Developing local entrepreneurs and keeping out giant corporations: Jay Tompt of the REconomy Project

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Posted Apr 21 2019 by Jay Tompt of the REconomy Project
Jay Tompt of the REconomy Project in Totnes

Today we’re talking with Jay Tompt, of the REconomy Project. This is part of a series of interviews with people who are helping to build a new economy.

Jay, I did a bit of homework, and read some of your articles – especially on economic growth, ecological damage, developing local economies and I strongly agree with what you’re saying.

So tell us a bit about what you’re up to – what’s at the top of your agenda at the moment?

I’m involved in work around Totnes, with the REconomy Project here. We’re about to run our 8th Local Entrepreneur Forum (LEF) event. I’ve been trying to build a network in this region, using an event called the Devon Convergence, and we launched a project in Torbay. We’re planning to run an LEF event there in June. I’m also involved in something called ControlShift (CTRLshift) – an emergency summit for change. We had a summit last year and we’re organising another one this May.

Tell us about the Local Entrepreneur Forum.

It began in 2011, and we’d just formed our group here in Totnes. We thought – what can we do to try to make a difference in our local economic situation? How can we make it more sustainable, provide meaningful work for young people, create alternative to global capitalist corporations etc.? Being systems thinkers, we wanted to start a local incubator for new green, ethical, social enterprises. We tried, but we kept running into roadblocks, and so finally we took a page out of the Permaculture book and said well, the problem is the solution. Let’s do an incubator in one day. This is what kicked off the idea for the LEF.

Basically, it’s a one-day event, and we try to get everyone we can think of in the room who might be a potential entrepreneur, investor, expert, catalyst or just someone with an interest. We generally get around 100-130 people in the room, and we have the usual kinds of things that you have at a big event, like a speaker to frame the day. But the most interesting part of the day is in the morning – we run facilitated networking and open space. This is really important for a lot of reasons. It gives people a chance to meet who they need to meet, learn what they need to learn, build some relationships and networks – which is the most important thing if you’re trying to create change.

This sounds a bit like a right-on Dragons’ Den – something like that?

Yes, this is the second part of the day. The first part is good for helping potential entrepreneurs see that there’s a pathway to getting something started. People might be talking about ecotourism or starting a co-operative etc. There’s a shared meal at lunchtime for these relationships to develop, and then we have 4 or 5 entrepreneurs pitch to the investors. They’re vetted beforehand – they have to meet criteria to show how they’ll benefit the community / be ethical, sustainable etc. An example of a pitch might be someone wanting to start a CSA scheme, needing £2000, help with a website etc. Then the investors respond. The investors are the community. We call it a Community of Dragons, and people might respond by saying things like – I’ll loan you £1000, because I know you – no interest, or I’ll share the risk, or I’ll give you £100, or £10, or I’ll give you £10 if someone else gives you £10, or I’ll give you 25 fruit trees, or I’ll make you a video or help you with your website or business plan.

It’s such a fantastic idea.

People are even ‘investing’ things like – I’ll bake you a cake or I’ll give you a hug.

And is it working well?

It is. We’ve been doing it for 8 years. We’ve had 31 projects pitch. 27 still exist. They include 2 farms, a brewery, a company growing mushrooms on coffee waste, a foraging project – a whole range of things. The interesting thing is that they’ve all begun to collaborate with each other; and they come back every year, they re-invest in other projects. This platform gives us the opportunity to create a new narrative. I’ve used the word entrepreneur, I’ve used the word invest, but we are redefining these words. These words are cultural constructs to begin with. So many in the new economy movement and beyond see economics, money, business and entrepreneurship as bad. They don’t want to use these words. But we’re trying to redefine what they mean. What kind of entrepreneurs do we need at this historical moment? We don’t need more Mark Zuckerbergs – we need more Myrtle Coopers (the woman who started the local foraging project). And what does it mean to invest? You can invest a hug or good wishes, and you can participate in this process of transforming your local economy into something that we’d like to see in our community. And the return on that investment is a better place to live.

It sounds so refreshing. The Dragons’ Den TV programme really annoys me – these really arrogant ‘Dragons’ and people terrified to talk to them. I just hate it. But what you’re doing sounds such a great antidote to that. Do you think there are grounds for optimism? I don’t think we have to talk about overthrowing capitalism, or even reforming it – let’s just build something different. I’m sure the first capitalists didn’t talk about overthrowing feudalism. They just built something different. And that’s what you’re doing. But the new economy isn’t coming quickly enough is it? Nothing seems to be getting us off the trajectory we’re on, which is a really dangerous one. What can we do to speed it up?

