People Need To Hear That They're Part Of The Solution

August 9, 2012

It is high summer, and we hope you are taking time to slow down, savour the abundance of the season and put aside the busy-ness of life for a while. This week at Ideas for Impact, we are pondering some big questions regarding the traditional concept of economy and consumption. What does it really mean to create an alternative economy? Is it actually possible? Is it possible to have the individual and community at the core instead of corporate interests? Are we in fact able to share instead of possess? To be small instead of gigantic? To be slow instead of fast?

These are the questions that shape our focus this week, as we explore some examples of a growing number of models  (from marketplaces to peer-to-peer travel to community supported agriculture to micro-lending) that are changing the way individuals interact with the economy.  These new forms of community-based social practices are disrupting the traditional ways of business and changing the way we think about ownership, consumption, and what it means to be wealthy.

While seemingly small compared to the sheer size of the formal economy, corporate players, and the ‘business as usual’ mentality, we think these small, slow and shared pockets of change are not only innovative but in fact creating significant social and economic impact. And guess what, they are popping up all over the world at an increasing rate. Change is in the air all around us! Perhaps some of that change will pave a road to a new possible future for our societies. Here are three stories that show how small innovations are making a difference.

We're Richer Than We Think: The Sharing Economy

In a time of news of imminent economic collapse and ‘double dip recessions’, there is a movement afoot that is instead celebrating abundance, looking at growth and economic opportunities from a different perspective. This phenomenon is being called the ‘sharing economy’ or ‘collaborative consumption’, that is, the reinvention of ‘old market’ behaviours – renting, lending, swapping, gifting, bartering – through technology that enables new markets for the sharing of products and services between individuals.

The idea is really as old as sharing itself, but it is picking up a lot of energy for a number of interacting reasons. The financial crisis has prompted us to be more thrifty, the environmental crisis to be less wasteful and destructive, and the generalized feeling of cultural disconnection (as we discussed in our last issue), has shown us the imperative of sharing and giving as a means to connect and thrive in our society.

Facilitated by new networking technologies and platforms, people are now sharing all kinds of things – food, tools, gadgets, couches, homes, cars, workspaces, time, money. According to Rachel Botsman, co-author of What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, what this means is that we are richer than we think: “We are surrounded by assets that have ‘idling capacity’ – the untapped social and economic value of under-utilised spaces, skills, time, gardens, and ‘stuff’.”

The scale of sharing activities is prompting some commentators to claim that our ‘culture of ownership’ is unraveling. In addition to the important positive environmental impact, this shift in consumption empowers individuals to access more while owning less, and enables a strengthened sense of community, as trust relationships are tested and built through personal interactions (even if it is with a stranger).

The potential of tapping into this capacity is quite staggering, as this video portrays:

One example of this new sharing phenomenon is Freecyle.org. What began in Tucson, Arizona in 2004 as a local email group to find new homes for unused and unwanted items, is now an online global sharing platform that has spread to over 85 countries.

According to the Freecycle.org website, the Freecycle network is made up of 5,056 groups moderated by local volunteers with 9,016,241 members around the world. It's a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free. The Freecycle Network is doing its best to avoid a Wall-E like future around the globe. What is that old Mastercard line?:

Diverting garbage out of the landfills? 500 tonnes a day.

Helping instill a sense of generosity of spirit one gift at a time? Priceless.

Fresh in the Net – Skipper Otto’s Community Supported Fishery

When Otto Strobel, a retired high school teacher and life-time fisher, heard of the concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) from his daughter-in-law, Sonia, they knew they were on to something. After 40 years on the water, Otto Strobel and his son Shaun were struggling to carry on in the industry. Community supported agriculture enables producers to have a secure market for what they grow, since consumers buy ahead of time. This arrangement helps farmers have a source of income at their time of highest expenses. For the Strobels, the CSA model presented itself as an innovative way to stay in business that they love, and in the spring of 2008, Skipper Otto’s Wild BC Salmon, Canada’s first Community Supported Fishery (CSF) was born.

Sonia Strobel identified that the successful and long-established CSA model translated easily to a fishery – both faced the same challenges of large-scale industrialized practices pushing out small and family-based operations, combined with a growing desire from consumers to have access to fresh, high-quality food that is produced (or caught) in a sustainable way.

