The commons economy isn’t going to build itself. So a group of us in Stroud have come together to help build commons infrastructure here, and to document what happens so that it can be implemented in other towns too. Software now exists so that commons groups in different towns and regions can be connected to build the foundations of a national, and then global, commons economy (but with each community retaining autonomy).
This article is about how we got started. We’ll be blogging more about future developments. Some new ideas are being developed that could help the commons economy to grow rapidly, because they allow local economies to reduce their reliance on bank-issued money and to bring infrastructure and resources into the commons without incurring debt.
My wife and I decided to put a house into the ‘commons’. See this article for more details. But it’s not just housing that can be ‘commoned’. Every sector can have its own commons – energy, food, broadband, transport, manufacturing, social care, water, land – everything. One of our colleagues reviewed a book that explained how the best way to spread social innovation is to actually do it, and demonstrate it to local people so that it grows locally, as a model, rather than trying to broadcast the ideas widely, to see who bites. So that’s what we’re attempting to do.
We’re going to collate these articles into a manual or ‘how-to’ guide (or even an online course) on starting a commons group and building the commons from communities.
What’s happened so far
First, I introduced the idea to local people I got chatting with (anywhere – but in pubs usually, if I’m honest. That probably says something about me – but it could be in the street, in cafes, shops, friends of friends, anyone, anywhere). If they were interested, these sometimes turned into rambling discussions with ‘more questions than answers’ (as Johnny Nash put it). So I did a few things:
- I wrote up straplines and elevator pitches for the four (main) new ideas, so that I could give introductions to the ideas more easily.
- I interviewed specialists for topic introductions, to send to people if they wanted to know more details.
- I recruited specialists to answer people’s queries.
- The straplines, elevator pitches and links to topic introductions are here.
- I gathered email addresses from people who were interested, and sent them the link above and invited them to a meeting at our house.
- I also contacted various local groups I thought might be interested – housing groups, Transition, XR, youth groups etc.
- I sent out an email inviting people to an informal meeting at our house (in Jan 2023).
- We got 17 replies. 4 said they couldn’t make it, and 13 said yes.
- Our house isn’t really big enough to host a meeting of 13 people, but we reckoned that maybe 10 would turn up, and we could squeeze them in, so we confirmed time and date, said we’d provide some food, and asked people to bring a dish if they liked, and drinks etc.
- We made a potato tortilla, salad and roast pumpkin wedges.
Seven people turned up (and with us, that made 9 people in the meeting):
- my wife and me.
- 2 people we knew already.
- 3 people we talked with in the local pub.
- One person who had been recommended by someone else.
- One person who runs a house clearance / second-hand furniture business, who we’d recently donated furniture to.
This is what came out of the discussion:
- The topic introductions are too much for most people, who are busy, and don’t want the extra work of understanding complicated ideas.
- There needs an accessible story – has to appeal to the emotions not just the rational.
- I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to answer everyone’s questions.
- I suggested inviting specialists to Stroud to answer questions (which they’d agreed to do), but that might just confuse people.
- It can’t be seen as a project by and for well-intentioned / relatively well-off middle-class people. It has to provide something useful immediately to less well-off people.
- There needs to be something concrete (like a house in the housing commons) asap, to point at – rather than just talking theoretically.
- Everyone believed that there was some flavour of disaster on the way, and rather than talking about ‘solutions’, this is about mitigation and preparation, and importantly, supporting each other in communities.
- There was interest in having more meetings, and a couple of people offered to host.
Only two people in the first meeting had read the topic introductions. So I realised that this wasn’t the thing to broadcast initially, and that we’d probably need three waves of people:
- A core / steering group, to talk strategy, learn together and help bring other people in. Maybe no more than 7-8 people (the number recommended for a sociocratic circle).
- Promotion, plus ‘stewards’ – ie paid roles (for example managing the scheme, and maintaining properties / infrastructure).
- Users / customers / tenants / investors.
So next I started to recruit for a core / steering group. I tried to do this via email, to people I’d met, and via local organisations I thought would be interested. This is what I sent:
“(I introduced myself). I’m working with a network of organisations who have developed a set of ideas for building the commons economy. They’re being implemented in various parts of the world, successfully. (I can tell you more about what and where), and we’re trying to launch something in Stroud. I’m trying to put together a small group of around 7-8 people, to learn more about the ideas together (specialists will visit / zoom to answer questions); talk strategy together; talk to more people; and launch something that can grow – with paid jobs, but not for us (unless we want them). I thought that maybe the *** group might be able to help us find them (as well as help with promotion later).
