Adapted photo by Nik Ramzi Nik Hassan on Unsplash

The immediate crisis is passing: we need to build back better from the ground up

As the first wave of the coronavirus recedes, the work of recovery is beginning. Recovery of jobs and industries put on hold, of some limited movement of people, of services that have been suspended, and a sliver of normal life.

As we have written previously, this ‘in-between’ stage offers a unique opportunity to think about what we reinstate, what new things we take forward with us, what needs to end, and what may need to change further to deal with longer term challenges. We have offered ideas and frameworks about how this opportunity can be understood and what this work of shaping a ‘new normal’ could look like in our specialist field: local public services and social change. And we know that many local leaders have got the bit between their teeth, reaching for more significant change from this crisis.

It’s a time of opportunity, but also of real constraints

It is right to acknowledge that we also face constraints and choices. For now, the resources of leaders, our workforce and our communities are depleted from months of crisis response, stress and grief. There are other currents that pull us back too: looming economic recession, new levels of savings to be made in the public sector, new waves of demand for services coming over the horizon, the distracting resumption of adversarial local politics, and a government that needs to restore credibility and pick up the Brexit reins once again. So there is an opportunity for change, but it is fragile, and it is also possible that we revert back to old ways of working.

We need to make deliberate choices now that channel the energy and possibility revealed by the Covid-19 response

This means that those of us who want to shape a new normal are going to have to find new energy, commitment and determination at a time when surviving, not thriving, may feel more realistic. We need to learn from the energy and values that have characterised so much of the response to the pandemic, and use it to inform what comes next. And we need to make deliberate choices now that reflect this learning, identifying and amplifying activities that demonstrate new ways of working and making choices today that are designed to move the needle for tomorrow. This is about setting a direction of travel and signalling intent in the face of uncertainty, rather than simply facilitating a return to how things were before.

And we need to think bigger than ever

We are also going to need to think bigger than we have thought before. This is a time when everything is changing — or at least when there is a greater openness to change. As the Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted, we must ask ourselves fundamental questions about structural inequalities and the distribution of power. We need to question and reimagine the type of society we want to be part of going forward; the ways we understand our relationships and responsibilities to one another; how we respond to the existential threat of climate change. We need to shift to a long term perspective, exploring how people and planet can thrive together, the role of different sectors in tackling the challenges we face, and the corresponding re-shaping of political narratives, organisations and actions. This is big stuff, and one of the challenges we face now is that discussions about a ‘new normal’ are amorphous without a map or a compass to help show us the way.

The Collaborative Society Manifesto can offer a starting point to inform these choices

Back in January, Collaborate published the Collaborative Society Manifesto, the result of a year-long thought experiment in which we asked: what if we could change the lens through which we see our world — from individualism, competition, hierarchy and heroic leadership, to collaboration, mutuality, networks and system leadership? If this became the dominant way of working what difference would this make?

Since Covid-19 struck we have been thinking about how that Manifesto looks now, from this new and unexpected vantage point. And we make two observations. First, that so much which has emerged within the Covid-19 response has been in line with the ideas outlined in the manifesto. (Not all of it of course, which highlights the importance of learning and choices). And second, we are reminded that the many examples of different ways of thinking and working that we outlined as ‘green shoots’ in the Manifesto are already being nurtured in places across the country. We don’t need to reimagine everything afresh — we also have an opportunity to learn from and build on the fragile and emerging future that is already there, combining it with new insights and possibilities from the Covid-19 response.

Below is an overview of the framework for a Collaborative Society from the Manifesto, which we think offers a starting point that we could use when thinking about the directions we take now.

The Collaborative Society Manifesto: a possible compass

We need a collaborative mindset. The complex challenges we face highlight the need to leave behind the individualistic and mindset that is deeply ingrained in our culture, social norms, economy and understanding of society. We need a collaborative mindset (also being described as a regenerative mindset) which reminds us that we are part of a bigger whole, and asks us to acknowledge the interconnectedness of people and planet, and that we are part of a living system.

We need collaborative public services. As public institutions and services have shown during the Covid-19 response, we must put the human back at the centre of public services and act through relationships, not thresholds and assessments, seeing and responding to the whole person, not a narrow slice of needs that fit a particular service. And citizens must be acknowledged and supported as active producers of value, not service users or customers.

Collaborative communities are essential. There is so much good work going on both in places and in organisations such as Citizen Shift and NLGN about active communities and how participation can be supported by the state. The pandemic has highlighted the parts of communities that only local people can reach, and the possibilities that collaboration within communities, as well between communities and the state, can offer. In the Manifesto we wrote that “a Collaborative Society is one in which we all recognise our part and participate in supporting the wellbeing of our communities. It requires us to invest in the conditions that give people the opportunity and the means to participate.” For the past few months we have all lived in a collaborative community: let’s not go back.

