The Local Economy Cookbook
January 31, 2011
This article, from RAIN April 2008, provided a few interesting patterns for economic revitalization through locally-based small projects in the post-financial-meltdown world.
If communities can organize quickly, disasters caused by Wall Street could in fact strengthen
First, the downturn will deprecate the unsustainable habits of City governments and Chambers of Commerce, which deplete local resources for the benefit of the privileged. Second, the "alternative" strategy, nurturing local small business and and othe local activity, can move to the fore -- cooperation emerges, neighborhoods are revived, etc.
Today, we must push for that transition, and initiate community projects that provide immediate economic energy. Here are a few common approaches to getting things off the ground.
Workshops: train your future colleagues
People with skills need colleagues, whether they are plumbers or custom shoemakers. They need to spend as much time teaching as possible, in order to find talent to expand their operations. This needs to be facilitated by the community, because it benefits the local economy. These people must be sought and helped.
The skilled people cannot spend their time training all interested person for free, in the hope that one will be a good fir. Big companies sometimes do that, institutions can do this, but a tiny local businesses cannot.
The answer is paid workshops. Teach a class in your expertise, oriented towards the opportunity. Charge the students, so you can afford to do it. See who excels ... and you'll have found your colleagues.
Workshops can cover any topic or art, and be taught at any level of abstraction, from cooking to painting to construction.
But they can also directly benefit the community. Say there's a historic building that needs restoration ... but there's not enough money in the local economy to finance it. Why not have professional restorers teach workshops on site while actually repairing a building? The students get a potential new career, the professionals find potential future colleagues, and, happily, a lovely building gets restored.
Say you have a successful vegetarian food business: you cater, you have cafes, and you have a product line sold in local stores. It's too much to manage. You need to find that rare combination of super-cook / product manager ... so why not teach workshops in creating vegetarian products for local distribution? Teach for the role that is needed.
The Inside-out University
If you put enough of these workshops together, you have a People's University, oriented towards the needs of the community.
This is, in many ways, the opposite of education as currently conceived, where the internal structure of the institution trumps the needs of the surrounding community. The People's University, while still respecting the student, puts the communities needs first, so it can always be agile and self-sufficient.
It might seem like a vocational school ... and of course it's a related idea ... but it's much looser: courses come and go based on immediate local needs for import replacement, from farming to making toothbrushes, and the opportunities afforded by local talent. Since it's a local university, it is focussed on community needs, eliminating the wasteful intermediate concepts of the national economy: "degrees", "careers" etc.
Note that otherwise local talents are usually on their own, and hence, no matter how talented, they are less likely to succeed in the community. If they are on their own, they may struggle unnecessarily to succeed economically, to develop a community of local colleagues, or to make an impact on the global scene.
The People's University is an important step. It can group the workshops into loose, changing "departments" with "curricula", publications and cooperative marketing, so potential students (and teachers) can more easily discover what's on offer.
It's important to avoid the "campus" mentality ... the classes should be part of the community, the departments
The Course Catalog, the bedrock communication tool of modern Universities, may be inappropriate for the kind of economic revitalization described here. Courses are hidden in forbidding catalogs, in much the same way students are hidden away from real life when they work in a closed campus. A more appropriate communication tool might be a People's University newspaper supplement, part of an already popular paper. There must be a matching website, worth reading for its coverage of emerging projects and opportunities, as well as a clearinghouse for information on new project-driven workshops. And regular postering around the town.
Public flash presentation meetings
There are many stages to economic revitalization. The workshop, or the People's University, is at the beginning of the incubation of economic activity that extends local talent. But what's before that? How to people just hear each other out? They need to listen to each other's ideas for projects, spaces, solutions etc.
The key is the public networking meeting. There are many possible formats.
One of the best formats is the open flash presentation, where anyone can speak for 5 minutes, providing the opportunity to identify potential collaborators. People are then naturally encouraged to form groups around the various topics raised. The meetings are facilitated, and communication tools are provided ... whether web services, computers with internet connections, or bulletin boards, etc.
"Speed-dating" brokerage events
To overcome the social inertia that prevents interaction, flash presentations can be followed by one-on-one meetings between everyone presenting. This encourages more people to present.
One kind of event that can be helpful is a project faire, where people can drop in to talk with groups already working on launching new projects. Any stage can present. People are used to going to faires where existing groups are advertising their work at public events. But the "project faire" helps projects that are just about to be born, and are looking for colleagues and other support.