Good question. Change in human affairs isn’t linear, so we consider ourselves systems thinkers. We’re aware of some of the insights that come from complexity science. We know that we’re in a complex adaptive system, and it’s hard to predict when we’ll have these positive cascade effects, where change suddenly happens rapidly. At the end of the day, what we’re talking about is culture change, so once enough people are doing something, it becomes the new norm, and it can spread quickly. So this is our hope.

Changing the culture is the hardest thing, isn’t it?

Yes and no. It all depends. I know Totnes is a funny case because it’s had a long history of progressive people moving into this area – going all the way back to before World War 2, when the Dartington Estate was purchased by a billionaire philanthropist, and started to do a lot of experimentation with education, music etc. Intellectuals from Europe poured in, before and during the war, and it’s always been this place of new thinking and new things happening, but – it’s still England, and people aren’t used to participating in public in new ways around economics. For most people, economics is about money – you’re either a consumer or an employee. So what we’ve observed here is that people are now participating in a different way. They feel like they have a stake in what their local economy looks like. So we’ve had 200 people play this role of investor, making over 750 offers over the years. Now it’s become a norm.

The LEF is happening in other places. So it’s been interesting to hear about the experience in other places. For example, in Decorah, Iowa, they call it the trout tank, because the Dragons’ Den TV programme in the US is called the Shark Tank. It’s a small town, and just like here in England, people are a little bit shy about raising their hand and making investments, so they’ve also seen a change in their town. When you see your neighbour raise their hand and say that they’ll help with something, it makes you want to raise your hand too. This is happening in Japan too, where you’d also expect people to be a bit reserved. So if this kind of thing spreads, it can set the stage for rapid transition – or at least adaptation.

These kinds of things never seem to happen in working-class towns. But then Preston seems to have bucked this trend. There are some very interesting things happening in Preston.

To take a step back – we’ve been doing the LEF for 8 years, we’ve done some research into our local economy, including opportunities for more local ownership. We have a good relationship with the council, we have a co-working and incubation space, and we run it on a gift economy basis, because we have very low expenses. We get people to run workshops and share their know-how etc. What has emerged for us is this framework, so if we want to create a new kind of economic system, we have to create the conditions for new economic actors, new economic relationships and new economic models. So for us, this has meant trying to catalyse a new kind of entrepreneurial culture, oriented towards solving the problems that we have – mobilising the capital that we already have (we have lots of know-how and social capital, and financial capital), and then building an ecosystem to support these new actors. So when we do the LEF every year, it’s part of the new ecosystem. We have the co-working space, and we can bring others into a productive relationship – like the local council, like the School for Social Entrepreneurs etc. – then building networks, bringing the various streams of this new economy movement together in a place.

The reason I’m saying all this is because thinking in this way helps us to understand how we can do things in working-class towns to create opportunities for participation – then we unlock social capital and make it available, and also build solidarity. So when we have people in a room, saying that they’ll support other people starting up projects, that’s really important. It lays the foundations for more co-operatives, for a more solidarity-oriented network of enterprises and projects working together. It sets the stage for a Preston-type model. If you have anchor institutions looking around for local places to redirect their procurement, and there’s no-one to redirect it to, what do you do?

So we’re doing this in Torbay, which is very working-class, with many of the same problems that a lot of northern towns have, and we’ll see if it will work.

But with better weather.

Yes.

So this is a question that troubles me, and you might be able to help. How do we keep the corporates out of our communities? Co-ops are great, but they’re not a huge percentage of the entire economy. There are also sole traders and small businesses – great; but Tesco was a corner shop once, and we don’t want to be an incubator for future Tescos. So when does a new economy business become an old economy business? Is it when a sole trader takes on one person; or when a business has another branch; or a branch in another community; when they have more than a certain number of workers (unless they’re a co-op); or when they trade their shares publicly? When have they crossed the line, and they’re not ‘new economy’ any more? How do we prevent the move towards giant entrepreneurism?