We need a collaborative economy. During the pandemic, we have done the unthinkable: pressed pause on the economy to protect lives; and in doing so, we have also protected the environment and the climate. As the economy begins to reopen, let’s also think about what we really want the economy to do. The health of the economy should be understood in terms of how well it enables people, society and the planet to thrive, not just through growth in GDP.

We need collaborative organisations and leaders. Today’s leaders must mobilise a collective response, listen and create space for the crafting of new and inclusive stories of people and place. Covid-19 has demonstrated the value of a singular, uniting focus. Leaders must orientate their organisations around shared goals and focus on learning, collaboration and adaptation, rather than rigid delivery of plans or outputs.

So, where do we go from here?

Firstly, we need to work on internal change (what we believe and think) and external change (how these manifest in what we do).

‘Internal’ change means changing what we think, openly challenging some deep-rooted ideas about who we are in order to understand a different route forward. Covid-19 has highlighted the connectedness and interdependence of the modern world, and arguably of people and planet too. The community response to Covid-19 has brought this mutual responsibility and dependence to the fore. We need to challenge entrenched beliefs, question things that have never seemed up for debate, engage with new ideas and listen to alternative perspectives, and craft new narratives about who we are that lay a foundation for different behaviours and actions.

‘External’ change means changing what we do in response to what we think. A collaborative mindset has implications for how we act and what we do, and therefore changes how we manage organisations. There is huge learning within the response of leaders, teams and organisations to the Covid-19 crisis: we have shown that we can adapt, and fast. One of the clearest lessons from the Covid-19 response has been unprecedented levels of collaboration, highlighting more than ever the different roles and strengths partners bring to local ecosystems, and the need for trust and sharing of power. It’s not always about traditional leadership; as some LAs have found out, sometimes the most useful role they can play is to step back and enable those with local connections and insight to step forward.

We need to act short term and think long term

In the Manifesto we argued that one of the key shifts towards a collaborative mindset is to think in a much longer term time frame than normal political horizons allow. The challenge for policy makers and managers now when making decisions about restarting day to day life is to do so in ways that leave open pathways to alternative futures. It is possible to use early decisions as signals of intent, and to lay a direction that can be pursued more fully in time. Good examples include councils that are rebalancing the space afforded to vehicles, cycles and pedestrians now, the ways that public institutions respond to the Black Lives Matter protests, and places that are convening new collaborations for a green recovery.

The process we use to get to the future is the future we will get

While we need to think long term, we need to act now, and the way we approach this work is itself how we begin to shift the dial. We will need to build new coalitions of citizens, organisations from all sectors, thinkers and do-ers to help; and to collaborate with them where they already exist. At a local level, the work is about deep listening and engagement with local people, a participatory process that brings together a wide range of perspectives and creates space for people to share ideas and to innovate.

Broad and diverse coalitions of people and organisations will be needed: this is not a technical exercise led by the usual suspects, it is about creating a space for everyone to learn and listen: residents, businesses, activists, artists, children and young people, leaders of all kinds — perhaps more festival than policy process. (See Birmingham-based Civic Square’s Department of Dreams and the utterly inspiring recent Re Festival — an example of a collective reimagining of the future that will inform practical work in a place). And there is a role for the people who are leading new thinking that previously seemed out of reach — imagine a dream coalition of people who are leading work on the future economy, public services, active communities and invite them in (we’d start with Kate Raworth, Mariana Mazzucato, Immy Kaur, Hilary Cottam and Donna Hall).

Building Collaborative Places: Time for a bold coalition of future-focused places?

The ideas above are big and they are broad. And they are not exhaustive. But if we are agreed that there is an opportunity for deeper reform post-Covid, then we need to keep exerting pressure in a forward direction. The difference between the Collaborative Society Manifesto now and pre-Covid is not just that there are more green shoots, but that there is a greater need, a greater opportunity and a greater taste for what collaboration and collective action can achieve and the possibility of change.

If there is one thing we’ve learned from the past 10 years of public and social sector innovation, it is that we can’t wait for central government to lead the way. The most exciting, radical and transformative work has been led locally (as we argued here), by brave local leaders who have seen that the old model is broken and started to build a new one from the ground up. The opportunity to bring all this together, and to think more boldly and more broadly, is in local places: towns, cities, counties.

We think it would be exciting to see a bottom-up coalition of local places and local leaders stepping into this space and asking the big questions about what comes next, engaging a wide range of unusual suspects in this conversation, beginning to experiment with creating the new normal and taking decisions with intent. Perhaps they could collaborate with each other to share learning and ideas, to draw in new thinking, to bring their voices together, and to make the case for change to others when needed. Perhaps they could take courage from each other too. And maybe this is the work that foundations should be investing in next, alongside the critical funding they’ve provided to keep organisations afloat through the initial crisis.

This will not be easy, and currents will pull us back. But this is also a unique opportunity, so let’s roll up our sleeves, raise our heads, take a deep breath, and start building places of the future.

Team Collaborate