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USE-IT! – Unlocking Social and Economic Innovation Together!


USE-IT!, Unlocking Social & Economic Innovation Together!, is a whole neighbourhood approach to addressing urban poverty.

It innovates by building bridges between the places, the people, the public sector, the private sector and civic society partners in a community so they can co-produce solutions to poverty that unlock opportunities and that fits their needs.

By doing this, USE-IT! works by respecting what is already there in a community rather than by assuming what needs to change.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

The USE-IT! project began with the aim of pioneering innovative approaches to combating poverty in a neighbourhood of persistent urban deprivation in West Birmingham and Smethwick. The neighbourhood was chosen because it has previously been the subject of millions of pounds of regeneration funding that many would say have failed to deliver lasting change for the community. In simple terms this failure has been for one of two reasons. Either the funding has been “top down”, such as the funding of a large infra-structure project, which does bring benefits but rarely do these benefits reach the most disadvantaged in the community. Or the funding has been “bottom up”, such as funding community development, which again does bring improvement but this tends to last only as long as the funding lasts.

At the heart of the USE-IT! approach has been the idea of being the “bridge” between these two approaches. The principle being that more can be done to leverage the physical, financial and human assets of a place for local economic benefit and it is in identifying and developing bridging relationships amongst such assets and communities that lasting change can be delivered.

The USE-IT! model has succeeded in unlocking local assets through four distinct but connected “bridging” programmes that attempted to answer four linked anti-poverty questions.

Question #1 - How do we unlock communities to realise their local knowledge, experience and expertise?
Led by the University of Birmingham, USE-IT! has empowered local people to get involved in the regeneration and development of their neighbourhoods through community research. Recognising the diverse skills and experience that exists within the local community as an asset, our community research programme has trained over 60 local people to identify challenges and tackle problems where traditional public policies have failed. Through a diversity of community research projects local people are changing our urban futures by co-designing research that is impacting policy.

Question #2 - How can we unlock anchor institutions to realise their local economic and social potential?
To start the process of unlocking a local hospital as an economic asset, USE-IT! set up a skills matching programme to identify medical professionals, with overseas health qualifications, living in the area who could be matched with jobs vacancies in the NHS. Tapping into a wealth of clinical expertise in the refugee and migrant communities, which was previously ignored or inaccessible, and providing the necessary language training and work experience in a clinical environment, has allowed over 250 people to find a way to resume their medical careers, whilst putting much needed resource back into the local NHS.

Question #3- How do we encourage local entrepreneurship?
Social enterprise supports local economic development! In order to create the opportunities for local people to benefit from the investment coming into their neighbourhoods USE-IT! has been working with both existing and new social enterprises and community businesses to develop their capacity to grow and therefore enhance local economic development. Organisers have leveraged significant additional funds into the area by supporting local organisations to win contracts or apply for funding. So far the programme has enabled 41 local entrepreneurs to start up their businesses and 39 existing organisations to grow. As a result of USE-IT! new consortiums now exist to bring social enterprises together and build capacity around tendering for larger pieces of work.

Question #4 - How do we engage communities in their own future?
This programme has been the most experimental part of USE-IT! For three years project organisers have worked with both local communities and large asset owners, mapping and co-creating opportunities for both. This allowed them to dive deep and understand the neighbourhoods, to build resilience and capacity in the communities to take greater ownership of the local assets and shape the local economy. As a result they have become the bridge between communities and four large-scale assets which has seen residents taking the lead to redevelop; a vacant local playing field, a reservoir, an underutilised church building and an empty factory site in the middle of a new 1,500 home housing development.

USE-IT! has demonstrated that urban poverty can be addressed by unlocking existing local economic opportunities. This is possible by creating a bridge between local macro and micro assets. It requires local, trusted organisations to facilitate relationships between communities and developers or anchor institutions, and also willingness from those institutions to work in partnership. Organisers are certain the model can deliver lasting change and maximise the local economic and social benefits for all, if resources are put into communities to build the bridge between its assets.

Innovation Description

What Makes Your Project Innovative?

When compared to traditional approaches to tackling urban poverty in the USE-IT! is innovative in a number of ways:-
1. USE-IT! innovates by not assuming what the answer is going to be.
2. USE-IT! innovates by providing the link between top-down and bottom-up approaches and between the macro and the micro.
3. USE-IT! innovates by turning policy into practice, by injecting the expertise and knowledge required to train large institutions how to work with communities.
4. USE-IT! innovates by delivering specific action rather than broad strategy because through action trust can be built and partnerships developed.
5. USE-IT! innovates by avoiding pre-determined strategic approaches because each neighbourhood is unique so solutions need to be organic and able to respond to unplanned opportunities.

Finally USE-IT! is innovative because it works with what is already there rather than insisting that the solution requires the creation of something new.

What is the current status of your innovation?

The three year funding for USE-IT! ends this year. An external evaluation is currently in the process of final write-up and is due to be published later this month.

As mentioned previously in this submission ALL four elements of the USE-IT! programme have already secured a sustainable future.

