The LEF – REconomy’s ‘Killer App’?

I’m old enough to remember when word processing and spreadsheets were the ‘killer apps’ that not only enabled wide-spread adoption of desktop computers across the business world, but unleashed an industry. That was over 30 years ago. Today, it’s – what? Dodocase cardboard virtually reality glasses? I’m a bit out of touch.

What’s a ‘killer app’? Originally, it referred to the software application, or method of use, that enables a hardware platform to become indispensable and ubiquitous. It’s the thing that unlocks market potential, unleashes successive waves of tech booms and boomlets, and creates kid coder billionaires. Today, the term is a bit cliché and oxymoronic – it is the thing that delivers the breath of life.

If Transition Towns provide a platform for community-led response to climate change and resource depletion, perhaps the killer apps that enabled it to take root all over the world were Open Space Technology and visioning. Both are cheap, easy and effective methods for engaging and mobilising people, ‘unleashing their collective genius’ to begin collaborating on local solutions together.

If REconomy is now an extension of that platform for community-led economic change, then what’s the killer app?

The ‘new economy’ movement offers many models, projects and activities for motivated community groups, whether they call themselves REconomy, or not – cooperatives and social enterprises, complementary currencies and community exchange schemes, local economy studies and reports. Each of these nudge us forward. But the central issue is this: if we want to see a new kind of economy, one that’s ecologically sustainable, inclusive, fair and resilient, we must create the conditions for new economic actors and relationships to emerge, take root and thrive. ­The project here is one of catalysing and nurturing economic culture change. This requires something holistic and foundational, engaging and inclusive. And it requires something that regular people can do with modest resources.

The REconomy stream of Transition has yet to find its killer app, but I’d like to make the case that the Local Entrepreneur Forum could be it.

LEF4 participants.
LEF4 participants.

We’ve just run our fourth Local Entrepreneur Forum, (LEF), in Totnes and over the years have developed it from a day-long event into a model that sets the context for our broader economic relocalisation agenda. It is inexpensive to run and requires no specially trained economists, consultants or MBAs. It creates space for a new story about how economic activity fits into the context of the kind of society and community we really want, including the roles we can all play. It’s inclusive and convivial. It’s a community builder. The model delivers on many fronts – it’s a ‘synergistic satisfier‘ that ‘stacks functions‘ like a good permaculture project should. And it’s easily replicable. With the right approach and ‘well-prepared soil’, regular people with modest resources can implement the LEF almost anywhere and get good results.

Our results over the last four years in Totnes have been very good. We’ve had a total participation of over 500 people, with a a good mix of repeat participants and new faces, as well as a few curious ones from out of town. We’ve had 18 enterprises pitch, 16 of which are still up and running. Fourteen are projects that are operating in the sectors we included in the Local Economic Blueprint work – health & care, housing, renewable energy, and food. Projects have raised about £70,000 as a direct result of pitching at the LEF, and indirectly it’s fair to say that a couple of hundred thousand have been raised. This has been a combination of loan, equity, grant, pre sales, and gift. ‘Investments’ have also included offers of non-financial support, including professional business services, legal services, marketing and communications, advertising, video and radio production, mentoring and coaching, use of buildings and office space, use of land, labour, fruit trees, mulch, horse paddock, lunches, home-cooked meals, massages, and much more. These are gifted but worth thousands of pounds, as well. (We’ll talk more about these investments, below.) And as a direct result of their LEF experience, 7 new full time jobs, 5 part time and temporary jobs have been created.

As mentioned above, the usefulness of this model continues throughout the year, but the centerpiece is the day-long event, the Local Entrepreneur Forum. Naturally, we invite entrepreneurs, prospective entrepreneurs, people pursuing new livelihoods and people running new businesses. But we intend to appropriate this word, ‘entrepreneur’, so we have a working definition that includes enterprising changemakers of all kinds whose activities and plans would contribute toward greater community wellbeing, ecological sustainability, and resilience. We also invite a broad range of supporters of such activities – catalysts, experts, investors, and more.

