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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.


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