Why I care about resilience

The other morning I was lucky enough to bump into a chap I know called Alex Smith. My first post of 2016 is inspired by him and the work his organisations carry out…

Over the past year I’ve blogged quite a bit on what resilience means to me and all sort of interesting initiatives I’ve come across that I think build resilience amongst individuals and communities. I thought I’d kick off my posts this year with some reflections on why I think all of this is important.

Throughout my career in local government, I’ve defined myself as a bit of a problem solver. In fact, I’m not alone with this. You can take a trip through local council rhetoric up and down the land and you’ll find we’re constantly trying to solve stuff. How do you solve the housing crisis? How do you solve child poverty? How do you solve complex families? How do you solve ageing?

Swiftly following these questions will usually be the line “there are no easy answers” and while that sounds like a bit of a cop out, it is absolutely true, but maybe for not the reason people usually intend. We normally see these as difficult problems to solve because they are so complicated – lots of different variables on top of lots of different manifestations of the problem, on top of not enough time or resources would be the standard combo.

However I’m going to posit a simpler take – the reason we can’t solve them, is that they are not problems to solve. Most of the time we may as well be asking “how do we solve living?” (the answer to which is inevitably an unhelpful “stop”).

So what if we redefine what we’re doing – if we’re not solving problems what are we doing then? As a starter for ten, I’m going to go with “rising to challenges”. The reason I like this phrase is it takes away the implication that there is a final goal or destination. You can rise to a challenge and successfully meet it, but sooner or later another one will follow. The emphasis becomes less about how to stop that challenge occurring and more about how to best deal with it when it inevitably arrives.

Which for me is where resilience comes in and why I think we need a change of attitudes in terms of how we help people across the public sector, and for that matter in our private lives as well. For example one can’t *solve* ageing but we can create the conditions for ourselves (collectively and as individuals) to meet the challenges presented by ageing, whether that is through creating aids to help people live in their own homes longer, ensuring we all have half decent pensions(!), keeping fit and healthy or making sure that at a time in our lives when our personal networks tend to diminish, there are things around to help strengthen them.

I’m really big on that last point, whether it’s through use of things like Facebook, or the emergence of ideas like North London Cares and South London Cares, that bring together people of different ages around common interests and build friendships that they can draw strength from, rather than just arrange to visit people because they are “old”.

For those that are interested, I’m going to continue to blog my thoughts on this subject throughout the year and keep my eyes open for great initiatives that don’t treat life and other people like problems to be solved, but as challenges to be risen to, and dare I say, enjoyed.


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Understanding and forgiveness – I’m a failed befriender

Well worth a read and made me think of my volunteering experience with GoodGym and how important my relationship with my coaches have been.


It seemed the right thing to do; loneliness to me seems to be one of the most challenging things to face in older age in modern society and surely befriending could help? Two years ago in January I set out to try to offer something to help with loneliness somewhere. It took me ages to find a way of helping (blogs about that here and here) but earlier in 2015 I became a befriender for a small local charity.

I am no longer a befriender.

This feels like a confession but I equally feel compelled to write this down – It didn’t quite pan-out as I thought it would.

The charity, rightly, do loads of vetting before you can go one the list of befrienders. Interviews and CRB checks. We both went together, thinking that as a family unit we might be more helpful to someone. My husband is…

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Alex’s Random Resilience Round-up – some links I’ve found to be quite interesting #6

This week has been very interesting, not least because I’ve come across a load of cool initiatives that I haven’t heard of before. In the latest of my random resilience round-ups, I thought I’d share a few with some reflections on why I think they’re great examples of resilience.

2J Events

I’ve linked these guys to their “about” page for a reason. On the face of it this doesn’t look anything special – an enterprise set up to manage the hiring of spaces. Except it’s targeted at hiring out spaces in schools (which tend to be hugely under-used given they are essentially community facilities). And the income generated goes to help schools’ finances. And there’s an emphasis on building stronger community links between schools and their localities. And my favourite bit – it was founded by a couple of students who wanted to demonstrate their school had more to offer than a damning OFSTED report.

