Could recent backlash crash the not-so-smart city?

In May 2020, Google-affiliated Sidewalk Labs abruptly cancelled its smart city vision for Toronto’s waterfront, citing that “unprecedented economic uncertainty” created by the pandemic had made the project unachievable.

Named ‘Quayside’, the venture proposed a 12-acre development of sleek apartments and neighbourhood amenities that heavily incorporated data and technology into urban design and residents’ daily living.

Including an underground delivery system and ice-melting heated roads, the futuristic plan aimed to turn Toronto into the world’s first truly ‘smart city’.

Yet, the Quayside development faced fierce criticism before it could even get underway.

Planned for the heart of the development was the harvesting of an extensive flow of data, amassed by studying millions of residents’ daily movements through sensor-laden streets and buildings.

However, critics saw a darker side to Sidewalk Labs, fearing that residents’ data would be stored and used by Google. Such fears only intensified after a series of publicised data breaches at Big Tech companies.

US businessman Roger McNamee described the project as “the most highly evolved version to date of surveillance capitalism”, warning that Google would use “algorithms to nudge human behaviour” for corporate interests.

Despite Sidewalk’s assurances that the data collected wouldn’t be shared with third parties, Toronto city council members began to voice official concerns. A National Research Council report stated that Canada was in danger of becoming a “data cow” for foreign tech companies.

After years of a controversial public debacle that played out in court rooms and street protests, the proposals were eventually abandoned altogether.

An industry slowing down

The story of Quayside’s defeat perhaps has greater implications for the future of smart city culture. Toronto has coincided with numerous high-profile examples of downscaling in grand smart city projects across the world, such as Songdo in South Korea and the ill-famed Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

In fact, the overall trend of the smart city sector is declining, as the regions with the most smart-city deployments have seen large drop-offs in new developments. For instance, the number of new projects in Europe increased year-on-year to a peak of 43 in 2016- yet fell to just 17 in 2020.

Likewise, data suggests that the major suppliers to government smart city projects have considerably weakened their influence on the sector. Since 2016, companies such as Cisco Systems, Vodafone and Telensa have greatly reduced the number of new developments that they are undertaking, whilst there are numerous examples of backtracking throughout the industry.

In late 2020, Cisco Systems announced that the company was scrapping its flagship smart-city software altogether. Such instances suggest at least a slowing down in production ventures or perhaps even a full-on shift in company priorities.

So, why is the smart city bandwagon beginning to falter?

Not ‘smart’ enough post-pandemic?

Whilst the privacy backlash movement that finished off Quayside is exemplary of existing privacy concerns before Covid-19, the pandemic may have further compounded the barriers faced by the smart city.

The hard-hitting financial implications and uncertainties created by the pandemic have presumably put ambitious smart city projects on the back burner, as city governments re-align their priorities towards economic recovery.

They’ve [smart city technology providers] all seen the challenges and the opportunities in this pandemic moment, says Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a civic-innovation research lab in Boston. “I think they are still struggling and looking at their product portfolio and looking to see what value they can add. I do think the field has shifted.“

Jacob suggests that the pre-Covid landscape of smart city promotion has ultimately shifted, a viewpoint that is echoed throughout the industry. Many believe that the pandemic has forced city governments and citizens to re-evaluate their priorities of what needs to be achieved through urban areas.

David Bicknell, principal thematic analyst for GlobalData, arguesSmart cities had their time. They are no longer about glossy, sensor-driven metropolises.“  He adds, “The impact of the pandemic and climate change now means smart cities cannot just be ‘smart’ – they must be resilient and sustainable, too.”

It could be argued that there is now a greater focus for citizens in creating tangible outcomes in their communities on the key issues of climate change, health and social equity.

Whilst the potential for technology to contribute to driving change in these areas is undoubted, the idea that a smart city business model should just be about the city getting smarter is difficult to uphold in the landscape of post-pandemic finances.

With the exception of climate change issues, the traditional smart city does not look to tackle the big issues that have really been reinforced by the pandemic, Jacob argues.

Privacy concerns here to stay

The pandemic also introduced a new array of concerns surrounding data collection. Contact tracing apps, biometric vaccine passports and temperature scanning as a condition to entering premises have added fuel to the fire of privacy issues that people are now encountering.

Added to this, some academics worry that whilst these technologies have been accepted into day-to-day life under unprecedented measures, it leaves open the possibility of such platforms being manipulated for more sinister purposes in the future.

And, with the numerous high profile legal cases surrounding Facebook, Amazon and Google’s privacy policies now regular features in the media, the public is certainly more aware in its understanding of privacy issues since the Quayside story.

Final Thoughts

Despite how strongly opposed many residents were to the Toronto Quayside development, it is clear that the integration of sensors, scanners and cameras into city living is here to stay. And there are undoubted benefits of smart technologies that are already evident in cities throughout the world- from intelligent LED street lighting to data-driven traffic control systems.

However, for the potential of smart technologies to be truly realised and accepted by the public, the smart city must be re-aligned to fit the privacy conscious post-pandemic world.


Further reading: more about smart cities on The Knowledge Exchange Blog

After Glasgow: the legacies of COP26 and the continuing challenge of climate change

It’s almost four months since the UN’s climate change conference took place in Glasgow. COP26 was headlined as a pivotal moment in the fight against global warming. But how much was achieved in Glasgow, and how much more action is needed if we’re to limit destructive levels of global temperature rises?

