Resilience Spotlight – Chris Sunderland

The Resilience Spotlight is an initiative of the Resilience Action Group (one of the Bristol Green Capital Partnership Action Groups). Every month in 2015, the group will invite nominations for someone in the city who demonstrates how we can work at a local level to develop Bristol’s capacity to respond to shocks and stresses. 

This month’s theme was Economy and was looking for individuals who are promoting or creating measures to develop community and social cohesion, improving relationships and integration and tackling marginalisation and discrimination.

Chris Sunderland is the co-ordinator of Agora, a charity promoting active citizenship through social innovation. The organisation develops intiatives that ‘encourage reflection on primary areas of culture such as economies and exchange, communities and governance, appropriate technologies and beliefs and values.’ It is his diverse work in the sphere of economies and exchange that saw him nominated for this Resilience Spotlight.

Click on image to hear more about Bristol Pound

Chris was part of the founding team for the Bristol Pound (£B), the UK’s first city-wide local currency (partnered with Bristol Credit Union). Launched in 2012 to national media coverage, the £B boosts economic resilience by keeping money in the local economy rather than seeing it escape via complicated global financial systems. Supporting local and independent businesses and shortening supply chains, £B has gone from strength to strength. With over 800 businesses accepting £B and almost 2000 members of the currency, the predicted transactions for 2015 top £B1m.

Chris notes that while it may seem ‘small’, the scheme is “a taste of something different. The Bristol Pound demonstrates that we can have something other than sterling, something other than our current economy. It’s brought together a community of people, who care about the city, to create different kind of economy – an active, engaged collective who have relationships with businesses. It’s a joy to see.”

But Chris is also aware of the challenges that they face. One in particular is getting the currency into areas of the city it hasn’t yet reached. It was this that stimulated the development of another project, Real Economy.  This aims to make fresh, healthy, local food available in all areas of the city, particularly in ‘food deserts’ where there is a lack of food choice and high unemployment. It works by helping people set up food buying groups, supporting the purchase of food directly from producers, reducing dependence on supermarket and minimising costs.

Again, there is emphasis on developing relationships between producers and buyers; “They [buying groups] will get to know the farmers and it will matter to them that the farmer is doing ok. It’s a new vision for food retail, with people across the city working together to make something happen that’s a real alternative to supermarkets.”

Chris’s nomination also referenced his work with local growing projects over the past five or six years, including the Walled Garden and Sims Hill Shared Harvest. The Walled Garden is a space in Barton Hill, providing the local community with green space in an urbanised area. It aims to reconnect people with the land and build community across cultures through food-growing and has linked with local initiatives like the Asylum Seekers Allotment Project and the Somali Resource Centre.

Sims Hill Shared Harvest is a member-owned and co-operatively run veg box supplier, currently providing 90 households in Bristol with local fresh fruit and veg grown with natural farming methods. As with the Walled Garden, a founding value of the scheme was to include the socially and economically marginalised and that remains a core tenet.

While these may appear predominantly concerned with food provision, the theme of economic resilience runs through them. Both have enabled reduced-income families to access healthy food, as well as helped local people develop skills. Sims Hill also employs a principle of ‘shared risk, shared harvest’, where the financial burden of a bad season doesn’t fall solely on the growers – it is shared by the whole community. And because of this, “despite the disastrous growing season of 2012,” notes Chris, “we have no debt. That’s resilience in my view.”

Chris goes on to emphasise just how integral relationships are to resilience, adding: “Resilience is a big concept. It’s not just financial, it’s not just environmental – it’s to do with people feeling an active part of their communities so that the community can work together to face the issues it is presented with.”

The theme that runs throughout Chris’s work is that he sees that the big strategic opportunity is “to localise the parts of the economy that can be localised. This has immense potential to challenge the existing financial structures dominating the world’s economy.”

Tackling economic issues and improving our resilience to economic downturns can seem daunting and very ‘big picture’, but the work that Chris has developed and been involved in demonstrates that there are actions that individuals can take, that change is possible and that cities and communities can take ownership of systems that have, previously, seemed out of reach.