There is no doubt in my mind that community based and bottom up approaches to enterprise support like those pioneered by Ernesto Sirolli and subsequently developed and transformed by projects like Bizz Fizz and on a much more modest scale Elsie, provide significant clues to the emergence of truly sustainable and enterprising communities.
The Problems with Buildings…
Buildings are expensive things to run. And these days fewer of us need them as places to go to work. Or at least we don’t need to go to just one of them. And we don’t need to pay rent.
Yet there is a vibrant industry driven by developers, politicians and consultants bringing semi derelict buildings, especially in poor communities where regeneration cash is easier to come by, back to life as managed workspaces, incubators and start-up hubs.
When money is being sought to kick these schemes off the business plans always look achievable. This occupancy rate at these rates per square foot, taking a contribution from the community cafe, with fixed costs of x and variable costs of y, within z months we will be generating a profit and re-investing in the local community. Money is raised work is done and with hard work and good luck the building is eventually opened.
Except it is rare that members sign up as expected, rents are hard to collect in an economy where most cities have millions of square feet of empty office space. Fixed costs are usually higher than projected as budgets over-run and interest repayments are higher than anticipated. That break-even point always seems to be ‘just around the corner’ even as social objectives for the building get thrown out the window in pursuit of revenue.
So lots of money, usually intended to help people living in deprived communities, goes into the pockets of consultants and developers and into interest re-payments on loans and the community gets a building that continues to swallow up revenue as the various parties who supported its development and staked their reputation on its success do all that they can to keep it open. Including setting rents that frequently act as major barrier to access to local people.
Of course it doesn’t always work out like this.
Some communities can stand the overheads associated with such developments. Typically they are vibrant, affluent and well-educated, with disposable income to invest in ‘community share issues’ with no real need to generate a financial return. Hardly the intended beneficiaries of regeneration cash. But even in these communities, building based regeneration is an expensive, risky and demanding endeavour requiring a lot of know-how and goodwill to keep the show on the road.
If we are restoring a building for its own merit then that is fair enough.
But, there is a world of difference between a pretty building and a building that is doing a beautiful job.
Some forgotten truths about enterprise…
- Poverty is not about scarcity – it is not that there is not enough – but that it is not shared
- The challenge is to give more people the power that they need to play a positive and powerful role in markets; This means accessible and relevant processes to develop individual capabilities and power
- Markets will always have a place in our society but not everything can be bought and sold. Care for example is an emotional relationship that cannot be bought and sold.
- Development is a measure of the extent to which individuals have the capabilities to live the life that they choose. It has little to do with standard economic measures such as GDP.
- Helping people to recognise choices and increase the breadth of choices available to them should be a key objective of development.
- Developing the capability and power of individuals provides a key to both development and freedom
- Development must be relevant to lives, contexts, and aspirations
- Development is about more than the alleviation of problems – stamping out anti social behaviour, teenage pregnancies, poor housing and so on.
- It is about helping people to become effective architects in shaping their own lives
- We need practices that value individual identity; avoid lumping people into “communities” they may not want to be part of, and promote a person’s freedom to make her own choices. Promoting identification with ‘community’ risks segregation and violence between communities
- Society must take a serious interest in the overall capabilities that someone has to lead the sort of life they want to lead, and organise itself to support the development and practice of those capabilities
- We should primarily develop an emphasis on individuals as members of the human race rather than as members of ethnic groups, religions or other ‘communities’. Humanity matters.
- We need to make the delivery of public education, more equitable, more efficient and more accessible
If we took this stuff seriously what kind of enterprise development activities would a LEP commission?
Elsie is Born…
I seem to have been a bit quiet on this blog, while I have been doing other things, including pushing Progress School along, working on Collaborate Leeds and incubating a new idea which has finally found the light of day today:
The Leeds Community Enterprise Accelerator or Elsie for short. This provides a community based network of support to local enterprise coaches, advisors, facilitators, in fact to anyone who is helping someone else in the community to make progress.
I have high hopes for Elsie in post Business Link austerity economy. I think it will provide a sustainable high value model to provide practical crowd sourced enterprise support to those that most want and need it.
Have a look at Elsie and tell me what you think.
Breaking the Stranglehold on Enterprise
For a few years now I seem to have been living in Groundhog Day. Not everyday, but enough to be disconcerting.
I will be chatting with an enterprise professional, perhaps a lecturer in a University, an enterprise coach in a ‘deprived’ community, a start-up business adviser or a bureaucrat managing an enterprise project. In our conversations about enterprise we will recognise how it is not all about business. How enterprise can be expressed in a seemingly infinite number of ways. Sure, for a significant and important minority, it is about commercial endeavour. Business, profit, and social impact in some combination. In order to express their enterprising soul a minority have to start a business.
But for the majority being enterprising, being proactive in pursuit of a better future, does not mean starting up a business. It may mean making a phone call, having a conversation, calling a meeting or writing a letter. Taking some action that increases agency and power in pursuing a preferred future. It may be taking the opportunity to reflect on ‘The direction in which progress lies‘, or ‘What are the next steps that I can take to make progress?‘ or ‘What options have I got?‘
We will reflect on how some of the most enterprising people we know may work in the Council, or the University, or organise festivals and campaigns in the community. That the enterprising soul finds its expressions in many forms and not just in entrepreneurship.
We will agree that the real point of leverage in our communities lies not in providing start-up advice with those who are already minded to start a business, although of course this IS important. The real leverage lies in helping more people to establish the direction in which progress lies for them and their loved ones and helping them to plan and execute actions designed to move them in that direction.
If we can significantly increase the stock of enterprising people then, as sure as eggs is eggs, we will also increase the stock of entrepreneurial people. And we will not lose so many who are completely turned off by enterprise because of the Gordon Gecko or Victorian perceptions of enterprise nurtured by the reality TV shows and newspaper headlines.
We will also increase the survival rate of new businesses as people make natural progress into entrepreneurship instead of being persuaded to start a business (‘all you need is the idea and the determination to succeed’) when they have not yet gained the real skills or capital that they will need to succeed.
In our conversations we will agree on these things. And then almost invariably they will head off to run another course on ‘Marketing and Sales’ or ‘Business Planning’ or to look at monitoring returns that count bums on seats and business start-up rates.
If ever there was an industry that needed to innovate and re-invent itself and its role in modern Britain it is the enterprise industry. If we really want to build a much more enterprising Britain then we need to break the stranglehold that the business start-up industry has on enterprise policy.
This might be just one of the ideas we can explore at Enterprising Communities: The Big Conversation in Leeds on May 19th.
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