The legacies of COP26 were the focal point of a webinar last month, hosted by Strathclyde University’s Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI).  Mairi Spowage, the recently appointed Director of the FAI, welcomed Chris Stark, CEO of the Climate Change Committee and Steve Williams, senior partner at Deloitte Scotland, to consider how the outcomes from COP26 might influence government policy and business practice.

COP26 report card: a mixed picture

Chris Stark began with an upbeat assessment of COP26, noting that while it didn’t deliver everything hoped for, the inclusion of voices from civil society, business and finance added weight to the urgency of tackling climate change. Chris expects those voices to be influential in pushing governments to keep their promises on tackling climate change. He also welcomed the sectoral agreements announced in Glasgow on reducing the use of coal, cutting methane emissions and protecting forests.

That said, Chris warned that the agreements in Glasgow will not be enough to prevent the Earth’s average temperature exceeding a rise of 1.5 degrees C – the tipping point where many climate impacts go from destructive to catastrophic:

“The overall outcomes are still heading in the wrong direction. We went into the Paris COP in 2015 facing 3.6 degrees of warming. If we add up all the current policies that we see globally, we will leave Glasgow facing something like 2.7 degrees of warming.”

All of which heightens the importance of delivering every one of the emissions reduction targets which governments and businesses have set for 2030. Chris also stressed that some countries need to raise their levels of ambition, notably Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, China and Russia.

Business: the journey to tackling climate change

Business has a vital role to play in tackling global warming, and Steve Williams outlined where the corporate sector currently finds itself. Most of Deloitte’s clients have targets and governance in place to reduce their carbon footprints, although not all have a credible road map to achieving decarbonisation.

Steve went on to highlight four areas that are being worked on.

Many companies are trying to understand the scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions targets, as well as setting science-based emissions targets, and investing in systems to obtain the right data to make sure they can stand behind the numbers that they publicise.

With regard to business operations, companies are attempting to truly understand their reliance on fossil fuels, switching to renewables, and exploring what other clean technologies are available. In addition, business is trying to have a clearer view of the vulnerabilities around supply chains that could result from climate change.

A third focal point for business is understanding investors’ expectations. Lenders are demanding more of companies in terms of decarbonisation, and they want to know about their roadmaps to sustainability.

The fourth area is one which Steve saw for himself during COP26. Businesses are starting to talk more about biodiversity and the health of our oceans. As a result, companies are moving towards ‘nature-friendly’ targets beyond existing decarbonisation goals.

Delivering on the promises: UK and Scottish Governments

As Chris Stark explained, the Climate Change Committee  (CCC) advises the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets and reports to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In line with CCC advice, last year the UK Government set in law the world’s most ambitious climate change target, aiming to cut emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government’s net zero emissions target date of 2045 is ahead of many other countries, and it has also set a very ambitious target of a 75% reduction in emissions by 2030, relative to 1990 levels.

Chris Stark stressed that both the UK and Scotland are presenting good examples to the rest of the world in addressing climate change. But he also highlighted the need to move even faster in the next decade. Having closed its major coal fired power stations, the major challenge for the UK is decarbonising buildings. Chris noted that energy efficiency strategies, covering measures like insulation and double glazing of buildings, are important, but…

“…the big gains in terms of emissions come from decarbonising heat supply to those buildings. This is a big cost, but in the long run it is worth it. My message here is we’ve got to get real about this. We have lots of ways in which we could do it, but until you start to knuckle down, particularly in making plans for the cities, where the big win is, it’s not going to happen.”

Business: decarbonising in a post-Covid world

Steve Williams suggested that the restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have made it easier for some businesses to meet their decarbonisation targets. With commuting and business travel at significantly lower levels during the height of the pandemic, many companies’ emissions fell dramatically. As Steve acknowledged, the question now is how to make sure that these gains are not lost in the longer term. Examples of good practice include committing to less business travel in future, electrifying car fleets and appointing corporate climate champions.

Chris added that the CCC, having longstanding experience of advising government on policy,  is now increasingly providing advice to businesses on tackling climate change. Chris highlighted some of the issues business should be considering:

“Our primary advice to the business community is just start measuring. Think properly about the way in which you impact through emissions , and how exposed you are to the climate risks. And then think about the strategies you can use to push the national mission to net zero. As businesses do this, the policy environment should respond and go more quickly”

Final thoughts

Just four months on from COP26, the world looks very different today.  There are now concerns that economic pressures could cause governments to backslide on their climate change commitments, especially with a looming energy crisis threatening the cost of living.  However, there have also been more positive developments.

Earlier this month, leaders from nearly 200 countries agreed to draw up a legally binding treaty on reducing plastic waste. This will not only have positive impacts on ocean and marine life; it will also make a difference on climate change. A 2019 study reported that the production and incineration of plastic produced more than 850 million tons of greenhouse gases – equivalent to 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.

The latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change has reiterated that global warming remains a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. The report couldn’t be clearer about what’s at stake:

“Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”

You can watch a recording of the FAI webinar here

Photo by William Gibson on Unsplash

Further reading: more on tackling climate change from The Knowledge Exchange blog

NPF4: a new prioritisation of the environment through planning?

The Scottish Government published the fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) draft for consultation on the 10th November 2021. Titled ‘Scotland 2045’, the eagerly awaited document outlines Scotland’s strategic approach to planning and land use to 2045, coinciding with the government’s ambitious target of transitioning towards a net-zero society by the same year. Now combined with the Local Development Plans (LDPs), it is a critical publication that will inform future planning proposals for Scotland over the next quarter of a century.

