The power of piggybacking - RSA Comment - RSA

The power of piggybacking


  • Picture of Zografia Bika
    Zografia Bika
    Professor of Entrepreneurship, University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich Business School, UK.
  • Picture of Adrian Gaskell
    Adrian Gaskell
    Senior Research Associate, UEA, Norwich Business School
  • Community and place-based action
  • Democracy and governance
  • People & place
  • Public Services & Communities
  • Housing
  • Fellowship

Government expenditures are essential to enriching our world, but we must also make use of what we already have. Zografia Bika and Adrian Gaskell explain how an army of Italian grandmothers paved the way.

An unexpected hit of the first Covid lockdown was Cooking with Nonna, in which people from all over the world were taught how to cook traditional Italian dishes from a grandmother's house in Palombara Sabina on the outskirts of Rome. The project not only provided unexpected economic success to the legion of grandmothers who were then recruited to the project but valuable jobs for those producing and promoting the videos.

It's an example of what Oxford University's Paulo Savaget calls piggybacking, when attempts to improve a region build upon what is already there. For those in the aid community this isn't new. Indeed the positive deviance approach devised by Jerry and Monique Sternin popularised the notion of building on things that are already working locally rather than trying to impose solutions from afar.

In a time when most projects backed by the two tranches of the UK Government’s levelling up fund have been assessed and approved centrally not locally, it surely bears repeating. It’s an approach that was clear in our own research into how residents of deprived communities can be helped back into employment or entrepreneurship.

Local challenges need local solutions

At the heart of our research, and at the hearts of local communities, were housing associations that were providing not only the housing needs of those communities, but also a range of additional services that were invaluable to residents. In the process, they were enriching the economies of those communities.

By using housing associations as key facilitators of change, it enabled local empowerment and appreciation of the local context to permeate their attempts at change. Housing associations also had a degree of permanence that was not the case for many other local stakeholders. Following the financial crisis of 2010, there was a well-documented period of austerity during which local council funding was drastically reduced, with the poorest areas being the most affected. This has left housing associations as often the most well-resourced stakeholders in many local communities.

As Community Housing Cymru CEO Stuart Ropke argues: ‘Is it housing associations’ role just to be delivery agents for the Government, sticking to the knitting? Or is there no option but to step up as agents of recovery at the vanguard of economic and social change?’

So why are local housing associations potentially so powerful?

  • Their deep involvement in the local community makes housing associations an ideal partner to comprehend the needs of their community.
  • They are a reliable channel through which support can be provided, particularly when that support is closely tied to the advantages of location.
  • By doing so, they allow communities to develop the social cohesion that not only brings the community together but also fosters employment and entrepreneurship.

Labour market intermediaries

Of course, as MIT’s David Autor explains, housing associations are only one of the local stakeholders who can act as so-called ‘labour market intermediaries’. But they highlight the power of building on what is already locally present by capitalising both on their local knowledge and of their good standing in the local community.

Autor describes such intermediaries as crucial local stakeholders, who ‘interpose themselves between workers and firms to facilitate, inform, or regulate how workers are matched to firms’. These stakeholders can include guilds, professional associations, community colleges, religious organisations, nonprofits, and as in our case, housing associations.

It’s not at all clear that the UK Government is taking into account either local approaches that are already successful or local stakeholders that can be piggybacked upon when rolling out levelling up projects. There’s little evidence that they have considered what stakeholders are already present in communities or what networks already exist. Because of this, those existing actors or networks are not being used to help deliver anything new.

Spotting the unnoticed

The work of Jerry and Monique Sternin highlights that often the solution is already present in communities, but that it has thus far largely gone unnoticed. By identifying what is already working, and using those members of the existing community to help scale up and disseminate that solution more widely, they found that development projects were far more likely to succeed than when much grander ‘solutions’ were imposed on communities by outsiders.

With each of the levelling up projects assessed by officials in Whitehall, it suggests that these lessons are being ignored and the longstanding concerns that too much power is centralised in London are going unheeded.

Levelling up is undoubtedly crucial as it addresses social division and inequality, which were highlighted in the World Economic Forum's annual Global Risks Report as a key challenge facing the world today. Instead of relying on centrally planned solutions however, the most effective approach is to develop and implement solutions at a local level. Interestingly, it doesn’t appear to be a lesson that the UK Government has taken on board.

Zografia Bika is Professor of Entrepreneurship, University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich Business School, UK, [email protected]; Adrian Gaskell is a Senior Research Associate, UEA, Norwich Business School, UK, [email protected].

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