raw materials into consumer goods.  He’s called them ‘a day in the life of a cheese slice’.
  • Only do what you feel comfortable doing.  When starting the group felt under some pressure to do something unique or radical, that their idea wasn’t ‘innovative’ enough.  But their aims were simple – just open the eyes of the students to the industry that already exists in the area, particularly beyond working in retail.

Which brings me to my own learning point.  When asked what Fellows could offer that the many excellent charities and enterprises out there could not, Sue Child, Head Teacher of Oakwood School in Horley in Surrey said what excites her most about the prospect of it in her school “is that RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children”.

Tony Banbury MP speaking at the Driving Ambition launch

We spend a lot of time in the Fellowship team trying to think about how we can standardise our support for Fellows, and ways we can share universal experiences and good models for up-scaling.  Whilst this undoubtedly has value, what Driving Ambition has taught me is the key power of the local nucleus, of forming those key relationships (school/business) before building your model, and of being flexible to the community need where you are.

This is what strikes me about Driving Ambition, why I feel so enthused about it – it is modest but it is working.  It is not a registered company (or even a CIC), it doesn’t have a snazzy website (or even a blog), it isn’t promising global expansion anytime soon.  It is local but scalable, deliverable, and has a clear impact.  Whilst I’m not about to use this blog to contribute to the debate around localism (or even an area-based curriculum), I think there is something to be learned from this project about the value that groups of passionate and flexible Fellows can add to their communities.

This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.

What next?  Well the Driving Ambition team in Banbury have just been awarded Catalyst support to help them reach more schools and more businesses in the area, so they will be (modestly) scaling their project in 2013/14.  And the Surrey Fellows group are in talks with three local Head Teachers looking to replicate and drive ambition in their area.

All this model takes initially is a group of committed RSA Fellows to get it going, so if you want to launch something similar in your area then get in touch.