How community shares became a game changer for local action in the UK

Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 18.15.19Community shares have become a real co-operative game changer for local projects across the UK.

Community shares allows communities of people to come together, to crowdfund to save or launch enterprises, such as pubs or renewable energy projects, by investing often small sums of money and becoming co‑owners in the process.

Over the last decade, and we are working on the data so these are tentative, around 120,000 people have co-invested well over £100 million in 350 community businesses.

Getting the quality right, to flag up risks and keep trust high has been key to its success. Three years ago, at the community sports centre of FC United, we launched the Community Shares Standard, a quality assurance mark for the field. Since then, exactly one hundred initiatives have received the standard mark. That’s nice timing as this week, in England, is Communities Week.

The Community Shares Standard Mark was developed by the Community Shares Unit, run by Co‑operatives UK and Locality, with early support from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to underpin the quality of share offers.

eden-community-limited_1The 100th standard mark recipient, Eden‑Rose Community Limited in Suffolk, aims to raise £80,000 from the local community to support its mission to use woodlands and the natural environment as a way to provide support to children and adults with life‑limiting illnesses, such as cancer.

Capital matters for projects like this. Equity is what most social ventures typically need: patient capital for the long term rather than expensive short-term debt, which is where the wider field of social investment has tended to focus. Most social enterprises are under-capitalised and over-trading. They are on a knife edge, with tight balance sheets and nervy cash flow.

For a community share offer, you need a clear business at its heart with income over time, so that there is a route to repaying capital over time. The assets are then locked. They can’t be distributed, but they can of course be repaid – at par value.

By becoming a member owner of a community benefit society and investing through community shares, a person who may have once “donated” and be at arms length from the operation of a charity can now move closer to the cause they believe in and have a real say and involvement in how their money is used. The story of Clevedon Pier is an example of one organisation retaining its charitable status but moving to a democratic society model to enable it to raise community shares – set out in a Charity Commission case report as a positive example for other charities to follow.

Some open market research that Co-operatives UK has conducted shows that one in four people would invest money or time to help save local community assets.

23% would be likely to invest to help save their local pub from closure, and they would give time and energy to help run other local assets such as a local park or public space (25%), historical site or building (24%), or cinema or theatre (16%).

Local shares? Local people investing in local enterprises? If it sounds like a return to a community capitalism or mutuality of the past, remember that it is different. It uses modern technology platforms, mobilises communities to act as communities and, critically, keeps control in the hands of democratically organised members.

It is a reinvention of the co-operative form for new times. Community shares is a way to get things done.


Can business ever be the good guy?

Eighteen years ago, I was at the think tank New Economics Foundation and we looked then at the commercial value of being trusted as a business. We found some impressive gains to a number of brands who were consistent at translating trust into customer and workforce loyalty. But as a whole, the field of business saw trust as something to take advantage of, rather than something to build.

In work led by my colleague Alex MacGillivray, we compared data then (2000) with eighteen years previously and found that the proportion of people who believe that companies are fair to consumers was down from 61% to 44%. It was as if to get on in business was seen as getting one over on your customers.

From a customer perspective, if you were trusting, renewing insurance or sticking with mortgage deals for example, then the result tended to be that you got a worse deal. The great withdrawal of consumer trust in UK business is sad to see but it has been rational given the way that business overall has behaved.

Today, we updated the research, repeating the same survey questions of 1983 and 2001. This shows a continuation in the trend away from trust in business. Just over one in three people (36%) now believe that most companies in the UK are fair to consumers.

consumer confidenceAt the same time, some businesses retain high levels of consumer trust. Over six out of ten people (62%) surveyed trust co-operative businesses, such as The Co-op Group or Arla, which are owned by their members who all have a say in how the business is run.

This data follows on from last month’s Co-op Economy report, published by Co-operatives UK, which found that new co-ops are almost twice as likely as start-up companies to survive their first five years.

What are the drivers for this? Digging behind the headline, the results suggested that the strongest driver for whether people trust an individual businesses comes from it is a good employer. Customer service and value comes close behind. This suggests that the decline of trust in business is not that customers are losing out, but gaining as employees. They are losing out in both contexts. Over three out of four people (76%) now believe that big business benefits owners at the expense of its workers.

dogs-567257_1920High street closures, falling profits and uncertainty around Brexit makes this an extraordinarily challenging period for British business, but it will be tougher still if the UK has indeed hit a new low in terms of consumer confidence in business.

