On day two of the Highlands and Islands Enterprise Strengthening Communities Conference the Leapfrog team joined the rest of the delegation in the main auditorium to listen to Cormac Russell deliver an interesting and provocative keynote all about his experiences of sustainable community development. A focus of Cormac’s presentation was why, in terms of community development, we need to instil a move away from a practice of ‘doing to’ communities, to a more community driven ‘doing with’ practice. In a thought provoking presentation Cormac called for an evolution of community development from trying to simply consult for communities to solve their problems, to a situation where communities define, own and solve their own problems themselves. Working ‘with’ people to achieve their goals in a more collaborative and equitable way using co-​design approaches.

As Cormac articulately illustrated, for community development to be sustainable and meaningful for the communities themselves, then rather than have someone else tell them what the problem is and how to fix it, communities should be empowered and supported to create solutions for their own needs, after all they are the experts of their community. As Cormac put it, when people create things for themselves they will own it, they will use it intelligently, and they will use it in a way that is meaningful for them. This has a resonance with what we are finding out in the Leapfrog project. That by participating in the creation of responses to their own challenges, people are more invested, the responses are more meaningful, and can be more sustainable in the long term because of a real sense of ownership. We have found though our project that co-​designing enables people to be active in developing their own ideas and unlocking their creativity, and what we want to learn is, by doing so, if people are more empowered to change those ideas in the future as the context changes.

What was especially relevant for Leapfrog was the question posed by Cormac about engaging with communities. It was recognised that really good community engagement is imperative if the issues communities define are to be relevant and meaningful, if the solutions to the issues are inclusive and, if the actions taken to tackle these issues are sustainable in the long term. The simple question was how can communities talk to each other? It seems a simple question, with a variety of context specific complexities, but as shown in the presentation, it is an important and answerable question.

There were some key insights we can take away from the keynote that has real resonance with the work we do and the insights we have gathered from the Leapfrog project so far. First is that communities are the best inventors. This can be communities bound by geography or, as quite often is the case in Leapfrog, communities of practice. There is creativity within communities that can be utilised to great effect for community based solutions. For sustainable community innovations three things need to be in place. Firstly, the challenge for communities should be set by their members and in their own language, that way it has a meaning and there is ownership of that challenge. Second, communities are best placed to come up with the ideas and develop the solutions that address their challenges. Finally, for solutions to stick and continue to serve the communities who develop them, the communities themselves need to take action and be the ones who own and take solutions forward.

What, I think, this means for Leapfrog and our role in the co-​design process is that we support the journey of co-​design, led by the owners of challenges and their values that will shape their solutions. Perhaps our role is giving ideas a helping hand and creating the spaces for ideas to develop and take shape.

Cormac is Managing Director of Nurture Development and a faculty member of the Asset-​Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University, Chicago.