In praise of Europe – Mondragon arrives in the UK

We are mandated to leave the European Union, but we remain a European set of nations. There is enough inspiration in the European cooperative sector to embrace and improve all the connections we can.

So, enough of nationalism now, after the referendum. How do you make change at a local level? The great Basque worker co-op, Mondragon, is investing in a model in the UK that aims to answer that question. 

Of course, everyone tends to have their defaults when it comes to making things happen, or putting up with things when they don’t. The model being worked up by the Young Foundation is interesting as it is a blend of the community development approaches of old (I have written about the inspirational work of Tony Gibson for example) and contemporary interests such as for social innovation.

What is the same is a focus on understanding shared experiences, developing shared narratives and taking action together. What is distinctive is a more intensive initial research phase, using participatory and ethnographic research to hold up a mirror to people at a local level, coupled then with a matching phase of linking local people to local and national social innovations that could catch light. 

Mondragon Co-operative is investing in a trial of the model in Northern Ireland. Gorka Espiau, Director of Places at the Young Foundation, explains that Mondragon has been an inspiration for the work, making it natural to bring them in, alongside other partners, and other pilots in areas such as Leeds. “The Basque Country has managed to transform its economy following a sustainable human development approach and currently enjoys some of the best outcomes across the EU in healthcare, education and income per capita, combined with low poverty rates and a more balanced distribution of wealth.”

In Belfast and in Derry / Londonderry the approach, called Amplify, has started to link up local innovators and decision makers in what is hoped can become a social movement, coming together around a shared vision but building this into a network of shared ownership and innovation.

It is early days, and there have been enough stop start attempts in neighbourhood regeneration and community organising to hold our breath before suggesting that this can change the world. It is an intensive approach, which may be a strength or a weakness. But it has ambition and is rooted in culture. That, rather wonderfully, is exactly the magic that Mondragon and the best of European co-operation can teach us.

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