A New Economy for Small Communities

by Guy Dauncey

When the future teenager walks down the future Main Street in future Smalltown BC, be it Williams Lake, Smithers, Houston, Creston or Kimberley, which of these thoughts might she or he be thinking?

“I can’t wait to get out of this place—it’s so, like, basic.”

or

“This place is so cool. I wish there was work, so that I could stay.”

or

“This place is so über-cool. My friends in the city are so jealous that I get to live, work and play here.”

British Columbia has many communities that built their economies around traditional resources that are now either collapsing or going into decline. Unless there’s a strong impulse for community economic renewal, there’s a risk that working people will leave and young people will follow, never to return.

People love the strong sense of community that smaller communities create. They love the can-do attitude, the lower price of land, the easy access to nature in the lakes, rivers and mountains. But if there’s no work, it’s tough to stay.

So what might strong community renewal look like? What might enable the teenagers to stay’ and their town to flourish for the next 100 years?

It starts with a discussion about what ‘wealth’ is. Yes, it’s a good job, and the money it brings. But it’s also about being a strong, engaged community where people enjoy participating.

It’s about building cooperative and respectful partnerships with the First Nations, overcoming the distrust and prejudices of the past.

It’s about safe neighbourhoods where people know you and trust you, without worries about drug addiction and crime.

And it’s about ecological protection, with local enthusiasts who actively look after the lakes, rivers, mountains, farms and habitats, and teach their children to do the same, so that the region’s many species can continue to enjoy living here, as they have done for thousands of years.

There is a name for this new economy, for it’s no longer capitalist, with its individualistic “Just let me run my own business and get out of my hair” attitude. It’s called, quite simply, a cooperative economy, and it has ten main features, which make it easy to do a guided tour. Let’s assume I live there…

  1. Our people pay a lot attention to the kind of education our children receive. Our schools have adopted the Finnish approach, which minimizes tests and homework and maximizes giving children room to learn according to their impulses. Why? Because it works—Finland’s schools consistently score near the top in the global PISA tests. The high schools also provide education for enterprise, giving students a chance to start a business as a team, with mentorship from members of the Chamber of Commerce.
  1. Our leaders pay a lot of attention to helping local people express their talent, energy and imagination by starting new businesses and cooperatives. Nobody knows what kind of business a town can support except the people who have the motivation to start one. Will it be handicrafts? Mushrooms? Tree seedlings? Kayak adventures? Only the souls of the would-be entrepreneurs know. The job of the town’s enterprise facilitator is to listen, listen some more, and then give caring, competent support and work remove any obstacles and barriers that stand in the way. This is how our local economy gets its juice, its confidence in the future.
  1. Our town’s various businesses also cooperate. They pool 0.4% of their annual sales, and they use the money to pay staff at the town’s Community Economy Centre do a free annual business check-up, support new enterprise facilitation, and assist with innovation, training and finance. Each business also does an annual green business certification, to make sure it’s minimizing its waste and inefficiency and maximizing nature’s intrinsic harmony.
  1. Our town’s banks and credit unions are activist. They go out of their way to provide the finance local entrepreneurs need, and if a young person has no credit rating they find a way to create a microloan. The credit union is run by an activist board of directors. They still support the hospital and the soccer team, but they also provide finance for things like young people building their own homes, and non-profits setting up social enterprises.
  1. Speaking of social enterprise, our town has set up a Community Development Corporation with capital provided by us local people, and launched various businesses and cooperatives where they saw the need, including a youth business incubator, and an affordable housing project on land purchased by the new Community Land Trust.
  1. There is warm cooperation with the local First Nations, replacing decades of historic difficulty. Treaties have been signed, land titles assigned, new First Nations businesses launched, and there’s full cooperation in the running of the Community Economy Centre, and its enterprise facilitation.
  1. The downtown is a delight. Main Street has been narrowed down to two slow lanes with parking spaces. The sidewalks are wide, and all the stores have live-above housing. There’s a friendly pedestrian vide, and it has become a cool place to hang out, enjoy a coffee, and greet friends and neighbours before cycling home. What’s this got to do with the future economy? Everything, because it makes local people want to stay, and when people who are passing through stop for lunch, they are so taken with the small town atmosphere that they start planning to move here.
  1. Everything runs on renewable energy – the electricity, cars, trucks, heating systems – everything except the airplanes. The buildings in the downtown have been plumbed into a district system that gets its heat from a mix of biomass, sewage and stored summer solar. The trucks that bring stuff in and out are electric with biofuel range extenders, and the heat pump cooperative will soon need to look for a new line of work, since they’ve retrofitted almost every baseboard and gas heater in town.
  1. The farms around here have all gone organic, and they’ve got solar greenhouses with heat storage walls on the north side where they’re growing fresh greens twelve months a year. There are several farmers’ cooperatives that supply produce to local stores, the hospital and the college, and there’s a truck that delivers locally grown food to the city once a week. The forests around us are all managed and harvested ecologically, under the Forest Stewardship Certification program.
  1. Finally, our council pays close attention to our community indicators, keeping track of the things people say matter, that make up our community wealth. I’ve been describing the new cooperative economy, but underneath them lies the strength of our new democracy. The council is doing a host of community outreach things we never did before, from being openly transparent on sites like Facebook and Instagram, to going into the school to explain how local democracy works, and extending the vote to 16-year-olds.

Our young people are our future—and we’d really like it if they stayed here. Go away, for sure, but then come back and build something, make something happen. It could be an incredible future, if we put our minds to it.

Guy Dauncey is an author, futurist, and activist for social change. His most recent book is Journey to the Future: A Better World is Possible. He lives in Ladysmith, BC. See www.journeytothefuture.ca

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