Public Sector Business Engagement Benefits to the Local Community

When I saw a tweet adverting a local event: Local by Social (Apps for Communities) I instantly knew this was something not to be missed.  As a business you can’t fail to notice that times are a changing, the economic landscape is almost unrecognisable in a relatively short period of time.  For some businesses it has been like sailing a choppy sea, battening down the hatches and weathering a fiscal storm.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Isn’t this a time to seek out new opportunities a bit closer to home?

Putting ideology to one side, Government has tried to argue that it’s time for business and the community to work together, the obvious area is where the public sector is withdrawing its investment.

The Regional Growth Fund has been set up to seek out and invest  in “private sector employment in regions where there is an imbalance with the public sector” and “to build up the private sector in the long term.”   For the RGF bid I was involved in that meant an opportunity for a solid public/private partnership with an “oven-ready” business model and vision to get investment.

To benefit from a substantial RGF grant, sustainability and providing wider benefits  such as job creation, new skills training and encouraging new business start up, were key words with real meaning rather than buzz words.

Local by Social seem to sing the same tune as RGF.   During this two day open forum, we were asked to consider how can technology solve everyday problems and develop ideas, there was even a cash prize for the best App idea.   Essentially we were asked to look at Apps in a different way ie consider the wider benefits to the community.

One example given was an app developed by local Bristol company Overlay Media.   The “Hills are Evil”  App has a very practical purpose, “the creation of a dynamic map overlay that provides people with restricted mobility, cyclists, skateboarders, the elderly, and people pushing pushchairs, the ability to identify the most appropriate route between two places.”  They’ve made this app “fun” by providing “a pain scale to make levels of steepness more meaningful to users, as the raw numbers of distance, ascent and descent are not conducive to the best user experience”.

Users can upload their accessibility issues, such as unexpected drop curbs, troublesome cobbles and steep hills “that kill” and this data can be used to improve people’s lives not just by taking the pain out of not being able to get to your destination, but also by feeding back to say those who make decisions about where to spend money on roads and pavements.  One Councillor said that money was already being spent on consultation with the public on accessibility issues, but with this app that could mean such consultations would not neccesarily be required.  A win win and cost saving.

Hills are Evil was commissioned by Media Sandbox – a project that invests in smaller and local creative technology companies to  develop inspirational ideas and projects that have an emphasis on community.  So I guess I’m getting around to the idea of Social Enterprise.  The reason Hills are Evil is so good is that innovation and “inspirational ideas” came from investment in the right people for the right reasons.  At the same time these savvy technological social entrepreneurs get their idea off the ground.

The ambition for Hills are Evil’s concept is to be as ubiquitous as Google Maps, yes this makes sense, but wouldn’t that start to attract the attention of  business investors?

Social by Local was missing something for me and that was any mention of Enterprise.  Businesses looking to adapt to the changing economic landscape and seek opportunities by working with the public sector can lead to benefits to the local community.   Local by Social was an ideal forum for this discussion, making us think of Apps and technology in a way that has wider benefit to society, I see also an opportunity for business as well, but there wasn’t many of us (business investors) there to share our ideas.

Businesses are often seen as totally separate to the local community by the public sector, even though we often live and work in the very same community.   Social by Local needs to engage with the local business community as should Local Government.   The RGF initiative kind of forced this into being by providing an investment opportunity aimed at businesses but wrapped up in the language of the public sector.  There needed to be public/private partnership to understand the application form at the very least!   We have firsthand experience of three local authorities that find engaging with the business community challenging, maybe this was why only 400 bids were submitted to the RGF fund, when 6000 were predicted.

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