A plan of four parts

NPF4 is an extensive planning framework and it is impossible to fully review the 130 page document in a short post. However, it is made up of four key parts:

  • A National Spatial Strategy which sets out the four fundamental overarching themes which future development will aim to reflect and achieve. This is a vision for the creation of sustainable, liveable, productive and distinctive places.
  • 18 National Developments of ‘national importance’ that are proposed to support the delivery of the spatial strategy across the country. These include developments such as a Central Scotland Green Network, Urban Mass/Rapid Transit Network and Island Hubs for Net-Zero
  • 35 National Planning Policies for development and land use to be applied in the preparation of development plans, local place plans and development briefs; and for the determination of planning consents.
  • Delivering the Spatial Strategy through key delivery mechanisms such as aligning resources to targeting investment and an infrastructure first approach.

What does NPF4 include on climate change?

The transition towards a net-zero society through sustainable development is a cornerstone of the draft NPF4. In fact, the wider issues of climate change, decarbonisation, biodiversity loss and nature-based solutions are firmly rooted throughout many of the strategy’s policies.

Policy 2 is dedicated to climate change. It lays out a new requirement for all development proposals to give significant weight to the Global Climate Emergency as planning authorities are to carefully consider every development’s future implications for the climate.

It states that all developments should be designed to minimise emissions in alignment with the national decarbonisation targets and that proposals that do generate significant emissions should not be supported, unless the applicant provides evidence that the level of emissions is the minimum that can be achieved.

Tom Arthur, Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, has highlighted the requirement of giving ‘significant weight’ to climate emissions as a crucial feature within the framework for facilitating future sustainable development.

There is an undoubted sense of prioritisation of the climate emergency within the draft NPF4, as well as recognition of the planning authorities’ role in reducing emissions that was not so evident in previous iterations.

However, the draft concept of ‘significant weight’ remains a loose term that could become open to uncertainty – especially with the wide variety of developments it will apply to in practice. Despite the draft NPF4 illustrating that evidence of minimum emissions is required in certain instances – such as carbon intensive proposals – it remains unclear what this translates to in more typical housing developments, for example.

A host of other policies are also relevant to climate. Policy 19 on green energy states that local development plans should “ensure that an area’s full potential for electricity and heat from renewable sources is achieved”, whilst all forms of renewable energy and low-carbon solutions should also be supported. This includes support for the extension and creation of new wind farms.

Another marked difference from previous iterations of the NPF is the inclusion of ‘20 minute neighbourhoods’ as a viable approach to low-carbon urban living. A key principle of Policy 7 on local living, it is mentioned 18 times throughout NPF4 – making it one of the most prominently used phrases in the document.

Nature and biodiversity loss

As well as acknowledging the climate emergency, the draft NPF4 is clear in its identification of a ‘nature crisis’ in Scotland that is being aggravated by urbanisation:

“Our approach to planning and development will also play a critical role in supporting nature restoration and recovery. Global declines in biodiversity are mirrored here in Scotland with urbanisation recognised as a key pressure. We will need to invest in nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change whilst also addressing biodiversity loss, so we can safeguard the natural systems on which our economy, health and wellbeing depend.“

Policy 3 is dedicated to promoting nature recovery, and again there is a heightened focus on this issue now compared to previous strategies. It states that development proposals should “facilitate biodiversity enhancement, nature recovery and nature restoration“, whilst the potential adverse impacts of development should be minimised as a priority.

Likewise, major development proposals or those where an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is needed should only be approved where it is concluded that the proposal “will conserve and enhance biodiversity, including nature networks within and adjacent to the site, so that they are in a demonstrably better state than without intervention”.

Further areas of importance with regard to nature preservation include the use of ‘nature-based solutions’, which is used in accordance with the spatial strategies, several of the national developments and planning policies.

In some instances, specific examples of nature-based solutions are provided – such as the impressive Central Scotland Green Network national development, which includes a nature-network approach to water management with sustainable drainage solutions in Glasgow and Edinburgh. However, it could be argued that the draft lacks an abundance of smaller scale examples of nature-based solutions, in the practicalities of more routine planning developments.

Moreover, Policy 33 on soils aims to give peatlands greater protection and restoration. The draft states that development upon peatland and carbon rich soils should not be supported unless for meeting essential criteria, whilst “local development plans should actively protect locally, regionally, nationally and internationally valued soils“.

What’s next for NPF4?

The consultation period for NPF4 is well underway, with the Scottish Government inviting feedback and scrutiny on the document until 31st March 2022. The draft is subject to several parliamentary committees engaging with planning stakeholders and the general public.

Committees are encouraging demographic groups who do not typically engage with planning matters – such as young people and the elderly – to take part in NPF4, underlining the desire for more inclusive involvement in planning decision-making.

Following the declaration of a national climate emergency, the announcement of world-leading decarbonisation targets and the hosting of COP26 in Glasgow last November, NPF4 certainly provides a starting vision for how environmental targets will translate into action through planning.


Further reading: more on planning and the environment from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

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A better place for everyone: how investing in social infrastructure could be the key to levelling up

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Social infrastructure is a broad term which covers a range of services which meet the local and strategic needs of an area. It can defined in many different ways, depending on which reports you read, but definitions often include:

  • physical places, services and spaces like youth services, community health, recreation, green space and sport and education and outreach services;
  • community organisations, such as voluntary groups, charitable groups, neighbourhood fora, local business groups and social enterprises; and
  • the physical and social links between places and people, including digital infrastructure, and walking and cycling infrastructure.

