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Revisiting community development

'New economy' projects as confluences brimming with the unexpected.

Published onAug 31, 2020
Revisiting community development

I have been involved in ‘new economy’ initiatives for 35 years now. It seems that I can see opportunities that others do not, and have the knack of bringing people, funding and other elements together to create new initiatives. Yet it feels difficult to describe or explain what this ‘practice’ entails—and it seems that this kind of organising is usually under-valued or even invisible.

I can point to the results of my work—for example Local Food Links Ltd, which supplies meals to children in 56 schools; Dorset Community Energy, which has raised £1 million to put solar PV on schools, hospitals and community buildings; Wessex Community Assets, which has helped 50 communities to create or plan affordable housing; Bridport Area Development Trust, which raised £3 million to save a precious building and place it at the heart of efforts to create a fairer, more resilient economy.

Yet, the ways we are encouraged to describe or explain this practice—business plans, theories of change, evaluation reports, case studies, and so on—do not truly reflect what is going on. In addition, these abstract models and after-the-event descriptions can actually prevent us from seeing, and dealing with, many of the problems within our organisations that we did not foresee and struggle to resolve.

Motivated by this disquiet, I have embarked on a learning journey, starting with books and lectures, and later becoming part of a small group of co-inquirers. Through this journey, I have been introduced to complexity, social constructionism, Wittgenstein’s approach to investigation, and to the work of Hannah Arendt and John Shotter, among others.  As a result, my practical work is currently embedded in a broader process of inquiry, about the nature of ‘innovation’, ‘community development’, and ‘entrepreneurship’.

What does it mean to talk about 'my’ practice when I see myself as immersed in dynamic responsive processes, where my own reflections, inquiries and actions are both shaping and being shaped by my interaction with others? How can we ‘see better’ the often rather random processes of connecting people and other elements, and recognise the importance of the ‘gathering’ and ‘convening’ that needs to accompany these events and movements?

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