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  • Grainne O'Dwyer

Introducing our latest social innovation project: increasing social-connection through shops

Neighbourly Lab’s mission is to figure out how to tilt the way that local-places are set up, so that people have more opportunities to connect more with different people and to get support when they need it. We are particularly obsessed with tilts that can be made in everyday spaces to have maximum reach and impact. And so we’re delighted to announce that our programme to explore how shops can play a wider connective role in local-places has been funded by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK, through its ‘Bringing People Together’ programme.

Our vision is to unlock new opportunities for people to come together locally and find support in their community. We want to do this in a way that reduces barriers to accessing support and interaction in our communities, and normalises the need for both. Our route to providing these opportunities is through shops and supermarkets. We believe that these environments have unique powers to bring communities together and provide a touchpoint for outreach and support. From our ongoing work on the ground in communities across the country, we understand that the need for this kind of support is crucial in helping communities weather the ongoing Cost of Living crisis.

Our work with Tesco as part of the Essential Mix project (also kindly funded by The National Lottery Community Fund) was a catalyst for the thinking behind this work and helped us to better understand the magic-properties of shops that make these spaces a unique and exciting opportunity, where residents can access support and interactions with many barriers to access reduced:

  • Shopping is universal to all - food/groceries are a universal need, where all shoppers have equal status. We all shop!

  • Shops are ‘in the flow’ of daily life - we’re “there anyway” and it’s part of people’s daily or weekly routines already.

  • Which means no additional travel costs - residents can access interaction and support as part of their current routine, so there’s no need to spend additional money going to these spaces, which can be a barrier for many

  • They are settings that are familiar and comfortable for people to access - we know where we stand with shops. There’s no stigma and no social-risk, unlike shops/supermarkets are well trodden spaces for residents, removing potential barriers to joining a group or visiting a new space due to fear of the unknown.

So what we’re doing in this project is to find and popularise new ways to leverage the power of shops to reduce social-exclusion and increase access to local support. To achieve this, there are two big opportunity-areas we’re going after. One focused on big busy shops and their spare-space, and the other focused on small local “corner-shops” and the trusted rhythm they have with their regular-customers:

We will be working in 3 locations across the UK (Maryhill in Glasgow, Sparkbrook in Birmingham, Great Yarmouth in Norfolk) trialling initiatives in each of these settings, to understand how to optimise the potential of retail in meeting specific community priorities. We will work in a co-productive way with residents and VCFOs to understand local needs/desires and retailers to understand business needs, ultimately to understand how this kind of initiative can thrive and sustain in these communities.

Our ambition is to take our learnings from these trials and develop an effective framework that retailers and communities across the country can pick up and adopt. We see immense potential in the role that retail can play in communities going forward and look forward to exploring this in depth.

We are looking for partners in this work across the retail sector and in each of our 3 chosen locations (Maryhill in Glasgow, Sparkbrook in Birmingham, Great Yarmouth in Norfolk), if you or someone you know might be interested in learning more about the project or the potential of partnering with us, please contact Annette Holman (

With thanks to The National Lottery Community Fund for their belief in and support of this idea. We are excited to see what can be achieved and learned in the next two years.

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