Almost everything about this story has an assets-based feel to it and I’ll be watching these guys with interest to see if they manage to capture the imaginations of other schools, students and communities across the country.

Old Spike Roastery and Change Please

I’m annoyed I’ve not heard about these initiatives before now, particularly as they are in the same vein as one of my favourite organisations Social Bite.

I work in London and am ashamed to say that I’ve not been immune to the rapid proliferation of coffee purveyors that seem to be everywhere at the moment. I spend an awful lot of money on very little if I’m honest, even if the coffee does taste quite nice. So it makes complete sense that if you were going to develop a social enterprise to provide people who are homeless with an employment pathway, you’d choose such a growth industry.

The Old Spike Roastery  in Peckham not only produces extremely ethically and seasonally sourced coffee, it employs homeless people and provides training as well as housing support. From what I hear it is going from strength to strength, which leads me to…

Change Please, which is the new venture from the same people (which I think is launching on Monday 23rd November). This takes the concept out on to the streets, with homeless people trained to be baristas and provided with coffee carts ostensibly to sell to the commuter crowd (people like me!). It’s such a simple concept, but a clever one in my view and I really hope they’re a success. If you see them out and about, trade in your over-priced hipster flat white for one that gives everyone a little more value.

And on a final note, it was great to see George Clooney visiting Social Bite the other week, but given his Nespresso links one wonders if he’d be more interested in these guys. “Change Please coffee? What else?”

Father Nature

A nice little Lambeth project this one which ticks so many boxes for me. A project that works to provide urban growing spaces that truly reflect the local community. Actually I’ll let them explain because they do it better than me:

“All of our projects involve close collaboration with communities to help people transform their neighbourhood by sharing our design and gardening know-how. Whether it’s greening your street with flowers and trees, growing fruit and veg locally, teaching children and adults about healthy eating and sustainability, or simply having fun outdoors, it’s all about growing together.”

It’s not really the transformation of open spaces that caught my eye, but the way they seem to have found a magic ingredient in bringing people together, whether that be larger communities, neighbours on a street, or even people within a family. Their work seem to build stronger relationships between people that in turn builds stronger relationships with things they create. I don’t think this is talked about enough in my view, so it’s great to see it so evidently in action.

and finally…. an update on an old favourite!

A little while back now I wrote a post about Stay Up Late and their Gig Buddies project. If you’re interested click the link and read away, I shan’t bang on about how awesome I think they are here. But what I will do is share their exciting news that they’ve come up with a method for helping people to set up Gig Buddies projects all over the place – Gig Buddies in a Box!

This makes a huge amount of sense. I’m a great believer that these sorts of things work best where they have a local feel but a wider network of support. There is literally no reason why there couldn’t and shouldn’t be a Gig Buddies Camden, or a Gig Buddies Brixton for example. Read up about them and watch this space!

As always with the resilience round-up, don’t take my word for it. Read about them yourselves and make you’re own mind up. And I’m always interested in other cool examples of people demonstrating and strengthening their individual and community resilience so feel free to share!


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Closing house, opening doors

Now this is a shame. Have always enjoyed the stuff coming from these guys. Well worth reading not only this post but their legacy site as well.

Relational Welfare Blog Archive

As you may know, after 10 great years, Participle has taken the decision to close its doors on 16 October, 2015. This means that this will be our final post for the foreseeable future. Thank you so much for being a part of our community. We know that Relational Welfare is an idea whose time has come, and we are confident that people like you will be keeping the spirit of the movement alive in the world.

On that note, we wanted to share with you the final speech delivered by Hilary Cottam as Founder and CEO of Participle.

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Recovery – the resilience taboo?