I think by engaging the community, you’re already working in a collaborative, co-operative, democratic way. The community can decide what sorts of enterprises it wants to support, and if there are clear criteria for what kinds of business you’re willing to support, then I think that solves most of the problems. If we want to keep corporates out, we have to either a) fight them, or b) create better alternatives. I think that part of creating the alternative is creating the conditions for people’s needs to be met outside of the economic system, or outside of the market. The challenge we face at the moment is reducing our footprint by something like 80-90% in the coming decades. So we’re going to have to consume a hell of a lot less. We’re going to have to find ways of meeting our needs in different ways. So I don’t think worrying about whether we’re just reinventing capitalism is a top priority at the moment. I think a bigger worry is how we can rapidly transition to an economic system that meets people’s needs in a way that is super-low environmental impact, super-low carbon footprint. It’s a big innovation challenge, and we can’t leave it to the big corporations to figure it out, and certainly, central governments aren’t going to figure it out. I think all of this goes hand-in-hand with the new municipalist movement too, and decentralised economic and political power.

Our local bar was just fantastic – but that was because of the owner. He was always there, he would play whatever music you liked, he’d have a chat with you at the bar, he served beer from a tiny, local brewery etc. But I think his partner was a bit more ambitious, and they opened a second branch, so half the time, he wasn’t there, so he employed staff to be there, who didn’t care about the business like he did. And it just ruined the bar. So it’s this ambition to be a chain that a lot of people have – I’ve got my bar, cafe, restaurant, business, how do I start my second branch, and then my third and fourth? For me, that’s a wrong kind of entrepreneurism – not a community-based kind, but a selfish kind.

Yeah, I agree. But the culture is going to change one way or another. Crashes are going to come, and depending on who you believe, they’re around the corner, or the corner after that. So we’re going to have to come together and realise that we can’t do things the way that we used to do them any more. We have to have people and ecological systems as a top priority. Or – we’re going to go mad and we’re going to kill each other over the last scraps of food.

That is a distinct possibility, isn’t it? I think you’re right – it’s about culture change, about thinking ‘I don’t want to help you become a multinational corporation – I don’t want to help your mad ambitions. I want to support businesses that support my community.’ I guess that’s the only way, in the long term.

I think there’s a rising tide of people who have this intention. And certainly in the ‘new economy movement’ (although I don’t think that any of those words are really the right words), there are more and more people coming together with this kind of thinking to try to be a catalyst for that kind of change, so the kinds of things I’m involved with, and that you’re involved with, the Preston model, this will be part of the narrative in the practical work of CTRLshift – and the World Social Forum – they’re going to start doing these themed convergence conferences, and the next one’s going to be on transformative economies, next year in Barcelona. So it seems like the alternative to corporate, global capitalism is beginning to self-organise, which I think is a sign of hope.

I was asked by somebody at Imperial College in London to go along and give a talk about what’s happening to ecology [Andy Goldring was telling me – watch out for what’s happening to insects – and sure enough, there have been some terrifying reports on what’s happening to insects. I don’t think people realise how dangerous that is – we’re trending towards zero insects, and really, that means zero people. Insects are the base of the food chain, the pollinators, the soil builders etc.]. So I was asked to give a talk to a group of environmental science students. I gave the talk, but it didn’t go down very well. It turned out they were all looking to get jobs in the corporate sector, working in corporate social responsibility. They weren’t interested in alternatives to the corporate sector – they wanted big bucks from the corporate sector. It was quite a depressing evening. These were the people who should really be bringing about change, and all they wanted was to help the coporate sector hang on to market share. And for me, it doesn’t matter what large corporations do, they still suck wealth out of communities. In fact that’s what they exist for. I just find CSR so depressing. I don’t know what you think about it.

I agree. In California back in the ‘noughties’, I was involved with some interesting start-ups, like bioplastics, compostable packaging, green internet retailing, green DIY distribution etc. In those days, there was a lot of enthusiasm for green or ethical consumerism. People would say ‘you can vote with your dollar every day, and make a difference’. Green became the new black. Al Gore’s film came out, and it was a hopeful time. And then the corporates got involved – Wal-mart being the poster child, and that was the birth of the corporate sustainability industry. It became clear right away that it was a big sham, but unfortunately a lot of people working for positive change thought – yes, if we could change Wal-mart just 10%, that would have such a huge effect. And some of us were slapping our foreheads, saying ‘come on guys, we’re not going to buy our way out of this. And anyway, Wal-mart’s business model is inherently unsustainable’.

