Size doesn’t matter: Why community enterprises can solve the world’s largest problems

Tuesday, 19 March 2019 15:10 GMT

People drink in the bar at The Churchill Arms pub in Kensington in London, Britain, May 30, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

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There’s a radically more inclusive, democratic and environmentally progressive way to run local economies

James Goodman is director of futures at Forum for the Future, a global sustainability consultancy

Whether it’s a community-owned pub or a cooperative renewable energy scheme, social businesses rooted in local communities are, by definition, small. But what they lack in size they make up for in ambition, with the power to re-shape our economy and help tackle the greatest global issues of our time.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the world is facing a perfect storm of challenges that threaten civilisation. The climate system is beginning to break down. Nature is in rapid retreat. Fast-moving, material-intensive consumerism is spreading around the world. Rising nationalism makes it harder for governments to work together.

 As our recent report shows, the window of opportunity to create a sustainable world, one in which people everywhere can lead fulfilling lives on a healthy planet, seems narrower than ever before. Against this backdrop, isn’t community enterprise a worthy but rather tame and small scale response?

Not if we understand the sorts of changes that we need. Yes, we need new energy technology, new ways of producing food and we need governments, big business and multilateral organisations like the UN to up their game.

But we also need to build connections and empathy between people by getting involved, trying out new solutions and collaborating. We need to change the way the world works, creating a new pattern of relationships that is geared towards new outcomes and goals. Community enterprises and other emerging models of democratic civic participation have a significant part to play in that shift.

They are locally rooted and accountable to the local community. They embody distinctive values, such as participation, transparency and solidarity, and are constantly listening to, learning from and adapting to changing local context. They are collaborative by nature, building momentum for economic democracy at the local level. They own assets for the long-term benefit of the community; they share their power with others; they create more spaces for people to come together; and they put people – not profit – first.

In England, community enterprise is on the rise. Across the country, people are setting up small businesses in response to local social, environmental and economic challenges.

They are proving there’s a radically more inclusive, democratic and environmentally progressive way to run local economies – from a community-owned pub, bus service, market garden or housing project. Community enterprises are stepping up to fill the gaps left by traditional business and government.

Great examples abound. In the north of England, the Greater Manchester Community Renewables is a community benefit society, set up and run by local people to install community-owned renewable energy tools. It raises funds to install solar panels on schools and community buildings, helping them save money, reduce their carbon footprint, and inspire children and the community to learn about energy and climate change.

Community-owned land project Sacred Earth, in the south of England, produces and sells soil fertiliser biochar and is restoring 40 acres of exploited land as a haven for wildlife. Its apprenticeship programme helps teenagers develop their social and emotional intelligence through experiential learning on the land.  

Atmos Totnes, in the south west on England, is a community-led redevelopment project that provides affordable housing, a community hub and a business incubator. It’s helping to solve the housing crisis and simultaneously experimenting with accountability structures that are distributing power locally and driving a renewal in local connection.

What community enterprises do beautifully is provide roots. They give people a frame of reference for what they are creating or protecting and what’s at stake.

As these new models, ideas and innovations spread, they challenge our underlying cultural values about civic participation and social action, and that’s when we’ll see new patterns of organising emerge into the mainstream.

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