Tag Archives: cities

What the golden arches reveal about community aspiration

Mike Stevenson, MD, Thinktastic

By Mike Stevenson

On a Scotrail train a few weeks ago, my attention was caught by a sign with a smiling face and the words “thank you for not putting your feet on the seat.’” I felt immediate warmth towards the company as this positive reinforcement was a welcome change from the usual, punitive messages of “no parking”, “wait here until called” and “keep this area clear.” I’m sure most people can think of how some small, inexpensive communication has made them feel better or prompted them to behave differently.

To take a common example, the red and yellow arch of McDonald’s often provides the only whisper of colour on the landscape. Add words that lift your spirits are lifted and the impact can be dramatic; doesn’t “Happy Meal” sound more appealing than “burger and chips?”

Farther afield, the notorious favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are painted in candy colours, the result of a collaboration between residents and community artists. This doesn’t tackle the underlying issue of poverty but it does encourage positivity and optimism.

We all know how much our world is lifted by a warm smile. It’s magical and powerful. Yet I have worked with communities that report a persistent frown, characterised by a bleak landscape and negative surround sound. I recently spoke to residents who, when ranking preferences for their surroundings, placed colour and affirming messages in their top three desires. They are willing to make these changes happen; people want to see their towns and villages reflect their personality and aspirations. And why not? It’s affordable and has a lasting impact on residents during times of reduced public finance.

Does it work? Yes!

Outside of Edinburgh in Stoneyburn, I suggested using the drawings and words of primary school children to represent the landmarks of the village’s local history. This is now about to happen; the schools are behind the idea and the community is delighted to see the village’s long and illustrious history visibly featured. They believe this will restore a sense of pride in their heritage. We have used children’s words and paintings to encourage people to “Do More: Drink Less” in Stoneyburn. Adults were touched and it made far more impact than dire health warnings.

Similarly in nearby Armadale, because people asked for it, the village will now bear bright, distinctive signage, displaying the faces and words of local residents who speak of their dreams for the community. They also want to show young peoples’ art in the city centre. Displaying the talent and ideas of their residents is important to them.

Above, a poster designed by a child in Stoneyburn, West Loathian, speaks directly to the community.

Amazing Armadale” was the result of a series of creative workshops in schools, community halls, youth centres and at parents’ evenings. The result was a real consensus on what the town should look and feel like, and this has been put into practice. Armadale has held a music festival, regular “alcohol free Sundays” with street markets and a 5K charity run is being organised. This is real community change. Add their more colourful town centre and residents have helped to make quick, low-cost, tangible changes.

And it is local townspeople themselves who are making change happen – we’re not talking about huge budgets here. Earlier in the year, for example, 100 adults and children volunteered to take part in a clean-up in Stoneyburn. It’s also hoped that support will be offered from businesses with things like painting and gardening.

I would love to see more of this but, in terms of public services, I am struck by how little real creative dialogue exists between them and their constituents. Public consultation can be dry and driven by service references and needs. What if community engagement could be fun, lively and uplifting, allowing the language of participants to lead the discussion? Masterplans, blueprints, strategies and partnerships would rarely be mentioned. I know this because the techniques I use in my work elicit imaginative solutions from the most unlikely of people.

When I showed a class of 12-year-olds in East Lothian the logo of their local council, the first thing that came to mind for one youngster was the phrase “no ball games.” He views his council as a block to enjoyment. Others are likely to feel the same and the long-term impact of this attitude will drive further distance between councils and residents.

So, does this really matter, especially during a time of austerity? When I speak on this subject I get universal approval from audiences as diverse as business leaders, primary school children and local councillors. The consensus is that they are tired of a world that headlines bad news and displays signs that instruct and obstruct. In tough economic times, the need to create environments that lift, improve accessibility and value people could be more important than ever.

The tale of Lion Face: how businesses could help society

The story of Lion Face puts the big into big society. Seven years ago, the 20-year-old gang member from the barrios of Aragua, Venezuela, mugged a security guard from the nearby Santa Teresa rum distillery and stole his gun. When Santa Teresa’s security boss caught him a week later, Lion Face was given a daring ultimatum by the company’s wealthy owner, Alberto Vollmer.

In a move worthy of modern folklore, Vollmer said Lion Face could work for him for three months without pay, or be handed over to the police. It was a risky proposition, but a week later, Lion Face came back – accompanied by around 20 fellow gang members who also wanted to work. Vollmer agreed and Project Alcatraz, as it’s now called, was born (the name reflects the idea that people’s worst prison is themselves and the challenge is to escape from themselves).