Shares in Skipper Otto’s cost $250. In the summer season, shareholders get a total of 35 pounds of whole ‘Oceanwise’ sockeye salmon. Or, they can opt for an equivalent value in pink or chum salmon, salmon fillets, or other fish products. With 47 shareholders in their first season, the Strobel family has extended its network to the prairies to satisfy demand for fresh salmon. There are now 500 subscribers across Canada, in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, and Winnipeg.

The success of this model relies on the sense of connection formed between the producer and the consumer. Otto and his family are up-to-speed with the latest social media technology and regularly blog and tweet to their community from the fishing grounds. As Skipper Otto told Open File journalist Meghan Mast, CSF is a win-win for both fishers and customers: There are enough scare stories and sob stories in fishing. People need to hear that they’re part of the solution. We like to say, ‘You know what? You guys are making this possible. Here’s our family, we’ve been here since the 60s and we’re still here. So thank you.’

For those of you who yearn for the sea, visit CSF member Chris Mathieson’s flickr set to see photos from his 2011 fishing journey with Skipper Otto. It will make you feel good.

And, if you want a taste of this year’s catch yourself, visit the Main Street Farmer’s Market every second Wednesday.  Sonia Strobel’s father, Gordon Tilley, will likely be there to personally introduce you to the catch of the day!

Small is Beautiful: Community Micro Lending

“Small is beautiful because it notices us.”

                                                - Anonymous reader comment in The Guardian      

Micro-lending was developed as a response to the lack of accessibility of financial tools for the majority of the population in the world’s poorest countries, but the idea can be transplanted anywhere. Micro-lending is meant to provide access to financial resources to individual who can’t access financial tools from a traditional bank, and transfers the financial power from the financial institution to that of the resident and the community. There’s a great example right here in BC. It is called Community Micro-Lending (CML), a non-profit peer-lending society founded in Victoria in 2009.

Like many social innovations, the idea itself is not new, but a recombination or reinvigoration of an old idea in the right time and the right place. CML’s Founder and Executive Director Lisa Helps, a student of history and City of Victoria council member, was first inspired by the idea after reading a depression-era Victoria newspaper story of ‘neighbours helping neighbours’, without relying on government assistance or ‘the dole’ to trickle down. Lisa Helps envisioned the Community Micro Lending Society as a 21st century citizens’ response to similar challenges.

She scanned the micro lending and peer-to-peer lending initiatives around the world with two questions in mind: "What’s worked? And, what do we need to do to make this work here?"

The concept has captured a lot of attention in Victoria. As Helps told Focus magazine, “Two years ago we asked neighbours to invest their money in other neighbours, and some people looked at me as if I had two heads.” But now she’s seen a shift: “the word is out…and people are excited.” The model works, similar to other peer-to-peer lending models by matching borrowers with lenders, without a bank as intermediary. Lenders can loan as little as $500 and earn a two percent return on their investment. Lenders choose the entrepreneur, CML pools the money and when the total loan amount is met, it dispenses the loan. Borrowers are charged a fixed monthly interest rate of 10 percent on all loans, which can range from one year to five years. So far, CML has dispensed twelve loans, and as Helps says, “the good news is that all our entrepreneurs (except one who is a little behind) are repaying their loans on time.”

For Helps, however, the goal of Community Micro Lending is to provide more than just money, it is about building a community. Financial resources are important but the ‘know-how’ support is invaluable. Loan recipients are matched with a team of three mentors from the business community who can provide guidance as someone who’s ‘already been there’. The CML’s community of borrowers meets once a month with their mentors to share ideas, troubleshoot, and ‘workshop’ issues or challenges that they may be faced with. In this way, lenders know that their risk is being managed. The CML team and its energetic community of borrowers, mentors and lenders, are excited about the possibilities. “Helps says, “Local investment by local people in local people changes everything. It connects people right here.” And as the CML website states, its goal is to ensure that  “everyone involved has an opportunity to sparkle”.

To see examples of how CML works in action, watch this excellent video from Victoria’s local news station, profiling CML and its first loan recipient.

Quote Of The Week

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

                                                        -  E.F. Schumacher