While the definition is broad and sometimes disputed, one thing that is generally agreed on is that social infrastructure is a key part of joining up physical infrastructure with services and communities for the benefit of the people who live and work in an area.  It is important for social cohesion and effective placemaking and for that reason it has been highlighted by many commentators as a key part of the levelling up agenda.

A cornerstone of public life in our towns and cities

Many commentators have emphasised the role of “informal” spaces, libraries, parks, recreational spaces and community hubs as being overlooked and undervalued in the wider discussions of services and provisions within local areas for many years.

It seemed there was a perception that many of the services covered by the collective term “social infrastructure” were considered to be “supplementary” to core services delivered at a local level, like social work, and while the work they did within the community was recognised as positive, often they were first in line for cuts to services.

However, in recent years, the wider intangible value that these spaces and communities which social infrastructure supports has become recognised. Social infrastructure plays a vital role in supporting disadvantaged and marginalised groups within communities, often providing links to key services and support for people who had previously had significant barriers to access. More broadly social infrastructure can help with preventative and early intervention, with policies and investment that can reduce the need for more intensive (and expensive) support later on.

It is now considered common practice that investment should maximise public or ‘social’ value that is investments that deliver the best solutions to support the public good. In practice this means including wider non-financial considerations such as community wellbeing and environmental sustainability when making the business case, and prioritising and planning projects that achieve positive social value outcomes for the public.

Supporting inclusive growth, levelling up and the post pandemic recovery

Having poor social infrastructure has been found to contribute to the lack of inclusive growth and levels of low productivity for left behind communities. Even before the coronavirus pandemic The Inclusive Growth Commission called for investment not just in physical infrastructure in poorer communities but in the social infrastructure which ‘develops the capacities and capabilities of individuals, families and communities to participate more fully in society and economic growth’. The most deprived communities often have the worst social infrastructure, which can exacerbate already deep rooted inequalities around areas like wealth, health and race.

Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society, published in 2018, highlights research that demonstrates how social infrastructure affects our personal and collective wellbeing, leading to safer, healthier, more tolerant and stable communities, and facilitates social capital the connections made between people. As we seek to “level up” those communities left behind, and those most significantly impacted by the pandemic, building these connections and improving social capital will be an important tool to help communities develop.

Research from Frontier Economics, published in June 2021, found that for every £1m invested, there are likely to be economic and fiscal returns worth £3.2m, including a £0.7m boost in employment, training and skills opportunities for local residents. And the Centre for Progressive Policy has illustrated in their recent programme of work that investment in social infrastructure plays a vital role in increasing the ​“health and skill levels of more deprived sections of the population and reducing place-based inequalities in line with the government’s levelling up agenda,” as well as offering good value for money and significant productivity returns.

Final thoughts

High quality and inclusive social infrastructure and its wider role in the creation of socially cohesive and economically vibrant communities is key to a successful levelling up agenda. New investment in social infrastructure will not only help to level Britain up, it will also unlock creativity, innovation and other local resources that can help rebuild the economy and build in local resilience for the future.


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Local government and artificial intelligence: the benefits and the challenges

Photo by Jackson So on Unsplash

By James Carson

Artificial intelligence (AI) has come a long way since computer pioneer Alan Turing first considered the notion of ‘thinking machines’ in the 1950s. More than half a century later, advances such as natural language processing and translation, and facial recognition have taken AI out of the computer lab and onto our smartphones. Meanwhile, faster computers and large datasets have enabled machine learning, where a computer imitates the way that humans learn.

AI has already had important impacts on how we live and work: in healthcare, it’s helping to enhance diagnosis of disease; in financial services AI is being deployed to spot trends that can’t be easily picked up by conventional reporting methods; and in education, AI can provide learning, testing and feedback, with benefits both to students and teachers. And now, intelligent automation is being adopted by local government.

AI goes local

A decade of austerity has left local councils struggling to ‘do more with less’. The Covid-19 pandemic has presented additional challenges, but has also accelerated efforts by local government to find digital solutions.

AI offers local authorities the benefits of streamlining routine tasks and processes, freeing up staff to focus on higher value activities which deliver better services and outcomes to citizens. Intelligent automation could also have important economic impacts. IPPR has estimated that AI could save councils up to £6bn in social care costs.

When it comes to system and data updating, intelligent automation really comes into its own. From managing council tax payments to issuing parking permits, there are now digital solutions to the many task-driven processes that are such a major part of local government’s work.

Many local councils are also exploring the application of chatbots or virtual assistants. These technologies enable customer services to provide automated, human-like answers to frequently asked questions on subjects as varied as waste management, street lighting and anti-social behaviour. The time and cost savings from this kind of digital solution can be substantial. Newham Council in London deployed a multilingual chatbot to answer residents’ questions. Within six months, the technology had answered 10,000 questions, saved 84 hours of call time and generated cost savings of £40,000.

The challenges of AI in local government: getting it right

Earlier this year, a report from the Oxford Commission on AI and Good Governance identified the major challenges facing local authorities when considering AI.

Inaccurate or incomplete data can delay or derail an AI project, so it’s vital that data quality issues are addressed early on. The report highlighted a project where one local authority explored how predictive analytics might be used to help prioritize inspections of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). Predictive analytics involves the use of historic data to predict new instances. But in this case the challenges of cleaning, processing and merging the data proved too intractable to produce successful predictions.

