The survival of infrastructure in a volatile environment

simon-bowkettSimon Bowkett is chief executive of Exeter CVS – an infrastructure organisation for the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector. He has helped the organisation to work collaboratively with public sector organisations facing the challenges of rising demands and diminishing resources, to find solutions in partnership with VCSE organisations and communities. He has also worked in the community and housing sectors, as well as serving as a local councillor.


I was recently at the launch of NCVO’s Big Assist Beacons for Change, representing Exeter CVS. In his keynote speech, Sir Stuart Etherington laid down a challenge to what he called a ‘unique but fragile sector’:

… a clear choice: opting for business as usual and hoping that the golden age of core government grants is returning imminently… or choosing to take a long, hard look both at the infrastructure landscape as a whole, and their own role within it.

I would like to think that here at Exeter CVS we are firmly choosing the latter.

NAVCA’s Independent Commission on Infrastructure, Change for Good, states that:

The infrastructure of the future is likely to be a much leaner enabler, broker and catalyst rather than necessarily a deliverer.

That describes our journey at Exeter CVS perfectly. Until a few years ago, we were every inch the traditional CVS. We largely focused on our core work of supporting mostly small and micro community organisations, running a busy volunteer centre, and delivering pieces of project work that were usually linked to short-term funding opportunities.

However, when the financial crisis hit the upheavals it caused in the very fabric of our communities and society could not leave our sector untouched.

Operating in a complex and ambiguous environment

Originally a term coined by military strategists, commentators increasingly label the socio-economic landscape in the whole of the 21st century world as a ‘VUCA environment’ – volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous. How can strategy survive when there are so many variables? The response needed is adaptive and agile leadership.

At Exeter CVS we gave up having a business plan. No sooner had we analysed, consulted and committed our strategies to paper, than the landscape (and many of the players within it) had moved on – often quite literally.

Positioning is everything

This is our mantra now. We cannot predict exactly what is going to happen. But, with careful scanning of the horizon – and I have to say at this point that NCVO’s all-party parliamentary group for civil society offers an excellent means of sensing future policy directions – organisations will be able to see where social needs are likely to open up as the state retreats, and to be that ‘enabler, broker, and catalyst’ that the Change for Good report describes.

Our ‘Pied Piper’ approach to infrastructure

Our approach to infrastructure now is neither supply-led (informed by a commissioner who ‘pays’ for us to deliver infrastructure) nor demand-led (informed by the needs of individual member organisations). It is needs led.

We are closer now to our predecessors’ model in 1947. Then, Exeter Council of Social Service existed in a pre-Welfare State world; coordinating efforts in the community, public and business sectors to rebuild the city after the Baedeker bombing raids, and to meet the social needs of communities devastated by war and poverty.

A few years ago we had plenty of resources, but little influence. Today, we have influence galore to the extent that we help facilitate the south west peninsula Commissioning Academy. But, every conversation seems to begin with, ‘now before we begin, there’s no money for this, but…’

Commissioners are no longer on one side of the procurement equation, with the voluntary sector on the other. We have discovered a space where we can collaborate, innovate and develop prototype solutions to meet local need. Currently this can be anything from tackling the health needs of the homeless to innovative use of council land to develop urban food growing projects.

We rather flippantly describe this new model as our ‘pied piper’ approach to infrastructure. If our local civic leaders have a problem with rats, we just might know a community organisation or social enterprise that’s handy with a piccolo that we can introduce them to; or an organisation that could soon – with support – adapt its service model to include piccolo playing to achieve the outcome of rat-charming.

We spend time building relationships with commissioners, political leaders, and policy-makers to find out what keeps them awake at night. Those become our priority challenges, and we work collaboratively with them to design, test and pilot solutions using VCSE organisations and/or social action projects.

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate

In a VUCA world, no one has a roadmap. We are all journeying together – commissioners, policy-makers, infrastructure and providers. As old certainties are challenged a new space opens for collaboration; sharing what we know so far, what we have experienced to work (and what didn’t) and to try out new ideas.

We are learning to truly collaborate – whether on co-design processes for future services, being the catalyst for new delivery consortia, or simply being the host for spaces where collaboration can take place – as is the case for our new wellbeing hub.

(Co)Lab Exeter takes its name from exactly this process. It is a hub that will feature a specialist GP surgery, a probation team, a mental health complex needs team, a substance misuse service, a street outreach team, housing charities, and an HIV service. All under the same roof as volunteering, enterprise, community learning programmes, employability projects and social action.

A lab, if you will, where new things can be developed and tested, where experiments in this new landscape can take place. The ‘co’ speaks of a new, shared ‘togetherness’; co-design, co-delivery, co-location, co-operation.

Phase one of the (Co)Lab Exeter hub opens next month; and phase two will be open next April. We’d be happy to welcome anyone that wants to come and have a look, and if you come bearing Big Assist vouchers, even better!


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