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Government / Local politics

Forget sensors and big data: it's volunteers who will change our cities

Over the past few years Plymouth, like many other cities in the UK, has been faced with a major reduction to its grant from central government – from £106m in 2010-11 to just £62.5m in 2015-16.

As the council was forced to cut back on services, the effect on food poverty was staggering. Between 2013 and 2014 there was a 49 per cent rise in the number of people using Plymouth Foodbank. In the same year, the number of people trying to access Plymouth soup kitchens doubled.

Today, however, because of an initiative rolled out over 18 months ago, over 100 families who were once reliant on parcels of convenience foods are eating freshly grown local produce and taking part in cooking lessons. As a result, 84 per cent of people participating are less hungry and have a healthier household diet. 

This entire programme was run by a network of volunteers working as part of an initiative known as Cities of Service: a city-wide model that recruits volunteers to help address issues facing urban communities. Launched in 2009 under mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, the model has been adopted in over 200 US cities and is making a difference for millions of Americans. 

In 2014, we at Nesta, together with the Centre for Social Action, set out the trial the approach in the UK. We were keen to see if motivated volunteers could help to address the kind of challenges which, particularly in straitened times, councils alone would have struggled to address.

In September 2014 in seven city regions across England – Barnsley, Bristol, Kirklees, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Swindon and Telford & Wrekin – the programme was rolled out.

Two years later and we are seeing promising results. Beyond some quite impressive statistics – over 10,000 volunteers mobilised and nearly 19,000 people assisted – the most marked impact of the UK Cities of Service initiative has been on the way in which residents interact and engage with each other and with public services.

Take the example of Telford and Wrekin, in which six of the most deprived neighbourhoods were selected to be part of the Pride in your Community programme. Volunteers identified improvements they felt would make most difference – such as litter picks or street planting. Previously engagement from these communities was very low; social action has reversed this. As one resident said:

“We’re getting our power back. I think for a long time, people have been frightened or apathetic of doing things because they think they are going to get knocked back… There’s so many places where it feels it doesn’t belong to you, it’s done to you.”

Why has the networking of volunteers proven so successful in changing cities? Certainly part of the reason has been strong leadership, and having a central role at executive level within the council to champion social action. Within every City of Service sits a chief service lead who convenes and corrals social action from the front.

Volunteers can see a direct and immediate impact of their contribution and local authorities see key issues are better addressed. In Swindon, both the authority and residents identified that helping isolated older people was a priority. Today, dozens of isolated older people are less lonely, thanks to the befriending efforts of volunteers.


Crucially residents are also involved directly in shaping the delivery of all improvements. People have agency over the areas in which they want to affect change; they are there because of their own inner motivations, and actively engaged in the success of what they are doing. 

And volunteers gain from the programmes too. As an example, Portsmouth ran a school mentoring programme which resulted not only in an increase in students’ level of GCSE attainment and improved motivation. The same programme also saw volunteers benefiting from training in coaching skills. In this way the relationship between volunteers and those being supported becomes two way and relational, rather than simply transactional.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, a city is nothing but the people who live there, so it’s only by engaging citizens with issues facing their communities that we can build better places to live. We often read about how the smart cities movement – use of sensors, widespread analysis of big data – will change urban living in years to come. But it is social action that will transform our cities.

Lydia Ragoonanan is programme manager at Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation.

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