It’s been a while since my last post on this topic. I’ve missed posting but I’m also acutely aware that what started out as a blog to capture my work in an open and transparent way has also become a place that captures me in an open and transparent way. Perhaps this has made me more cautious about sharing my thoughts, however given the whole point of this blog is about sharing, I should probably learn to get over myself.

Today, I want to share some thoughts about the idealistic rhetoric surrounding resilience (both individual and community). I particularly want to challenge it.

During my time at Camden, we struggled for a long time (as policy wonks are wont to do) on how to define “resilience”. We were obsessed with ensuring that it wasn’t just about how one responds to challenging situations but how one develops a range of strengths and resources to “thrive as well as survive” (note: I have to come to hate this rather patronising and twee phrase). I guess I still don’t mind this angle that much; after all it allows the resilience conversation to align neatly with assets-based thinking which I am a big fan of, and of course puts the emphasis on developing one’s resilience BEFORE it is needed so that we are all better prepared. This makes sense.

My issue of late is that the conversation has been so dominated by making the case for investing up front in resilience, that too many of us (myself included) have lost sight of the “during” and the “after” effects. I’ll give you a very simple example.

Last weekend I ran a half marathon. There isn’t anything too special about this. I’ve run a few and only last month I did my first marathon. When I got to the last mile my legs gave out and I had to walk. This has NEVER happened to me, not even on my first run. I was annoyed at the time because the rest of me was functioning fine! Runners around me were gasping for air and waterfalling sweat while I was jogging along in relative serenity, but as they powered on I could only shut down. I was embarrassed, but really it shouldn’t have been a surprise. I’ve spent the summer training for my first marathon and within three weeks of completing it I had added a 19 km training run and a half marathon. In short, my legs were knackered.

In training I had built physical resilience to endure a marathon, but I had also used it all up (read up about marathon training – it’s fascinating how much it is an exercise in learning how to recover from damaging yourself!) and so of course when I looked to use it again, I was left wanting.

I have another example around my intellectual and emotional capacity, but maybe that’s a little too raw to share right now. However when I think about my running example I can see exact parallels – spending dedicated time to strengthen my mental resilience, using it all for a period I know will be tough, but then struggling (shutting down if you will) when I then try to use it again without restoring it.

Readers of these posts will know that I tend to, rightly or wrongly, apply what I learn about my own resilience to the topic of community resilience. When I do so in this case, I see something very worrying. I see councils, governments, charities etc investing in strengthening communities and households to cope with evolving pressures our society is facing. I see those communities succeeding, with terrific examples of people coming together and responding to challenges that seem impossible. I see inspiration and confidence. I see this confidence being its own enemy as even greater asks are placed on people who have already given huge amounts, if not everything. And on the back of this I see tragic collapses and ruins. I see people who don’t understand why it didn’t work this time. I see people who are ashamed. I see people who are angry.

What I don’t see, is anyone around to tell them that what has happened is ok. That it was expected. That they can achieve great things again, they just need a bit of rest.

This last point is on my mind a lot, and it is something I think is missing from resilience strategies/conversations I’ve come across. I guess I’d call them whole-life resilience approaches which go beyond the up front investment stage and actively build in what is needed to support individual and community resilience during a challenge and most importantly during the recovery stage.

I’ve read the phrase “bouncing forward” as opposed to bouncing back a lot. This is the idea that we don’t return to our previous state of being but we improve through applying our resilience. I agree that this is possible, but unless we respect our recovery stages, I don’t agree it is inevitable.

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Why are our politicians too scared to talk about love? A view from Australia

Relational Welfare Blog Archive

Public services don’t need to be transactional. Let’s not be afraid to talk about adding ‘love’ to the typical public service relationship, says Dr. Jennifer Sinclair in Australia.

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Some musings on Social Value

Originally from another blog of mine – wasn’t convinced of its resilience relevance but have been convinced otherwise….

