Deep impact through citizen-led economic regeneration

Imandeep Kaur, Dan Zastawny and Andy Reeve are co-founders of Impact Hub Birmingham and featured in Grant Thornton’s Faces of the Vibrant Economy 2017. Here they talk about helping big business play a deeper role in communities

Impact Hub in Birmingham is leading the way in finding solutions to complex problems through citizen led economic regeneration. With more than 80 hubs and in excess of 15,000 members, the Vienna-based Impact Hub network is making a name for itself in terms of trade and local regeneration. Each hub works on a franchise model, is locally founded and owned, and works to grow innovation, collaboration and economic growth in its respective area.

Impact Hub Birmingham, which was set up in the UK’s second city with the help of local crowdfunders, has a more focused and ambitious vision than most and has been growing a movement based on citizen-led, systems-level change.

The Midlands Hub (there are four others in the UK, all in London) is focused on developing entrepreneurs, communities and ideas that will ‘build a better Birmingham for everyone’. Powered by a diverse membership, a collaborative work and event space and an innovation lab, it is attempting to solve the entrenched challenges – both economic and social – facing Birmingham.

It is based in Digbeth, the city’s former manufacturing quarter, which has evolved into a thriving and growing home for creatives, artists and social entrepreneurs.

Examples of how Impact Hub Birmingham does things differently include its RadicalChildcare campaign, which involves introducing imaginative forms of childcare that allow different family members the time and space to work and create; the Beyond (Un)Employment campaign, which explores how unemployment could be eliminated from Birmingham; and its recent conference proposing practical, citizen-led solutions to the city’s housing crisis.

Since 2015, Impact Hub Birmingham has worked with organisations as diverse as the University of Birmingham, the Robert Bosch Foundation, Ordnance Survey, TED and the CIPD.

Is it too simple to say that businesses should give back to their local community?
: We need to reframe the question. Currently, within companies it tends to fall under corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns or activity that is seen as socially good, but often it’s just as much for PR purposes.

Dan: Businesses can make a positive difference to their local communities when they appreciate – and add to – the wider system in which they operate. It might mean taking the time to understand the history and challenges of the localities, and the ecosystems and sectors they work in, to leverage the maximum potential impact of all of their decisions and activities.

Andy: Companies are judged on how much profit they create for their shareholders, so that’s what they focus on. For us, understanding the metrics that drive them helps us to understand the decisions they’re making. My view is that if you feel you need to give something back, then you probably took too much in the first place.

How are you reframing the relationship between business and the community?
: In our RadicalChildcare work we’re trying to talk to large businesses and look at the actual economic and financial loss when you have people, particularly women, who aren’t able to progress through the organisation because of the high cost and inflexibility of childcare. This is a system-level challenge, but large companies are in a good place to invest more broadly in the workforce and see multiple returns on that investment, as well as ‘social responsibility’. So instead of this being about how to make a positive social impact or simply ‘giving back’, we’re looking into how large companies might invest in childcare, or other similar issues that have multiple impacts and are meaningful to people’s everyday lives, while also fitting within an agenda, where companies like to be seen to be ‘giving back’.

Are companies receptive to this message?
: There’s still a hangover of the financialised MBA culture that drives financial efficiency throughout businesses. For the past 20 years the prime goal of many businesses has been for the supply chain to work with as many efficiencies as possible, but people are starting to realise that that has a detrimental impact across the broader ecosystem. They’re beginning to understand that businesses don’t stand alone and that investing in your supply chain, your employees and the place that you’re actually from brings valuable returns in different ways.

What arguments would you use to convince a CEO about this approach?
Dan: It’s certainly too clichéd to say ‘there’s more to business than the bottom line’. It’s more interesting and challenging to find different ways of getting to future bottom lines. I’d work on the CFO, rather than the CEO, and fully map out the potential routes. Besides, if a CEO truly believed that the bottom line is the only factor, then I’m not sure there would be the empathy or interest on their part to entertain the concept or conversation.

Immy: It’s rare to be in the room with the finance director. All too often we’re passed on to CSR or the marketing department. Obviously, there are CEOs who have a much more progressive view but they have to work with the shareholders, the rest of the senior leadership and a workforce that has often been used to a certain way of things working. Potentially it isn’t in their interest to change things too much, so some of this is about being honest about what that more radical change will look like.

Andy: Also, any chief executives who want to make a difference through their business models will have to be comfortable with not having tangible things behind their performance all the time. That’s a challenge because we’re so driven by data and stats.

Immy: That’s the dance we have to do with corporates and more traditional organisations because we have to find the balance in which they’re comfortable to commit to working with us, but also that we don’t sell out on our values and mission through creating simplistic objectives and stylised outcomes to complex challenges. It’s very easy to churn out clickbait-style headlines and opaque statistics about helping this many businesses to grow, or this many events took place… The impact we’re looking for is deeper and longer term because we’re looking to disrupt large systems, to grow a movement in the city around, for example, the housing crisis. The societal challenges we face today don’t have simple, single-point solutions. They are complex and have multiple causes, drivers and stakeholders. Large companies need to understand their role within that, and act not only in their own interest, but as levers of change within the city. Business can’t thrive in a broken, divided and deeply unequal society.

What does the future hold for Impact Hub?
 I’d hope to see the Impact Hub as one of many citizen-led, mission-driven businesses working across Birmingham to continuously construct better futures, host honest conversations and launch world-changing ideas. I’m regularly inspired by the ability of hub community members to consistently push themselves to do better, be kinder and dream bigger – whether this is in day-to-day business, calling out and positively challenging established narratives and institutions or creating a platform for meaningful, high-quality work to launch from and shape the world around us.

Immy: We started as a group of passionate young people looking for like-minded citizens in a city where 40% of the population is under 35. Those people now have a strong voice and a seat at the table. Whether the table is the right one to be sitting at is another question, of course. But we are now seen as a legitimate Birmingham institution.

We’re not expecting big companies to throw everything out of the window and have a big, glorious exploration into something totally unknown. Complex challenges are not solved with simple solutions and often what you can get through boards of directors, or through senior leadership, are things that are tangible and simple.

In the world we’re moving into, where the public sector is shrinking, large companies will have a bigger part to play in the places we build and what that looks like. We will need to get more creative about how we do that work and more ambitious about the types of impact that can happen.

  • Imandeep Kaur and Dan Zastawny are 2017 Faces of a Vibrant Economy, run by Grant Thornton. Find out more about these 100 dynamic business leaders chosen for their commitment to purpose, innovation and growth here.
  • This article was published in Grant Thornton’s bi-annual magazine Strategies for Growth in December 2017.


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