When Zoe and I set up 4theRegion, we framed our goals with three key words, which capture our three foundational beliefs about what is needed for our region to flourish: Positivity, Collaboration & Empowerment.
Firstly, positivity. We love living in South West Wales and genuinely feel like it’s the best place to live in the whole of the UK, if not the world. We were feeling incredibly optimistic about the opportunities for the region, and felt like more needed to be done to champion those opportunities and share that sense of optimism and positivity about the future. I suppose we felt that there was a disproportionate level of negativity and complaining – especially here in Swansea, where we can certainly be our own worst enemy in talking down our prospects and criticising everything that happens. We want people to feel more positive about where we live, and to see and appreciate all the good stuff – partly because this is better for all of our wellbeing and mental health, and partly because this would motivate us to stay, invest and contribute locally – whether as businesses or as people. Our goal in setting up 4theRegion was to share the good stuff and to become a source of regional news and information that was empowering and positive, and which would enable people to speak and think more positively about what’s happening across South West Wales.
Secondly, collaboration. We were frustrated by what we saw as silo-working, by which we mean we noticed how everyone works in their own bubbles, not interested in or not aware of what others are doing in the same or similar spaces. And this felt like such a huge waste of time and resources. That’s why our tagline has always been “working together” – because we think that is fundamentally what’s needed, and that’s how we will create better outcomes for the future than we’ve had in the past. It’s a paradigm shift for a lot of people, the idea that the best ideas, solutions and strategies can be co-produced with others, and that we can learn from and contribute to each other’s work and ideas, or join up our projects for greater impact. It’s particularly difficult for businesses to shift their mindset on this, if they worry that their competitive advantage might be at stake if they share what they’re planning to do or talk to others about their ideas too early on. And it’s also a big leap for political leaders and council officers, who maybe feel they are supposed to have all the answers and solutions, rather than involving others or working together or asking questions.
If we have enough humility to accept that other people might have wisdom and experience that would be beneficial, and enough trust, and if we work from a place of shared interest in the greater good of the region, or the community, or the environment or whatever – a shared sense of purpose, which is fundamental – then we can definitely achieve more than we can by working in silos. Take food procurement, as one simple example – the idea of creating local supply chains for healthy, locally grown vegetables so that local schools and hospitals are sourcing and serving more nutritious local produce. Well I know that there is great work being done on this topic in Carmarthenshire – so why wouldn’t Swansea Council, or Neath Port Talbot Council, want to learn from that and adopt what works, rather than starting from scratch? Not only that, but embedded local businesses probably have ideas, wisdom and resources to share to help make this happen – but all too often the private sector is regarded as a threat, or we think we can’t collaborate because we have to protect competition, or because we’ve interpreted procurement rules in a particular way. We think it’s a huge lost opportunity, and it means everyone is trying to reinvent the wheel, or compete with each other, or duplicate effort, rather than figuring out how we can be more effective and more efficient and align what we are doing with likeminded organisations who share our objectives.
Thirdly, empowerment. We had this instinct that there is a lot of untapped potential in communities, in local areas, in life generally, because most people feel disempowered and disengaged – people can see problems but they don’t realise the power that lies in their own hands, to make a difference. When we talk about people being disengaged from what’s happening, I think the common assumption is to say that people don’t care about whats happening in their local communities, but actually I don’t think that’s true. I think we naturally do care – and some of us really care a lot. But I think, given the state of the world, and what feels like our inability to actually have an impact because the scale of the problems is so massive – I think disengagement is a kind of defensive mechanism. It’s too painful to care too much when you feel like there is nothing you can do, when you feel disempowered – and so we disengage and switch off from things for the sake of self preservation. Subconsciously, we have to detach ourselves. So empowerment and engagement are two sides of the same coin – if we feel empowered, then we engage with the challenges we face; but if we don’t feel like we can do anything to help, we have to disengage to survive.
I’ve thought a lot about where empowerment comes from, especially in the modern world where the adversaries we are facing seem so huge and outside of our control – climate change, global capitalism, war. It’s not easy to feel powerful in the face of these massive problems, when you are just one person. The antidote, I think, is partly to recognise that you are not just one person but actually part of a whole wave of people – a whole movement – who feel the same way you do. We have to have enough faith in humanity to know that we are not alone, and that deep down we all basically have the same needs and aspirations. So connecting people with each other, bringing likeminded people together, and amplifying that sense of a wider movement – this is important work if we want to create empowerment.
The other thing that helps to reconnect us with our own sense of agency is to focus on a smaller sphere of influence – by which I mean, start where you are, act local. I do understand that we can feel a bit hopeless about the tiny impacts that we can make locally, when we compare these interventions with the enormity of the challenges we are facing on a national or global scale. But actually there are several more empowering ways of thinking about it, one of which is to recognise that if each of us only stepped up to the plate locally, between us all we would make a global impact. Similarly, when we take action locally, there is a ripple effect: we inspire others, we give others permission to do the same. And finally, our responsibility for the state of the world begins and ends with our own ability to respond (as the word suggests). We only have the ability to respond to the world as we find it, starting with ourselves and extending outwards from our own front doors.