Another important step for local authorities is to clearly define the objectives of an AI project, providing a clear vision of the outcomes, while managing expectations among all affected stakeholders – especially senior managers. The report points to a successful project implemented by Manchester City Council which developed an integrated database that allowed them to automate record searches and build predictive tools. The project had a clearly stated aim of identifying troubled families to participate in the government’s payment-by-results programme. This approach gave the project a specific focus and an easily measurable assessment of success.

It’s also important for local councils and technology suppliers to work together, ensuring that suppliers are aware of local contexts, existing data and processes. At the same time, making full use of in-house expertise can help AI technologies work better in a local government setting. The Oxford Commission report explains that after the disappointing results from the previously mentioned HMOs project, in-house data scientists working in one of the participating local authorities developed their own solution.

Sometimes, councils will discover that AI is a good fit in some parts of their work, but doesn’t work in others. In 2019, Oxford City Council explored whether chatbots could help solve design problems in some of their services. The council found that, while waste and recycling enquiries could be easily handled by a chatbot, the complex nature of the planning service would have made it difficult to remove humans from the conversations taking place in this setting. That said, another council has found it possible to develop a chatbot for its planning applications.

At the same time, digitalisation is compelling councils to adjust to new ways of working, something discussed in a Local Government Association presentation by Aylesbury Vale District Council.

The future of AI in local government

Since we last looked at this subject, local government involvement in AI has increased. But there are still important governance and ethical arrangements to consider so that AI technologies in public services can achieve benefits that citizens can trust.

The Oxford Commission report set out a number of recommendations, including:

  • minimum mandatory data standards and dedicated resources for the maintenance of data quality;
  • minimum mandatory guidance for problem definition and project progress monitoring;
  • dedicated resources to ensure that local authorities can be intelligent consumers and capable developers of AI;
  • a platform to compile all relevant information about information technology projects in local authorities.

Final thoughts

Three years ago, MJ magazine described AI as a ‘game-changer’ for local government. The potential benefits are clear. AI can generate labour and cost savings, but also offers the promise of reducing carbon footprints and optimizing energy usage. But while residents may welcome greater efficiency in their local councils, many will have concerns about data privacy, digital inclusion and trust in the use of public data.

At its best, artificial intelligence will complement the services provided by local authorities, while ensuring that the all-important element of human intelligence remains at the heart of local government.


Further reading: more on digital from The Knowledge Exchange blog

The benefits of third sector research for policy and practice engagement

By Bonnie Thomson

Policy determines almost every aspect of our lives. It dictates the social, ecological and economic conditions around us and acts as the backbone to a functioning society.

For policy to be fair and reflective of everyone’s needs, it should have a solid grounding in evidence. Voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector research can have a huge part to play in evidence-based policy development. Organisations in this sector tend to be embedded in the communities they serve and operate on a “values-driven” basis, making them ideal candidates to represent those from all facets of society who may not otherwise be represented in the policy sphere.

Using third sector research to influence policy and practice was the focus of a recent Policy Scotland webinar, where guests from across the sector shared insights and experiences of harnessing their third sector research projects as vehicles for policy engagement.

Developing projects with policy in mind

Dr Hannah Tweed of Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland commenced her presentation by emphasising the importance of allowing real life experience to guide policy. Her project, which focused on experiences of self-directed support in Scotland, was co-produced with peer researchers who utilised their lived experience of social care to direct the design of the study – including which areas to focus on and how best to phrase questions.

Hannah went on to discuss how the team sought to involve local authorities and third sector partners working in social care in the development stage of the project. In doing so they benefitted from practical expertise on how to distribute surveys and conduct interviews in the most accessible formats. This helped to reduce barriers to participation and ensure a wider range of responses.

Engaging governing bodies early on in the project was also a reliable way of garnering interest which could be useful for policy influence down the line. Third sector partners offered invaluable local knowledge and contacts which may not have been reached without the power of word-of-mouth. Additionally, by invoking this level of cross-sectoral input in the project, the team were able to amplify the magnitude of the research, making as many people aware as possible.

Communications and dissemination

A steady stream of communications was also cited as key to policy impact and engagement. Robbie Calvert of the Royal Town Planning Institute discussed this in relation to his 20 minute neighbourhoods research.

Reports, news releases, policy briefs and social media posts were just some of the project outputs that Robbie highlighted as being crucial to gaining and maintaining traction around his research. Timing was a key element for disseminating research outputs, as this piece of work began to take shape around the time of the 2019 general election. Seizing an opportunity, Robbie and his team lobbied with party spokespersons and researchers across the political spectrum, delivering regular consultations and briefs. The end result was that almost every political party featured 20-minute neighbourhoods or a similar idea in their manifestos, which gave a strong sense of added value for the concept.

Both Hannah and Robbie discussed the merits of a succinct set of recommendations, covering large and small issues, in gaining the attention of policy makers. Hannah explained that policy recommendations at the small scale should not be forgotten as they can act as useful, simple outcomes to meet and complement the larger, national changes. Recommendations should be robust, showing consideration for practicalities and cost implications, whilst also painting a clear picture of “where next” for policy, practice and future research avenues.

