Has the pandemic built embryonic ‘antifragility’ in places?

By Helen Goulden | 20 August 2020

Earlier this month, Cumberland Lodge launched a ‘Resilient Communities’ report. It makes over 20 recommendations, designed to protect and sustain our civic and social infrastructure, rebuild a more inclusive economy and grow the voice and influence of communities and under-represented groups. In publishing this report, Cumberland Lodge joins the increasingly loud call for more deliberate, active policies to place the locus of attention on community in strategies for rescue and recovery.

Before the pandemic hit, The Young Foundation had been investigating some of the approaches taken by councils to engaging and involving their communities. This work showed a high prevalence of authorities focused on ‘consultation’ with communities, with only a small proportion working in deeper, more sustained ways to co-produce outcomes with communities - or actively involve communities in the design or evaluation of the effectiveness of policies or services.

COVID-19 will have changed that picture dramatically, as councils quickly forged new ways of working with new, informal and existing networks to get help to where it was needed most. Inevitably, this was often a messy, adrenalin-fuelled first phase of the pandemic, which became more organised over time. And it’s difficult to understate the gargantuan effort of councils to deal with such an unprecedented crisis. We saw new, fast feedback loops between communities and councils rapidly responding to real-time need. Existing charities and community groups played a huge role too and yet were also disrupted by this new wave of mutual aid capacity and more dynamic co-ordination of effort with a wider set of community actors.

While we are still without a comprehensive picture as to what and where this community action was concentrated most (and where it was lacking), our national sense of community has been reinvigorated through COVID. We would argue that the vast majority of people in this country could now readily ‘point’ to community effort in their neighbourhood in a way that they would have struggled before the crisis. The question on so many minds is: will that effort translate into sustained action – and will communities be more resilient and able to withstand future shocks as a result?

The Community Life survey in 2018/19, showed that only 22% of people took part in formal volunteering once per month and 25% felt able to influence decisions in their local area. It will be important to see how these statistics change as a result of COVID-19. While it’s certain we’ll see more volunteering effort (and hopefully the next Community Life survey will capture the micro, informal aid that has been so prevalent up and down the country) will this translate into increased feelings of agency and influence? And will the 6% of people who identified as being lonely some or all of the time in 2018/19 feel the influence of that increased engagement with volunteers and neighbours – or will the overall impacts of shielding and lockdown wipe out the benefits of this effort?

Research from the Institute for Community Studies has shown conclusively that prior to the pandemic, people already had safety as their prime concern, and were deeply questioning who was responsible for supporting the most vulnerable in the places we live. Increased unemployment and recession, layered onto an already complex and depressing picture of geographic inequality across the country would lead us to think that communities are unlikely to be more resilient as a result of COVID-19. That the initial flush of community spirit in a time of acute need will wane, and our preoccupation with our own futures and the impact of larger forces of recession and uncertainty will historically position the lockdown community effort as another Blitz Spirit; a moment in time when we came together at a time of acute national crisis.

But, as Robert Puttnam so brilliantly argues in his soon to be released book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, human beings have been here before. We have lived through times of huge inequality, polarised politics, fragmented societies and an individualistic culture, and it was through community effort and the dedication of reformers that took the US on a journey towards a more equal, egalitarian and co-operative society from the late 1800s through to the middle of the 20th century. This has been in decline ever since - and it is easy to see a similar arc of decline in the UK. Could community-led innovation play a crucial role in the upswing from our current predicament?

So what next?

There is no blueprint for our recovery. As Professor Paul Collier points out so clearly, things are radically uncertain, and at times of such uncertainty we must experiment, act and reflect quickly. The model for how communities worked together with councils during the height of the pandemic is a lesson in how to do this. Not just because it demonstrates the swiftness and efficacy of how different groups can co-ordinate meaningful effort, but also through giving permission to cast off learned and embedded ways of doing things, effectively and quickly evaluate risk and work collaboratively in response to real-time feedback loops across a broad base of local civic and institutional actors.

Could it be the case then, that the pandemic has built embryonic ‘antifragility’ within some places across the UK? That the creation of new capacity in communities and new ways of weaving together multi-sector efforts has had a strengthening effect; chiefly through the forging of new relationships and re-wiring of old ones.

This kind of relational work is critical to resilience, but it is not something that can be directed or commanded. In the case of COVID-19, it was forged through common need, requiring urgent action.

It certainly cannot be commanded successfully by Whitehall, and there is no common way of doing things that works for each community and place. There is inherent weakness to any strategy which ignores existing capacity, networks, expertise and local knowledge, where centralisation of effort is privileged over distribution of effort. We saw this with the current government ignoring the need for Test and Trace to be co-ordinated locally, looking to non-ventilator manufacturers to manufacture ventilators and with our national stockpiling being held in a set of central warehouses rather than being held by industry supply chains.

This is not a new issue and it is by no means a mindset restricted to central government. However, it is an ineffective method for tackling any kind of systemic challenge.

And so the most effective strategies for building out our recovery will be through continued distribution of effort and agency at a local level; building new narratives which embody the experiences, perspectives and social imagination that resides in our communities, public bodies, anchor institutions and business wherever we live.

Find out more about our work at icstudies.org.uk and youngfoundation.org

 Helen Goulden is CEO at The Young Foundation

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