Angela Watt: Working together, the complexity of problems facing our communities can become less daunting

“My last ten years has taught me that we need to respond to the human variety of constant changes; we need to adapt in the moment and shape our system around unpredictability, not least because I have witnessed the positive outcomes we all seek for our communities.”

THE COVID PANDEMIC has had a huge impact on many businesses across Scotland. No matter your business governance structure, no matter whether you are a long-serving local family business, a community enterprise or a sole trader, the consequences of lockdown and ‘not trading’ go far beyond the bottom line.

In February, our community social enterprise had a little money in the bank, with all bills paid and a determined and enthusiastic team – all volunteers – and we had a very busy weekly activity schedule ensuring that our community had many opportunities to learn, share and improve their wellbeing. Dare I say we were proud – proud that in an area of considerable and multiple deprivations, our community was working together and self-funding solutions to our needs, enabling people to believe in themselves and in those in their community. When we work together, things do get better for us all.

Throughout this host of activities, people would contribute a pound here or fifty pence there if they could; we held several learning development sessions every day of every week and plenty of space for conversation. The painting club, having run for the full ten years of our organisation’s life, was still at the starting charge of five pounds for the two-hour taught session and had long-standing members that could not pay. This club was about ‘you, paint and your imagination’, not money or financial status.  We collectively decided on session charges – to cover the materials needed for those who could not afford their own, for the multitude of equipment for people to experience a quality activity, and for the the £30,000 a year for venue overheads (Our community had managed throughout our decade to pay nearly £150,000 in rent alone).

We were proud that we were able to do all this ourselves, and that we were contributing to the local area in a number of ways. But as they say, pride comes before a fall, and along came the pandemic. Our self-financing venue closed – for when you are considered the ‘specialist of interaction’ in bringing people together through an equality and inclusion mindset, then a pandemic is very bad for business.

Business is complex. For the self-employed man or woman in the street, not only do they need to have a ‘speciality’; they need to be the best at buying their materials to ensure their prices remain competitive; they need to be an enthusiastic communicator both verbally and through social media channels; they need a host of skills like bookkeeping, legal knowledge, health and safety, risk assessment, logistics, scheduling, web content – the list goes on and on… Oh and most of all, they need a neverending amount of personal resilience. In the face of everyday twists and turns, they have to keep going – for if they stop, everything stops.

I recently dropped a few bags of food to a local family. The mother had reached out to me and asked for help – the first time she had ever needed such assistance, as her husband was a great provider and had always looked after his family.

She said: “Please would you come around at 10.30am for hubby will be out at work… well, he will be sitting a few streets down near the park in his van as his customers are just not buying now. He sits in his van all day, as he does not know what to do anymore. After thirty years he is so lost… and I don’t want him to know we are getting help with our food, as it will break him”.

Over recent years there has been an increasing focus on the idea of ‘complexity’. I hear it so often throughout each week. ‘The system is complex and that’s why it runs at a slow pace’; ‘People’s complexity means we will never create a system that works’, and  ‘life is so complex these days, what’s the point in trying…’ Complexity often seems to be the end barrier that stops collaboration, action and solutions – but is this because we do not actually understand it?

When I founded our community group, it was simple: we wanted to create a positive environment that people would choose to be part of and want to contribute to – every individual citizen would be welcomed and all people would be treated equally, listened to and encouraged when they wanted to be encouraged. We did not have ‘rules’ written on a wall, for we knew that intuitively, if you focus on what you can achieve rather than what you can’t, then we start to build hope.

Our venue created space for trial and error, we celebrated stupid things that went wrong and we intentionally took risks every day; for when a community is faced with hopelessness, knowing that all previous ‘solutions’ have not worked, we desperately need to start with developing our self-belief. It is incredible how the language used to talk about deprived communities does seem to focus the blame on us, the people who live here, for we could teach you a great deal about respect, survival and authenticity in the face of industry deserting us.

Complexity goes far beyond situations and activities being complicated – it brings into question our current structures, business models and our society’s need for ‘one answer’. My last ten years has taught me that we need to respond to the human variety of constant changes; we need to adapt in the moment and shape our system around unpredictability, not least because I have witnessed the positive outcomes we all seek for our communities.

Our Scottish businesses are a network of interactions, a complex system that is going through a huge challenge which is not just financial, as lives depend on us taking the time to understand and craft solutions. So if you see your local community dragged down by problems that appear too complex or intractable to individually approach, consider what little positivity you might be able to share. You may have the power to make a bad situation better.

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.