A common sentiment that is often expressed in the non-profit sector is the need to avoid working in isolation, and this theme was certainly evident throughout the European Foundation Centre conference on sustainable cities.
Connie Hedegaard, Director General for Climate Action for the European Commission, spoke in the opening plenary about how many political systems are dominated by silo thinking and that this is often apparent in philanthropy as well. She argued that when striving to improve cities, all aspects of them should be examined, as it is much more financially sustainable to address clean air, traffic congestion, health and many other issues in a holistic manner. During the thematic plenary, Jay Carson of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group reiterated this when he said that foundations cannot take the approach of only funding specific, siloed projects to make an impact on some of the world’s larger problems. C40 is an example of how looking at the bigger picture can make a huge impact – they are not about rolling out, for instance, a specific programme of bicycle lanes or reforming public transport systems, but about helping city officials do their jobs more effectively by connecting them with their peers in other cities who are tackling the same issues.
I was particularly interested in the session hosted by Sustainia, which explored a number of sustainable solutions which could shape the future of cities. Sustainia Award winner Azuri became a successful enterprise by moving away from a top down approach, combining pay as you go mobile technology with solar power to bring affordable, clean energy to individuals in rural African villages. They quite literally went off the grid to bring power to local communities. But their impact did not stop there; this is a great example of how a solution to one problem can lead to many other social benefits. As well as providing a source of clean, renewable energy – their original aim – Azuri’s solution also has knock-on health benefits, reduces the risk of fire and results in significant cost reductions for users. In fact, this focus on financial savings is the main factor which persuaded communities to adopt this renewable energy source. In addition to these already impressive benefits, Azuri also continues to push the boundaries of the social outcomes they can achieve. Founder Simon Bransfield-Garth said that their next step is to use this technology to provide internet connectivity to remote areas, bridging the gap between the rural and the urban.
As well as finding holistic solutions for the problems facing the cities of the future, the conference also considered the social aspects of increasing populations living in close proximity with each other. The session titled ‘Begin with the children’ explored bridging social division within cities, looking at communities in Northern Ireland and a number of projects funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies. Rather than just concentrating on the issue of segregation within the city of Derry/Londonderry in isolation and approaching this from the perspective of two warring factions to be reconciled, their programmes engaged multiple partners to look at broader issues of social inclusion. By focusing on common concerns such as education which were of relevance to all involved – whether unionist, nationalist or members of minority groups – they offered opportunities for communities to come together in a much more effective way. The success of addressing segregation as a facet of wider social problems demonstrated the benefits of taking a wider view which cuts across sectors.
This idea of taking a more holistic approach to solving problems cropped up again and again during the conference. While some took this so far as to say that foundations should stop making individual grants, perhaps this could be viewed as more about ensuring that projects do not operate in isolation and embrace as many social outcomes as possible with the work they are doing. If a single grant originally meant to fund climate change solutions ends up leading to health or educational benefits, this makes it no less worthy. Perhaps philanthropy’s first step towards breaking down the silos that Hedegaard mentioned is to retain open minds about the value of the wider and more far-reaching consequences of grantees’ activities.
Jenny Conrad is Communication and Circulation Officer at Alliance magazine.