REVIEW: How to Thrive in the Next Economy

next-economy The Grassroots Directory has been inspired by many people working in many different fields, and no more so than the folk who communicate the innovative thinking and practice behind most community-led enterprises. As we look forward to launching the Directory next year, here is a short review of design writer John Thackera’s latest book,  How to Thrive in the Next Economy – Designing Tomorrow’s World Today (with illustrations from some of the narratives of change that were happening recently at COP21).

It is often assumed that if we tell another story about ourselves we will stop destroying ecosystems and start caring about each other. Story-based messaging, John Thackera once observed however, is not changing behaviour. What we need is encounter and acts of engagement.

In How to Thrive in the Next Economy  he shows how small organisations all over the world are creating a grassroots culture that sets out to cherish life rather than extract from it. These organisations and collaborative ventures are driven, not by an individualistic desire for power, but by collective necessity and ‘cluster under the umbrella of a social and solidarity economy’.

In the ‘fibresheds’ of California artisans and growers look to reverse the trends of the highly damaging global clothing business by growing indigo and cotton (for jeans) and raising their own livestock.

The book weaves a web of connections between an inspiring range of future-thinking responses to the problems of a world under severe stress, from the networked mobility system Mobiltoop in Belgium to the Ugly Indian street renovation in Bangalore. Many help restore the ecological and social relationships that have been fragmented by industrial development: ‘rewilding’ cities, cleaning rivers, creating ‘pollinator pathways’ for bees and meeting hubs for people. As a collective pattern they tell a new story: how people in Britain and elsewhere are moving beyond me-only consumerism towards a community-minded share of the commons:

… that can include land, watersheds, biodiversity, common knowledge, software, skills or public buildings and spaces. No company or government created these common goods… we inherited them from previous generations and have a moral obligation to look after them for future generations.

Grassroots Directory map inspiring a water project for Dismantling the Buying Imperative workshop at the Creative Factory, Place to B, Paris. This COP21 project was devised by an opera singer, two dancers, an anthropologist and a novelist among others, and included mapping local fountains, investigating the carbon emissions generated in plastic bottle production, and an Aboriginal water dreaming.

The book runs through an A-Z of some of the current thinking about grassroots and community change. Framed by a set of our current environmental crises, the text revolves around 10 main chapters ranging from health care to transport to farming. But rigid and linear it is not: thinking in systems means looking at the life and our communal place in it in very different ways.

Thackera is a tireless traveller and goes into places with a sharp eye and a peerless ability to ‘join the dots’. His global report is stacked full of examples and entry points into the kind of thinking that sparks turnaround action: salt-laden soils wrecked by cotton growing in Uzbekistan are restored by planting of liquorice; when concrete is poured over miles of grass and woodland in the US, a ‘depaving’ group breaks it up and creates tiny gardens in the spaces that open up; in Chicago, a former meat-packing plant transforms itself into an urban farm; as shoe leather factories in Ethiopia pour toxic waste into the rivers,  a design group along the Ganges looks at how the industry might rework itself.

Transition Network’s collection of 21 Transition initiatives around the world and the key projects that have defined them – from rainwater harvesting in Brazil to a repair cafe in California. Specially produced for COP21 to showcase community-led responses to climate change.

All these projects might appear small and some of them remain as ‘blue sky’ enterprises, yet Thackera is unabashed about their potential to change the hearts and minds of people. Current scientific thinking demands that we cite scores of data and ‘facts’ to prove an argument about climate change. A desire for romantic narratives and happy endings distracts us from engaging in the world with our senses. Thackera wisely avoids any kind of mechanistic or utopian thinking and goes for a quantum approach: looking at the cultural and ecological systems at a broader and more connected level.

As we’ve learned from systems thinking, transformation can unfold quietly, as a variety of changes and interventions and often small disruptions accumulate across time. At a certain moment a tipping point or phase shift is reached and the system as a whole transforms.

Here’s to creating that moment…

John Thackera, How to Thrive in the Next Economy – Designing Tomorrow’s World Today (Thames & Hudson, £18.95)

At COP21 one of the alternative media highlights was the premiere of Demain (Tomorrow) , a documentary about communities in different cultures and geographies responding to climate change, narrated by Melanie Lauren and Cyril Dion.


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