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Understanding the Real Economy

by Jules Peck
May 3, 2016

Many of us know that we desperately need to shift our economy away from growth and inequality to one that delivers wellbeing and justice for people and planet. But have you ever wondered what the ‘next economy’ actually looks like today? Or how the various economic visions of a new form of economy fit with each other and with current practice?

Many of us know that we desperately need to shift our economy away from growth and inequality to one that delivers wellbeing and justice for people and planet. But have you ever wondered what the ‘next economy’ actually looks like today? Or how the various economic visions of a new form of economy fit with each other and with current practice?

Would you find it helpful to have one place you could go to to see all the organisations around the world who are innovating and experimenting with ‘next economy’ practice and thinking? Would you like to be able to see what they are doing, how, why and with who?

It was those questions that drove me personally to start an enquiry that has become the Real Economy Lab. As someone involved in next economy thinking in my role as a Board member of Nef and in my involvement in next economy practice such as Happy City and Transition Towns, I felt frustrated that it was so hard to see how this next economy ecosystem is made up and evolving. And having read much of the ‘next economy’ theory from people like Gar Alperovitz, David Schweickart, Erik Olin Wright and others, I found it hard to see how these visions of how a future economy could function mapped against the confusing array of real-world experiments. 

I kept hearing about ‘new economics’ and ‘the next economy’ but it wasn’t obvious what this actually meant in terms of either theory and vision or in practice. I could see a great deal of activity on the ground were I live in the west of England and when I travelled around the world meeting next economy practitioners.

But despite all this great work going on around the world, it was hard to see how this plethora of work fitted together into a broader ecosystem, let alone a coherent progressive force pulling in the same direction. I wondered how do the ‘tribes’ within this ecosystem relate to each other? How does the practitioning link or not link to various schools of thinking about how a new economy could function?

Without such an understanding its perhaps no surprise that there is little in the way of a concerted progressive movement working together to create the next economy. I had a feeling that if we could all point in the same direction we might be able to do what the shock doctrine regressives did so successfully in ensuring neoliberalism succeeded for so long.

So I, and a group of others asking the same questions, including Peter Lipman, Chair of Transition Towns and Tony Greenham of the RSA, started conversations that became a collective initiative to make sense of next economy theory and practice. And with early support from Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and more latterly the Swiss foundation FPH and Nef we founded the Real Economy Lab.

Two years on and the purpose of the Real Economy Lab (REL) is to build understanding and awareness of alternative ways of running and designing a next economy and to be a facilitator and connector of next economy change-agents, to join the dots and create the conditions for convergence across the next economy ecosystem.

At the heart of the Real Economy Lab online platform is a ground-breaking, evolving, innovative, highly visual and interactive network map of the evolving next economy ecosystem which we developed with support from Ben Brownell and Ishan Shapiro of the Metamaps community. You can view a short video here that shows how the mind-mapping works. 

This next economy involves a rich array of theory and of practical innovations and experiments from all around the world as diverse the Post Growth Alliance, the Next System Project, New Economy Coalition, the P2Pcommonermakersharerbuen vivircollaborativesocial solidarity,direct actionlocalisation and co-operative movements, from transition towns, alternative currencies, the economy for the common good, positive money, common cause and many many others.

Across these various communities people are finding ways to produce, consume, live, learn and interact which can set us on the pathway to a more sustainable, equitable and flourishing world. Much of this is blow the radar as yet and partly what we hope to do at REL is to share those stories and encourage others to start or join similar journeys.

The REL has been surveying the landscape and identifying the linkages between these diverse initiatives and is building an interactive platform where the cumulative knowledge, aims, and resources of these movements can be drawn together in order to seek common ground and drive coordinated action. Our surveys ask next economy organisations about things like their intended impacts, the sectors of society they aim to work with and influence, the ultimate outcomes and tangible outputs they aim for, their theory of change, the means through which they bring about this change and their positions on key issues like growth, capitalism, ownership, equality, values and on particular political-economic paradigms. We also ask what challenges they face and how we as REL and how others can support their work better. 

We have developed a taxonomy to understand, analyse and make sense of this emerging ecosystem and its common themes, its 'tribes', its archetypesand much more. By analysing and making sense of the responses to our mind-mapping surveys and running social-network-analysis tools, we are able to start to understand sets of common and linking attributes, values and principles across these tribes and organisations. This can then help us understand where new collaborations and cross fertilisation might be valuable. Actors can see who they might benefit from collaborating with, who has similar ways of working or theories of change and so on.

Its clear from our work so far that many of the organisations we have surveyed share many common principles and values aligned with a shift in personal value as well as socio-economics. Often this might not be explicit in what these initiatives are tying to do but often the personal journey is a key part of what next economy initiatives are working to.

Examples include the focus on sharing and community of the commons, p2p and sharing movements and the ‘head, heart and hands’ perspective of Transition Towns. One next economy initiative, Common Cause, is all about that shift in values from the extrinsic to the intrinsic. And many of the next economy social movements I have met around the world, like theITUCMovement Generation, the Fund for Democratic Communities and Edge Funders Alliance, are overtly focused on what they frame as a Just Transition to a next economy.      

In addition to building the interactive online platform, we’ve run conferences like the Bristol New Economy Summit and run webinars like this one with our partner organisation the US Next System Project. 

And as well as making sense of and visualising next economy practice around the world we are working on ways to understand how next economy theory links to this practice. Working with the Next System Project we are developing a taxonomic approach to seeing how various visions of a future economics map with current practice. Its our hope that doing this will help next economy practice to think more about systemic change and how to bring it about.

We have been delighted with the widespread enthusiasm and support we have had from key players in the ‘next economy’ world and from the hundreds of next economy organisations who have taken the time to fill out our survey and to become part of what we are building. 

And we would like to invite others in the next economy practitioning world to join what we are doing. By filling out the survey your information will be included in the database which will power our next round of mind-mapping and you will be able to see how your initiative connects with, compares to and maps with many other next economy initiatives around the world. We hope this will empower your work to collaborate and cross-fertilise with others in our growing movements. 

If you can think of other initiatives which should be involved in our work and mind-mapping please do tell us who to contact. If you would like more information about the survey and our work please feel free to contact me on jules@flourishingenterprise.org    

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