Community led innovation in divided societies

Community led innovation has experienced a massive growth in the past year. SIC reflects this in the community led innovation network – an entire group of people dedicated to developing and disseminating community led innovation tools, methods and ideas. 

Monica Nagore and Lucy Cui are coordinating the community led innovation network on behalf of the Young Foundation. They have shared their unique insights about what we mean by community led innovation, and what role it has in bridging the divided societies we are seeing in todays political climate. 

What do you mean by community led innovation?

Monica: We define community as ‘a group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives and engage in joint action’. Community-led innovation is closely linked to collective action; local people set the agenda, initiate action and work towards a common goal.

Lucy: Community led innovation also signals a break from the traditional groups that engage in innovation – it’s about recognizing that innovation goes beyond start-ups, tech firms, and polished entrepreneurs. Community led innovation is driven by everyday people pioneering new solutions and developing their skills to make a difference which will benefit others in their community.

What the SIC ‘Community Led Innovation Network’ aims to do is bring together a network of grassroots organizations, organisations that grow out of and are embedded within their community, and seek to tackle everyday challenges experienced.

The network seeks to support and foster community-led innovation, as well as build stronger links between community innovators and other relevant actors such as public sector institutions, social economy actors and social innovation intermediaries. The mission of this network is to help nurture solutions to the problems that communities face, and to facilitate the sharing of tools and methods that can be used to achieve this.

Monica: In other words, thinking big and beyond the project, our dream is to support these communities to build a cohesive movements – action – and bridge them – connection – so they share their knowledge and experience and learn from each other – growth. We see SIC as the igniting spark in this process.

There are numerous examples of creative community led actions that inspire our work as in Siracusa where the community of La Mazarona became ‘the Great Mazarona’ restoring their dignity and pride and creating new opportunities to attract the rest of the city. Or SynAthina, a project initiated by Amalia Zepou – documentary maker and activist – now deputy mayor of Athens. And many more examples like the ones in 100En1dia (100 in One Day) initiative which is expanding innovation and community activism around the world by encouraging creative forms of sharing that have gone viral. They invite communities to celebrate active citizenship by performing 100 activities with positive impact in the city in one day.

Lucy: In addition, there are programs like the Amplify program, which seeks to support a large number of innovative individual projects to form a collective movement for place-based transformation. The programs, which have run in Northern Ireland, Leeds, Sheffield and Wales, combines research into everyday experiences of inequality with support for social innovators.

Monica: Communities are seeing as a great potential to solve social problems as they are uniquely placed. Thus boosting innovation and unlocking creativity within people in these communities opens infinite possibilities to new and sustainable solutions to the challenges our societies face today. This is known yet we are witnessing innovation Labs mushrooming around the world working with communities of all types – activists, neighbourhoods, people from the same population or that share an specific common ethnic, health condition or experience – around topics such as civic participation, housing, environment and energy.

Most buzz is often about these innovation labs focusing on incubators and accelerators, but a lot is happening outside this scope focusing on people, society and their challenges and how new technologies and new ways of collaboration are creating change and making an impact.

What role can community led innovation play in helping to bridge divided societies?

Lucy: Community-led innovation can be a great mobilizer. It has the power to unite people together in order to address a common challenge. Community-led innovations and projects often seek to tackle issues that are rooted in place, and have the power to highlight the shared values and aspirations of a community.

Monica: Absolutely, and undoubtedly solidarity is one of these shared values. Actually it is a core value for all communities and yet I would say that in the values of solidarity and generosity sits the strength of a community for building bridges between divided societies. Cities are physical spaces for communities to co-habit in and with their diversity.

Probably another important aspect is each community creates its own space of trust where the honest dialogue is promoted as people feel ‘safe’ to address their issues in an open way. Bridging dividing societies means widening the space of trust.

Lucy: Although community-led innovation can’t profess to have all the answers for bridging divided societies, it the manifestation of inspired, bottom up initiatives for change. It’s more likely to be driven by the people, not by top-down policies or considerations about economic profitability.

How does this relate to the political climate of today? 

Lucy: The recent political climate is seen by many as increasingly angry, vitriolic and isolationist. Especially in the case of Donald Trump and Brexit, these surprising decisions by the electorate have been widely interpreted as a ‘backlash’ of the common people against the status quo. People want to ‘take back control’ of their countries, communities and way of life, which they felt increasingly powerless to affect. Community-led innovation is a positive mechanism to combat this; it is an avenue through with everyday citizens can create and rally around new projects initiatives for their communities.

Monica: Right, and in the case of Colombia – as in other post conflict regions such as Northern Ireland, Berlin or South Africa – transition periods between often can be very difficult because people are not prepared to the peace scenario and that also means they need to change part of their identity. Communities who were in conflict need to find new ways of approaching the new scenario to build a new reality.

Eddy Adams, a social innovation and social cohesion expert, says in a recent article published during the peace agreement referendum that: Building cohesive local movements which bridge communities was identified as a key peace-building component in both of these places. Another was the importance of redefining the narrative – working on the ground to shift perceptions of what has happened and, more importantly, what the future can hold. Otherwise, citizens in post-conflict places remain trapped in the past.’

Communities are solidary, resilient and a space of trust. All these elements are crucial in allowing social innovation flourish and nurture the right environment to enable the dialogue between divided societies in conflict context. As Duncan Collins mentions in his article ‘Citizens must be able to feel comfortable about having contrasting views to others, and conversations based on rational, rather than emotion should not only be encouraged, but also have to become the norm.’

Why is it so important to create networks of learning? 

Lucy: In the case of community-led innovation, it is likely that the innovators will not be large, robust organizations with time and money but rather simply small groups of people who have a unique idea. Networks of learning around community-led innovation are vital to enable citizens and community groups to share resources and learn from another. These will enable groups to be inspired by other projects going on elsewhere, and allow them to learn from the successes and failures experienced by those similar to themselves.

Monica: Adding on this, learning exchange increases the capacity and capability of the communities and yet establishes new connections and strengthen the existing ones.

Sign up to be part of the community led innovation network here!

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