By Pia Chatterjee
Vital Spark is a community project initiated by Firstport in collaboration with InspirAlba that has been working with local people in Argyll and the Isles in Scotland to discern what the key problems in the areas are and how best to tackle them. The project supports social entrepreneurial ideas, encourages people to take them a step further and helps concretize various projects that all cater to both the needs of the towns here and the resources they could offer.
Both Argyll and the Islands are very rich regions with the potential to thrive with their wide expanses of cultural and natural heritage. However, they seem to be hit with a number of challenges, including that many youths are leaving their cities to find better employment opportunities elsewhere (mainly in bigger, more metropolitan cities), there exist large economic disparities between and within groups, and hubs are separated from each other by exceedingly large distances. However, there remains here a very strong sense of community and pride coupled with an unquenchable desire and commitment to get things done.
Vital Spark is setting up social enterprise hubs in Rothesay, Dunoon and Campbeltown and accepting the best business idea proposals for which it offers one-to-one business training, mentoring from industry experts, funding and a free workspace to test the startups. Social enterprise is likely to be the solution for Argyll and the Isles since it actively trades to improve communities, locals’ lives and the environment. Supporting businesses of the like not only makes the most of the good things that already exist in communities, but also serves to fill the gaps and satisfy needs that are yet to be met. They provide just the opportunity for local cultures to emerge, and social entrepreneurs to create revenue and hone skills that will help locals support themselves in the future. Based on five criteria – people, places, services, enterprise, and culture and heritage – the project frames each business idea within themes to ensure their well rounded development. The ‘people’ category covers training, skill development and knowledge sharing, ‘places’ the creative use of empty shops and underused space, ‘services’ the provision of adequate transport solutions and outdoor activities, ‘enterprise’ the bolstering of local activity and engagement, and ‘culture and heritage’ the platforms for local craftspeople and entrepreneurs to showcase their talents and ideas. Once in action, the startups are encouraged to leave the enterprise hubs set up by Vital Spark and fully establish themselves wherever they please in order to allow more and more creative and innovative designs to find themselves a strong foundation.
Where organization is concerned, Firstport and InspirAlba are the main players that remain in charge of designing the programme, running the local hubs and providing applicants with business training. Vital Spark is predominantly funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the Scottish government’s economic and community development agency for Northern and Western Scotland, along with Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries Ltd, the UK’s largest ferry network and one of the main Scottish employers, UnLtd, the leading provider of support to social entrepreneurs in the UK, and the Kilfinan Trust, a trust created to support voluntary and charity associations in Argyll.
With the drastic and rapid spread of social enterprise in the UK and Scotland proving to be particularly keen on this kind of business model, setting up social enterprise hubs in disadvantaged areas is a very bright idea to bring them on par with the rest of the country. Not only are you doing wonders for the regions’ economies, but you’re also uplifting communities that are weighed down by challenges they are not the cause of. It is truly heartening to see everything you can do by asking just the right question: What do you love about your community?