It can be dispiriting to see the continued growth in mental health problems, addiction, homelessness, poverty, lack of community safety and care shortage for people experiencing vulnerability. Despite the dedication of many professionals, programs designed to address these problems can sometimes seem to become more expensive and less effective.
One promising new idea is asset-based community development (ABCD), a community-building approach that seeks to create networks to support people to improve their lives. Keen to learn more about ABCD, we headed to Edmonton, Canada, a city that has put it into practice and was hosting a global conference on the topic. Hearing from thought leaders working on ABCD around the world, what we found was energising and exciting.
Western culture has elevated the values of individualism and independence – from other people, from families and from governments and the services they provide. People who struggle to remain independent are seen as deficient and requiring of service. We even describe people in terms of their deficits – homeless, unemployed, disabled.
Services are designed by professionals to attract funding and clients. There is a pervasive sense that only professionals can address the deficits experienced by people. Clients develop a dependency on services, believing neither they nor the non-professionals around them can create the conditions for them to live a good life.
This system and the cultural values that underpin it have led to an epidemic of loneliness and isolation impacting people regardless of age, culture, economic status or location. Neuroscience is demonstrating the impact of loneliness and social isolation on mental health and overall mortality. We know mental illness often precedes addiction, homelessness and poverty.
Statistical analysis of vulnerability to natural disasters also demonstrates the impact of loneliness and social isolation on the very young and the elderly. Rising rates of suicide in the international student community also point to the challenge of disconnection with family and community.
Amid this bleak outlook, it is vital to look for new approaches that might yield results. One promising approach is asset-based community development, which aims to build more inclusive communities, revitalise neighbourhoods and connect people.
ABCD starts by identifying the strengths in a community (such as skills, capability, passions and knowledge) and then unlocks the power of individuals and associations to improve the lives of the people around them. There is growing evidence that activation and empowerment of communities through ABCD has protective and preventative impacts for the people who live in those places. (Despite its strengths, it is not a treatment modality for existing complex social issues, such as ill health, mental health problems or substance abuse.)
Leading ABCD practitioners John McKnight and Cormac Russell offer authoritative evidence suggesting empowered communities are best placed to fulfil seven critical functions:
Many local communities in Edmonton are experiencing the benefits of ABCD. For example, We’re Ready! is a program in which towns reduce the impact of natural disasters by engaging in community planning alongside emergency services and other professional institutions whose reach and capability is sadly limited when disaster strikes. Meanwhile shared projects such as community arts space The Carrot and the community gardens of Sustainable Food Edmonton are enabling diverse groups of people to connect with one another by sharing their common passions.
Elsewhere, in the community of Crestwood, planning authorities had approved the construction of a new housing development against strong opposition from the local community. It was a remarkable testament to the resilience of the community that they set aside their disappointment about the planning decision to welcome the residents of the new development and make them part of the community.
In other cases individual lives are transformed through community connection. Take the example of Bill, an older single man living in a rooming house, and his neighbour Gillian, who bonded over mutual dedication to helping abandoned cats and reducing the number roaming the neighbourhood. In the end, Bill and Gillian were living as housemates and the neighbourhood was free of abandoned cats!
Beyond these local stories, Cormac Russell, the managing director of ABCD practice Nurture Development, presented an array of data gathered through his research including:
Many governments across Australia are pursuing place-based initiatives and service design in health, human services and education, while Australian universities are looking to create more value for their local communities and to deliver a more fulfilling experience for their students.
These endeavours are often driven by institutions (state and local governments, agencies and NFPs) with community engagement through consultation and, more recently, co-design. But often, despite the best of intentions from dedicated professionals, these efforts fail to engage community members in service design and other place-based activities. Even when organisations target those with greater needs, who are sometimes completely disengaged, it is often the usual suspects who turn up.
And sometimes where projects do generate innovative solutions through authentic community engagement, momentum can dissipate once the project ends and there is no funding or capacity for implementation, particularly at scale.
ABCD involves flipping this approach: communities develop and drive initiatives based on the needs they identify, drawing on their skills and capabilities, obtaining support from professionals and institutions only if required.
Starting this work in communities that are disempowered and disengaged is a challenge. Edmonton offers four important lessons:
Far-sighted Australian government departments, local councils and service providers are looking for different approaches to important community challenges that expensive programs and services are failing to address.
Evidence for the effectiveness of ABCD is compelling. It is worth exploring the potential of ABCD to unlock the capabilities of empowered communities in an Australian context. Lessons from Edmonton and around the world offer principles on which to base our work in community development. Pursuing ABCD in some pilot sites would enable us to learn as we go.
Get in touch to discuss how we can help you put asset-based community development into practice.
Co-authored by Sandy Forbes during her time as a Nous Principal.
 Hari, J. (2018). “Lost connections: uncovering the real causes of depression - and the unexpected solutions”, Bloomsbury USA
 Russell, C. (2014). “Things are hotting up: The fallacy of loneliness surveys”, Nurture Development blog post
 Dow, A. (2019). “Struggling to understand his classes, Zhikai Liu took his own life”, The Age
 Halton, C. (2018). “Little Yellow House: Finding Community in a Changing Neighbourhood”, The University of Alberta Press
 Brook, K. (2005). “Labour Market Participation and the Influence of Social Capital”, ONS/Labour Market Trends
 Gilbert, K. Quinn, S. Goodman, R. Butler, J. and Wallace, J. (2013) “A meta-analysis of social capital and health: a case for needed research”. Journal of Health Psychology. 18 (11)
 Matthews, T., Danese, A., Caspi, A., Fisher, H.L., Goldman-Mellor, S., Kepa, A., Moffitt, T.E., Odgers, C.L., and Arseneault, L. (2019) “Lonely young adults in modern Britain: findings from an epidemiological cohort study”. Psychological Medicine, 49 (2). Also Monbiot, G. (2018). “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community”, The Guardian
 Sampson, R. (2013). “When disaster strikes, it’s survival of the sociable”, New Scientist