Kate Ryrie speaks to Social Business Broker's Rob Greenland about change, challenges and creating a more connected city
We inhabit a world where nothing is certain. Politically, financially, socially, globally – it’s not hard to feel powerless to make a difference or unsure of where to make a start. Now, with a bit of practical, collaborative thinking and a sense of business-focused optimism, Rob Greenland is doing his bit to change all that.
Co-director of Social Business Brokers, the social enterprise on a mission to solve issues by bringing people together, Rob has an inspiring view on how connection, teamwork and a clever look at the bigger picture can change lives for the better.
If taking on the housing crisis wasn’t enough, Social Business Brokers is also diving headfirst into the issue of climate change
"There’s never one solution, so we try to bring people together to try to solve a problem," says Rob, telling me how he and co-founder Gill Coupland set up Social Business Brokers back in 2010. "It’s about trying to use your business for a social purpose. I started out in fair trade, so I know the power of collective change – how by doing more things together, you can really start changing stuff."
The theme of creating change through the power of community is strong in Rob’s work. Social Business Brokers’ two main projects are collaborative initiatives designed to tackle long-running social concerns. The first is Empty Homes Doctor, a supportive, one-stop service that brings together the many different strands involved in getting empty homes back into use.
"We started asking 'why are homes empty when we’ve got a housing crisis?" says Rob, telling me how often, houses fall into emptiness due to personal circumstances, with heads buried in the sand when the problem seems too big to deal with alone. "We try to be the people in the middle, working with the owner to sort out all the practical things," Rob says. "We have a contract with the council to work alongside their empty homes team, and we’ve helped bring just over 500 homes back into use since 2013. It’s risen every year."
Social Business Brokers also works closely with Leeds Community Homes, aiming to create 1,000 permanently affordable homes in the next decade. "We did a community share offer in 2017, raising £360,000 to contribute towards sixteen homes," says Rob, explaining how, together with developer, Citu, they’re working to get these homes up and running in the Climate Innovation District – just down the river from Leeds’ Royal Armouries.
And if taking on the housing crisis wasn’t enough, Social Business Brokers is also diving headfirst into the issue of climate change, tapping into the current Blue Planet-fuelled concern around waste with the aptly-named project, Zero Waste Leeds.
"Climate change is a massive global issue, but what can you do at a local level?" says Rob, articulating the social conundrum Zero Waste Leeds tries to answer. "The council are reviewing their waste strategy this year and recycling rates have stalled across England, so the opportunity was there."
With a bit of funding secured, Zero Waste Leeds began to explore the idea of building a mass movement around zero waste, working with reuse, repair and recycling projects to tap into the general interest and instigate action. "With anything environmental, it can feel like too big a problem," he says, highlighting how by getting inspired by each other’s actions, we can create real change. "We need to do some quite practical things, at a decent scale, quite quickly – that’s where the idea of a movement comes in."
It’s about helping people see that the issues we face are things we can tackle together
And there’s that sense of community again – the backbone to the work of Social Business Brokers, and the force we can all exploit to make the world that bit nicer to be in. "Taking a step back from it all, we do need to create a different kind of society," says Rob. He’s wary of cliché, but suddenly, this kind of bigger-picture thinking seems spot on.
"If we have to reduce the carbon emissions we create through daily life, we have to make sure that’s a more attractive future than if we carry on as we are. Part of that is about connecting more with each other – coming up with solutions that make our lives better."
The vision of a more sustainable future (both environmentally and in terms of our own happiness) fully engaged, talk turns to what’s next for Rob and the many strings to his bow. "It would be interesting to explore this idea of a movement with other issues," he tells me. "It’s about helping people see that the issues we face are things we can tackle together – about collaborating, getting the business community involved, working with local people and teaming up with social enterprises."
Talking to Rob, the idea that connection, collaboration and a generous dose of ambition can create bold, lasting impact for the city doesn’t seem so crazy. In a world full of change, one of the few constants is our community – our city, each other and the collective force that might just give us the strength to change the world. One person, one day at a time.
You can get involved by following Rob on Twitter, or heading over to the Social Business Brokers website to find out more.
Zero Waste Leeds is also on Twitter, where you should look out for a call for ideas on reducing waste in the city, coming up in January.
If Leeds Community Homes is more up your street, you can become a member through their website.