By Inés Escobar Borruel
When I first arrived in Edinburgh, one of the first social issues my then still foreign eyes caught was how pervasive homelessness seemed to be. It timidly stuck out among the tourists and the beautiful gothic buildings in Old Town, wrapped up in blankets stained with water so black it looked like tar from another time. “This happens here too, huh?”, I thought. The sight was reminiscent of what I was used to back at home in Madrid, Spain; and yet, something about it felt new to me. The harshness of the weather did make their solitary figures appear somewhat lonelier, and perhaps even more restless out in the open, though I suspect it was really all on me. In all honesty, I think had I expected that a richer country—and thus, a healthier economy—would have prevented much of what I was seeing.
Like poverty, sustainability, healthcare or hunger, homelessness is what we could call a ‘wicked problem’; a social or cultural issue which is hard or impossible to solve due to incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people or agents involved, the large economic cost they entail, and how interconnected these problems are with other issues (Kolko, 2012). The term ‘wicked problem’ was first introduced by Rittel and Webber in their 1973 article Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. In their eyes, the characteristics that set apart this sort of problems were ten:
- they have no definitive formulation—you really cannot understand them until you think of a solution, similar to how I thought homelessness was due to economic reasons; my understanding of it pointed to improving the economy and job security, rather than other causes of homelessness which could have also been accurate, like decreasing social interaction in urban settings, substance use, family and community conflicts, a lack of affordable housing…
- there is no stopping rule to know when a solution is the final one—can we ever be sure something will end homelessness forever?
- solutions are only good/bad, better/worse, good enough/not good enough; never true/false
- there is no immediate test to assess the solutions—they might have long-term effects which we cannot see initially, for instance
- because no trial-and-error is possible, all solutions are “one-shot” attempts—and all of them may have unexpected consequences
- there is no limited number of potential solutions—reconceptualizations of the problems are endless, and so are their solutions; their scale and inner complexity also contributes to this
- every problem is unique—they are related, sure, but complex in their own right; universal fixes are unlikely to succeed
- all wicked problems can be seen as symptoms of others—think poverty causing homelessness which then increases hunger, causes health issues, impacts the healthcare system, causing more costs and a decrease in social service quality per patient, etc.
- there is always more than one way to explain and define wicked problems, and their definitions vary greatly from different perspectives
- planners/designers have no right to be wrong, in that they are responsible for outcomes of their decisions—so moral caution and commitment are a definite must
In this blogpost, I will present four analytical tools to paint a more accurate picture of social entrepreneurship and community development in Edinburgh, Scotland: wicked problems, systems thinking, third places and granularity. These will be useful to single out some of the best players in Edinburgh’s social and solidarity economy, those who are doing things right, not only temporarily, but with a sustainable vision for the long term. Of course, these four frameworks can also be valuable and actionable drivers of change for anyone looking to come up with truly innovative and effective solutions to any socially or culturally relevant issue, to strengthen or dynamize their business model, or to evaluate the sturdiness of a project or initiative in the field of international and community development.
Now, back to ‘wickedness’. Unfortunately for social entrepreneurs, the problems they have to tackle are usually wicked (and even ‘super wicked’, see Levin et al., 2012). The good news is that acknowledging they are indeed wicked is already a step in the right direction. If a social enterprise wants their interventions to be truly impactful, then it has to realize how its efforts are part of a larger scheme, and how their goals probably intersect with those of other agents, just like the problems do themselves. Thinking ‘wickedly’ forces us to cooperate, to be responsible and self-aware, and to try and constantly re-assess our actions, delimiting our steps more clearly towards our end-goals.
This is a change of mindset, not aimed at coming up with the best solution, but at something more accurately described as ‘muddling through’. This approach can be traced back to Charles Lindblom’s 1959 The Science of Muddling Through, an article where the political scientist opposed what he called the ‘root method’ (comprehensive evaluation of options according to predefined targets) to the ‘branch method’ (step-by-step building out of the present situation in small, incremental degrees). Lindblom had noted how the normative ‘root method’ was virtually impossible to apply for decision-makers dealing with complex scenarios, and so, he gave a name to what he saw was practiced in reality: ‘incrementalism’ (Lindblom, 1959; Kay, 2009; Johnson, 2012; Lodge et al., 2015).
