2018 was a particularly grim year for environmentalists. The IPCC special report spelled out that we had just twelve years to avert climate collapse; extreme weather events continued to become more frequent and intense; natural assets and biodiversity continued their decline.
At the same time, long-term economic restructuring and austerity underpinned an increase in personal precariousness and social fragmentation – creating space for the rise of strongman politicians who stepped their countries back from the hard-won commitments and obligations made just years earlier on the international stage.
But of course the world did not get to this perilous position over night. For decades, corporations and broader capitalist economic structures have been playing a key role in driving or exacerbating these trends. A relentless focus on profit maximisation for shareholders – at the expense of other stakeholders, such as workers, and the natural world – have consistently depleted human, social and natural systems.
As we look ahead to the next decade, it is almost certain these terrifying trends will continue on their current trajectory – unless we change the way we do business.
Community enterprise shows there is another way. Also known as community business or community-based social enterprise, the term refers to organisations or initiatives that are locally rooted, trade for the benefit of the community, and are owned by or accountable to the local community, leading to broad community impact.
These enterprises are entrenched in distinctive values: participation, self-help, solidarity, transparency, caring, and enjoyment. Diverse in nature, they encompass a range of business models, including co-operatives, social enterprises, and others. They have a long history, too, from mediaeval guilds and friendly societies to philanthropic model communities.
Community enterprises operate across a wide range of subsectors, from community energy to co-operative pubs and shops, and are supported by a range of local and national infrastructure organisations.
Power to Change, an independent charitable trust that seeks to strengthen community enterprise in England, estimates there may be as many as 7,000 such organisations operating in the UK, with a total market income of up to £1.2 billion in 2017.
Over the course of 2018, we spoke to more than 40 community enterprises, plus another 20 experts who are active in the field or have a perspective on changes impacting it – from government agencies and think tanks to NGOs and regional/sectoral umbrella groups.
Based on the findings of this research, we believe that with a clear focus and the right support, community enterprise has the potential to transform people’s lives and contribute to significant, positive shifts in the economy by 2030.
By becoming much more visible and influential in local economies, community enterprises can come to represent a far greater percentage of economic activity and employment; and through establishing a clearer collective voice and putting local people and accountability at its core, community enterprise will be increasingly followed by - not swallowed by - the mainstream.
Community enterprises can also play a major role in renewing the natural world, by protecting and restoring communities’ local ecologies, and operating in a sustainable way. They can enable greater local self-sufficiency and affordability, too, in areas such as food and housing, through local co-ownership and coproduction.
Community enterprises can help drive a renewal in the importance of place, by creating, retaining and distributing wealth locally, building local relationships and improving local services.
By owning assets, sharing power and bringing people together, they can steer away from the individualistic, materialistic, extractive economy of today, to one that nurtures and restores a sense of community and the natural resources upon which we all depend.
By doing all of this, community enterprises can enable people to impact global issues, locally.
And it’s happening already, albeit on a small scale. Sacred Earth is a biodynamic, community-owned land project that produces and sells biochar – a charcoal made from heating agricultural waste, which sequesters carbon and enhances soil. Having reclaimed the 40-acre site of an abandoned brickworks in East Sussex, its vision is to create a place where soil degradation and species decline are reversed.
Another example is the community-led Food Network in Oldham, which brings together residents, communities and other organisations to work co-operatively to improve access to fresh, affordable and healthy food. With Oldham Council, it has launched a £135,000 Food Enterprise Fund targeted at community groups who want to generate an income through food and growing.
To realise the vision for community enterprise in 2030, we identified eight major shifts that need to happen. Chief among them is a greater proportion of income being earned income (i.e. through the sale of goods or provision of services), combined with funding from a wider range of sources – to build financial independence and power.
Another major shift would be meaningful changes in our underlying economic, social and cultural norms, to create a supportive environment for positive citizen and social action.
We also recommended priorities for different actors and influencers within the system:
- Community enterprises can themselves play a central role in defining and communicating their purpose and impact, leveraging the trust they command in communities.
- Central government can create a more favourable environment for mechanisms like asset transfer, the Community Right to Bid, or setting up community (renewable) energy schemes. Ministers should encourage civil servants to view citizens as active participants in the creation of public services, and make it easier for smaller, more local organisations to play a role in service delivery.
- Citizens can assist in the development and growth of the movement by participating in it directly – as users of products and services, from groceries to energy; from community media subscriptions to community finance. They can participate as employees or volunteers, by attending events, or by investing in community enterprise, for example through community shares.
But what can you do to enable the growth and development of community business as a means to renewing our society and the natural world? To explore this question, please take a look at our vision and report, or contact Daniel Ford.
Simon Lee is a sustainable development expert and advisor who worked with Forum for the Future as a principal strategist during the creation of the 2030 vision for community enterprise