Providence: the creative city

My last case study area on my exploration of American cities has been Providence. Located in the north east in the state of Rhode Island, this city has a creative and hip feel to it. The downtown area is compact and walkable, the river area clean and rejuvenated, there is a proliferation of vintage stores and independent retail and micro-breweries, and incubation of social enterprise and new ideas is shaping the response to economic decline and indeed opportunity.

Nowhere is that more evident than my host organisation, the Social Enterprise Greenhouse (SE Greenhouse). It’s a unique space in which aspiring social entrepreneurs can meet and shape ideas, a place in which a number of social enterprises are located, and where SE Greenhouse provide their workshops, enterprise acceleration programme, and mentoring activities. In addition to social enterprise development and support, the SE Greenhouse are also seeking to influence the social responsibility behaviour of corporates based in Providence and indeed the City of Providence and universities, including Ivy League member, Brown University.

This dual approach around growing social enterprise and influencing social responsibility is having an impact. There are a growing number of social enterprises based at the SE Greenhouse with a diverse set of products and social impacts. Solar Sister seeks to both eradicate energy poverty and empower women through promoting solar and clean cooking technology. The Providence Granola Project produces granola through supporting newly arrived refugees into training and employment opportunity. And Worldways Social Marketing seeks to enable social impact behaviour change through innovative use of social media.

In terms of influence, Providence is becoming an increasingly socially conscious place. The mayor of Providence and the wider City of Providence is seeking to ensure that the growth is aligned to social and environmental considerations. One of the largest corporations based there, CVS Pharmacy, has changed policies so that it no longer stocks tobacco across its 7,600 stores in the US. And anchor institutions are increasingly seeking to identify and support local organisations, including social enterprise to develop products and services which are relevant to their needs and engage them in the procurement process.

I think this dual approach works in Providence for a number of reasons. First, it is a small place compared to some of the other cities I have visited and this scale means there is a natural awareness of what different spheres of the economy are doing. Second, there is the infrastructure in place to enable support for fledgling social enterprises to develop and grow through the SE Greenhouse. Third, there is leadership at least in rhetoric terms from the City of Providence, anchor institutions, foundations, and the corporate sector that economic development needs to change so that it considers local economic, social and environmental factors. And fourth, there is a culture of creativity and diversity in the place.

Having said the above, and like the other cities I have visited, inequality is stark. The opportunities offered in the core need to be linked more effectively to the poverty experienced by the residents on the Southside. That said, the business support offer here is so much more creative than what we would find in the UK. Businesses and social enterprises are given the opportunity to innovate and take risks as opposed to being provided with a generic business development offer.

Next Tuesday I will wrap up coverage of my trip with a blog on lessons learned during the course of the last few weeks.



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