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Community Economic Laboratories (CELs)

By Richard Heinberg

24 August, 2010

As America adjusts to the New Reality of tight credit, chronically less-affordable energy, high unemployment rates, rising levels of homelessness, and steeply declining tax revenues, new strategies will be needed to help swelling ranks of low-income people adjust and adapt. National policies designed to ease credit, lower mortgage rates, or provide basic financial assistance (including extended unemployment benefits) may help over the short term, but over the longer term many needs will be better met locally by largely volunteer-driven non-profit organizations, co-ops, and hybrid public-private agencies and programs.

One strategy worth exploring is the seeding of a loosely coordinated national network of locally-based Community Economic Laboratories (CELs).

The term “laboratory” is suggested because the sorts of efforts and enterprises that will best serve communities under rapidly evolving economic circumstances may not be apparent or even knowable at the outset—we will have to experiment. However, it is by no means essential or even important that the entities envisioned adopt this suggested title. Some communities may prefer slightly different names for political reasons: a Local Enterprise Laboratory, for example, might fare better in red states.

In any case, the mission of each CEL would be to increase personal and community resilience.

While for most citizens goods and services have traditionally been delivered by way of market relationships based on jobs and commercial interactions between individuals and for-profit businesses, even in good times some individuals occasionally (others chronically) require special assistance, which is usually provided by non-profit service agencies or government programs. In especially hard times—such as the nation has begun experiencing—large numbers of individuals and families lose jobs and incomes, and therefore access to the goods and services that the market economy formerly provided them. At the same time, tax-starved governments are hard pressed to step in to make services available to rapidly expanding rolls of unemployed. At such a time, it could be helpful to explore new and innovative ways of fostering self-sufficiency through the coordination of a variety of cooperative, non-profit, market-based, and government-led ventures that spring from, and are adapted to, unique local conditions.

The basic notion is simple: the CEL would be a local multi-function center that helps people impacted by hard times. It would do this by offering a variety of services, as well as opportunities for self-improvement, learning, enterprise incubation, and community involvement. Some possible examples:
> A food co-op
> Asoup kitchen
> A commercial food-processing, food-preserving, and food-storage center available at low cost (or on labor-barter basis) to small-scale local growers
> A community garden with individual beds available for seasonal rental, as well as communal beds growing produce for the soup kitchen
> A health center offering free or inexpensive wellness classes in nutrition, cooking, and yoga
> A free (and/or barter) health clinic
Counseling and mental health services
> A tool library
> A work center that connects people who have currently unused skills with needs in the community—work can be compensated monetarily or through barter
> A legal clinic
> A recycling/re-use center that turns waste into resources of various kinds—including compost and scrap—and into re-manufactured or re-usable products
> A credit union offering low-interest or even no-interest loans (on the model of the JAK bank in Sweden)
> A co-op incubator
> A local-currency headquarters and clearinghouse
> A local-transport enterprise incubator, possibly including car-share, ride-share, and bicycle co-ops as well as a public transit hub
> A shelter clearinghouse connecting available housing with people who need a roof—including rentals and opportunities for legal organized squatting in foreclosed properties, as well as various forms of space sharing
> A community education center offering free or low-cost classes in skills useful for getting by in the new economy—including gardening, health maintenance, making do with less, energy conservation, weather-stripping, etc.

While it is not essential that a CEL have a single physical location within the community, there would be an obvious advantage to its occupying an accessible, prominent place: Individuals and families who have recently become jobless or homeless may be disoriented, less mobile, and unable otherwise to access a variety of geographically scattered services and opportunity centers. Commercial space in the downtown areas of many cities is already abundantly available due to the recession; if a CEL were able to obtain use of an iconic vacant building formerly housing a bank or department store, such physical presence would lend architectural validity to the efforts of community members to come together in providing for their neighbors. Other possibilities include an abandoned indoor shopping mall or empty big-box store.

Like a shopping mall, the CEL would be most successful if “anchored” by two or three substantial enterprises—of which a food co-op and/or soup kitchen, community service organization, credit union, or transport co-op is likely to be one. Smaller spaces could be rented, or offered for in-kind contributions of labor or services, to non-profit organizations and nascent co-ops of various sorts.

The project as a whole would need to be spearheaded by a local non-profit organization, co-op, or service agency of some kind. Community Action Partnerships (CAPs) are ideally placed to do this, but other local organizations could partner or take the lead. Uniform national “branding” of CELs will be much less important than each community’s sense of ownership of its unique, successful co-laboratory. Nevertheless, a national network could help quickly disseminate best practices, success stories, challenges, and other relevant information.

Existing models or partial models should be identified as an initial step, followed by the fostering of one or more pilot projects.