Mind map from Devon Convergence, Feb 2015, a new regional collaboration.
Mind map from Devon Convergence, Feb 2015, a new regional collaboration.

The day begins with a few inspiring speakers. Most recently, Tony Greenham, then of the new economics foundation, presented a strong case for launching the Bank of Devon, a new regional bank that would support local sustainable economies. It was inspiring, ambitious, and the reverberations are still being felt in this region where the energy to make something like that happen continues to grow. That this event can now create the space for this kind of proposal, reflects, in part, the maturation of the model.

The rest of the morning is devoted to ‘Be Like a Bee’, a facilitated session that gives everyone a chance to see who else is in the room and breaks the ice, giving people a helpful nudge to meet who they need to meet. This leads into an Open Space session where people have a chance to propose and participate in breakout discussions on topics that have included ‘how to talk to investors’, ‘who else is interested in eco tourism’, ‘starting a community-owned launderette’. During this process, participants get a chance to learn what they need to learn and connect with potential collaborators, customers, investors, and so on. Then there’s a shared locally sourced and produced lunch.

All of this creates opportunities for relationships to develop between people who may play different and complementary roles in the enterprise development process. These kinds of relationships are the foundation on which an entrepreneurial culture can begin to develop, therefore this part of the day is very important. Just as important, these activities also help to build capability and confidence for people who otherwise might be excluded.

Rupert & Claire making their pitch, LEF 2015.
Rupert & Claire making their pitch, LEF 2015.

After lunch, the highlight of the day is the ‘Community of Dragons’, where four or five deserving entrepreneurs pitch their projects to the investors. These are entrepreneurs building enterprises that will contribute to the community, as indicated above, plus meet additional criteria. We reserve one slot for a youth-led enterprise. They each get 5 minutes to make their pitch, followed by brief Q&A from the audience. Then the facilitator opens the floor for investment offers and pledges of support, and the investors begin raising their hands.

And the ‘investors’ – we are appropriating this word, too. We all have a stake in what kind of society and economy we co-create. We should all have a voice in what businesses operate in our community. We should all be able to invest our support in the kinds of enterprises we want to see in our town and neighbourhoods, whatever our assets. So, the LEF creates the opportunity for everyone to invest and to participate. We’re all investors.

Tim makes an offer to the Underground Chocolate Coop, LEF 2015
Tim makes an offer to the Underground Chocolate Coop, LEF 2015

Naturally, we have a very broad definition of what it means to invest, as well as what kinds of returns that can be earned. Some people can make financial gifts, loans, or purchase shares. Tangible financial returns can include interest, share in profits, dividends, or products and services that have been prepurchased. Because we, the investors, are supporting projects we would like to see in our community, put forward by people we most likely know, we can be more flexible than a conventional bank, sharing risk, accepting below market interest or none at all, extending long or indefinite grace periods on repayments. We call this ‘patient’ or ‘friendly’ capital.

Less tangible, or perhaps simply more difficult to measure, returns on both the financial and non-financial investments are many, and perhaps, even more interesting in terms of the new economic story they tell. By replacing the heartless logic of profit maximising capitalism with a heartful logic of nourishing the life and health of our community, we can make a case for a wider range of investment activity. Practical support, whether in the form of finance, hard assets or expertise, can help a local enterprise to launch and thrive. To the extent the success of the enterprise contributes to community wellbeing, ecological sustainability, and resilience, the returns on those kinds of investments include a healthy, vibrant, friendly place to live.

A very small example in daily life: putting up (perhaps) with a little inconvenience and (perhaps) higher prices by shopping with independent High Street shops, rather than the corporate-owned supermarket, can also be seen as an investment supporting those locally-owned shops, and the return is a living High Street and maybe better quality products, too.

Laura, co-founder of School Farm CSA, a project that pitched in 2013, makes an offer to Wild & Curious CIC at LEF 2015.
Laura, co-founder of School Farm CSA, a project that pitched in 2013, makes an offer to Wild & Curious CIC at LEF 2015.

