This article was first published in Stir Magazine, Summer 2019. To support our journalism, purchase this issue or an annual subscription.
While policy and campaigning will always be part of our movement’s playbook, there’s a clear opportunity to understand and support the process of building new democratic businesses and infrastructure in our local and regional economies over the next few years. If we're interested in building a democratic consensus, we need to start from everyday economics, not election campaigns.
What would it take to transform our economy?
There’s one simple answer: the seizure of dominant political power by an enlightened cadre, the rapid implementation of sweeping policy changes across the board; a programme of national education to ensure the enduring popularity of the new principles.
I’ll leave it to you to decide if recent years suggest the emergence of the long-term democratic consensus necessary for that result.
In any case, even advocates for such an outcome must accept that we also need broader cultural and institutional change – the widespread popular adoption of alternative models and systems from the grassroots up, built with democracy, transparency, and fairness at their heart.
So how is this going?
Judging the progress of the ‘new economy’ is difficult while it lacks a clear definition. But one estimate may give a guide of where we stand.
The Hidden Revolution Report recently estimated the ‘social economy’ makes a £60bn contribution to UK gdp, or 3% of the entire economy. That’s three times the size of agriculture, amounting to 5% of all UK employment. Impressive figures, but if we take this to contain the entirety of the ‘new economy’ currently, a 3% share suggests the transition of the other 97% is not exactly close at hand.
And in truth, not everything in that 3% looks entirely ‘new’. Fully one-third of the £60bn is accounted for by the John Lewis partnership and the Co-op Group, and several billion more by other large retailers. Wonderful as these organisations are, it’s hard to view entities with an average age of over 100 as representative of something new and transformative.
Even from this limited evidence, it’s clear that the new economy, however defined, is still very small relative to the economy as a whole. And there’s little sign of the kind of rapid growth that would substantially change these figures. Which leads inexorably to the harder question: What would the transition to a new economy really take?
I won’t pretend I can answer that in full, but there is one key precursor to any solution. A shift in culture and attitude needed to have any chance of stepping up to contend for the mainstream. Six steps to move from a niche community to a genuine mass movement.
First, we need to stop waiting on politics.
Governments, of course, have massive power to set incentives, even to directly enforce changes upon the economy, and a ‘new economy’ friendly government could provide a huge boost to our efforts. But waiting for this scenario is dangerous.
Firstly, it makes it too easy to put off the most difficult, ambitious work, on the assumption that a friendly government or law is both necessary and imminent – instead of finding innovative approaches that are flexible enough to work in difficult circumstances as well as supportive.
More importantly, though, relying on political support in a democratic state is also inherently risky. It’s building on a foundation that could easily be whisked away in just a few years (or less, given recent trends). If our initiatives aren’t flexible and resilient enough to prosper whatever the political climate, they’ll always be subject to a change in the weather.
Given this, we should think carefully about what proportion of our scarce time, resources, and expertise as new economy advocates we direct towards lobbying, publishing reports, advocating policy, and the like. How many pdfs do we need, and are these really the most effective, quickest way for us to get the economy we want? What we urgently need is a different economy, not just economists or economic theory, which requires demonstrable effectiveness, and popular appeal, beyond the electoral cycle.
If a new economy is going to be truly rooted, it needs to be resistant to political vicissitudes. And if we want to create a society with more agency and participation, the answer can't be waiting for an omnipotent authority to do it to us.
To take on this challenge, the next step is accepting the problem we have.
Currently though, the dominant official tone of new economy institutions is one of unrelenting positivities, with no hint of the yawning gap between reality and our ultimate objectives. It’s beyond time to stop the bland celebratory positivity, and be straight about where we stand.
Optimism is good, but it becomes a problem when it obscures the urgent need to confront the approaches and assumptions that are holding us back. And painting too perfect a picture is also out of step with the demonstrable mood and culture of the time – a skeptical, questioning perspective that is immediately dubious of polished presentation without acknowledgement of difficulty or contradiction.
We don’t need to be negative or fatalistic about our situation, but continuing with the constant expressions of pride, the unblemished emphasis of success, and the general assumption that celebration is effective as a means of persuasion and recruitment is counterproductive. It’s not authentic, it’s not realistic, and it only underlines a lack of ambition.
Getting over this will be difficult. It’s become a habitual way of operating for many. But there’s a good place to start.
If we can all agree that the country badly needs a new economy, we have to accept that not nearly enough people currently want what we are offering, and investigate why.
There is no doubting the energy, commitment, and inventiveness of this movement. But however good our supply, without attracting mass public demand, we won’t get close to wholesale transformation.
Clearly this isn’t happening yet. It’s hard to believe that the proportion of the population really involved is more than that few percent, even if we do include every person with a retail membership card.
The reality is, most people have no idea what ‘the new economy’ is, and we know very little of how they feel about the component parts. Despite the need for rapid growth, incredibly there is a real lack of research on how the public feels about our key models, or how attractive they find key entry points. It’s as if we don’t want to ask the question, but without this we can’t see what’s holding us back.
