Place-based transformation takes time. Lots of it.

blog | 22 May 2021

To really make a difference, you need to be in it for the long-haul. As the final blog in our series explains.

Place-based transformation takes time. Lots of it. Those who’ve measured these things suggest that ten years is an optimistic horizon. Given the previous eight insights in our series, this is hardly surprising. Developing shared vision, liberating local leadership and capability, growing wide and deep partnerships, experimenting and learning: all of this takes time.

Even more fundamentally, the complexity of interwoven challenges that are often the legacy of decline or neglect take time to uncover and resolve. Addressing the issues that hold people back – intergenerational poverty, chronic health problems and fractured communities – is an entirely different proposition to building new homes or unveiling a tourist attraction. This is not work that can happen quickly.

Doing what it takes

The most inspiring place-based transformations work with people and communities to understand what a good life looks like in that place, and remove the barriers to living it. They work with all of it – the crumbling apartments and the fractured transport links, the failing schools and the scarcity of jobs, the dysfunctional local leadership and the violent crime, the absence of safe places for children to play and lack of things that would inspire hope. They seek to address all of these things, getting to the root causes of systemic challenges.

Starting as a one block pilot in the 1990s, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) set out to address not just some but all of the issues children and families were facing. With bold ambition and visionary leadership, the HCZ aimed to provide comprehensive, critical support to children and families and ‘revive’ the fabric of community life. Building on the success of the pilot, HCZ steadily and systematically expanded its scope to encompass 24 blocks, then 60 blocks, and ultimately 97 blocks in Central Harlem.

Almost thirty years on, HCZ’s commitment to “rooting out poverty, block by block” and “doing whatever it takes” has resulted in a profound shift in local culture and community, and many more children in education and employment. HCZ shows that “we know how to eliminate achievement gaps – if we do the work”. ‘Doing the work’ means making a long term commitment to people and place and doing what it takes to make a change and difference.

“[Harlem Children’s Zone is] an all-encompassing, all-hands on-deck, anti-poverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children.”President Barack Obama

Our own work to develop Living Well systems – new, place-based mental health systems that are designed to help people recover and stay well as part of their community – has evolved, so far, over a five year timescale.

The first Living Well system was developed in Lambeth, where Innovation Unit began the journey with them in 2012. Initially, our role was to help communicate the work of a nascent collaborative of people from across Lambeth, interested in transforming mental health provision. The group contained front line practitioners, people with lived experience and senior system leaders. They all wanted to build a new vision for a mentally healthy Lambeth, and knew they needed very different ways of working to get there.

Over time, we helped them to evolve their work – to codify their vision into three key outcomes for the system; to support a co-design process for new services to bring that vision to life; to prototype and then grow new solutions across the borough; to build the capability of multi-agency professionals to work in new ways; and finally to help redesign the system to mainstream the approach in Lambeth as the core of helping people recover and stay well.

Time has been essential to growing Living Well systems. The careful, foundational development of a broad-based coalition of people to lead the work, and the evolution of that passion, commitment and vision into tangible new solutions, whose values and impact began to “disrupt” and impress the rest of the system was critical to the adoption of the model into the mainstream. The model would have “bounced off” an old system with quite different goals and incentives had it been pushed much harder and faster.

Shared investment

The timescales needed to see real impact and change from place-based ambitions are often generational. Clearly, this is at odds with our political cycles, locally and nationally. The literature on efforts to address spatial inequalities routinely points out that one of the key problems with place-based policy and programmes is the time frame in which they expect change to occur, linked to political cycles and changes in political leadership.

Where ambitious place-based transformation succeeds, there is always an alliance of influences and investments. It really goes back to a bold vision for change that is locally-held and leadership that draws people in across political and cultural divides. Leaders of place-based transformation will draw on national, government funding when it arises, but they don’t rely on this to sustain the work. Leaders often create a coalition of funders and investors who care about the outcomes of the work, and who are in it for the long haul.

The Eden Project and the local regeneration it ushered in Cornwall drew on a combination of lottery funding, EU funding and regional development funding for its core work. The radical reshaping of Medellin across two decades was made possible through city-level funding, coupled with significant private investment. The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham  is using some of its own funds and assets to leverage in additional monies. When communities put forward a bold and inspiring vision, liberate collective energy and demonstrate leadership to make things happen, funding follows.

“So, I am standing on the beach at Morecambe and I say, ‘Look at that tidal stream. That’s an airport for birds.’ You point out the great stuff. And you say, ‘It’s 30 mins from here to Blackpool, and 30 mins to the Lakes. We could draw people here – why not? Just imagine!’ Every job needs to be for local people. Everyone who makes things locally needs to be involved. Once we know what great looks like, we need to start training people and building people’s capability to do jobs. Everyone has to benefit.”Tim Smit
CEO and visionary behind Eden Project (and other ventures)

It takes visionary leadership (and brilliant audacity) to speak of a future that will be ten or twenty years in the making, and to convince people to invest in that vision. But this is what those who successfully nurture and grow place-based transformation do.

Pace and time

As we think about time, we also need to think about pace. How do you sustain interest, commitment, and the energy for change over such long timescales?

Previous blogs in this series have offered helpful clues to working through change ambitions across long horizons. The principles of “starting small” and “starting somewhere” are strong ones. Like the one block pilot in Harlem where the HCZ first tested their approach, it is always helpful to start small and quickly demonstrate a new possibility: it helps to build confidence and engage people in the potential of the larger scale ambition.

Meanwhile, theories of change are a good way to develop and share a long-term vision for change, while also showing the myriad smaller actions that might be important to bringing that change about. The innovation practices that are core to our work help people to hold a long-term vision for change, while also developing and iterating the smaller components of change and growing new relationships, capabilities, dynamics, culture and ways of working along the way.

Throughout this series, we have offered up the best of our insights, practice and experience to contribute to this live debate. We cannot bring about change of this magnitude alone. Ours is one perspective amongst many in the tremendous wealth of ongoing thinking and experimentation. We want to work with people on ambitious, place-based change who share our core values and bring complementary expertise and experience. Let’s collaborate on the action that is required to make levelling up, a bottom-up reality.

This blog is part of our series on place-based transformation. Find the rest of the series, as well as more information about how Innovation Unit can help you realise your vision for transforming a community, town or service, on our page about place-based transformation.