But there is a deeper level, here. In the context of the LEF, by making an investment with an entrepreneur, one makes a similar but more direct gesture that is both interpersonal and public. Whether practical or not, the ‘investment’ can also deliver something enlivening. A pat on the back or a hug on the day delivers an affirming vote of confidence and care. An offer to mind the children to free time for an important meeting or making a useful introduction to a colleague, goes farther, weaving relationships and creating real solidarity. Every entrepreneur needs a range of support beyond financial capital and a business plan. Every successful and happy entrepreneur has a support network of some kind, lifting them when they’re down, celebrating with them when they’re up.

The returns, to continue this metaphor, are also enlivening, enriching the investor in similar ways. People want to participate and feel that their contributions are valued, that they have something important to offer. In fact, economist Manfred Max-Neef identifies ‘participation’ as a fundamental human need, essential for community wellbeing. When the offers are made in the presence of others, it creates shared feelings of generosity and abundance that includes everyone in the room. It also sets new precedents and new norms, new expectations about what’s possible, new economic relations within the fabric of the community.

In sum, the Community of Dragons is the powerful climax to the LEF day, practical and emotional, filled with exchange of value and warm feelings. This all leads easily into the last part of day – the celebration, hosted the last two years by the New Lion Brewery, pitchers at the first LEF in 2012.

 A moment during a break at the 2015 LEF.
A moment during a break at the 2015 LEF.

And that’s the day. Powerful as it is, it is a focal point for work that carries on through the year, building on the relationships begun or deepened at the event, the collaborations and enterprises that launched, the investments made, and the emerging norms and ‘new economy’ narrative. This work includes the ongoing communications through PR and social media, public talks, networking events, workshops, and lots of one to one conversations, all of which encourage more participation, influence the public dialogue, and nurture connections that may lead to new projects. The ‘Bank of Devon’ conversation continues, as will others around developing a mutual credit system, a local investor network, and ambitious regional collaborations. And it includes the ongoing work of the REconomy Centre, a small incubator and workspace we’ve been running for the last two years.

For our community group, the Totnes REconomy Project, part of Transition Town Totnes, the LEF is a landmark on the horizon and an organising framework for our work supporting inclusive, fair, sustainable, resilient economic development. It creates space for new economic actors and relationships to emerge, mobilising the social and  financial capital already close at hand from within the community. It provides real options for people to ‘move their money’ and put excess capacity to good use. It is a catalyst for activating people, weaving useful networks, and an emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem – a community-supported entrepreneurism with roots in this place. It has given our work credibility and heft, and increased our group’s capacity, creating the conditions for more ambitious undertakings. Finally, it provides a concrete, effective and citizen-led alternative to the ‘inward investment’ development orthodoxy, last century’s discredited model that is, unfortunately, still in favour with some government-funded development agencies.

We think the LEF can work in a similar way for other community groups, too, including the hundreds of healthy Transition initiatives in towns and cities all over. In fact, the model is already beginning to spread. Transition Town Brixton, in the heart of London, has just run their first Local Entrepreneur Forum and it was a big success, setting the stage for more positive change, just as it has in Totnes. It seems the LEF can work in both rural town and big urban settings, an observation also made by Transition Network co-founder, Rob Hopkins, in his post about their event. The Transition initiative in Gothenburg, Sweden, Omställning Göteborg, has also run a similar event. So, it’s possible that this model can translate to other cultures, as well, but how workable it might be in southern Europe, Latin America or Japan, for example, is an open question. Interestingly, we have fielded inquiries about the LEF from those areas, as well as from around the UK. Closer to home, we’re involved in a regional coalition to run a county-wide youth-focused LEF in Exeter. We’re also in the midst of developing a toolkit and workshops to help facilitate the adoption of this model. Given all this, it seems certain LEFs will be popping up in other places. It might even be a ‘killer app’.

Photos: Nicola Lang

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