Knowing your stakeholders

Dr Sarah Weakley of Policy Scotland rounded off the webinar by highlighting the importance of well-defined stakeholders in achieving policy influence. She began by describing how best to position a piece of research within the policy landscape. This involves working out which policy actors are key players in the area, what kind of work they have been known to engage with in the past, and, crucially, what new perspectives can be offered. Taking the example of poverty, she explained:

“We know about poverty, it has been with us forever, there’s nothing new about it. What can be added are some of the new solutions that your research might point to.”

Knowing the policy space was noted by all three speakers as being key to achieving influence. Sarah followed this up by acknowledging that the range of policy stakeholders is far wider than just central government. Some examples of other lesser-considered policy actors include:

  • think tanks;
  • community planning partnerships;
  • other third sector organisations; and
  • universities.

Establishing a network of groups and individuals who are doing work either directly or tangentially in a similar field and forging connections was a message echoed by all speakers. Sarah summarised this most succinctly by stating that policy making is based on relationships. Knowing not just the kind of work being done in an area, but also the people working in and around the area, is essential for exerting influence.

A key piece of advice offered was to not be afraid of reaching out to those in the sphere. Policy makers are usually looking for expertise in a broader sense, rather than a very narrow specialism on one specific topic – meaning research can be beneficial in policy areas which may seem digressive at first glance. Moreover, cuts to local authority departments over the years mean that there has been a decline in in-house research capacity. As such, there can often be more enthusiasm for external engagement. On this note, Sarah explained that local authority engagement can also influence practice on a grander scale if you can find the “right” person, making a further case for the necessity of networking.

Final thoughts

This webinar provided invaluable information on how to use third sector research to influence policy and practice. Each speaker gave practical advice on designing a far-reaching research project, disseminating outputs to the right people at the right time, and understanding the policy landscape – all contextualised neatly within their own research.

Evidence-based policy making is integral to building an equitable society that functions effectively for everyone. Third sector organisations conducting novel and meaningful research are well-placed to contribute to this and have the tools to enact real policy change. The guidance from this session could be a useful starting point for organisations looking to maximise their social impact and alter the policy landscape for the better.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on the third sector and policy making

Supporting our communities when they needed it most: how the VCSE sector has navigated the coronavirus pandemic

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Throughout the course of the pandemic many people have been reliant on the voluntary and community sector to provide support. With local authorities stretched, services in higher demand than ever and individuals making use of support in greater numbers than ever before, the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector has been a lifeline for many.

However, the sector is not immune from the pressures caused by the pandemic. They themselves have been stretched with demand for services increasing, and with income streams having beeen limited many are now facing significant challenges to survival. 

The same storm but different boats 

The VCSE sector is a varied and vibrant sector, often providing bespoke and specialist support to people in greatest need. Diverse, specialised and adaptable, the sector was quick to respond and able to offer support at the outset of the pandemic. But the sector has also been shown to be vulnerable in the face of tightening finances, reduced volunteer availability and increased demand for services. 

Research carried out by NCVO in March 2021 reported that charities and the voluntary sector have had vastly different experiences during the coronavirus pandemic, with the impact of the pandemic being reported across the sector as “uneven and unpredictable”. The research showed that while some organisations have expanded their service offer, others have seen their income shrink drastically, or have found delivering services increasingly difficult due to the restrictions being imposed during the national lockdowns. 

Key findings from the research include: 

  • Nearly half (46%) of those surveyed reported demand on their services increasing, versus just 19% seeing a slowdown. 
  • 35% say their costs have increased in the past year, while for 34% they have decreased. 
  • 46% of organisations have had to use their cash reserves to cope with the impact of covid-19 on their organisations. 
  • 44% of respondents say they could rely on their cash reserves for more than six months, while 9% either have no cash reserves or not enough to last them a month. 

A report by Equally Yours, commissioned by the Funders for Race Equality Alliance in April 2021 highlighted the challenges facing the Black and Minority Ethnic voluntary and community sector. This sector has historically experienced specific challenges (such as a high number of organisations being eligible to apply for only a small number of available funds). The research suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated their financial pressures, but also highlighted other challenges, such as regional inequalities in the availability of funding and support, the precarious position of many smaller charities and voluntary organisations who have not been able to access government support, and the challenges of short-term funding, which makes it difficult to create long term plans.

These sentiments were echoed in a separate report from researchers at Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) which looked at the value of smaller charities in responding to the crisis.

A new-found appreciation for the sector 

The voluntary sector made up a key part of the UK’s economy before the pandemic, not only as businesses and specialists within their fields, but also as part of the wider fabric of the communities in which they operate. Many within the sector would probably argue that they were not valued enough. Their expertise, flexibility and resilience in the face of challenging funding environments, have characterised the sector long before the pandemic.

During the pandemic, collaboration has been essential. In many areas the VCSE sector have been part of the vanguard of support for the most vulnerable in society, helping to organise local responses to the pandemic and fostering community resilience in the process. 

Research published in People, Place and Policy  in November 2020 observes that, at the local level, the pandemic has led to a strengthening of pre-existing ‘complementary’ relationships between the VCSE sector and local authorities, with voluntary organisations finding themselves further embedded in local systems of decision making, co-ordination and service provision. The research suggests that there is a newly visible and increasingly ‘complementary’ local role for previously ‘supplementary’ voluntary and charity-based organisations, responding to the needs of vulnerable members of the community.

Supporting the sector to move forward

Grantfinder is the UK’s leading provider of funding information for the VCSE sector in the UK. During 2020 we provided information on emergency Covid-related funding on our website and also offered all local authorities in the UK a free portal to signpost funding support to small businesses in their communities.

