Sheffield: A city of community-led social innovation!


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I landed in Sheffield after a trip round the world 12 years ago and haven’t looked back. I have never lived in one house or even one place longer than I have now lived in the ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’. The last place I lived was London, before that Bristol and before that Manchester. I really enjoyed living, studying and working in the field of social, economic and environmental regeneration in these cities but for me there is something special about Sheffield.

Bound by 7 hills and rich in woodlands and green spaces, Sheffield claims the title of ‘the greenest city in Britain. In 2014 Sheffield won the BBC Countryfile Magazine Award;  ‘Outdoor city of the year’ with 71% of the votes. It has also been cited as the happiest city in the UK. 

At the same time, according to the 2015 State of the City report this city has its challenges with high youth unemployment, low numbers of start-ups, ‘below average profile’ in learning and skills, high health inequalities and air pollution.  There is hope though, with £43m being ploughed into advanced manufacturing, £40m into an Olympic legacy park and the Universities new developments including the University of Sheffield £81m Diamond building and the Sheffield Hallam University £30m Institute of Education.

But the reason I love Sheffield and where my personal and professional interests lie is in community-led social innovation. The geography and the history of Sheffield seems to have resulted in a culture of citizenship and community. The University of Sheffield was set up over a century ago by factory workers who came together donating a penny each to build a University ‘for the people’.

So what has happened around social innovation in the city in recent years?

One fantastic strategic social innovation is the Fairness Commission published in January 2013. Looking at many aspects of our lives from housing to health, it seeks to make Sheffield the fairest city in the country!

Launched in 2015, the Move More Plan explains how the Move More Sheffield network is bringing together networks, activities, champions who care about changing the culture of physical activity across our communities. As a pilot over the last year 37 community activities in 16 communities were developed by people and groups involving more than 600 people, showcasing the power and creativity of community. Linked to the offline activity is the development of an online city-wide activity finder which is designed to help people connect, find or even set up activities for themselves.

Recently also the Sheffield Social Enterprise Network has been set up recognising the breadth of social business innovation across the city from new organisations such as Strip the Willow to organisations with fantastic track records like Manor and Castle Development Trust.

We also have some very successful national social led businesses such as Patient Opinion, Tinder Foundation, and YooMee who all operate fantastic and very well used community platforms.

What really fascinates and excites me is organic messy community networks and the small community led social innovations happening across the city. I’m not sure we measure this activity well in terms of numbers or impact but it doesn’t take much digging to find it! Here are some examples:

One of the organisations I am involved with is Recovery Enterprises. It was set up in 2012 to support people in recovery to value and unleash their enterprising talents. In addition to supporting community enterprises, Recovery Enterprises has recently launched the design and build stage of a Big Lottery Funded Digital Well-being Hub ‘Sheffield Flourish’.

Sheffield Soup set up this year to ‘sociably crowd fund local people’s ideas’ which in its first session raised £540 for a local social enterprise

The brand new ShipShape Sharrow Workers Co-operative which has evolved from previous organisations and works with Community Health Champions and Health Trainers transforming people’s well-being.

Storying Sheffield a virtual platform which purposefully shares the narrative of our city in the context of arts, well-being, mental health and community.

There are also many amazing individuals in this city who  put their life and soul into social innovation, developing new community groups including the wondeful Hazel and Tony Blackbourne who (amongst many other activities) have set up neighbourhood diabetes and mental health groups, Sue Sibbald a  national social media expert who founded the online #BDPChat for her community and Kate Allett who founded Fighting Strokes after an astounding recovery from stroke and locked-in syndrome

I haven’t scratched the surface with the amount of community-led social innovation going in this city.  Whether it be strategically or at a street level, digitally or in real life (or at its best both), organisation or individuals, this city is full of it!

When people and communities are connected, when they care and are cared for, when they can ask someone for help, there is increasing evidence to show that they are healthier and happier.

Community-led social innovation is developed by passionate, active citizens who join forces over shared locally relevant purpose and values, making the most of their combined ideas and resources of people and place. Without the burden of bureaucracy and the need for heavy capital investment this can be faster and more sustainable than economically led innovation. The process results in more cohesive, skilled and sustainable communities and ultimately cities.

I think that this is fundamentally why community-led social innovation is so important as a key construct of a smart city ecosystem.

What more can be done in this city to create the conditions where this incredible community-led social innovation we have bundles of in Sheffield is truly understood, valued and enhanced? Perhaps a good starting point would be to collectively and overtly recognise that it is at the very heart of this city and that it is what sets Sheffield apart from other cities.

Perhaps now is the time to start a new phase in this journey, taking full advantage of digital and technology to build the platforms and infrastructure to connect up and harness the potential of this fantastic energy and innovation we have across our city and ensure it plays a central role in the city’s future.

Is now the time for a 21st century ‘Social Sheffield’ to step forward?