The academic research on trust tends to recognise the value of when people turn down opportunities for short-term personal gain in favour of shared benefit over the longer-term. Action like this is good at building trust, because it has a proof point. Over time, the pattern of behaviour can be recognised as the expression of underlying values – and again trust can be rooted over time in the affiliation that comes with shared values.

It may feel that business can never be the good guy – or the good gal. But in a co-operative, this trust-building feature fits very closely two time-honoured commitment devices of profit sharing and giving a voice to those involved in the business.

hand-683909It is no good for anyone for business to be cast as a perpetual baddy. It puts people off from getting involved themselves in enterprise, it puts people off as workers with the UK’s lower levels of engagement and productivity, it puts people off in terms of trying new products and services from good businesses trying to innovate.

Business can’t just be about investors. It is time for UK Plc, before it is too late, to learn to recast its relationship with customers and employees in a more co-operative spirit.

The clown that said NO – the fable of a freelancer co-op

doll-1792845The big top was full, the band started to play and the ringmaster in his shiny top hat turned to the audience to start the show.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the circus! We will begin with the Clown and the Donkey…”

The clown and the donkey ambled on and then stood together in the centre. Nothing happened. The crowd stopped clapping, leaning forward, bustling to see what was going on, talking amongst themselves.

“Jump! Play tricks” called the ringmaster, cracking his whip.

The crowd quietened and then the clown said ‘NO’.

“What are you up to?” asked the ringmaster, as the crowd fell silent.

“I don’t want to play the fool for others any more. I want to tell stories” declared the clown.

“And you?” The ringmaster flew at the donkey, arm raised, whip in hand. “Do you want to tell stories too?”

“No, I just want to listen to my friend telling his stories” answered the donkey patiently.

The clown and the donkey were ushered off by the ringmaster, but each of the following acts, the dancing horse, the giraffe, the lion and the dog followed suit and refused to go on.

“I am not going on with this show – it is a silly exhibition and I am not proud of it” said Ferdinand, the dancing horse.

circus-2885542_1920Sacked straight after the show, with no back pay, the six performers left the circus, and decided to form a freelancer co-operative.

They travelled a long distance together. When they arrived in a small town, the clown painted posters which read “Circus Co-op – for Children and Poets only”.

Three days later, the show began. There were crowds of children and a lot of grownups as well – evidently there were a lot of poets living in this town.

The clown told his stories, the animals listened in and joined in when they felt like it. The children were enchanted. The adults had never seen anything like it. By the close, it had broken all the records for TripAdviser reviews. The circus was magnificent because the clown and his friends could be themselves and play as they had longed to do for years.

Everyone was happy now. The children, the adults and the performers were all happy. And at the end of the show, the clown said ‘YES’.



This is a re-telling of a story by Dimitrije Sidjanski, who escaped to Switzerland as a prisoner of war in 1945. Sidjanski and his wife Brigitte started a children’s publishing company Nord-Sud Verlag. Under a pseudonym drawn from the names of their first three children, Mischa Damjan, he wrote the book, The Clown Said No, with illustrations by the distinguished glass painter Gian Casty. My brother, Bob, gave me the book recently, out of his own exploration with writing on the adventures of Pierrot the clown.

Freelancer and worker co-operatives are a growing way in which people can work together without a ringmaster or whip.

Rainbow_fish_original_coverThe publishing house founded by Sidjanski went on to global fame as the publishers of the Rainbow Fish by Swiss writer and illustrator Marcus Pfister. The Rainbow Fish tells the story of a vain and beautiful fish, who learns from a wise octopus that by sharing with friends, he will discover how to be happy.

The best children’s stories, it turns out, can be wise and wonderful fables of co-operative education.

Worker ownership in the USA – a new law for #coops and #employeeownership

There are celebrations across the co-operative sector in the USA, with the passing yesterday of the Main Street Employee Ownership Act. With support from across the political spectrum and championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, this has been signed into law as part of the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

Kirsten Gillibrand, US Senator for New York

Michael Peck, the inspirational founder of the US ‘1 worker, 1 vote‘ campaign in concert with the Spanish co-operative Mondragón, was one of the advocates for the new law, which will encourage the formation and conversion of firms to employee ownership. A wide range of backers came together – in the American Sustainable Business Council’s “Ownership4All” campaign – to argue for the legislation, which is now being heralded as the biggest breakthrough on worker ownership in the USA for twenty years. The Non-Profit Quarterly describes it as ‘historic’.