The whole Partnership is now working together to secure the future for the USE-IT! approach it deserves. This has led to support from senior management within Birmingham City Council. Jonathan Tew, Assistant Chief Executive, has said - “we endorse the USE-IT approach as an innovative model of community-led regeneration and wealth building and will now look to test this across the city more widely.”

This in turn has led to proposals for further USE-IT! initiatives in two other neighbourhoods of recognised poverty in Birmingham. There is also a policy in development to utilise the USE-IT! approach when the city commissions significant private sector led developments in the future.

Innovation Development

Collaborations & Partnerships

One cannot list all the partners as USE-IT! is a whole neighbourhood approach, but the core group are:-
• University of Birmingham - developed the concept and trained the community researchers.
• Sandwell & West Birmingham Hospital Trust - led on the skills matching and demonstrated how a large institution can change.
• The Institute for Social Entrepreneurs - supported the local social enterprises and opened up new markets for them.
• Birmingham City Council - provided the programme leadership.

Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries

Everyone involved in USE-IT! is a stakeholder and a beneficiary because it is the whole neighbourhood that is being sustainably improved:-
• Local organisations benefit through new partnerships with large institutions.
• Large institutions benefit through stronger networks for supporting local people and local businesses
• Residents benefit through more local opportunity to shape their own community.
• Local Public Sector policy leads benefit by having access to local knowledge and feedback.

Innovation Reflections

Results, Outcomes & Impacts

“We endorse the USE-IT approach as an innovative model of community-led regeneration and wealth building and will now look to test this across the city more widely.” Jonathan Tew, Assistant Chief Executive, Birmingham City Council.

External evaluators have calculated that the project is forecast to contribute £25m+ to the local economy through economic improvements such as higher income jobs, increased business income, additional investment and grants to develop local assets.

In terms of specific outcomes:-
• The community researchers are now being supported to set up their own research enterprise.
• The Hospital has taken the methodology of supporting with overseas health professionals into employment and is now working with care leavers, ex-offenders, the homeless and young people with autism in the same way.
• The success of the social enterprise work has encouraged Birmingham to apply for and be granted Social Enterprise City status.

Challenges and Failures

The main challenges faced have been:-
- managing a partnership which, by the end, included about 40 organisations participating in the programme ranging from a large institutions like a hospital to as small as voluntary organisations run by one person. This was best responded to by establishing a personal relationship, by the core team, with each partner.
- discovering the lack of capacity in the community to respond to the opportunity created by USE-IT!. This meant the programme had to both take more time, and put more resource into, developing this capacity in the early stages than was originally planned.
- finding a way to bring about significant system change based on the evidence produced by USE-IT! This has been overcome by finding a very senior officer from within the Local Authority to champion the programme.

Conditions for Success

1. Having large institutional partners who are willing to be entrepreneurial and support an innovative programme and are also prepared to ensure the whole organisational structure supports the programme as well.
2. Having a delivery team that is willing and able to innovate.
3. Having a programme management team who are prepared to be the champions of the vision for the programme and to fight for the integrity of that vision.
4. Having a neighbourhood that has a civil society infrastructure that can connect with all parts of the community.
5. Having partners who are prepared to be generous, adaptable and flexible with their resources and connections.
6. Having partners who don’t treat the programme as a contractual obligation or just an opportunity to earn money but instead use it as an opportunity to make a positive change.
7. Having a funder that allowed project organisers innovate and was prepared to accept changes as the programme developed.


Individual elements of the USE-IT! project have already been replicate and there are plans to replicate the whole programme.:-
- Pioneer Housing Group are seeking funding to develop a second USE-IT! pathfinder in North East Birmingham to link four major infrastructure investments with three distinct disadvantaged communities..
- Birmingham City Council have requested a USE-IT! approach to built into all future contract with private sector developers.
- Developed from the USE-IT! work with social enterprises The Commonwealth Games organising committee have set aside a proportion of their procurement budget to spent exclusively with SE’s.
- Birmingham Voluntary Service Council are seeking funding to help the community researchers develop a sustainable Community Business.
- Four other hospital trusts have adopted the USE-IT! methodology for recruiting residents with overseas health qualifications.

Lessons Learned

1. Inclusive Growth is possible.
2. Just because a community is poor does not mean it is unskilled or untalented.
3. Bridging between communities and assets works.
4. You don’t need to invent anything new. The assets you need already exist. Both macro and micro. But they need to be joined up. So be the “bridge”.
5. Build the bridge between assets by addressing a specific need or priority not by trying to be all things to all people.
6. But addressing one specific need can produce many outcomes so be prepared for the unintended success because they might realise the greatest benefits.
7. Be generous with who ultimately owns the bridge.
8. Be flexible in where the best places are to build the bridges.
9. The ultimate goal isn’t outputs, its culture change, systems change.
10. But don’t assume that just because a large institutions is fully committed to being more of a community asset means they know how to.
11. You can only move as fast as the speed of trust.

Project Pitch

Supporting Videos

Year: 2017
Level of Government: National/Federal government


  • Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed
  • Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways

Innovation provided by:


Date Published:

16 September 2020

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