What can a community food enterprise in 2014 learn from the HIV service delivery projects of the 1980s? We reflect on how themes from our research into social innovation relate to the UK’s growing land based social sector.

We have been conducting research into how different social innovations have scaled, and how this process has affected their social value and impact.

Here, we outline where themes emerging from our non-land based innovation case studies: development trusts, community HIV services, and community recycling may relate to, and inform the development of, more recent land-based innovations including community food enterprises and community renewable energy generation. We are keen to hear from anyone involved in these sectors, in social innovation, or in land based social enterprise in general – so do comment, tweet or e-mail us and tell us what you think!

Local Pulls and Big Pushes

An innovation’s development into a sector or industry can be driven, to varying degrees, by a demanding ‘pull’ for change from citizens or by external ‘push’ from government, funders and intermediary bodies encouraging change they want to see. In some cases, as with community recycling, an innovation may begin with on-the-ground community pull and develop to be embedded into formalised governmental push backed by policy, legislation and funding.

These forces of push and pull are shaping the condition of the UK’s land based social sector. We can see a diverse patchwork of ‘pull’, with enterprises, community organisations, informal groups and some landowners working to make Britain’s land more productive and socially purposed. In the context of austerity and localism, this patchwork sits within a growing ‘push’ from power: local authorities are eager to release assets into economically productive use (or shed liabilities and reduce their costs!) and there are an increasing number of sources of support for such projects, though funding remains scarce.

As with the example of development trusts, the benefits of such a push may be uncertain: can groups that acquire land manage these assets? As a participant in our recent workshop commented: “how do we move from the disbelief of ‘wow! We’ve got an asset’ to ‘can we care for this? Have we taken on a liability?’”. The balance between ‘push’ and ‘pull’ may impact how much control innovators have over how their movement scales up: if the ‘pullers’ are overwhelmed by the scale of a ‘push’, other organisations may emulate their innovation or by pass them entirely, and dominate the market.

Specialist Niches and the Mainstream

Connected to the complexities of ‘push vs. pull’ for land based social enterprise is the tension between being ‘niche’ vs. being ‘mainstream’. Perhaps, as with community recycling, land based social innovators must learn to ‘let go’ of their localised, niche innovations as they get taken up on mass scale by the private sector. This may mean accepting the loss of local social and economic benefits that often accompanies service delivery by large national or international private companies.

When social innovations are land based, the particularities of place may bear greater weight on the scaling process. Here, practitioners develop innovations not only amongst the ‘niche’ of local people, but of the local ecology as well. Organisations bring land into different use dependent on local needs and the land’s capacity and characteristics. Perhaps, as several of our interviewees reflected, the diversity of UK land-based social enterprise is a reflection of the particularities of each place; each locality shaping the form of the enterprises who operate within it.

Scaling out of the ‘niche’ can also be dependent on the skills and knowledge required of practitioners and the nature of the relationship between service users and practitioners. How replicable an innovation is may affect the degree of control an organisation has over how it grows. Unlike community recycling which was highly replicable and therefore easy for competitors to copy and scale themselves, Terrence Higgins Trust was one large organisation which dominated the community-led HIV sector.

When innovations require specialist knowledge, or specialist relationships, organisational growth rather than diffusion, franchising or imitation may be the best scaling option. However, when this knowledge is closely tied to place, it may be that clustering small organisations together – ‘connecting up’ – is the best way to scale up.

Impact and Value

At the foundation of concerns about the context and methods of scaling is the reason behind the innovation. How do we distinguish between, and balance, an organisation’s impact – what it does, and its value – how it delivers that impact? As demonstrated by community recycling, it is possible to scale its social impact – recycling a larger volume of waste – and diminish its social value – employ fewer disadvantaged local people to undertake the work.

On purely practical terms, a land based innovation’s impact may be dependent on the size of the area in which it can take place, the type of relationship practitioners have with the landowner and the length and type of tenure they have on the land. In addition to these purely practical considerations, organisational values and methods of delivery also play a part: in the community food enterprise sector alone, groups’ motivations and methods of working vary hugely. Do organisation members consider their methods to be integral components of what they do, or means to an end that could be altered?

In contrast, community renewable energy generation was described as a ‘trojan horse’ for social value by one interviewee: the financial benefit gained from renewable projects is the incentive, but a community coming together to deliver the project for financial benefit also delivers social and environmental value through greater community participation and better energy efficiency. Here we see land based innovations, tied to local ecology, history and culture as they are, can work as opportunities to deliver impact and value together. The question is: how do we make these opportunities a reality for land based social enterprise?

This research is funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
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