Speaking personally, I have found that the antidote to bleak despair is taking action to the extent that I can. I am not talking about ignoring the bigger problems, or accepting the suffering in the wider world. We can absolutely take action on those global issues, but we can only do so within our own sphere of influence – and for the majority of us, that is locally – whether that’s hyperlocally in our own homes and on our own streets, or more broadly in our town or our region. We can BE the change we wish to see in the world.
It’s that old thing about who we mean when we say “they”… Any time you catch yourself saying, “they should do this, they should do that” – who are you actually talking about? Empowerment changes the word to We… We should start a local farmers market; we should get kids outdoors playing in nature more; we should start up a coffee shop in that empty building – whatever it is. There is no They – we are the people we’ve been waiting for! Mutual self-empowerment, building our shared capacity to change our circumstances, and our environments for the better, recognising that if we can collaborate and support each other we probably have all the resources, talent, creativity we need… I wonder if that sense of empowerment is what’s missing, the whole world over, and I wonder whether we can nurture it within communities in order to unleash the potential of people to contribute their time and talent to making things better for themselves and each other.
I think there are a number of ways that we have been progressively disempowered, as citizens. Generally, we have learned, as a society, that it’s not our job to solve problems in our communities and economies. I sometimes think we’ve all got a bit confused about the role of governments and local councils. The council doesn’t own our towns and cities, our parks and public spaces. When we decided to organise a Swansea City Centre Conference a few years ago, we didn’t need anyone’s permission to convene that conversation, the council doesn’t own the city centre – it’s OURS, collectively, and so we need those forums to talk collectively about what we want and shape collaborative projects to promote change. When Margaret Thatcher said there is no such thing as society, she was trying to kill that collective capacity, our sense of shared interest and the idea that we might work together for the greater good. That’s why I try not to use the word “individual” or “consumer” when I mean people or citizens – the words we use can empower us or relegate us to disconnection and servitude.
I can get quite angry at how local people and communities have been disempowered by a paternalistic state and domination by corporate forces over which we have very little control. When communities have tried to rise up and stand up for themselves – like if they don’t want a new out-of-town supermarket or a chain hotel, or if they don’t want one of their civic assets sold off for short term financial reasons by their local councils – all too often their campaigns and voices are ignored, the unwanted development goes ahead anyway, and people are left feeling like they have no power and no agency over their own lives and their local places.
We hosted a meeting in Pembroke Dock recently, bringing local people together to talk about what they would love to see in the area around the train station, to improve community wellbeing and the local sense of place. I tend to kick things off with what I hope is a motivating and empowering little speech – a call to action – about how “the future of our region is in our hands!”, and that by working together we can make things happen in our local areas to create a flourishing future for our communities. But on this occasion, one brave woman in the group spoke up to challenge me directly on my optimistic words, and she said: “It’s not though, is it? The future isn’t in our hands. No-one listens to what we want, it makes no difference if we work together or not, at the end of the day the decisions are out of our hands and it’s a waste of time and energy believing we can change things.” And the tragic thing about this, of course, is that she’s right, it’s true – and that’s what makes me angry. How have we allowed ourselves to get into a situation where local councils have forgotten who they are supposed to represent, and where communities have been disempowered and let down for so many years, that people have lost that sense of agency and ownership even over their hyperlocal places?
So our goal is to rekindle that sense of agency and empowerment, to the extent that we can, for our region. Those of us with any influence must see ourselves as Enablers rather than bureaucrats trying to frustrate people and kill their ideas. As people, working together, we have the talent, resources, ideas, commitment, energy, time and dedication to create resilience and solve our local problems – we just need to somehow tap into that potential.
I also wonder if this sense of agency and self-empowerment is the thing that makes someone an “entrepreneur” – something different about the way that entrepreneurs think about the world, with the mindset that they can empower themselves to change things, to go after things, to see opportunities to make a difference and seize them. I know for myself that I have a can-do attitude in most situations – you would have to work quite hard to convince me that I couldn’t do something, if I kept trying and didn’t give up. I live by the mantra that you don’t fail unless you quit, and while I don’t expect things to happen easily, I do believe that I can make a difference.
I recently found out the origins of the word “entrepreneur”, and actually the root of the word isn’t what I have always thought it was. But I like my translation better, so I’m going to share that with you anyway! It’s a French word, as you know, and I’ve always translated it in my head to mean an “opportunity-taker” – because I know that “entrer” is to enter, like an opening – and “prendre” is to take – so in my mind I always think of entrepreneurs as being those who see an opening, and take it. And this makes a lot of sense to me, because the way my mind works is to see opportunities everywhere I look – so many things I could do, and my problem is that I can’t possibly take all those opportunities! I think the actual translation of the French verb, entreprendre is “to undertake” – to be an undertaker, someone who undertakes things. So, it’s similar, but not quite as good!