Smeaton's Tower in Plymouth

Gareth Hart (Director, Iridescent Ideas CIC) looks at the changing role of digital in place and community.

Has your community been destroyed, remade or re-envisioned by the pandemic? In one sense COVID atomised communities. We were reduced - 1950’s sci-fi style - by the ray-gun of the pandemic to singles or family units: locked down and stuck in our individual homes. We were unable to go and do the usual ‘community’ type of things we would do in a place – go to the pub, sing in choirs, play team sports, enjoy live music and theatre with friends. Community carnivals, fetes, festivals and street parties all stopped. Weddings, council elections, car boot sales and church services were all postponed. 

However, with classic British grit and resilience we turned to digital and the arts for succour and a new form of community. At the start of lockdown number one way back in March 2020 - like many people - we hosted and joined numerous online friend and family pub quizzes. A group of us ran a replacement for the cancelled Eurovision Song Contest. Affectionately, but rather unimaginatively, known as Quarantine Vision 2020, our ‘show’ made best use of Facebook, digital recording, Google Form voting and had families glued to their laptops for several weekends in a row. 

Digital services provided the tools for our community to come together and enjoy each other’s company remotely. The sight of families and friends dressing up, composing and playing original material, re-writing legendary lyrics and generally having fun was a real blessing in the early days of the pandemic. How we missed the opportunity to sing ‘My Corona’ to The Knack’s famous tune escapes me. We probably peaked too soon and should have saved Quarantine Vision for lockdown Three which, somewhat paradoxically, seemed to drag on and on and yet the weeks rolled past with ever increasing swiftness.

The point is that community and place can be found in pubs and high streets and village halls. It can also be found online in Facebook groups, Zoom quizzes, online yoga and fitness sessions and virtual evening pub get togethers. 

As flickering sparks coalesce into a flame of hope with the end of these extreme lockdowns, how much these online architectures of family and friends will remain is in question. Do we ditch the lot and return to life as it was? Or will we embrace these virtual settings for place, community and work?

I’m intrigued by what happens next. Will the cyber streets of lockdown become deserted as people flock back to ‘real’ physical spaces and community settings? Or will the COVID-refugee Facebook oases become frequented only by digital tumbleweed and a few lonely, loitering souls? 

What ‘is’ or ‘is not’ a community of place?

Whenever I got the train back from a work event in London people would typically sit in the carriage barely making eye contact: locked into headphones, laptops or their books. They were atomised into single components. Even sat just a few inches from each other, barely a word was spoken to fellow travellers. A train carriage can be a physical place of extreme closeness but be the antithesis of community. Yet, if the train was packed or delayed by some unexpected incident, a sense of solidarity - perhaps even a flash mob of community - could roll down the train as people became animated by the shared experience of adversity. Is this a peculiarly British thing or does every country experience this? Please contact me with your answers! 

So, community and place can be anywhere, anything: online, offline, a formal physical setting or a shared moment with comrades stuck in a sweltering train carriage somewhere near Reading.  

What about digital, place and work?

My home city, Plymouth, became the UK’s first ‘Social Enterprise City’ in 2013. This accolade, granted by national agency Social Enterprise UK, recognised the scope, scale and ambition of the social enterprise community in the city. There are now over thirty such places in the UK. There are cities, towns, villages, counties, boroughs and quarters. Nearly twenty million people live in a designated social enterprise place.

Eight years later and after eighteen months of COVID I’m seeing a huge need to share this ‘place-based’ concept more widely as I think it offers part of the solution to the challenges of recovery as we emerge from the pandemic. 

Plymouth faces, as most cities do, difficult and enduring issues that existed pre-COVID and look set to intensify. We rank very poorly for entrepreneurship and business creation; our city experiences very wide health inequalities; there are high levels of personal debt and, in some areas, child poverty is amongst the worst in the country. 

The pandemic has shown us that we need to re-think our economy to ensure we tackle all these issues more effectively. This includes reconsidering the role that businesses play in our economy and society. For me, the social enterprise place movement is a community for us to rally round. To show that we can create and are creating a better world through business.

In Plymouth, our economic recovery strategy is called Resurgam. The name is Latin for ‘I shall rise again’ and the word became part of Plymouth’s history when it appeared on a wooden sign over a bombed-out church during the World War Two blitz which devastated large parts of our city. I’m inspired by the words at the heart of the Resurgam spoken by our council leader who said: “Our recovery plan must address structural inequalities in our city and place a fairer and greener future at the heart of our recovery. We want to grow back better.” 

At the moment this is a largely digitally driven strategy. The planning, strategy making, consultations and delivery have been done online. Even the most ‘physical’ element - Geddon Plymouth, a plan to support high street retailers by encouraging people to shop locally – was delivered digitally. Economic sector improvement plans, procurement for social value, capital infrastructure and building projects, skills advancement and other city centre renaissance schemes are all planned digitally. Some of these concepts lend themselves to digital delivery more than others but, as a place, Plymouth is embracing digital delivery.

I’m closely involved in the Resurgam Charter. This is a badge or chartermark for businesses to show they are committed to Plymouth and creating a greener, fairer economy. Our aim is to ‘build back better’ by growing a prosperous economy that reduces inequality, is sustainable and truly serves the wellbeing of all the people of Plymouth. Within a week of launch, the charter received over one hundred signatories. Businesses small and large from a wide range of sectors signed up. The diversity is astonishing and shows there is an appetite for building a greener and fairer economy from all areas. Companies from engineering outfits to transport firms, from business advice and premises to food and media have engaged. Sports organizations, arts, education, health, professional services and finance firms have pledged to make sure their work helps Plymouth become a more inclusive and more accessible place for all.

The future of place and community has to include digital. The post-corona world cometh. Sports are back. Theatre is back. Young people gather in parks. Pubs are beginning to bloom with chit and chat and the clink of glasses. To be sure, some activities just must be done in a physical, community setting. But I hope we do keep some of the digital things we’ve been doing in places and communities. The family get togethers, the ridiculous singing, the quarantinis and the sense of community camaraderie. This can move between the online and offline world as needed and as the community wishes. When we need to physically meet we can: paying attention to social distancing and face-masking as appropriate of course. When we can deliver digitally, accessibly and appropriately we could. 

The new digital heralds a world that can unite around a vision of creating a greener and fairer economy that brings a more inclusive prosperity to us all.  Zoom meetings don’t mean the end of place and community. With innovation, agency and preparedness to look to the horizon we can access so much more than we could before. This can bring benefits to our communities, places and our work. Whilst physical places can be inaccessible or - like the train carriage – be alienating and isolating, digital can create a true sense of place and community.

Photo (of Smeaton's Tower in Plymouth) by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash

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