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Blog - Putting Social Impact at the Heart of the Planning Process

When the Catapult met Year Here, a postgrad course that nurtures budding social entrepreneurs to launch ventures to address city problems, we saw a great opportunity to support the development of their Fellows while also pushing forward our work on the Future of Planning and supporting an SME. So we set up a collaborative project between us, Year Here and London-based SME Commonplace. Year Here Fellow, Marta Costa, shares her first-hand experience.

Planning is inherently complex. The planning process deals with multi-year projects, huge numbers of stakeholders and multiple factors – from economic activity to environmental impact. Our team of Year Here Fellows had experience in tech startups, community engagement and social justice but thinking about how we might propose innovations in the planning sector was an overwhelming proposition at first. Luckily, Future Cities Catapult had already published some brilliant analysis so we weren’t starting from scratch.

We kicked off the project by investigating the ways in which social impact was being measured in estate regeneration and development projects across the UK. We concluded that not enough was being done to foresee and mitigate negative consequences of development, like the displacement of people or the breakdown of community cohesion. So we went about developing a framework to quantify those long-term effects – looking beyond purely physical and economic metrics.

Next, we focused on enhancing Commonplace’s site with the goal of making the citizen experience even more valuable, transparent and widely taken up. We explored methods to reach more people, ensure greater diversity of voices, and render the consultation process more meaningful in general. We also looked at whether there might be appetite to use Commonplace as a mechanism for gathering feedback after construction had taken place.

Year Here pushes us to innovate from the inside, on the edge and from the outside of existing systems: as intrepreneurs, social impact consultants and, ultimately, social entrepreneurs.

Starting in homeless hostels, care homes and alternative provision schools, we come up with innovation projects to drive long-term improvements in services. Trying things out, reshaping them and listening to beneficiaries and users along the way – often in the face of budget constraints and staff fatigue – is a constant, and sometimes tough, journey. Good doses of enthusiasm and hard work help.

Next, as in this project, we respond to a brief as consultants, bringing community engagement and service design methods to bear on existing systems. Exposure to dynamic environments like the Catapult and Commonplace also gives us a window into some of Britain’s most cutting edge fields and industries.

The year ends with the Venture Lab, challenging us to get new social enterprises off the ground. Year Here has launched a cadre of social ventures already, so we have shoulders to stand on. Our work actually inspired my own social enterprise idea: Ground Up, a stakeholder and asset mapping service to connect businesses and organisations more deeply with the communities they are embedded in. Our first client is a housing association in Camden that offers supported accommodation to care leavers and refugees.

We’ve seen how mapping (the step before an organisation like Commonplace comes in) is often outsourced, poorly executed or not conducted at all. I’m excited about the challenge of redesigning the way mapping works so that stakeholder needs are fully understood and existing assets are built on rather than disregarded. Because ultimately, society is just as much about the relationships between people and communities as it is about the physical environment we share.

Marta recently met up with Mike Saunders, one of the founders of Commonplace, to discuss his experience of the project.

What made you want to partner with Year Here on this project?

Commonplace is a business with a social mission, so we’ve always been interested in measuring the impact we have on communities – but we decided that we could be doing it better. The opportunity came up to work with Year Here and, because they are experts in this field, we decided to ask them to help us. They became passionately immersed in the work from the get go. Their approach has been extremely methodical, and they’ve challenged us to rethink various aspects of what we do in really creative and constructive ways.

What opportunities are you most excited about for the Future of Planning?

Planning is about people. People and the relationships between them are as much the fabric of a place as the bricks and mortar. I think the most exciting technologies will be those that bring the needs and ideas of people to the heart of design. We are not far from being able to realise places that evolve in response to the people that use them, and that will have a dramatic effect on everything from health and wellbeing to community cohesion.

What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on right now?

We’ve got a bunch of really exciting new customers who are introducing us to myriad new communities. They include major infrastructure organisations, estate regeneration developers, and lots of cities. We’re currently working on AI approaches within the product to ensure that each new project achieves optimal engagement in the community.

Where do you see Commonplace going in the next five years?

We’re working towards every place in the UK being a Commonplace, so that broad participation and transparency in local planning and design becomes, well, commonplace! Can we do that in five years? If we keep up our current trajectory then yes, I think we can.

It's been a great experience working with Year Here. They've been extremely methodical in their approach, and have challenged us in a constructive way to re-think various aspects of what we do. But most of all, they've all been passionately immersed in the work and brought their combined experience, knowledge and creativity to bear in helping us find new solutions.

– Mike Saunders, CEO Commonplace

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