‘Muddling through’ as an approach concerns us for two reasons: one, it is probably the only method dynamic enough to combat a wicked problem, by focusing on micro-steps; and two, it can lead to a tunnel vision of sorts, a major disadvantage that has strayed many development interventions across the world from tackling the root causes of particularly grave situations. We may, for instance, end up with a ‘band-aid solution’ (Redfield, 2018), which does very little to combat a certain problem in the long-term and just treats its symptoms. Going back to the homelessness example: is giving a homeless person a sandwich going to reverse their situation? Probably not. It will, of course, help in the short-term, but much more is needed to make a significant impact.
Thus, a social entrepreneur should always strive to reach some sort of Aristotelian ‘middle point’ between these two extremes (the symptomatic-based and practicable vs. the root-based and less practicable). This is when systems thinking comes in. Systems thinking takes the problem, places it on a map—a system or ecosystem—and then identifies the causal relationships between the different elements contributing to an undesirable situation, considering that all relationships are two-way channels between elements, and that elements always interact with one another (through either positive, neutral or negative feedback). This kind of mapping is useful because it shows that more than one ‘root’ can be tackled at once, directly or indirectly, depending on the point of intervention in the system; it allows for decision-makers to be synthetic rather than superhumanly comprehensive, following an upgradable, muddle-through approach; and lastly, it escapes fictional causal relations between elements because it is essentially circular and not linear. In short, it adds some much needed depth to the muddle-through strategy mentioned above.
Edinburgh’s community development scene is ripe with great enterprises, charities and social funds that have taken the right road against ‘wickedness’ in a ‘systemic’ way. In this sense, one of my favorite examples of doing things right is The Brock. A social enterprise and charity, it offers therapeutic horticulture, craft and woodwork activities for people affected by severe and enduring mental health issues, accepting referrals from care providers. It also works as a shop that sells a variety of plants, furniture and craft products, and then reinvests its profits back into the therapeutic activities. Thanks to this sort of therapy, participants can gain new skills and confidence while integrating into the local community and stabilizing their condition.
Although the link between community gardening and well-being is particularly explicit in this case, there are many other organizations working in a similar vein. Social Farms & Gardens, to name one, is an “anchor organization” (one that coordinates, connects and catalyses the activities of many others) which supports thousands of grass roots projects related to gardening and farming across the UK, in an advisory and informational capacity. Their website lists several community farms in Edinburgh and hundreds in Scotland, as well as care farming service providers all across the UK. There is also Scotland´s Gardens Scheme, which opens up private gardens for the public to enjoy and uses the money raised through the opening events to different charities. Even the well-known charity Cyrenians runs two community gardens in partnership with NHS Lothian in Edinburgh, located at the Royal Edinburgh Community Hospital and the Midlothian Community Hospital.
Plenty of studies support the idea that community gardens grow a lot more than food and greenery (Holland, 2004; Ohmer et al., 2009; Firth, Maye and Pearson, 2011; Veen et al., 2016). A recent study by Mcvey, Nash and Stansbie (2018), involving 38 participants and three community gardens in Edinburgh, found that knowledge exchange and skill sharing where the main practical motivations behind people’s participation. Despite some differences between individual gardens (the one in Granton, for instance, singularly reflected the community’s cultural diversity as a place of interaction between migrants and other neighbors), it appears that cultivating food not only improved participants’ nutrition, physical activity and leisure time; it was also perceived as a treatment for wider social problems, a preventative tool for mental health issues, and a resilience strategy against the backdrop of land reforms in Scotland. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Veen et al. (2016) found that all the participants they studied seemed to benefit from (and contribute to) increased social cohesion, regardless of their individual motivations.
Therefore, community gardening and farming can be great ways to treat certain problems within a system or community, and they both have been found to be great sources of social capital, which can stay at the local community (place-based) or spread throughout the city through a decentralized community with similar interests (interest-based) (Firth, Maye and Pearson, 2011). For this reason, they are what sociologist Ray Oldenburg (1999) would have called ‘third places’: spaces of social interaction and gathering separate from the home or the workplace and crucial for community building.
