For the next two months here we will be talking REconomy, looking in depth at this aspect of Transition which is about creating new enterprises, new economies, new livelihoods. We’ll talk to entrepreneurs, to people in local authorities embracing this approach, to people about to launch local currencies, to people around the world working to make this happen. Something remarkable and vital is happening, and we want you to be blown away by it.
When I visit Transition groups around the world, I hear many of the same questions over and over. “How do we engage a wider cross-section of our community?”/”how do we make a living out of this stuff?”/”how do we build stronger bridges to the local council and local businesses?”
REconomy is one of the best responses to all these questions, offering a series of activities, and a fresh way of thinking that meets more widely perceived needs, while also building a real relevance to far more people than just talking abstractly about “building local resilience”. It’s the invitation to shift our thinking, shift what we do, and step up in truly exhilarating ways.
Central to it is the idea that WE can do this, that creating the new economy that better meets our needs starts with us, here, now. In terms of what REconomy is, I will assume by this stage you are familiar with the general idea, and if not here is Fiona Ward to give you an introduction:
For me, there are several key leap forwards at the heart of REconomy, steps away from what is expected of those working to make the world a better place, which have huge promise in terms of scaling the ideas at its heart up to another level. Let’s go through them one by one:
1. From “anywhere” to “here”: one key aspect of REconomy is that it is about economics that are rooted in place. Most business responses, such as those being touted by candidates in the runup to the Election, have no sense of place. ASDA’s solution to providing food to people, for example, looks exactly the same wherever in the country you find it. But REconomy enterprises emerge from, and embody the places from which they emerge. For example, Brixton Energy could only have come from Brixton and is embedded in it.
The same applies for many of the examples below, mostly drawn from the UK: it’s about creating a new economy that’s rooted in the place, the culture, the history, the hopes and dreams of a particular place. One example of this is in the role that local currencies play in celebrating local history and culture. For example, the Exeter Pound, set to launch September 1st, will feature on its £5 note Adam Stansfield (see below), former Exeter City number 9 who died young from cancer, and whose Number 9 shirt was then retired. Much of the football club’s fundraising work has since been around cancer prevention, in his memory. The story of the Exeter Pound, and how they are, from the start, rooting it in the local community, is told in our Exeter Pound podcast.
2. From theirs to ours: who owns the key assets in a community plays a big role in who is able to meaningfully affect change there. Transition is very ambitious, wanting to change the way the places we live feed themselves, house themselves, employ themselves, power themselves. Being able to do that requires access to more capital, popular support and ability to move fast and to make things happen than we are used to. While owning assets brings risks, it also brings opportunities.
This is particularly important in the context of austerity and local authorities keen to jettison responsibility for land, buildings and other assets, there is an opportunity for community groups, whether actual Transition groups, or Transition-informed community groups, to begin to pull together a portfolio of assets which can then be used as the foundation for doing other projects. The community ownership of assets is a key strand of the REconomy approach.
3. From “divest” to “reinvest”: the divestment movement is gathering pace around the world as the message sinks in that if you hold investments in fossil fuels, you want to be among the first out of them, not among the last still holding onto them. Many individuals and organisations now find themselves rethinking where and how to invest. Community renewables have created the most ambitious investment opportunities for people so far.
For example, Bath & West Community Energy have thus far, including groups they have partnered with, raised nearly £10 million through 7 community share offers, ranging from £350,000 to nearly £3 million. West Solent Solar, which grew out of New Forest Transition, raised £2.5 million for a community solar farm. In Belgium, Vin de Liege, which emerged from Liege en Transition, raised €2million to create a community vineyard.
But investment opportunities need not be so huge. The Green Valley Grocer in Slaithwaite raised £18,000 from local people to reopen a grocers shop as a Co-op. As we’ll see below, the Local Entrepreneurs’ Forum model is about the investment into new enterprises of a lot more than just money, but community engagement and support. In the many and growing discussions about divestment, little is said about what else those funds might support. For Transition groups who are seeing and supporting a number of new enterprises emerging around them, pulling those together to form a kind of ‘portfolio’ of local investment opportunities might be a way to invite divestment to turn into investment.
4. From “someone should” to “let’s”: the current election campaign in the UK (nearly over) has seen lots of grand promises, especially around jobs and housing. “We’ll build 200,000 houses”, “we’ll build 300,000” … “we’re the best, because we’ll build 500,000!” Yet if what’s already being built is anything to go by, there are houses and there are houses. There are what the market offers, “affordable houses” that nobody can afford, which increase debt and carbon emission, and which are based on a model that extracts wealth to distant investors, and then there are those such as Lilac Leeds and Transition Homes, that are approaching the creation of new housing in a way built around affordability, sustainability and the maximum benefit to local economies.
The new Enterprise Centre being built at University of East Anglia is taking the concept of local materials to a mainstream audience in a fascinating way. The walls are being built using thatched panels, so it is the walls, as well as the roof, that are built using local thatch and local skills (see right). Imagine the impact on local economies of starting with what’s local being where most developments begin, like starting planning for each meal starting with “what’s growing in the garden?” rather than “what’s in the freezer?” It’s an approach that Totnes Community Development Society’s Atmos Totnes project will be using on an 8 acre site as a key strategy for community economic regeneration.
Similarly, there are jobs and there are jobs. Over the past few years in the UK, a million public sector jobs have been replaced by minimum wage jobs, and more than one fifth of UK workers earn less than the living wage, living hand to mouth, often requiring government benefit support to make up the gap, a subsidy to the private sector. Most REconomy enterprises are committed to paying a Living Wage, and to enshrining workers’ rights from the outset.