Peck comments that “this signed legislation shows how broadened and deepened worker ownership emphasizing self-reliance, profit-seeking bootstrapping, stakeholder & sweat equity & workplace democracy, is fully bipartisan and ‘made in America’.” 

The hope is that what can emerge from this is not simply an extension of the Employee Share Ownership models. These offer corporate income tax exemptions but often with relatively weak employee ownership and control. New options, for example, could include tax reliefs for payments of both interest and principal on worker co-operative loans, encouraging more active forms of employee ownership. The legislation should also open up access to loans from the Small Business Administration across the USA.

The moral for the UK and other European countries is to work together in alliances across the political spectrum and across the institutional divides which have held different forms of employee ownership back – from trusts and share ownership schemes through to worker co-ops and new models of freelancer co-ops.

Timed to coincide with the new law, an analysis for the Harvard Business Review, co-authored by Peck, concludes that worker ownership can lead to high performance and innovation. What the USA needs, it concludes, is an increase in worker ownership.

And it looks like it is going to get it.

I will if you will – why co-operation is key to sustainable consumption and production #CoopsDay #SDGs

Today is the International Day of Co-operatives, marked by the United Nations and co-operatives worldwide. The theme this year focuses on one of the key Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – sustainable consumption and production.

To link with this in a timely way, I have a report on co-operatives and the SDGs published by Co-op News – an English language version of an earlier paper commissioned originally for our new sister organisation in Japan.

In 2006, I co-chaired with Alan Knight a roundtable on sustainable consumption with a number of distinguished members, such as Rita Clifton and Tim Jackson, and our report, influential at the time, was one of those rare times when seventy pages of findings could be summed up in a single title: I Will If You Will.

In the report we said:

Some people insist that sustainable consumption inevitably means ‘consuming less’. Others maintain, just as fervently, that it is not about consuming less at all but about ‘consuming differently’.

In the first camp are those who lament the ‘rampant materialism’ of modern society and suggest that we would actually be happier and enjoy a better quality of life by consuming less. They point to evidence of voluntary ‘down-shifting’: people who appear to opt for a better work-life balance, more quality time with their families and a low- consumption lifestyle.

In the second camp are those who suggest that consuming less would restrict choice and reduce the quality of people’s lives. They argue instead that sustainable consumption involves ‘consuming efficiently’. They highlight the transformative power of the market to deliver greater efficiency in industrial processes, cleaner and greener products, and more sustainable consumer choices.

This division suggests two distinct routes to sustainable consumption. One looks for deeper engagement with the natural world, aims for increased self-reliance and simpler lives, and calls for large-scale changes in people’s aspirations and behaviours. The other seeks sustainability in the continuing march of progress, opening out the possibility of new, more sustainable products that simultaneously improve our lives. We appear to be offered a choice between two competing alternatives. Which route should we choose?

The reality is that this suggestion of a ‘fork in the road’ is misleading. Neither model of change is complete in itself. The first makes vast and possibly unrealistic demands on human nature. It risks alienating those whose behaviour it seeks to change. The second neglects one of the key lessons from the past: that efficiency improvements are often outstripped by growing aspirations and increased consumption elsewhere. Neither model is yet capable of demonstrating that it will lead to a ‘one planet’ society. In reality, elements from both strategies are going to be needed.

The divided view highlights some of the key issues that lie at the heart of the challenge of sustainable consumption. The first is a lack of clarity over the term ‘consumption’ itself. The second is the link between consumption and economic stability. A third is the role of business in delivering sustainability. A fourth is inequality. The fifth is the complexity of lifestyle aspirations in modern society.

Looking back now, this seems perhaps too hopeful: that small scale changes – such as eco-rating of fridges and freezers – could build the constituency for large scale and transformative cultural change.

The challenge at the heart of sustainable consumption and production remains a moral tension, as to whether we can draw a line and say ‘no more’.

The challenge is whether we are able to develop a shared framework of ethics that recognises that, within the limits we face, overconsumption by one group is in principle… an act of theft from another, or an act of violence on those that face the consequences of an unsustainable world.

So much of the sustainability challenge is in the nature of what researchers call a collective action problem.

That means that we need to give far more attention over time to the traditional tools of social co-operation in order to solve them – civic engagement, collaboration across the economy, peace building and conflict resolution, inter-state regulation and policy… and the nurturing and affirmation of the values of co-operation throughout.

