Postcards from the collaborative economy
In the nonprofit sector, we often seem to be fighting uphill battles trying to combat poverty and exclusion, addictions and mental illness, climate change, racism, political disengagement and many other challenges in our communities without the sense that we are making real progress against “the system.” As we work to support our community members’ access to jobs, food, and housing, and their exercise of rights, it’s easy to view our work as swimming against a tide of economic inequality, powerlessness, and a system that simply does not care.
It was an inspiring contrast to have been part of a transformative summer institute about systems change where many better ways were presented as living realities, actual working models to take home and plant to flourish on our own soil.
I was fortunate to have been one of six members of a team funded by Metcalf Foundation to attend Synergia, a two-week summer institute on “The Transition to the Ethical Economy”, along with delegates from Toronto Neighbourhood Centres, West Neighbourhood House, and Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre. It was billed as an opportunity to learn about community-led systems – on food, energy, housing, finance, social care (care and support for the elderly and persons with disabilities), and more. The course was an eye-opener about the possibilities for developing an inclusive, sustainable economy here in Ontario.
With participants from across Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Italy, Spain, Malta, Costa Rica, and Ireland, there was lively discussion between practitioners, cooperative & social enterprise developers, educators, and advocates. With the majority of participants coming from post-colonial states, throughout the two weeks there was a current of discussion about the legacy of colonialism and how new models could engage Indigenous peoples. There was also much debate about the role of women, care work, and unpaid labour in economic systems.
The many examples presented at our summer institute showed that communities can – indeed must – develop sustainable economic systems that provide for community (and planetary) wellbeing. Community-led initiatives provide opportunities for residents to participate in the critical decisions affecting them: like who has access to housing, where our food comes from, the quality of our jobs and ownership of our workplaces, and how to finance our community development.
We don’t need to dream up such a world, but can consider examples already happening:
- Building and operating housing that is permanently affordable
- Producing community-owned renewable energy
- Growing, processing and distributing our own food
- Looking after their elderly and marginalized people cooperatively
- Providing interest-free community banking
- Running collaborative networks for freelancers to share resources and jobs
- Manufacturing goods.
Communities elsewhere have already done this and we can do so in Ontario. In fact, to a small but growing degree, we already are.
Leaders in the transition to a collaborative economy are not waiting for government to solve these kinds of problems or even to be granted permission to start. There is clearly a role for government both to regulate the for-profit market and to be a supportive partner-state to the collaborative economy (among other critical roles). Municipalities are essential partners in the transition. The urgency of the crises we face, however, means that the nonprofit sector must step up and do what needs to be done for our own communities.
To start, this means working on our economic literacy and examining how present ownership models have drained wealth from our communities. A range of social, economic, and environmental problems are, in many ways, different faces of one underlying problem: we are held hostage by a system that turns the gifts of nature and human effort into wealth accumulation for a small minority.
With that realization, we must turn to building and scaling up alternatives that create and distribute value and wealth in more inclusive and environmentally sustainable ways. As a society, we tend to think of the economy as made up of the free market and the state. The residual role of the nonprofit sector, if it is considered, is to mop up the problems left by the market. But the nonprofit sector is, and can be, so much more.
Any community that has assets and needs has the basis to transition to a new economy. Think of the goods and services that communities purchase – as individuals, nonprofits, small businesses, and even anchor institutions. Then consider the effect it would have if even a modest percentage of their spending and financial investments were redirected to local communities through social procurement, community shares, community investment banks, and community banking partnerships. Imagine the impact on our households and communities that would come from the widespread availability of nonprofit housing, food, energy, and social care (not to mention jobs in these fields), along with interest-free banking.
The team came back with a draft action plan for sparking changes in our own economy, starting where nonprofits already are. We’ll engage our network partners, including those who co-hosted the “Champions for a New Economy” event, to develop this new initiative. If you are interested, please get in touch.
Returning with more than just postcards, we have brought with us new energy and concrete ideas and models of how a collaborative economy can work in Ontario. Now we’re eager to get started!
With thanks to Metcalf Foundation and the Synergia organizers, Mike Lewis and John Restakis.