Social inclusion and regeneration – the opportunity for innovation

2003

A complex network of actors has developed around the social inclusion and regeneration agendas. It is being discussed in international fora, demonstrating how cross-cultural the debate is, as well as by local authorities, local NGOs and community groups.

Why has “it” in recent years shot up the agenda, and why has it become the centre of so much debate in government and non governmental circles? To what extent does business need to keep an eye on what’s going on?

Companies are recognising their interdependence with society. Not only does their bottom line depend upon the economic climate but the environmental and social “climate” it operates in. This holds true for the local business as much as the global corporations.

Rising up the agenda…
Inequality and exclusion in society is a phenomenon as old as societies themselves. Efforts towards addressing these problems have manifested in a range of ideologies and practices, from Marxist communism to social democracy to the “third way” of recent years.

However, the parlance around social exclusion and inclusion is relatively new. These terms are in effect a reaction against the one-dimensional approaches of the past. It has been seen that the effectiveness of addressing poverty, poor health, environmental degradation, crime and unemployment in isolation has its limits. Social exclusion / inclusion has a multi-faceted approach and acknowledges the inter-linkages between issues.

Others have considered this as essentially a debate on equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity. Here in the UK, the latter is largely the focus of pubic policy and the driver behind the setting of up of agencies such as the Social Exclusion Unit and the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit both based at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The ODPM emphasises the fact that its strategic outlook spans across government departments to deliver an integrated approach.

Why regeneration?
Closely linked to this debate is the regeneration agenda. Regeneration according to one of the leading practitioners in the field is about improving the physical, social and the economic environment that people live in. It is one of the ways in which social exclusion is seen to be tackled. From a focus on housing and the physical environment, there has been a widening to think about the economic and social regeneration of communities that are disadvantaged.

The government mentions four types of regeneration which can be seen to address the core areas of social exclusion: urban regeneration, economic regeneration, environmental regeneration and community regeneration. Through the programmes that the government has initiated around regeneration (whether it be the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, or the funding channelled through the Regional Development Agencies) networks of programmes and actors have developed.

Among these are private companies working alongside local authorities, community groups and central agencies to deliver the objectives set out by government.

But why are business getting involved? What are the drivers?

Does business need to be involved?
Drivers for business to engage in “society’s issues” have come from various sources. Some businesses have taken on the agenda after being exposed to a high-profile media exposure. Others having seen the damage such exposure can do, have considered the issues as a risk-management strategy.

Others have been incentivised by government initiatives, in the case of regeneration, the partnership investment programme (PIP). The risk being that when the incentives end, as was the case with PIP, that companies might lose interest.

One driver for business to engage in the agenda is the recognition of the interdependence of modern society. This manifests itself in various ways.

A successful business depends on a supply of skilled and motivated employees - often sourced from the community it is based in. If this community suffers high levels of truancy, economic deprivation and low academic achievement (just some of the characteristics of social exclusion), it provides a poor potential pool of future employees that will attain the level of achievement and motivation and engagement that a company in competitive market conditions requires.

So the case for businesses to invest in education, training and employment initiatives in local communities is clear. A future-oriented approach validates the business case, but what is the opportunity for innovation?

Partnership as the key
Traditional approaches centre on philanthropic contributions and charity sponsorship. However, more and more companies are recognising the benefits of a partnership approach.

Through dialogue these innovative partnerships have delivered to “social” objectives and business objectives by building a common agenda for action. Companies find that instead of unilaterally trying to solve “issues” (such as low skills level of potential employees) at the level of the symptoms (for example recruiting from further away or relocating the business at great cost), if they engage with the stakeholders in the community (skills councils and education), they can address the issue at its source. This approach also delivers the “intangible” benefits of increased trust and good will in a company’s relations with its community, which a unilateral approach cannot deliver.

This foundation can then be built upon and provide leverage in the community, creating a “virtuous” circle. This approach applies not only for staffing issues but also for licence to grow, supply chain and environmental impact issues.

To sum up
Social inclusion represents an attempt at integrated policy solutions to problems which in themselves are not new. Different forms of regeneration have been a central part of this integrated approach. The debate has developed alongside business’ gradual recognition of its interdependence on its social, environmental and economic environment. We see daily evidence of what happens when there is a failure in the marrying of these two areas, whether it be employee militancy, or social unrest.

However when business can open itself up to consider these issues as their own and engage in a dialogue, the opportunity for mutually beneficial partnerships and innovation becomes for evident.

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