Research and Development Funding for Ecosystems

Many of us in the social and charitable sectors are familiar with a funding Catch 22 which goes something like this: in order to get funding to make change happen you need proof of impact; in order to generate proof of impact you need funding. 

The situation becomes even more complicated when you consider that for neighbourhood and community projects large scale social change is the compound effect of countless small changes at the individual and neighbourhood level and are produced by a complex range of actions and actors. At the neighbourhood level, impact is often difficult to measure and document and the case for funding equally difficult as a result. This is why so many neighbourhood projects are run on a shoestring and depend for their existence on the goodwill and commitment of residents with time and energy to spare.   

We published Made to Measure last week, our report on the first year of Every One Every Day, a unique approach to building local infrastructure to support resident projects at scale in Barking and Dagenham. 

This 5 year initiative wouldn’t have been possible without a different approach to funding based on a partnership with funders who have invested collectively in social research and development. This is described as Social R&D by Social Innovation Generation.

ecosystem diagram 1.jpg

This innovative funding for the development of Every One Every Day differs from standard funding practice and we’d like to highlight why this has been so critical in the development of this work and how Social R&D funding could help us to go further.

Social R&D funding unlocking long term potential in places

Every One Every Day is the latest phase of a research and development process which, when complete will total at least 13 years of work. The aim is to complete the prototyping and measurement of a Participation Platform and Ecosystem which can sit alongside other forms of civic and social infrastructure - through which local people can make change happen in their neighbourhoods.

To achieve this we have needed to build long-term partnerships with funders who recognise that a cyclical approach and longer term commitment is essential for social innovation. While iterative, emergent and complex, this type of funding is vital for the design and co-production of new approaches with highly robust research bases.

At different points in this journey our funders have demonstrated extraordinary determination to see the emerging people-centred approach developed to its fullest potential. In doing so Lankelly Chase, Esmée Fairbairn, Big Lottery Fund, City Bridge Trust, GLA and the local Council in Barking and Dagenham have committed in a unique way through our Funders Board to this long term vision. Every One Every Day would have been impossible without this.

They have individually and collectively supported the research, feasibility, organisational set up and the large prototype we are building and measuring in Barking and Dagenham.

Deepening the impact of social R&D funding

Our experience in Barking and Dagenham has also highlighted one area where we think there is potential for development funding of this kind to do more in supporting established local ecosystems that enable resident ideas and projects. 

Introducing new resident enabling activity at scale, as Participatory City has done, is dependent on the development of relationships and partnerships with all organisations - from the third sector to local businesses, through to schools and other services. Since the first days of working in the borough two and half years ago we have consistently valued all the amazing work that local people and organisations do, and our whole team spends a significant amount of time working through collaboration ideas and opportunities to work together to support resident’s neighbourhood projects. In our Made to Measure report we describe some the ingredients we see for developing good relationships, including sharing the vision of residents and trust.

While we have successfully grown many relationships across the borough during our first year (our database reports that we have had 4800 meetings, emails and calls with 71 local organisations) some opportunities for more mature collaborations have been slower than we’d like. Conversations with many of our collaborators attribute some of these delays, even in instances where enthusiasm and creativity is very high, to the lack of time and capacity within the whole ecosystem. This is the place where ecosystem research and development funding could make a huge and potentially transformative impact. McConnell Foundation describe this as Ecosystem Strengthening.

The chart below describes, from Participatory City’s perspective the various plug in points through which we collaborate with other organisations. With some we are plugged in at many of the points at the same time. With others there is often a gentle starting point, such as space sharing, which can create the seeds of trust, opportunities to share ideas and build stronger relationships. Some small scale collaborations may not develop much further if the aims of the organisations are very different. Regardless of whether the collaboration is early or mature, small or large, it’s very important to us. Ultimately our aim is to collaborate with as many people and organisations as possible and to be part of a thriving, supportive network of people and activity co-existing in a spirit of cooperation and friendship

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The overarching definition of collaboration for the Every One Every Day team in Barking Dagenham is ‘any activity that enables or supports resident participation (in activity, projects or collaborative business) to create positive outcomes for people and neighbourhoods.

Our big lesson from Year 1 is this: In the future, in Barking and Dagenham, or in replication projects elsewhere, we intend now to always build in research and development funding for existing local organisations and groups, not as grants, but to support in very practical terms the additional time and headspace we see is needed for organisations to work with us and residents to innovate, design new types of partnerships and strategies or to support local resident participation projects more directly.

We are committed to trying to achieve this with and for the people of Barking and Dagenham.

In a recent article by David Brooks - The Neighbourhood is the Unit of Change - he highlights the importance of changing our view of neighbourhood systems and include funding to develop the neighbourhood as well as the individual.

It could be that the neighbourhood, not the individual, is the essential unit of social change. If you’re trying to improve lives, maybe you have to think about changing many elements of a single neighbourhood, in a systematic way, at a steady pace.

Some people say that we have to promote both kinds of change, individual and neighbourhood. Of course that’s true, but it’s also what people say when they don’t know how to think in geographic terms and don’t know how to adjust their work to neighbourhood realities.

Thinking in neighbourhood terms means radical transformation in how change is done. It means escaping the tyranny of randomised controlled experiments in which one donor funds one program that tries to isolate one leverage point to have “impact.”

Tessy Britton