To make one small step in the right direction, a recent piece of research I’ve been involved with looked at one indicator: what do today’s entrepreneurs, current and prospective, think about the co-operative business model, a central pillar of new economy approaches? Full results will be published soon, but responses so far suggest that many currently see it as old fashioned, complex, and fundamentally unsuited for the needs of modern business.
Why might people hold negative preconceptions like this? Again, there’s an easy answer: blame false consciousness, brainwashing by the corporate media of those less clever and perceptive than us. But again, that’s abdicating responsibility.
The truth is that all too often the way we present our work serves to reinforce unhelpful associations and prejudices, rather than overcome them.
Look across any sample of presentational material about new economy projects. With a few honourable exceptions, the visuals and language are an avalanche of unhelpful cliches and tropes. For example:
• Imagery that reinforces their image as idealistic, amateurish and rural, from the unnecessary overuse of leaves, roots and other natural devices, or the abundance of twee, decorative hand drawn illustrations.
• Representing people in a fake, staged manner, with far too many stilted group shots in poorly chosen settings, over realistic, active imagery of successful collaboration.
• Favouring pride and nostalgia over ambition and aspiration, appearing backwards and inward looking, rather than offering a vision of a desirable, exciting future.
• Resorting to vague platitudes, with tired generalities like ‘for good’, ‘social’, and ‘make a difference’ in place of a clear, confident explanation of what exactly we contribute.
All these (and more) reinforce the idea that the new economy is a nice subculture, for certain types of people, not the basis for an economy for all of us. More generally, our slackness in this field cannot help impressions of wider economic or business competence.
How to overcome this?
A long term project of cultural change is needed. But there are two key ways we can start to move forward:
• Clearly identify the negative preconceptions that others have about new economy work.
• Stop reinforcing these associations with our visuals and language, and be much more open to creating new brands, products, and definitions, free of this conceptual baggage, consciously designed to avoid these negatives, while playing to our strengths.
We talk a lot (rightly) about inclusiveness in this work, but we have to show more respect for people’s cultural preferences, their different backgrounds and tastes, the kind of activities they want to do, and design accordingly. Doing this sends the implicit message that we care what they think and that we want them involved, rather than the current one which says – we know best, we have the answers, and it’s up to them to accept our superior choices.
The good news is, we know it’s possible.
There are clear examples we can follow of how the principles we’re espousing can be presented in a fresh, modern, and widely attractive manner.
GiffGaff has been the Which? recommended UK mobile provider seven years in a row, battling with the big networks for market share. It does this by emphasising the participatory, bottom up way it crowdsources its product offers – ‘we’re all the boss’. Even the name is an old Scottish term for ‘mutual giving’. But GiffGaff isn’t in any way a mutual and isn’t ultimately owned or controlled by its users. Its owner is Telefonica, a huge multinational, and the 110th biggest company in the world.
There are other examples, too. Transferwise has seen meteoric growth while explicitly presenting itself as an ethical, disruptive insurgent against the corrupt establishment of big banks. These companies have used this message to grab a big chunk of market share from rivals with much bigger budgets.
We can get angry about this or we can learn, and realise it's a good sign that astute private investors and marketers have identified an appetite for our principles, presented with style. Too often in ethical projects there's an assumption that social values should speak for themselves, and that significant investment in presentation is somehow inherently manipulative or superficial. This fallacy urgently needs to be overcome.
While there are examples we can learn from, it’s crucial we also retain the confidence to take the lead.
While nostalgia is often an unhelpful tendency, what we can take from the 19th century innovators behind many ‘new’ economy institutions is their audacity to create something entirely novel. Too often today we find ourselves just trailing in the wake of the private sector, creating the ethical or alternative versions of models that were a reaction to an economic or social moment that has already passed. We need to be looking forward, at the developing conditions of tomorrow, getting ahead of the market and defining it rather than reacting to it.
This is a challenge. It means having the confidence to create our own models with their own distinct language and identity, judging the trajectory of cultural trends, pushing ourselves to take risks and be bold. But the evidence of the past is it’s clearly possible. All the dominant models of today – positive and otherwise – were once small new ideas. If we want to own the economy of tomorrow, we have to make the claim.
The common thread running through all these steps should be clear.
What we need is a radical shift in ambition, style and approach – a fundamental change in attitude.
Our ultimate objective is change at the level of societies and systems. But the start of this is personal, facing hard realities about the limitations of our current approaches, how we are viewed, and how this holds us back. Asking hard questions likely to give answers we won’t like.
So far has been the easy part – attracting and interacting with people like us, using the approaches and presentation we all naturally like. But unless we can get over this – over ourselves – we won’t get anywhere.
Are we collectively ready? There’s one simple way we could show it. Perhaps the time has come to transcend the timid ambiguity of our label. New, after all, doesn’t even start to describe it. ∞
Daniel Stanley is a founding partner of strategic communications consultancy Cohere Partners, helping organisations innovate and communicate in a values-driven age. @dajastan
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