The project aims to reduce delinquency and unemployment and involves gang members in an intensive (and mildly eccentric) three-month work-study programme that include rugby training and community service. On completion, participants choose between a formal job – in the Café Alcatraz programme, for example, they learn how coffee is produced and packaged- or further education, perhaps via the on-site housing construction workshop.

Santa Teresa, a 200-year-old family run company, is some 4,500 miles from Westminster, but given the current debate about the private sector’s role in big society – and if big society includes encouraging something other than statutory services to tackle social problems – the tale of Lion Face is a salutary one.

A rugby match at Project Alcatraz

Since 2003, five gangs have completed the project and been disarmed. Local crime has fallen by 40% and last year Project Alcatraz won best social inclusion project at the Beyond Sport Summit to celebrate sport-led social change in London. Professor James Austin of Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative has said of the management of Santa Teresa that “its viability and profitability are dependent not only on its ability to produce a superior product, but also to generate social value for its surrounding community”.

And that’s not all, several years ago Vollmer negotiated with squatters who wanted to take over land on his sprawling estate; the result was the creation of Camino Real, a 60-acre 100-house community built by the squatters themselves and funded with government housing agency mortgages.

While most large UK businesses have corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes that include employee volunteering schemes and donations to local schools or community projects, the ethos and scale of what’s going on at Santa Teresa is closer to the now extinct philanthropic traditions of Quaker companies (think Cadbury, Rowntree, Frys). Vollmer’s philosophy is quite simply that healthy communities lead to healthier profits. As Vollmer himself has said: “If you have growth and well being in the company but not in the community, then you are dead meat.”

Santa Teresa invests about 2% of its profits in social projects and attracts money from other sources including charitable donors. No mean feat given the years of political and social upheaval under President Hugo Chavez’s divisive regime that has pitted poor against rich.

It’s crude to suggest that Project Alcatraz can be replicated elsewhere; the schemes are as much a product of Venezula’s unique political, social and economic context as they are the result of the single-minded determination and social awareness of Santa Teresa’s owner. The best social businesses owe as much to their visionary and determined leaders as to their watertight business strategies and savvy investors, but the Lion Face story shows what is possible when business puts its money where its manpower is.

On a smaller scale, as discussions at a Tory conference fringe meeting today should reveal, there is some evidence that US-style Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) might help plug the gap left by public sector cuts. BIDS are defined areas within which businesses vote to invest collectively in local improvements (and therefore boost their trading environment). The public-private partnership between the local authority and business are funded by a levy on the business rate charged by the council.

Birmingham, for example, has three BIDs which collectively generate around £2m of private sector investment into city centre public areas each year. Birmingham’s BIDs certainly seem successful, winning national plaudits for their nighttime economy and the cleanliness of the city centre streets. Crime figures in the Broad Street BID area, for example, have been dented since the launch of the scheme, from 1,300 incidents in 2005-6 to 995 in 2008-9 and public satisfaction is high.

However, not all BIDs are proving entirely successful, as Edinburgh has found to its peril. Business organisations might be reluctant to participate thanks to the same economic malaise that is leading their statutory sector counterparts to consider retreating from service delivery.

And, given it’s taken five years to get 100 BIDs up and running around the country, how long it will take for the city centre programmes to make large-scale improvements (more to the point, will it be only a handful of BIDs that go beyond the realm of cleaning pavements, erecting floral displays and installing Christmas lights?). Also, as I remember from reporting about West End BIDS 15 years ago when the schemes were being chewed over by a clutch of the capital’s boroughs, there’s a worry about displacement. If improvements stop at the BID boundary isn’t there a danger of creating a two-tier city centre with a clean core and sweeping (literally, in many cases) the problems to the edge of the BID area?

As the public sector cuts back on delivery and all eyes dart desperately towards the twin panaceas of social enterprise and the voluntary sector to adopt its mantle, businesses and business-led partnerships should wake up to the vested interests they have in their local communities. Maybe that’s something to be championed by the new breed of City mayors recently proposed by Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles?

The UK has enough Lion Faces. Now what we need are a few more Vollmers.

* A fringe event ‘What role can Business Improvement Districts play in the recovery?’ takes place at 5.45pm today at The Mailbox centre, organised by Birmingham CIty Centre Partnership. Speakers include Bob Neill MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Broad Street BID’s Gary Taylor.