So this problem of corporate co-opting these cultural memes is a real issue, and this is one reason I like degrowth. As they like to say, degrowth is a bit of a punch in the face. No corporate is going to say that they’re all for degrowth. But they can say they’re for regenerative culture – of course they’re for ‘green growth’, or ‘inclusive growth’.

of course we’re for local communities, for ethics, for sustainability. But you can’t be – your model doesn’t allow you to be. Your model is about perpetual growth and sucking money out of communities wherever you have a branch.

So Starbucks, you know, they’ve cottoned on to this. They’ve started developing local branches that look like small, independent coffee shops.

Yeah. Tesco have started putting wooden cladding around their stores, and so have McDonald’s I think. And Jack Daniels adverts on the tube make it look as though the Jack Daniels factory is a tiny little workshop in a village somewhere in Kentucky, when actually it’s a giant nightmare of a factory.

So the deck is stacked against us in so many ways. But was it Paul Hawken or Jeremy Rifkin who said that we are the earth’s antibodies, and you’re a fan of Karl Polanyi – the double movement is happening. The worse things get, the more evident corporate power becomes, the more people are rising up. So it’s really great that Extinction Rebellion is happening, and also that schoolkids are rising up. All of these things contribute to an ecosystem of a movement.

Yeah, there are so many different fronts. Something’s bound to click soon. We’re building a national mutual credit network. It’s called the Open Credit Network, and we’d love to liaise with you about that at some point. I think it could be a very useful piece of the jigsaw.

Is this a business-to-business system?

Yes. We’re looking for ways to include sole traders and individuals, but we’d have to comply with consumer credit regulations, which would be very difficult, so we need to get some legal advice on that first. So to start with, it will be business-to-business.

That sounds really exciting.

It is. There could be a Totnes scheme, that could be nested inside our national scheme – and then a global scheme. We’re working with Matthew Slater, who’s writing software for a global ‘credit commons’. So you could earn your credits in Totnes, and spend them in Italy. There are lots of other groups doing it as well, but ours is going to be a co-op, with free/open source software, and the focus is on building the non-corporate sector.

Well that sounds really exciting, and coming back to your question about how we transform the economic system rapidly – I think that would be a key thing, but also, if you look around at the solutions, there’s no shortage. We know what to do – we just need to get on with doing it. So maybe there are 100 transformative models out there. If every town had ten of them going, we’d be half-way there.

Also, I don’t know if you’ve seen NonCorporate.org – it’s a tool to help people withdraw from the corporate sector, and feel free to spread that around your networks as well. It’s just a tool for anybody, anywhere to get their money out of the corporate sector and into the new economy.

Yes, I remember you were talking about that last year. I have been to the site a couple of times, and yes, I will happily share that.

I talked with Micky Metts in the States, and she said she’d look at launching it in the States as well. She’s one of the authors of ‘Ours to Hack and to Own’, about the rise of platform co-operativism. She’s very well-connected in the States.

So – how can people keep up to speed with you and what you’re up to?

One is via the Totnes REconomy project on Facebook and Twitter; and we also have a website, and you can sign up for our newsletter.

What if people wanted to do some of the things that you’re doing in their own town? Can you help people do it?

Absolutely. And I’m working on a toolkit for the Local Entrepreneur Forum, and I’m willing to spend time on Zoom or the phone with anyone who’s willing to do it. There are some things to consider, and some experiences to learn from, but it’s not rocket science. They’re going to be doing this in Torbay, in Frome, they’ve done it in Hebden Bridge, in Brixton, in Japan; they’re going to be doing it in Rio de Janeiro, and they’re doing it in the US. So there are some seeds planted to grow, and if anyone wants to learn more about it, they can go to the website and find out all about it.

I might have to introduce you to my nephew, who lives in Dudley, which isn’t quite as exotic as Rio de Janeiro, but I think the Preston Model is on its way to Dudley. I was talking to Frances Northrop at the New Economics Foundation, who was in Dudley recently. So my nephew wants to get involved with something like that – so maybe I need to introduce him to you as well.

That sounds great. This is where we’re at at this historical moment. It’s all about doing stuff now. And that means sharing the know-how and supporting other people doing similar things.

Highlights

  1. The culture is going to change one way or another. Crashes are going to come, so we’re going to have to come together and realise that we can’t do things the way that we used to do them any more.
  2. Unfortunately, a lot of people working for positive change say that if we could change Wal-mart just 10%, that would have such a huge effect. Come on guys, we’re not going to buy our way out of this. And anyway, Wal-mart’s business model is inherently unsustainable.
  3. It’s all about doing stuff now. And that means sharing the know-how and supporting other people doing similar things.