Compendium for the Civic Economy – a review by Kevin Harris

11th in our Best practices in Community Empowerment series.

This review of the Compendium for the Civic Economy is reposted here (with some addenda) with permission of Kevin Harris. Click here to subscribe via rss to his Neighbourhoods blog.

OK you need to commit a few minutes to this, please, cos it really is a bit special. Yesterday saw the launch of the Compendium for the civic economy [80MB pdf]. I’m tempted to write, ‘and the rest is history’ and leave it at that.

Speaking at the launch at NESTA, Tom Bolton, from the Centre for Cities, raised the question of how you describe an economy when its distinguishing feature is its ways of working (and, I would add, its values) rather than in terms of traditional business sectors.

The compendium gets at the question, what are the economics of localism? I think it’s possibly the most important document I’ve had my hands on so far this century. It was prepared by the ever-dependable Indy Johar, Joost Beunderman and their colleagues at 00:/.

It records and celebrates a number of examples of civic entrepreneurship, and reflects on their significance for our understanding of how people who are not part of formal public services, and not part of the traditional private sector, are making a difference to civic and social conditions, by coming up with transformational projects and involving others in carrying them through. Some of the examples are already well-documented, and justifiably so, like Incredible Edible Todmorden and Southwark Circle. There are 25 described in the book.

Now I want to quote from the second of the authors’ six key messages, on page 169, which sums up why this matters. But I can’t copy and paste it, because for some reason someone has decided to disallow content copying on the pdf – which is obviously hugely ironic given that the text extols initiatives that promote sharing and collaboration.

The heading for this second message is (and I type): ‘Civic entrepreneurship can actively contribute to increasing the resilience, prosperity and well-being of people, places and communities’.

[in his blog, Kevin left gaping holes where the quotes would be, to make the point that a document on sharing and collaboration probably shouldn’t be locked. That’s very funny, if you’re British, but I’m not, so am posting below, in itals, the passages that I think Kevin meant to quote]

Civic entrepreneurs are achieving change by using collaborative and open-ended approaches to solving some of our most complex societal problems, seeding new ideas and attracting diverse collaborators to shape their propositions. They make innovative use of new technology, innovative finance and wider social networks. They enable better use of undervalued resources whether physical or social. Most importantly, the ventures they create are deeply multi-faceted ventures, demonstrating a range oflinked social, economic and environmental outcomes. If their approach were adopted on a wider scale, the outcome would be an economy that is more democratic; locally rooted yet globally networked; richer in opportunities not just for economic growth but also for social development; and pluralist, as it invites multiple forms of investment and widens the scope of players in local economies.

Next, I’d like to quote from the first message (also p169), to explain the drivers for the flourishing of civic entrepreneurship:

The civic economy is re-emerging in a new form as a vital and growing force for social, economic and environmental progress. In the introduction, we highlighted the technological, cultural and organisational trends that are changing the fabric of our economy and society. These changes are combining with deep-rooted traditions of entrepreneurship, community activism and social enterprise. What results is an emerging set of shifts in behaviour that cut across the public, private and third sector.

And next I want to quote from the fourth key message, on page 170, which clarifies the new relationships that are needed to help the civic economy evolve more widely:

Enabling the growth of the civic economy will require different ways of thinking and doing across the public, private and third sector. The examples in this book cover a wide spectrum: this is an economy that is driven by the purpose and energy of a highly diverse range of protagonists and participants. This means that no single actor – whether the government, local public agencies, or the private or third sector – can on its own create the conditions for the civic entrepreneurs to emerge and flourish. But they all have a role to play in creating fertile ground.

I tend to be a sceptic about NESTA events which often seem like empty-syllable contests, but yesterday’s launch was inspiring, full of lucid and concise insights from panel members and other participants. Here are a few points from my notes.

Indy talked a lot about ‘respect’, for example that the new civic economy requires agencies ‘to respect groups’ human capital’ and to be ‘respectful of in-kind investment’. This is an important point, and I’d add that activists and residents sometimes need to be more respectful of the efforts made by some council officers.

Sam Coniff from Livity showed how readily this movement can be reconciled with commercial entrepreneurship. He also clarified how it is partly a network society phenomenon, noting that because the technology allows people easily to start things up, they do things that are closer to their values. Don’t pass over that too quickly: it’s a very profound point about our age.

Pam Warhurst, from Incredible Edible Todmorden, argued passionately that if you give people a positive environment to work in, they can do remarkable things. Pam insisted vehemently that people with the necessary skills and energy are there, we just have to ensure the creative environment for them.

But this is an ancient community development issue: not everywhere has a Pam Warhurst and she can’t be cloned. As I’ve noted before (eg), not all neighbourhoods have confident, articulate, respected, energetic local champions. The dynamic activists don’t think they’re particularly special, but actually they can’t be found everywhere. In many areas they simply will not emerge, at least not without in-depth community development in addition to the uncomfortable institutional change that is so widely discussed. We need to acknowledge that and not pretend that this new economy is going to spring up readily all over the place.

I suspect there’s a slight danger from reading this inspiring collection of narratives that councils and other overseer agencies will look to develop templates, in order to get similar projects running in their localities. What matters I think is to ensure that the conversations about contributing and participating take place in the right language – as Indy said, ‘engaging respectfully with people’s strengths’. The local authority shift, as Tom Bolton pointed out, requires fewer bureaucrats and regulators, and more facilitators.

In conclusion, I want to mention how well this book is written, and what a reassuring pleasure that is. The design, on the other hand, is best described as unfortunate: I shouldn’t have to get a magnifying glass out just because someone thinks 8pt grey looks good on a light brown background.

Kevin Harris is principal of Local Level, author of the Neighborhoods blog, with 20+ years working with residents and community development professionals, including years as an advisor to the UK government. 

Next up: Barbara Pantuso of Hey, Neighbor!

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