The civic economy as a solution to crisis
Laura Bunt introduces a compendium of case studies demonstrating how innovation can solve the challenges faced by society
We are in the midst of a difficult period of transition. In the wake of the global financial crisis, and as we become more acutely aware of the scarcity of environmental resources and the rising pressures of complex social issues, we need to find a more sustainable way to organise and grow our economy.
Last week NESTA – the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, which promotes innovation as a solution to society's challenges – launched a collection of case studies of initiatives across the world already showing us how to achieve that goal. The Compendium for the Civic Economy, produced by Architecture 00:/ and commissioned by NESTA and CABE, showcases a vibrant diversity of community led innovations and enterprises that are generating both social and economic value in cities, villages and towns.
From edible public spaces – which can include residents planting fruit trees or growing food on grass verges – to community waste-to-energy plants, cooperative telecoms services or platforms for car-pooling, each case study demonstrates distinct features of what we have called a civic economy – one that brings together the spirit of entrepreneurship with the aspiration of civic renewal. Built on firm foundations of the cooperative movement with the added dimension of more open, networked technologies, this is an emerging economy with real potential for growth.
Whether it is Baisikeli in Denmark fusing together social and economic returns by salvaging and repurposing abandoned bicycles to boost mobility in the developing world, or in the People's Supermarket creating a community from a local retail chain, the civic economy is characterised by blurred distinctions of value. This is not about separating profit-making and making a difference, but finding a way to make returns on honest transactions.
And at an international level, the civic economy brings together the very global and the hyper local. The case studies profiled in the compendium often achieve scale through networks – they link local action with global impact. This is clear through examples such as the Hub network of shared workspaces with 28 hubs internationally connecting over 6,000 social pioneers, or in how small groups have come together to create meaningful investment opportunities in local enterprise.
The civic economy is not a new discovery. As we debate the role and potential of civil society in supporting public services, and as we explore innovative ways by which to respond to some of our shared social and economic challenges, it is vital to look to what is already happening. The compendium seeks to make visible what is clearly a vibrant movement affecting how we work, live and interact with each other. We should learn from their example, and help it to grow.
Laura Bunt is lead public and social innovation advisor at NESTA
"Creating a community from a local retail chain" - Laura, you should have checked your facts here before going into print. The People's Supermarket may sound good on paper, but it has not created a community. Many of the local poor cannot afford to shop there, and the typical customer profile is that of the left-leaning urban intelligentsia which does not live locally. Nor is TPS a retail chain - the business model is flawed, and co-operatives such as this have never really caught on in the UK.
Walter Bilas - London