Not just today, but every day.

Berry Good – how one British farmer co-op is growing in a healthy way 🍓 🍓 #coopdifference

Wimbledon, tennis, sunshine and strawberries… what could be more British?

Berries have become a British farming success story, with all the strawberries for Wimbledon in recent years coming from Hugh Lowe Farms, a founder member of a very special co-operative, Berry Gardens.

Twenty years ago, though, the fortunes of British berries were very different.

Jacqui Green, CEO of Berry Gardens Grower Co-op, told the story at a recent event for farmer co-ops we organised in the run up to Co-operatives Fortnight.

In 1996, the UK produced 40,000 tonnes of strawberries. It was a very short production season and, as Jacqui put it, all too often rain stopped play. Labour was plentiful for picking but it wasn’t an altogether efficient process.

What made a key difference was the recognition of Berry Gardens as a producer organisation under the EU Fruit & Vegetable Aid Scheme.

Today, the UK produces 115,000 tonnes of strawberries, using a variety of simple and complex technologies to support a longer season, now running from March to October. 99% of strawberries are now rain covered – with poly tunnels – and picking and sorting techniques have improved, with table tops and mechanisation.

The same story holds for soft fruit more widely.

A decade ago, farmers sold around 377 tonnes of UK cherries to retailers. Today, it is 4,600 tonnes. The proportion of households eating cherries has risen over the same period from one in four (28.8%) to two in five (38.8%). Along with an investment in equipment through the co-op (able to call on farm support under the Common Agricultural Policy as a producer organisation) came knowledge sharing on tree stocks and technology.

Over the period, the health benefits of berries has supported the growth of the sector, with consumer advice encouraging a switch to low sugar fruits for balanced energy.

The challenges today are very different to those of twenty years ago. There are labour shortages, high setup costs for new entrants, a price squeeze with food price deflation and the inevitable tussles with supermarkets on what returns come back to the growers. Climate change, with water use and scarcity, is a key factor as agriculture looks to move towards sustainable farming. The average age of soft fruit farmers is 57, making succession a key issue.

And then there is the larger question mark of Brexit for UK farming, bringing a combination of factors that I have described as the potential ‘perfect whirlwind’.

Berry Gardens is the UK’s leading berry and stone fruit production and marketing group with sales in 2017 of £346 million, a market share over 30% and a year round business supplying all of Britain’s leading retailers. It promises that:

our co-operative roots mean we can promise honesty and openness in our dealings and deliver this to all stakeholders.”

The business is one of Britain’s successful farmer co-operatives. Our recent Co-operative Economy reports that there are 420 co-ops in agriculture, with a turnover of £7.7 billion.

The last year has seen a reconnection too between these and the consumer-owned food retail co-operatives, with a commitment by The Co-op Group to be the first national retailer to source 100% of its meat from British farmers.

The opportunities though are still greater. Total market share for co-ops, at around 6%, is lower though than most of our European partners.

So enjoy the tennis, enjoy the sun and the strawberries. After all, the Telegraph has named strawberries as the UK’s number 1 favourite fruit.

As a thriving farmer-owned business at the heart of British Summer, Berry Gardens is a perfect example of the co-operative difference.

Does everything have to be simple? The case for complexity in business

On some accounts, we are moving from a world of hierarchy to a world of networks. A common feature of hierarchies, with its emphasis on communications as instructions, has been to promote simplicity, assigning low value to what lies outside of its frame of reference. So, can complexity now make a comeback in business?

I work in the co-operative sector. Co-ops are different and much of this, as I see it, comes down to the fact that co-ops tend to be characterised by complex purpose.

We are set up primarily to meet needs, not to generate profits. Our owners have overlapping interests, as they are both investors and participants in the enterprise (such as customers or workers). We are expected to live up to seven different (internationally agreed) principles and how we do that – our culture – is shaped by a range of ethical values.

Telegraph pole outside a co-operative nursery, Seoul

A tide of simplicity

In contrast, the wider business environment within which we operate is increasingly characterised by assumptions of simple purpose: return on capital for external investors.

In most markets, the shift to simple has shaped institutions and policies, such as accounting standards or taxation, that are designed to encourage performance against that purpose. As a result, as co-ops, we are often swimming against a tide of simplicity.

How do co-ops around the world track their performance or design their reporting systems? This is the topic next week in London (neatly falling in the UK Co-operatives Fortnight with its theme of the Co-operative Difference) for an international symposium on co-operative accounting and reporting, organised by the great co-op business school, Sobey (from St Mary’s Halifax, Canada).

