Future gazing & future shaping: Impact in the city

There has been lots of talk about ‘place-based investment’ – what is happening in practice on the ground? With Bristol as the central case study, this session explored how a collaborative approach to investment in places has the potential to promote systemic change, that goes beyond outcomes-driven interventions, and the conditions needed to make this happen in practice on the ground.

In recent months, Bristol has been somewhat of a front-runner in terms of place-based investing. Through supportive public and social infrastructure, it has established City Funds – a new impact investment tool looking to mobilise resources locally and advance the role of impact investing to address structural inequality and tackle entrenched poverty. 

The development process of this fund did not come without challenges but the stakeholders involved outlined what they believed to be the five key conditions for place-based initiatives to succeed. Leadership; collaboration; clarity; a willingness – and permission – to fail; and the right skills, organisations and structures all need to be present to successfully catalyse a change at both a citywide and community level. 

In the example of Bristol, there has been strong leadership from the City Mayor, whose office has been a cornerstone in the creation of the City Funds, alongside Quartet Community Foundation and Bristol and Bath Regional Capital. These lead stakeholders have worked to build relationships of trust across both the community and business sectors in the city, to foster an approach of collaborative working. This has included gatherings every six months around the broader One City Plan to use the collective power of Bristol’s key organisations to reach a shared vision for the city. 

It is the One City Plan that has given the fund its clarity. There is recognition that a place-based approach needs to be adaptable – “the plan must be a living and breathing document” – allowing the city to align with emerging needs and new priorities. But there is merit in laying down an aspiration and vision for all involved to aim for as a collective. And with that, there must be a shared willingness to try new approaches and permission for those to fail. If you continue to work the same way, you will achieve the same result. To change the tale of two cities in Bristol they must innovate, and with that comes the risk of failure. 

Big Society Capital has recognised the power of place too. The learning it has gathered from place-based initiatives globally highlighted that while funds like this aren’t a solution to problems in and of themselves, they have the capacity to grow to a sizable scale, capable of instigating change in some areas. 

Bristol still has some major hurdles to clear in order to create a fully place-based solution owned and driven by communities themselves. There is still work to be done to shift the mindset of some in the community sector to see the opportunities available through investment but this must be backed by enterprise development support to be effective.

As with the social investment landscape more broadly, diversity needs to be improved. Research from the Black South West Network, supported by the Connect Fund, found that while 92% of BAME-led organisations want to generate and grow their income, this is not reflected in the number of organisations receiving investment. Accessing finance, challenging negative stereotypes and networking opportunities are all still issues of concern for BAME-led organisations. 

The City Funds approach will be hard to measure – not only is it very broad but places don’t develop in linear fashions, especially given changing political and societal contexts. Bristol will need to capture good stories that convey what this type of approach looks and feels like in practice. But for now they feel they have the right ingredients in place to move social investing into the city. 

Key Actions:

Place-based investment initiatives should consider five key conditions when developing funds: Leadership; collaboration; clarity; a willingness to fail; and ensuring the right skills, organisations and structures are present. 

Positive action must be taken to improve diversity around accessing finance for BAME-led organisations.

Place-based initiatives must consider how they measure success.

Work is needed to shift the mindset of the community sector to embrace investment opportunities.

This work must be backed by enterprise development support to be effective.