Rather than assuming either that voting will create the kind of world we want, or opting out of voting, I’m with Dougald Hine on this one, it’s not about ‘Don’t Vote’, rather ‘Don’t Just Vote’. Rather than complaining about the energy companies, the supermarkets, the housing developers, REconomy is about becoming our own community energy companies, food systems and housing projects. It’s an attitude summed up beautifully in a newspaper article last week about the new Transition Neath in Wales, which quoted them as saying “it’s a negativity free zone — we will be focused on what can be done rather than what can’t”.
5. From “Old Boys Network” to “Everyone an Investor”: the conventional approach to funding new economic activity is to seek either investment from the bank/investors, or government funding. Some Local Enterprise Partnerships, for example, appear to work along the lines of an Old Boys’ Network approach, a model for distributing government Regional Growth funding based on who you know. Further, and more worryingly, they tend to be about the preservation of business as usual, and as a result tend to be about new bypasses and new regional distribution hubs and so on. But business as usual is no longer an option. As Naomi Klein puts it in This Changes Everything, “there are no non-radical solutions left”.
So how can we, as communities, fund the new entrepreneurs, the new enterprises and innovations that we need, ourselves? One of the best models for this is the Local Entrepreneurs’ Forum, begun in Totnes (the next one is May 14th, very soon) and now popping up elsewhere (the first outside Totnes is in Brixton on June 2nd, with others to follow). It’s an approach that recognises that everyone is an investor, whether you can lend someone a pen, babysit their kids while they go to see the Bank Manager, lend them £10,000, £20, offer them legal support, website design or whatever.
Another way of doing this, and often a good follow up to a LEF, is crowdfunding. Many Transition projects have successfully used crowdfunding. Here for example is a great crowdfunding appeal that just kicked off in Totnes, looking at putting in place the infrastructure to enable the local food economy to grow, process, store and sell those most staple of food, grains. It’s the Grown in Totnes project.
6. From niche to mainstream: these ideas are rapidly moving out of the niche and into the mainstream. One of the most exciting examples of this has been the work the Centre for Local Economic Strategies have been doing with Preston Council, looking at how the main stakeholders in the city spend their money, a kind of Economic Blueprint for the city. Together, the stakeholders (two local authorities, a higher education institution, two further education institutions, police, fire and rescue, hospitals, and housing associations) spend £750 million a year, of which only 4% is actually spent in Preston itself, and only 29% in the county of Lancashire. The report identifies a number of strategies by which a shift in focus could “enable a good local economy”. It’s work explained in this short video from New Economics Foundation:
A similar process is underway in Bristol as the City Council explore how weaving the Bristol Pound into its procurement approach can boost keeping money within the city. This idea, that we base our economic planning on the Multiplier Effect, is growing fast. REconomy is ahead of the curve.
7. From “not again!” to “never again”: all too often the conventional approach to economics and development is something that is done to communities, rather than by them. All too often, another proposal for a supermarket, for a new, bland, identikit housing development, are met with raised eyebrows and a resigned “not again!” Communities find themselves unable to resist developments due to the ability of developers to hire better lawyers on appeal and to steamroller local opinion out of the way.
However, if communities are able to own assets, to generate revenue through their use, then their ability to influence outcomes locally is transformed. It puts the community in the position to be able to say “never again” with a firm sense of purpose, to make sure rubbish housing developments don’t happen by buying the options on the sites and either not doing them at all, or doing them, but so, so much better. Our “never again” becomes assertive, empowering, yet underpinned by a commitment to doing things much better, rooted in the genuine wishes and desires of our local economies, an approach we have previously defined as a ‘SWIMBY’ approach (“Something Wonderful In My Back Yard”) as opposed to a NIMBY approach.
8. From ‘Clone Towns’ to ‘Places of Possibility’: Growing Communities in Hackney are a brilliant local food project in the heart of London. They describe themselves as “a community-led organisation based in Hackney, North London, which is providing a real alternative to the current damaging food system”. One of the most fascinating aspects of their work, for me, is the following diagram which, based on their experience, is their attempt at speculating on what a more localised food system would look like for London, their answer to the question “could London feed itself?”
It’s quite complicated, and its colour scheme is really best viewed through the kind of glasses you are advised to use to watch an eclipse through, but the key point is that looked at through REconomy glasses, it’s extraordinary. It’s really the model for a new food economy for the city.
It’s an invitation to innovation and entrepreneurship and creativity the likes of which we haven’t seen for generations. And the coolest thing is that it is already happening. Across the city there is a flourishing of new enterprises: new urban market gardens, people growing mushrooms in abandoned Underground stations, craft breweries across the city, new orchards being planted, new markets, such as Crystal Palace Transition Town’s amazing Food Market which last week was a runner up in the BBC Food and Farming Awards, making it the joint second best market in the country. Where are the best places to look for the creativity, the innovation, the flavour, the taste, the community. the laughter, the future? At Lidl or Asda, or in this emergent new model? As Julian Dobson put it in his brilliant ‘How to Save Town Centres’:
“The best future for our town centres is not merely as places to buy, but as places to be; places where we can live and act as citizens rather than as consumers. Then they can be places where we rediscover local identity and community, where we can be more fully alive and more fully ourselves. As many a shopkeeper has said, why settle for less?”.
Why settle for less indeed. We stand on the cusp of a historical shift, a historical transition, as economic globalisation starts to go into reverse. Savour the moment – it is rich with possibility. Enjoy our exploration of REconomy, and do let us know your thoughts.
Find out more at the REconomy website.