Local Innovations to solve the problems that matter

January 27, 2021

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by Pippa Coutts, Policy and Development Manager, Carnegie UK Trust

The COVID-19 pandemic, with its many challenges has tested our ability to innovate. Many of us associate the idea of innovation with bright, new objects or processes, and this could include the game-changing COVID-19 vaccine created by scientists at Oxford University. However, you don’t have to dig very far to find out that this innovation was possible due to the years of previous research on other viruses. It is innovation that is “rapidly repurposing” what is already available, and Nesta makes the case this sort of innovation is the most effective response to a crisis.

At a community level, we have seen many examples of this type of innovation during the pandemic. A new report from New Local, Shifting the Balance of Power, sponsored by Carnegie UK Trust, Barrow Cadbury, and Power to Change finds that during the first wave of the pandemic communities came together with local authority and business partners to serve the neighbours, meet basic needs and tackle loneliness in many innovative ways.  Structures and cultures in institutions became more open and community groups were able to pitch ideas, act quickly and receive small pots of unrestricted funds.

The potential of individuals, community groups and the third sector to provide local tailored care and support has always been there. For many years Carnegie UK Trust and New Local have argued that there needs to be a shift towards an Enabling State or a Community Paradigm, where communities are given greater control of public services. The initial COVID-19 response demonstrated community action in response to a common threat, with a shared mission and their knowledge of local areas and people.    The conditions of the emergency required a holistic response and communities were given permission to take control. Whereas, before, all too often the implicit message from the state was that people should not take the lead in improving their own outcomes. For example, co-design and co-production of legislation, policy and services has been the exception, not the norm.

Shifting the Balance of Power found that emergency response was most powerful where it was a collaboration: between people, the third sector, business, and the public sector. Areas where Local Authorities and the community already had strong working relationships were able to capitalise on those. As we found in the Covid and Communities listening project,  mutually beneficial partnerships have been key to meeting the diversity of needs the pandemic has exposed. Areas with existing structures for collaboration such as local locality planning partnerships in Scotland build on those partnerships.

So, looking forward, how do we sustain those gains in collaboration and community power after the emergency?

Shifting the balance of Power argues for culture change over structural change within social policy and public services. This change needs to build on:

  1. The adaptation of existing practices to be more speedy, flexible, and open.
  • The response to the pandemic has illustrated this way of working happens at a hyper-local level. To encourage and maintain community power, funders, and governments (of all levels) need to resource communities.
  1. Actions and asks that emerged when we needed to do things differently. During the pandemic, the inequalities in outcomes and control over our own lives and public resources have become apparent. Moves to change this have bubbled up, varying from civic protests to Citizen Assemblies, to supporting more individuals to access technology and take part in online debates. Going forward we need to tackle these ‘divides’, not least the digital exclusion people face.
  2. Collaboration within and between the local communities and institutions to support community wellbeing and thriving places.
  • In the pandemic, people came together because of a shared cause. Going forward, local authorities, third sector, communities and business collaborating to develop a vision for their area can develop a ‘sense of mission’. For example, previous work by Carnegie UK Trust on storytelling and developing flourishing towns, has shown how important a shared narrative is to towns ‘turning around’, through finding a new sense of purpose.

In the pandemic, we’re all looking for solutions to the current situation and strategies to cope with the challenges we face daily. Shifting the balance of power has highlighted that many of the innovations we seek are held within communities and existing collaborations. This is learning that can help build a better future, where the assets and voices of communities are recognised and form the basis of government policy and plans.