As the country starts focusing on recovery, we have recently launched a new funding portal that helps charities and community groups to find funding. My Funding Central is a simple to use tool, which provides users with regular news updates and tailored funding alerts. Annual subscriptions start at £50 and are free for small organisations, offering an affordable way of searching for available funding and connecting to potential funders. Over 1500 charities are already signed up and benefiting from being signposted to funding they may not have been aware of.

The impact of the voluntary sector is threaded through the wider fabric of our communities. As we come to terms with the social and economic trauma of the pandemic, these organisations will have a significant role to play. Ensuring that the sector is suitably valued and resourced will enable it to play as full a role as possible and help communities on the road to recovery. 


GrantFinder and the Knowledge Exchange are part of Idox Funding and Information Services.

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Levelling up: can charities get a piece of the action?

Horizon Europe goes live

Levelling up: can charities get a piece of the action?

The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

So far, over £8bn has been put aside by the government for additional investment in so-called ‘left behind’ areas. The policy also appears to enjoy public support. The recent success of the Conservative candidate in the Hartlepool by-election, and the election of mayors in Teesside and West Yorkshire show that voters will back politicians with strong levelling up messages.

Local authorities and businesses are eager to bid for the first pots of levelling up funding that are coming onstream. But is there room for charities to get involved, and is there still time for them to shape the levelling up agenda?

This was the focus of a webinar organised by NPC, the think tank and consultancy for the charity sector.

Defining levelling up

There are different views about what the phase ‘levelling up’ actually means. But Tom Collinge, policy manager at NPC explained that this has become clearer now that various initiatives under the government’s levelling up agenda have got under way:

The Levelling Up Fund is a £4.8bn fund to invest in infrastructure that will regenerate town centres, upgrade local transport and invest in cultural and heritage assets.

The Towns Fund is a £3.6bn fund to support the regeneration of towns.

The UK Community Renewal Fund will provide £220 million additional funding to help places across the UK prepare for the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the UK’s replacement for structural funding from the European Union).

The Community Ownership Fund will provide £150 million to help community groups buy or take over local community assets at risk of being lost.

Levelling up funds: making the case for charities

Looking at this funding from a voluntary sector perspective, Tom acknowledged that charities may find it hard to see how they can fit into the kind of work that is eligible for funding. A lot of the focus is on capital spending – transport infrastructure, repairing buildings and creating new parks. An NPC analysis of the levelling up funds found that as much as 87% could go on capital investment. This could be challenging for charities whose work involves delivering services in areas such as youth provision, addiction or homelessness.

Even so, Tom suggested that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of accessing these funds. He explained that a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.

Deadlines are tight: bids for the first funds must be submitted by June 18. So, the time has come, said Tom, for charities to be vocal and make an economic case for levelling up funding.  Collaboration with local authorities and metro mayors is likely to be crucial, and Tom suggested that charities with already good relations with local stakeholders are more likely to succeed in their bids.

Levelling up : the local perspective

Kim Shutler, Chair of Bradford District Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) Assembly agreed that collaboration with local councils is key for charities looking to bid for levelling up funds. But although Bradford’s VCS has a strong relationship with local government, Kim explained that making the voluntary sector’s voice heard can be challenging.

While Kim has experience of partnering with statutory services in delivering mental health support to adults, bids for levelling up funds are handled differently. She was critical of the lack of clarity in how charities can influence the levelling up agenda in meaningful and sustainable ways, and suggested that the top-down nature of the process is detrimental to grass-roots charities.

Where charities can succeed, she suggested, is to demonstrate to local authorities and other partners that the voluntary sector has a compelling story to tell. Learning the language of the people with the money, making a good business case and articulating what charities can bring to the table means the voluntary sector can find a way into the levelling up process.

Shaping the levelling up agenda

As corporate director of children’s services at Barnardo’s, Lynn Perry is well placed to talk about levelling up. Much of what the charity does involves working at the heart of communities, in partnership with local agencies, young people and families. 

Charities like Barnardo’s have a unique understanding of the challenges facing the country’s poorest communities. Lynn believes that this perspective strengthens the voluntary sector’s offer, not just in terms of service delivery, but in designing policies and thinking about community assets.

Looking at the bias towards capital projects in the levelling up funds, Lynn argued that a broader definition of infrastructure is needed. Support for families, care for the elderly and improving the lives of disabled people is every bit as important as 5G and better transport. And with the right social infrastructure, young people who get early and continued support can grow up to be the nurses, engineers and climate scientists we’ll need in the years to come.

Lynn observed that this is a unique moment to recognise the value charities can bring to the levelling up agenda. During the pandemic, the voluntary sector has played a vital role in supporting communities in ways that some public services could not. She believes that the future of the levelling up agenda should be shaped by working with communities and the charities that support them. And, along with Kim Shulter, she stressed the need to make better use of the insights and social data collected by charities to demonstrate the real value of the voluntary sector.

Tom Collinge supported this, and suggested that while it might be too late for charities to influence the existing levelling up funds, they should be looking towards the Shared Prosperity Fund. The delay in its introduction may be beneficial, giving the voluntary sector time to think about making the case for revenue funding.

Raising the voice of the voluntary sector

The UK has a long road to follow before it can say the work of levelling up is done. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has observed,

“The differences between regions are rooted in history going back decades, even centuries. Having fundamental effects on them will require reallocating capital spending for sure, and a whole lot more — investment in skills, in health, in early years, and a coherent and long-term industrial strategy.”

