Angela Watt: For the sake of Scotland’s communities, innovation must be a collective effort

“The grassroots of Scotland’s communities have innovation in our blood; we create solutions with collective understanding, kindness and pride and we can transform this country. But we can’t do it on our own.”

SCOTLAND has a long tradition of innovation and one quick Google look at the current leading projects in industries such as technology and gaming and our generation can surely hold its head high as we head into the future. So why then, with Scottish elections just six months away, will we see many of last century’s issues being debated again?

Housing inequality and rising poverty, our social care crisis and education challenges, to name a few, are issues we have faced for decades. So where is the innovation enabling our communities to find and develop solutions enabling us all to flourish?

I recently attended a national Zoom community meeting where one highly regarded speaker enthusiastically suggested that to solve our country’s issues, community organisations have to “step up”. Ah, a simple answer – if only I had known sooner that those working at the grassroots level simply need to try harder.

When we consider that innovation is about a new method, idea or an action to transform, then in this complex world, why are the creative talents at grassroots not able to realise their collective ideas? What exactly is stopping us from just ‘stepping up’?

Across Scotland, throughout our communities, immersed volunteers, community groups and organisations are living and breathing the issues we all face, and yet to my knowledge and my years of research, there does not seem to be a current innovation fund dedicated to testing out collective, local ideas. Is this a reflection on Scotland losing its ability to take risks? Have we lost trust in our instinctively innovative souls? Or are we just too busy focused on other things to realise that communities may have the answers to their own local needs?

So let’s look at what is happening. A new thought, idea or approach arises in response to an existing need. In creating a solution to a need, we consider many angles, including how others will benefit. Innovation is a collective analysis of a problem, and often requires that individual creators take many risks.

Across our Scottish communities, many of us believe we do have the innovative ideas to transform our towns and cities. To drive a positive country, we need to innovate together, test our theories, prove by action and present the evidence to change policy. It seems a simple process, but to convert progressive groundwork into positive policy takes time and money, for which our main route is funding.

The process for funding is to analyse the current funding provision across public sector, national funding organisations and trusts; to see where the innovation may fit with the funders own aims and objectives; to connect and build a relationship with them through open dialogue. Then, we decipher their application forms and adapt our long-term plan into a six month pilot with final outcomes and impact measurement presented. We then go into competition with others, which seems counter-intuitive when we need to work together. But decades of stalled innovation, of constantly doing the same old same old, means that that the community need vastly outstrips the funding available.

Our recent funding application rejection was from a national funder and this is how our innovation funding process went. Covid hit, lockdown started, and our community knew we had to innovate as needs changed, so we created and sent out grassroots questionnaires. We listened to and then analysed the responses. From this collection of data, we then researched, discussed, went back to people, kicked around ideas and benefited from that magical space of local conversation, when we share moments of ‘what if’ and ‘oh if my mum was alive to see this’. Time spent over a cuppa, even on Zoom, can often be vitally important in the development of meaningful innovation.

After this, we came up with an innovative way of enabling people to increase their own wellbeing. We selected a funder we thought would be open-minded to partner our approach and produced the many answers required, created our financial forecast and submitted the application. Then, we waited a further three months, knowing that all our research and development was in now the hands of others.

The funder had fifteen awards on offer and received 180 applications. We made the shortlist, but the final answer was unfortunately no. So do we just give up, with our volunteer team heading back to their own lives, or do we try again?

We, the people at the heart of our communities need positive change, and even if the current processes are often a barrier to innovation, it’s our lives and we have to keep trying.

The grassroots of Scotland’s communities have innovation in our blood; we create solutions with collective understanding, kindness and pride and we can transform this country. But we can’t do it on our own.

I know that many of you reading this will have the skills, experience and the enthusiasm that are needed at Scotland’s grassroots. To become a volunteer at a local community group is not about stepping in to ‘save’ a community, but to work in a true equal partnership with that community. The systems are complex, but if you like a challenge then it will stretch your mind and heart. Narrowing the gap between local language and public sector terminology; balancing the long systems time frames with the short immediacy of community need; or extrapolating the evidence of monetary value in local wellbeing projects are just three of the many challenges groups face.

So whether you are an applied economist, a grandpa or a retired social worker, the journey of volunteering in your own community has the opportunity to enhance your life and those around you. Your community needs you now.

Angela Watt is the founder and CEO of Resonate Together in Alloa, Board Director at Social Enterprise Scotland and ACOSVO, and co-founder of the ‘Horasis Powered by Resonate’ international project.