Accounting, set up to make clear what is true and fair, is a case study of simplicity versus complexity in business. The move to harmonise international corporate accounting standards over the last decade looks to reduce the costs of complexities at a global level of different accounting traditions – a worthwhile goal (even if somehow in the process, the complexity of delivering global standards further reinforces the dominance of the big four accountancy firms).

But the drive for accounting simplicity can cross over into an attempt to reduce diversity. From time to time, international accounting policy makers want to move member capital from an asset, co-invested in a joint endeavour, to a liability, assuming that it is a promise of money owed by the business to those who participate in it. Why? For simplicity only, as if all companies could be treated as if they were owned by investors, rather than other stakeholders. But for financial co-operatives, among others, a move like this could mean instant closure.

For and against

Simplicity in business, in terms of return on capital, has significant strengths of course, including these five:

  1. Decision-making. It is easier within the business to judge trade-offs and investment opportunities.
  2. Capability. There are plenty of tools to draw on, plenty of expertise to bring in.
  3. Communication. Not surprisingly, simplicity is easier to communicate. Expectations are clearer, the chance for conflict reduced.
  4. Comparison. With net profit, return on capital and share prices, it easier to see and to compare how a business is performing.
  5. Accountability. Simpler purpose makes simpler accountability, because it is clearer what to account for – less room for people who use complexity as a source of obfuscation.

Staircase at the National Co-op Centre, Warsaw

But simplicity becomes an obstacle, when the context changes and these same strengths turn to weakness:

X Decision-making. Chasing financial results, like share price, makes companies act for the short-term rather than on long-term drivers of success.

X Capability. More subtle aspects of the business, such as culture, are less valued.

X Communication. The purpose of making someone else money is not motivating for the workforce or for customers.

X Comparison. Simple metrics can be misleading, encouraging conformity rather than diversity and learning.

X Accountability. Wider social responsibility or stakeholder concerns are sidelined, generating the potential for risk and backlash

The case for complexity is that businesses operate in complex and fast-moving environments. To succeed, they need sufficient complexity in their own feedback and learning systems to adapt and improve.

One example is innovation. The two most common sources for business innovation are workers and customers. Where you are owned by your workforce, or by your customers, as in the co-operative model, you stand a better chance of capturing those ideas and adapting in line what they offer.

A second example is loyalty. Where people identify personally and collectively with the purpose of a business, going beyond simply making money, they are likely to be more engaged and more loyal to the business, as workers, suppliers or as customers.

The third example is the challenge of sustainable development, increasingly the focus of policy concern and action. Business is challenged to act on a complex array of risks and opportunities that are hard to reduce to simple metrics.

Taking these, the case for complexity in business can perhaps be expressed in these five characteristics:

  1. Realism. The context within which companies operate is complex, so matching this can lead to more realistic decisions.
  2. Responsiveness. Embracing complexity encourages a culture of openness and enquiry, helpful for listening and learning.
  3. Safety. Companies that look at their interactions with the world through a lens of complexity are less likely to be blindsided when risks arise.
  4. Strategy. In complex models, no one aspect is weighed alone without addressing the totality, supporting companies in moving forward in an integrated way.
  5. Sustainability. The challenges of sustainability are complex and companies that succeed will be those able to sense and adapt to hard-to-predict changes.

There are other, more philosophical grounds too to affirm complex purpose – as a counter to the ‘financialisation’ of life, as an expression of freedom and as a component of cultural diversity.

The search for middle ground

As I see it, the response of business policy in many jurisdictions is to mitigate the weaknesses of simplicity, by interventions that encourage and require compensating actions to restore some complexity.

In a European context, stakeholder engagement and to a degree, stakeholder accountability, is a longstanding tradition. Having workers on the boards of German companies (co-determination), a tradition with roots post-war in the co-operative model, has been good for the German economy.

The Nordic countries have led the way on gender diversity, again with the argument that company boards need mixed perspectives rather than narrow unity – just one more example of the ‘law of requisite variety’: that you have to be able to reflect the complexity of your context in order to succeed in that context over time.

In the UK, the draft new governance code from the Financial Reporting Council is an overt attempt to move listed companies towards a greater degree of complexity – encouraging a focus on long-term purpose, engagement with the workforce, values and culture.