I was at a public sector social value seminar this week and all I can say is that if any of you follow me on twitter, it’ll be painfully obvious how I felt about it

SV tweet

This is invariably my reaction to these sorts of events unfortunately and I while I accept my inherent grumpiness may provide an unfairly caustic hue to my criticism, I still think my point is probably valid – why is it that social value conversations tend to be so boring? I’m not certain of the answer, but I’ll pose a theory and as always I’m interested in your reflections.


A recurring question about social value is how does one define it? I wonder if this is where many of us start going wrong.

Value is in my mind inherently subjective. At times I’ve used the rather basic example of a glass of water. This glass has a multitude of values depending on the circumstance; if I’m thirsty and it is the only water for miles then it is hugely valuable to me. If I’m not thirsty, and I have access to a nice bottle of Malbec… well… not so much value. But if I’ve just downed that bottle and now I’m feeling a little woozy the water’s value shoots up again. So value isn’t just subjective, it’s constantly evolving. The challenge isn’t so much to define the value, but to be agile enough to keep up with its constantly developing status. Complex stuff eh, and that’s just for a glass of water!

When you apply this to wider social value, it’s pretty obvious why we keep tying ourselves up in knots. Not only is there a multitude of different things that are “valued” by society, or a local community, but said value is also constantly changing, sometimes within a few hours!

This isn’t an easy one to solve, but I wonder if we might all do ourselves a favour by building our public sector social value policies/guides/strategies etc around one question “If we could improve one thing in our local area/field of interest that would make a big difference to people’s lives, what would it be?”

Accept that society will also value other things to a greater or lesser degree, but move on from that quickly and focus on one area of value. This without doubt requires collaboration with local people or people with a vested interest, but it also requires trusted leadership to hear all the different suggestions but decide which one to focus on.


Ok, so we’ve take the bold decision to narrow down our value parameters to a single key issue, let’s say ensuring no resident in our local area feels isolated. What next? A toolkit? A guidance document? A public launch with appropriately relevant local dignitaries? Well, oddly I’ll not be too cynical about all that – they’re all useful parts of the bigger puzzle.

What I do think is missing from a lot of social value approaches I’ve seen is a big dollop of good old fashioned inspiration. There is usually a lot of guidance on how to do it, and quite a bit of narrative on why it is a good thing, but not so much on the potential of what can be achieved. I think this comes back to the first challenge around definition – when social value can be everything, it invariably feels like it will end up being nothing as it is incredibly difficult to visualise what can be achieved.

Would it be different if we built aims around very simple, but ambitious goals that put the scale of social value in its proper perspective? For example:

SuchnSuch Council spends £400m per annum in commissioning services from third parties. SuchnSuch Council is also committed to making sure no resident in the borough feels isolated, because we know isolation is a killer. For the next x years, every single commissioning exercise will have to demonstrate how it will contribute to achieving this goal and in turn improving the wellbeing and life chances of our residents”

Or in more simple language, for this period social value for our council means every single £ of our £400m annual commissioning spend will contribute to reducing isolation. From here you can do fancy calculations on the potential social return on investment to show how one’s spend is levering value, but I think the more powerful implication of this is the huge levels of new resource that can be levered around this issue, and the potential impact on what is normally seen as an intransigent issue. Just imagine the skills resources and expertise from the providers of every environment services contract, every schools contract, every culture/leisure contract, every regeneration contract (not to mention the adult social care budgets) all dedicated to one clear mission.

I’m not that naïve on this, I know it is more complicated than just pooling everything into one place and hoping it works itself out. There’d be a huge amount of hard work. But you know what, I’d feel confident knowing whether my local council had achieved additional social value from its expenditure in a scenario like this rather than piecemeal community contributions that might not actually have that much of an impact. And I’m willing to wager that a lot of those potential providers would also be excited about being part of that challenge (whether local social enterprises given a competitive edge or larger businesses levering their infrastructures), and hopefully solving it.

And if it was successful, I don’t think we’d be talking so much about unlocking more social value, but rather how collectively we’d have started valuing the social to a much greater extent.

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