Working with local stakeholders, charities can bring their insights, skills and experience to this process, both in terms of accessing funds and influencing future programmes. It’s now time for the voluntary sector to speak up on levelling up.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange on community development and regeneration

Taking the long view: futures thinking and why it matters

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

Take yourself back to the beginning of the last decade, Gordon Brown is the Prime Minister, the term Brexit has yet to be coined, and the Nokia 1280 was the world’s best-selling phone. In the ten years that followed it’s no understatement to say that the world is almost an unrecognisably different place. And that’s before we even discuss the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Consider the widespread roll-out of high-speed internet and the adoption of smartphones: the development of both of these technologies has massively expanded the locations in which we can learn, work, shop, and consume and produce media. In 2010, 28% of the UK population actively used a smartphone, by 2019, it had almost trebled to 82%.

Developing the digital economy

The widespread adoption of devices that provide users with the ability to easily access the internet and download applications has created an entirely new sector of the economy. Apple estimates that the iOS App Store in the UK alone has generated more than £3.6 billion in total earnings and supports up to 330,000 jobs. Analysis by Vodafone has estimated that the UK internet economy is now worth £82 billion – that’s 5.7% of the UK’s GDP.

Put simply, in the space of a decade, technological advancements have enabled the development of an almost entirely new sector of the economy and changed the way we all interact with each other.

Unfortunately, not everyone experienced the benefits of the digital age, as can be seen by the numerous closures of big-name high-street retailers. Many of these failed to anticipate the pace and extent to which consumers would embrace e-commerce and online-only retailers, such as Asos and Amazon. The failure to anticipate the speed at which people would begin to use smartphones, gain access to high-speed internet, and shop online is a prime example of the need for futures thinking.

Embracing uncertainty

Futures thinking (sometimes known as strategic foresight) is an approach that can help identify the drivers of change that will shape the world in the future. Crucially, futures thinking is not about predicting the future, rather, it’s about considering how the numerous plausible potential futures may have an impact on today’s decisions or policymaking. A key element of futures thinking is the need to embrace uncertainty, and accept that our future is not predetermined and can be altered at any time, by any number of factors.

Techniques that are commonly used within futures thinking include:

–       Horizon scanning

–       Axes of uncertainty

–       SWOT analysis

–       Backcasting

However, it’s important to acknowledge that there is no set approach to futures thinking; it’s flexible and can be adapted to meet the needs of any organisation. This flexibility is something that the Government Office for Science highlights as a key benefit, as it actively encourages “creative approaches” and supports a high level of customisation.

If we apply this to the previously mentioned example of the widespread adoption of smartphones in the 2010s, you can see how futures thinking may have been a useful approach to help decide how much focus traditional retailers placed on developing their online stores. For example, most of the evidence at the time concurred that the use of smartphones and e-commerce would gradually grow. However, the pace at which they would grow was relatively unpredictable.

Therefore, a futures thinking approach may have considered how different paces of smartphone adoption may impact the number of people shopping online. This may have been useful to determine the level of investment required to develop an online platform that would meet the demands of an ever-increasing number of online shoppers.

Creating a futures culture

Taking a long view and considering how future events may impact the decisions you make today can have several benefits. One of these is the development of more resilient policies which can take advantage of changing circumstances, and mitigate against potential risks. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (New Zealand) contends that this approach allows for the creation of “policy that helps shape the future to promote your desired outcomes and prevent undesirable events”.

Additionally, the Government Office for Science, argues that even just by undertaking futures thinking exercises, an organisation’s focus can be shifted towards a more long-term outlook. In turn, this can generate new ideas and approaches, which can lead to innovative solutions to potential future challenges.

In short, futures thinking can facilitate an entire culture change, and create organisations that are more responsive and proactive in addressing emerging opportunities and challenges.

Limitations

Naturally, futures thinking does have its limitations. It’s not always an appropriate approach and it cannot anticipate every possible eventuality.

For futures thinking to be successful, it’s important to recognise that it provides the best results in situations where there is a great deal of uncertainty. As a result, in scenarios where there is relative certainty surrounding changes that may affect a policy, there is little benefit to adopting a futures thinking approach.

Futures thinking can also be complex, trying to envision and anticipate numerous eventualities can be difficult and requires an element of trial-and-error to explore the tools and approaches that will be useful for each organisation. In particular, it’s important to consider the scope and objectives of any futures thinking exercise, as there is potential to take too wide a view of an issue and over-extrapolate data. This runs the risk of ignoring the context of an issue, which may highlight that certain scenarios won’t conform to typical linear prediction models.

Final thoughts

Amid a global pandemic, where certainty is regularly sought after but rarely found, a futures thinking approach may be useful to help those who make decisions and create policy.

Lockdowns, vaccines, and other public health mitigations do look like they will provide us with a chance to live with the virus , and get back to something that resembles normality. However, the potential for new variants of concern to develop and spread around the world creates a level of uncertainty. Futures thinking provides the framework in which to consider how each of these potential eventualities, may impact the decisions and policies made today.

In short, in a world where certainly is hard to come by, futures thinking may provide us with a way in which to continue to create policy and make decisions that can continue to be advanced no matter what the future brings. However, for this to happen, it’s important to remember that no one can truly predict the future.


If you enjoyed this article you might like to read:

–       Changing government, changing society: what now for public innovation?

–       Implementation science: why using evidence doesn’t guarantee success

–       What works now: how can we use evidence more effectively in policymaking?

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