To that extent, companies are being encouraged to be more co-operative, more complex. And these are areas in which co-ops have tended to lead – on values for example. As I point out in my book, Values: how to bring values to life in your business, values evolved as a collaborative decision-making tool in the context of complex options. Values are a short-cut way of making decisions – as one co-op procurement lead says to me, “values are our handrails.”

So, should co-ops also move the same way, adding to complexity, further complexity?

My view by and large is no. There are of course some of those opportunities, evident in the rise of more participatory tools for decision-making, and the hopeful interest in multi-stakeholder models of governance.

I would argue that if co-ops need to change, it is usually towards more simple complexity.

An example is the UK’s consumer retail co-ops. For larger and more longstanding co-ops, there can always be a degree of drift in the sheer accumulation of expectations. To succeed, a co-op needs to be clear on how it makes a difference to its members.

Lincolnshire Co-operative has been going through exactly this process, with some support from us at Co-operatives UK. Successful, with over 250,000 members, and 150 years under its belt, the Chief Executive, Ursula Lidbetter has supported a process where the Board and members develop a clear forward purpose for the society: a few words, simple to say but still rich and complex in content and intent for what makes it so different as a business.

With a clear focus on what matters, what value is for members, it is then easier to choose the metrics that can paint a picture, alongside other forms of feedback, of performance. Merthyr Valley Homes tracks a range of indicators, including spending in the local economy and weekly levels of litter. The results are open to the members: residents and staff. For one social club in Yorkshire, the lead indicator is barrels of beer sold weekly. Members tell them what else they should be doing – the benefit of a participatory co-op, but key indicators help to balance that complexity of expectation with a more simple story of performance over time.

That is something which we are helping with, through the development of guidelines for the co-operative sector in narrative reporting.

More simplicity or more complexity?

The balance between simple and complex is one many others have considered. The words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a late nineteenth century US Supreme Court Justice, are worth the repetition: “for the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life.”

The great mathematicians and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, said in a lecture a century ago: “we are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, ‘Seek simplicity and distrust it.”

I appreciate the modern Law of Conservation of Complexity, also called Tesler’s Law, after Larry Tesler, the computer scientist who is credited with inventing cut/copy and paste. This states: Every application must have an inherent amount of irreducible complexity… The only question is who will have to deal with it.

The implication is that designers can help ensure that the simple is not over-simplistic and the complex is not over-complicated. Computers, since Tesler’s days at Xerox have become more complex in terms of technology but more simple in terms of ease of use. In turn, complex software, such as the open source Unix operating programme suite, might be designed on the basis of simple subsets, collaboratively assembled, that do a single task well.

In business, it seems that simplicity alone is of value, complexity a necessary constraint. In terms of business philosophy, simplicity sells.

Ceiling at a coop and trade union education centre, Helsingor

I argue the opposite. There is a value to complexity, and a growing value at that. And yet, the need for simplicity remains a necessary constraint.

Like a flock of birds, wheeling in the sky, complex systems can emerge from simple rules, while retaining a function, of collective intelligence, what Geoff Mulgan calls ‘the bigger mind’ – or to the observer, beauty – which can’t simply be reduced down to those rules.

For my colleagues in the co-operative sector, the moral is that we should embrace complexity – and promote our understanding on how best to organise around it.



This is all an example perhaps of a wider challenge that goes to the heart of a generation of debates on economics. A substantive body of work looks to redefine wealth and progress beyond the simple aggregate of money flows in the economy (or Gross Domestic Product), to integrate the context of unpaid labour, well-being, economic externalities and sustainability thresholds.

What we have learned is that while a new map (such as the triple bottom line) can sometimes become part of the landscape itself, a static description is not enough. There needs to a dynamic perspective that integrates things – a theory of change.

You can, for example, have as many different forms of ‘capital’ as you like in your (satellite) national accounts, but if they don’t make it easier to build an account of what is happening across the complexity of those domains, they don’t necessarily help. Of course, the simple option, which is to use money as a common denominator simplifies may help even less if it assumes that we can buy our way out of one or another dimension of collapse in environmental functions that are critical to habitable life.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals gives one interpretative framework and offers an important reference point. It is good to see it used by so many co-ops and Fairtrade organisations worldwide in their planning. And yet, as a complex array, it does not resolve the challenge of displacing the dominant simplicity of economic growth.

The struggle for what Paul Ekins and Manfred Max-Neef many years ago called ‘Real-Life Economics’, reflecting the complexity of human nature and natural systems, continues…