For radicals, this approach can start to build an alternative to capitalism (which requires perpetual GDP growth – the root cause of climate change and biodiversity loss). This isn’t going to happen via the state or via some sort of ‘overthrow’ – we have to do it ourselves in communities. Co-ops, mutuals, community land trusts etc. are great (I’m a member of several), but they have to incur debt to bring infrastructure into common ownership, so even though those ideas have been around for 150 years, they’re not threatening capitalism, and in fact are starting to be absorbed into it (e.g. the Co-op Bank, Co-op Energy, most building societies etc.). This is a plan to bring infrastructure into the commons without debt.
For non-radicals, it provides affordable, well-maintained and insulated housing and affordable energy, broadband etc. – all owned by the community, with no avenues for wealth to be extracted.
I’ve produced straplines, elevator pitches and links to introductory information for the 4 basic ideas (it’s a 4-legged stool) – https://www.lowimpact.org/categories/commoning/further-info/building-the-commons-economy
We’re thinking that the housing commons is the place to start in Stroud, as my wife and I are intending to put our house into the commons, so we’ll have a real example to work with / learn from.
Happy to meet up to chat more about it.
I wasn’t getting many bites for the core group, although everyone seemed to like the idea, and agreed with the reasons they were needed. I was sent lots of suggestions for other people to contact, and lots of links to other organisations I might find interesting. I looked at a lot of them for potential synergy – but if we didn’t get something started, there wouldn’t be anything to have synergy with. I was disappointed by the lack of response from some groups / individuals I thought would be very interested.
I was feeling a bit despondent. It felt as though I was on the Titanic, shouting that we were going to hit the iceberg. Everybody agreed. Then I showed them a plan that I thought would work to steer us away from the iceberg. Again, everybody was onside – thought it was worth a shot. But then, when I said ‘let’s do it then’ everyone was too busy. Then my wife showed me this video:
It shows someone doing something unusual, totally alone until a second person joins them. It’s this ‘second dancer’ that’s important. After that, you’re not alone, and you can slowly start to attract other people (who don’t think you’re quite so crazy any more), until (hopefully) it turns into a flood, as in the video.
I knew that to recruit a ‘second dancer’ (well my wife and I are two people, but I’m counting us as one), I’d have to meet people in person.
Around that time, I was contacted by someone from XR who had heard that I was up the road in Stroud, and up to something. She invited me for a chat.
I walked to her house and we chatted for a couple of hours, over tea and toast. We talked about the state of the world, and how we got to where we are. I talked about the new ideas, how I’d discovered them, how pennies had dropped for me and how I hoped they’d drop for other people. I explained the kinds of things that were happening in the world based on these ideas, and we discussed how they might work in Stroud. I asked if she’d join me in a core / steering group and she said yes. So I had my ‘second dancer’.
After that I focused on people I thought would be good for the core group and contacted them directly to ask if they’d like to meet up. I met up with 6 people in total, all of whom said yes. One said she’d chair meetings. Another was a water engineer who said that using these new ideas, a water commons could be developed in Stroud. Two said they’d be interested in talking about a land commons if possible. So now we had 7 people, which is the precise number that Ted Rau told me is perfect for a sociocratic circle. Enough for a range of opinions and ideas, but not so many that it’s difficult to be heard.
What I learnt
- Chatting face-to-face is the thing to do – much better than anything digital, or phone.
- Don’t expect people with small kids, or who are finding it difficult to make ends meet, to join the core group.
- Tell people that you don’t need them to do any ‘desk’ work (just to learn together, to talk strategy, to find other people and to brainstorm ideas).
- There can be other circles looking into commoning various sectors of the economy – including land, water, energy, broadband, social care, finance – that people can join based on personal interest, without being in the core group.
- Don’t give up – the right people are out there.
We’ve since had lots of support from people in Stroud – including people well-known / networked in the town and who are part of existing groups doing good things. People have said that they’ll help promote the idea when it starts to roll, they’ll spread the word through their networks, and we were offered the use of a meeting space for 100 people, with toilets, little kitchen etc.
When there’s something growing in stroud, that others can point to, it will be much easier to launch in other towns.
What happens next
We’ll have zoom meetings with specialists, who’ve offered to come to Stroud to run co-design workshops for building any commons (housing, energy, credit, water etc.) in the town (or any town). Housing commons is considered a good place to start – the ‘rock’ on which to build the rest of the commons, if you like.
I’ll continue this story as it unfolds, and turn it into a guide for starting a commons group in other towns.