Laura Bunt - 08.04.2011
How can the Big Society connect with communities and local places? We must learn from what’s already happening, and witness how the civic economy is flourishing across the UK.
You may immediately wonder about the title of this post. What is the civic economy? Is this just the Big Society? Why is this different from social enterprise? With all of the debate about the potential for civil society to supplement state delivery of public services, there has been a renewed interest as to the way in which organisations and initiatives are working to address social issues. However, for the past year or so we've been involved with a piece of work that addresses another dimension of this debate: how this economy connects with local communities and places across the UK.
The civic economy combines the spirit of entrepreneurship with the aspiration of civic renewal. But what's important are not abstract definitions, but recognising what's already here. The Civic Economy Compendium - a book co-commissioned with CABE and delivered by Architecture 00:/ - is a collection of inspiring initiatives displaying the characteristics of this economy and what it needs to grow. It's clear from our research that there is already a vibrant movement of new ventures, networks and behaviours that are changing the appearance and economies of places across the UK.
Whether in David Barrie's story of the People's Supermarket, Urban Farming in Middlesbrough, or Pam Warhurst's mission to engage the Todmorden community in growing local food, these initiatives are not only embedded in communities, they create communities around them. They are fundamentally platforms for local exchange and participation, ways to leverage hidden resources available in a local area and to help communities identify and develop their own strengths.
Last week, NESTA hosted an event to share some of the emerging lessons from the book. We covered a huge range of issues: how can government (both local and central) in support more of these kinds of initiatives? Should public services model these sorts of behaviours, themselves acting as platforms for co-production and engagement? How can local leaders recognise and support civic entrepreneurs, both from within and beyond authorities? How can the private sector identify and engage with the value of this economy, and what can businesses do to help it grow?
One thing I love about this work is that it brings out the value of narrative. We know this is important in entrepreneurship, being able to articulate the story of an idea and its path to realisation. But this is as important in engaging people in action, or in articulating the identity of a place. David, Pam and other protagonists in this book are all excellent storytellers, and both highlight the role of narrative as a tool for engagement and place-shaping. This is an important lesson for any kind of change or civic renewal project - it is vital to articulate the promise of the new.
This book hopes to draw out lessons from the practice of civic entrepreneurship to show local planners, authorities, public and private institutions how to build the civic economy. The book is full of fantastic illustrations and analysis (like the picture above) and we will be sharing it with you in May. In the meantime, any questions or comments do drop us a line.