A Solution to Affordable Community Facilities

Community facilities are wanted more than ever. Elle Bell sees a way to make them accessible and effective.

Our story starts at Blockhouse Bay Community Centre. It’s creaky and leaky, but it’s a safe and homely part of the local neighbourhood. It hosts weekly fitness classes, school holiday programmes, and countless weddings, birthdays, and events.

But Blockhouse Bay Community Centre has had a problem that plays out in thousands of communities across Aotearoa – making community facilities affordable and accessible. Across Aotearoa, local councils and government agencies have a multimillion dollar portfolio of community facilities ranging from rural halls and community centres to reserves and sports fields, but they are weighed down with bookings and admin.

Community needs

Many people often simply need a large space to celebrate a special event with friends and whānau. However, the process of finding local affordable space is hard work. The bookings process is are even harder if English is not a first language or you’re unable to contact the centre during opening hours.

Oranga Tamariki requires safe, local, and neutral meeting spaces – often hundreds a week across Aotearoa. For the team at Blockhouse Bay, a typical day would involve checking availability, inputting booking data to a book or online calendar, and processing paper forms. Invoicing, payment collection, and receipting is manual and has a high error rate.

The highly manual and inconsistent nature of bookings management means it’s impossible to get a sense of actual usage to determine what the community really needs.

Community centre teams are uniquely positioned to develop new programmes and think up new ways to grow their centres’ impact in their communities. This is the mahi that makes a difference, but there is no time to do it.

One-off solutions and a better way

Many organisations have tried to fix the bookings problem by implementing a better process, for example, an online bookings system – and this does bring efficiencies. But these are often expensive, and they don’t solve the bigger issue, which is that communities need a broad range of facilities to choose from.

Instead of every community-led space, council, or government agency coming up with its own way to enable easier bookings, what if they could all jump onto a shared network where all facilities can be found and booked in the same place?

This is not a new idea. Think about how much easier book-a-bach has made finding a holiday rental. A network can provide scale. Where gaps in facilities exist, new players can jump on board, like a school or sports club. What’s more, such a network means more players can participate so the value of the network grows.

Such arrangements exist and have been co-created by partnerships across Aotearoa and Australia using SpacetoCo, a growing tech start-up.

Making it easier

Blockhouse Bay have now made all their spaces bookable online and have automated their processes. They are now part of a growing family of facilities that are bookable – there are more than 180 bookable spaces provided by community-led facilities across Auckland.

In just six months, Blockhouse Bay Centre have increased their projected annual revenue by 50 percent. They no longer have to invoice or take bonds, so their time is freed up to work on projects they care about. This is the real mahi that creates positive change.

When it takes less than an hour to make a facility or space bookable online, you can rapidly test new initiatives. It also allows facilities to unlock data that can be used for better decision making and to quantify community outcomes, for example, identifying growth in new groups using a facility.

Having a simple way for local businesses or organisations to share space means they can develop new sustainable revenue streams, easing the burden on funding. More people using local spaces means more customers for neighbourhood businesses and collaboration with local vendors such as caterers.

When it’s easy for people to find spaces to start new programmes – they do! Every new space that comes online brings new opportunities for community activity, such as a new yoga class or dance group.

Connecting rather than delivering

Now, more than ever, is the time to start thinking differently about how the public sector can become enablers for connecting communities to spaces, rather than just delivering spaces as a service. I believe the problem of improving access to community facilities is one of the most solvable. The assets that communities could use are waiting to be used more. The infrastructure to support a community-led approach is already in place. And now there is a simple technology platform already supporting pioneering organisations across Aotearoa and Australia that can be the glue between the public sector, communities, and spaces.

Elle Bell is the managing director of SpacetoCo New Zealand, a technology partner to local government who want to enable better access and usage of their facilities. To get more information, head to https://spaceto.co/ecosystem