Somewhat reminiscent of the Roman forum, third places abound in Edinburgh, although in different shapes and forms. One of the most prevalent kinds is the community café, which appears to be a particularly fertile model for social enterprises to operate in the Scottish capital. That coffee is making a large contribution to fuel the social economy, and not just an increasingly hectic work culture, should come as no surprise in a country where 95 million cups of the hot beverage are consumed every year (British Coffee Association, 2018). Cafés are indeed a common feature in most community hubs, such as Out of the Blue (Drill Hall Arts Café), the Grassmarket Community Project (Grassmarket Café) or The Broomhouse Center (Community Café Training Project). This not only provides a space for immediate social interaction; it also increases the opportunity to enjoy culture, arts, employment training and workshops locally, and sometimes makes cheap, healthy, locally-sourced and organic food easier to access.
Charities have long embraced the social enterprise café model too, and successfully so, as proved by examples like the Leith-based Punjabi Junction (run by the charity Sikh Sanjog, which empowers marginalised women through training, advice, counselling, etc.), CaféLife (LifeCare, a charity dedicated to the elderly with day clubs, outreach and home care services, classes, its own centre, etc.) in Grassmarket, or the hugely successful Social Bite, a not-for-profit social enterprise which has three cafés in Edinburgh and tackles homelessness in multiple ways: a quarter of their staff come from a severely excluded or homeless background; they offer a pay-it-forward scheme whereby regular clients can pay in advance for items that a homeless person can claim afterwards; they have organized record-breaking sleep-outs to raise funds, created a homeless village in Granton to stabilize the conditions of homeless people and help them transition into a better situation; and much more.
Still, not all problems can be solved by setting up a café or a farm. Third spaces, which I have attempted to champion on this blogpost, are not the ultimate panacea. Community development should really be devised as a diverse fabric where not many threads look the same; otherwise, we would end up overcompensating for some issues and leaving others unattended. This is why charities like Pass It On, which provides computers at no cost for people with certain disabilities (unable to access computers available in public facilities, like libraries) are essential, and why food suppliers like The New Leaf Co-op, The Hearty Squirrel or Edinburgh Community Food must exist in order for people to access healthy and locally-sourced products (helping local producers and community farms like the Whitmuir Community Farm in the process).
This brings about the final concept I wanted to introduce in this blogpost: granularity. ‘Granular’ describes anything composed of several other elements (grains or granules). When speaking of a system, the size of those elements determines how “fine-grained” or “coarse-grained” it is, depending on how small or large they are. This can be used in computer science, geology, urbanism, linguistics… but also, to speak about the structure of an economy and its resilience.
An article published on Strong Towns a couple years ago elaborated on granularity beautifully, showing how urban landscapes can reflect and stimulate economies and vice versa (Price, 2017). If an economy is constituted by a few large businesses, it will suffer quite a bit as a whole if as little as one business fails. If instead, it is formed by many smaller businesses, it will be more likely to absorb that impact without much repercussions for the overall economy.
If Edinburgh is a leading city in the social economy, it is because of a vibrancy and variety that not many other “hubs” can claim to have. Attempting to piece together its many charities, funding agents and businesses can prove to be a daunting process at times, especially when one is trying to pinpoint what exactly is working, what is not, and most important, why it all seems to contribute to the overall health of the economy and society in the end. In truth, it may just be that the multiplicity of actors at play has something to do with this notorious success. Like the fine granularity that characterizes much of Edinburgh’s Old Town (see a snippet of the Grassmarket area below for reference), with its distinct colors and shapes, the diversity of solutions apparent in the city’s third sector could too be considered vital in the context of community development. Fine granularity could therefore provide the perfect frame to tackle the multidimensionality of wicked problems through the approaches introduced above. Ultimately, Edinburgh’s fine-grained landscape should be regarded as an ideal and unique system, which must continue to be carefully preserved and enhanced in all possible avenues for the good of the social and solidarity economy at large.
British Coffee Association (2018) Coffee Facts. Available at: https://www.britishcoffeeassociation.org/coffee-in-the-uk/coffee-facts (Accessed: 12 July 2019).
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