Coronavirus Power and leadership

How can community power shape a post-pandemic world?

In June 2020, Indra Adnan and Pat Kane from The Alternative UK held three workshops with a group of residents in Plymouth, Devon, about their experiences of COVID-19 and where they see themselves in a post-COVID world. Here, Indra and Pat consider how community groups can help shape the COVID-19 recovery and which obstacles they will have to overcome.

When we ask the question of what is happening on the ground, in localities, how are we seeing people? Do we see them as being on the receiving end of government action, unable to respond? Or do we think of them as observers of government action, wanting to respond? There is no right answer to this, but in our engagements with local communities we have found that how we ask the question makes a difference to the answer we will get. Our findings depend on the nature of our inquiry.

Too often, when we think of ‘local’ we don’t think sufficiently about the fast-shifting context within which the local is developing.

Half a century ago, we may have been talking about E F Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful – a text which champions small-scale civic processes that empower the individual in favour of globalization – with its openness to how micro-level initiatives might echo macro-level shifts across the world. We would have been humbler about our powers to make and shape systems.

Today, our ability to network, share tools and practices, mobilise, organise and align directly with global movements of change through the internet, has changed the rules. No example highlights this more strikingly than the community responses to COVID-19, wherein neighbourhood networks mobilised with impressive speed and efficiency in the early response stage of crisis. We can scale up so much more easily – sometimes from exactly where we’re standing. Alternatively, we don’t think as much about scale, but nevertheless see good ideas and prototypes get replicated quickly and easily.

We don’t need central government as much as before to be the spider in the web, ensuring we all develop uniformly. Today growth is more fractal; groups of people, with similar circumstances and capacities, can copy and share quickly.

But unlike Starbucks or any global high-street chain, the COVID-19 recovery in each town will look and feel quite different. Glasgow’s farmers markets are different from Kiev’s. Transition Towns in South Korea may share values with the Transition Town originators in Totnes – but each Transition project will play a different role in each town. 3D printers pop up in many localities, but they draw down their programming from a global digital commons (borrowing from the P2P Foundation, we call this phenomenon cosmo-localism).

In many places, there is a shifting conversation about money and the economy. Partly because of the prevalence in this city of social enterprise, co-operatives and ‘commoning’ projects – community assets that are actively developed and managed by residents – the growth of what has been called the Fourth Sector changes the conversation about money as simply a scarcity.

Instead, it has the possibility of becoming something that people are creating – through new food or energy systems, new currencies (digital or paper) or local, independent banks. That shift also re-imagines growth as expressed through different kinds of value than GDP.

And even as we are writing reports on communities and the COVID-19 recovery, the authority of the government is slipping, in ways we could barely have imagined as we turned into 2020. The very people that Brexit seemed to liberate are once again getting the worst of the COVID-19 crisis; putting their lives on the line as if they were soldiers sent to the front.

Local councils are trapped in old party-political cultures and structures. While they have hugely varying degrees of connectivity with the people they represent, they are trapped by their role as budget holders – with the community as recipients, not initiators.

Often the independent innovations of people are co-opted by a local party regime, seeking to be re-elected. They have also been working with the harsh restrictions of a national policy of austerity.

Our sense is that while this government may be relying ever more on behavioural strategies – nudging, framing and more – the rest of us should be doing the work of developing relationship and trust amongst the people living together in their communities, and amplifying their solutions to build resilient communities that can respond to crises and withstand future shocks with strength and innovation.

Community growth and development must be nurtured on a local basis in order to really tap into the unique strengths, needs and identities of different neighbourhoods. Local and indeed national government must respond to this new, flexible approach and build on the community work demonstrated during COVID-19 to allow communities to shape their own futures.

Read the covering blog and report from the discussions held in Plymouth by The Alternative UK.