What can the we learn from the Messina advanced social cluster about economic regeneration and resilience in the wake of COVID-19?
This article is part of our series to support economic resilience and regeneration. We collect knowledge and practices that people in different sectors are using to keep their businesses afloat right now. An open discussion can provide valuable advices, experiences and opportunities for further learning and collaboration.
What does it mean to be safe if we look from the perspective of resilient livelihoods?
We used to do economic development policy by adopting a unique idea of what a good society looks like and everyone is supposed to conform to that. Since we are now losing faith in this model, we should encourage peripheral regions to experiment different economic systems.
In the case of Messina, this seems to have come about by pioneering an approach resting on four elements:
- relational goods (encoding human relationship in physical goods. Example: the local brewery had been bought up by Heineken, who proceeded to delocalize production. The Messina crowd allied with laid off brewery workers to start a new brewery. The beer made there encodes human values of dignity, local regeneration and hope).
- Stocks over flows (social economy tends to be undercapitalized, because its protagonists focus on getting funding for short-term projects. The community foundation funds no projects, only permanent initiatives)
- Systems over networks (the difference is this: the components of a system are happy to reassess their strategy depending on that of the others, moving in a more coordinated way)
- Dyson’s sphere model (the Dyson sphere is an imaginary artefact built all around a star to capture its energy. The idea is to create prosperity for every member of the system: when a client comes around wanting, say, a consultant to organize a workshop, they are immediately asked if they also need a venue, a translation service, a travel agency and so on… all parts of the system).
Over the years and in part based on the culture of the founders, they were able to come up with practices that are self-evident to them, but counter-intuitive to us.
One example: they have assembled an art collection without buying any of the pieces .
They acquired them all through donations or artist residencies. The collection is worth several millions now, and Guggenheim has tried to acquire it, but of course the foundation can never sell it without destroying the goodwill that made it possible to acquire it in the first place.
That the collection cannot be sold does not mean it is worthless .
It has value in two senses : as the embodiment of the relationship of mutual trust between the Foundation and artists, and as a collateral to roll out revenue-generating projects . The collection is valued not for its resale value, but for its potential to grow and catalyse more activities . You do not realize this value by cashing out on the asset, but by stewarding and growing it. This is a very different value theory from the one dominant in capitalism and neoclassical economics. It is an example of the kind of thinking that can emerge from mutual aid communities.
While seemingly simple and fairly easy to adopt these principles in other places, it is also easy to underestimate the complexity of local differences and embeddedness, as well as of local and regional inequalities.
One of the views that emerged in our discussion was:
"From my experience of working in the UK, I am not sure if the definition of well being and safety is shared across different communities. For many safety and security is keeping people outside of the borders and this view often belogns to the Brexit voters. There is a big risk that people are left behind in transformations, because we are not listening to communities and creating strong cultural bonds. The situation is complex, there is not the same clarity for everyone.“
So how can we implement the lessons learned?
What does it mean for those who wish to support economic regeneration in the wake of #covid19 or The Green New Deal?
“I am wondering whether we could create access through the mutual support groups of sharing and caring communities? How do you expand on the Messina case? How to add on top of that trans-contextual literacy in these already stand alone communities - through more flexible policy making (not waiting for the EU)? Climb the ladder bottom up and expand on it. The axes of sharing and caring communities could be the way to start. What would be the motto to use to find that intersection?”
Nora Bateson says that when the systems are stuck they don’t get unstuck if someone says it, but only if the systems learn together. Experience of creating trans-contextuality - experiences with different identities, empathy, get the glimpse of the context of others, go beyond the polarisations and the idea of the democratic process. Lack of trust in society - part of the core things not working. Automatization of who we are. The idea of subsidiarity - top down, not bottom up and it is completely missing as well the dynamic ways of doing policies. We need a dynamic way of testing and designing policies and interventions. Locally driven and context dependent. Forget about the scalability.
A key aspect is that we are going to need to experiment new processes and models for working with movement building to get something to happen, and then protect its integrity for long enough that the desired results become visible . A process which embeds the means to strengthen the political/ideological movements that have supported and protected it.
An interesting example of what happens when you don’t manage to do this is the Finnish Basic Income experiment . A well thought through proposal originally came from progressive activism and was co-opted by the political platform of the liberals. They ignored fundamental elements and executed it badly. Some of these fundamental elements were giving basic income to a randomly selected sample of at least 30,000 individuals. Neither condition was met. Also, it ran for less than half of the time estimated for the experiment to succeed in meeting its main target. The result was that it did not bring significant employment effects (Demos Helsinki has published the full report here).
Compare this to the history of Folkhögskola (Folk high schools), a Nordic model for adult education and lifelong learning that has been around since 1844. The concept originally came from the Danish writer, poet, philosopher, and pastor N. F. S. Grundtvig. The folk high school movement was an act against a conservative ideal of both education and culture. At its core was an idea was to give the peasantry and other people from the lower echelons of society a higher educational level through personal inner development. It was born out of a reaction against the Enlightenment’s view of our mind as a fixed, rational machine as opposed to being embodied in the totality of our bodies and embedded in our culture. After the 1848 revolutions in Germany these ideas travelled to the Nordic countries where they were then adopted in the educational model pioneered by Grundtvig and contemporaries. Tomasz Maliszewski at the Polish Naval Academy gives a detailed account of the rich history of this institution in Sweden:
One conclusion we draw is that we need to embed the idea of Citizen Engagement as community action on experimenting local development economic models, rather than as citizen-to-institution consultation.
Because the citizen-engagement-as-consultation mindset does not look at the issue of power. Consulting citizens is one of those ideas that sound like a no-brainer, but are very difficult to get the incentives aligned right for. It’s like experiments: the idea of policy experiments sounds great, but try proposing in a European forum “let’s have an experiment: revoke the copyright directive for Latvia”. You won’t get far, because the powerful people already have what they want. You can experiment only if you can override them, but if you could do that you could also attempt to establish an alternative policy anyway. With consultation it is the same. If the results of the consultation go against what powerful stakeholders want, the temptation to tell citizens “we have heard you, but we do not think we can go by what you recommend” is going to be too strong.
There could be a way out from this situation: invest time in the regional level because maybe you can allow citizens to hold real power, or experiment, if you go to a place that “doesn’t matter”. At the periphery of Europe’s economy, it is easier to get away with things. And indeed, Europe is swarming with mutant local economies (like this case in Catalonia).
In practice we need to find new arenas where we can broker specific deals between communities and their local institutional and political actors around getting specific things off the ground. And create conditions for them to have staying power.
The SciFi Economics Lab explores how to spark and nurture similar dynamics between regional administrations, political activists and groups running existing initiatives which embody different economic models. We explore how can we give enablers of a transition to a thriving future access to political power so they create the change needed? Can we shift the whole political landscape through tactical interventions and ecosystem building?
- How can we help swarms develop around sticky, relevant social questions - creating conversations, relationships, and ultimately projects?
- Can we learn from startup incubation and acceleration and create a structured approach to supporting civil society groups in becoming more effective in creating political change?
- How can a new generation of political actors integrate turn political campaigns towards community building principles - and can we open-source this?