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Indy Johar: reinventing the corner shop

Indy Johar is co-founder of architectural practice 00:/. Through the launch of projects including the Compendium for the Civic Economy, the Civic Crowd and HubWestminster, he and his team are co-creating the civic economy and leading by example

 

Indy Johar at Hub Kings Cross in 2010. Photo: Jess Hurd

YOU TALK OF THE CURRENT ERA AS ONE OF A GREAT RESTRUCTURING WITH CIVIC ECONOMY AT ITS HEART. WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
We’re in a systemic crisis of human and environmental capital. This is the moment that things are going to get re-organised and radically transformed. Our generation will see the biggest transformation since the corporate firm was born 200 years ago. We will see that same magnitude of change as we fundamentally shift how we, as humans, organise ourselves. This transformation will take place whether we like it or not, the economic conditions are there. We’re going to need to rebuild most of the institutional infrastructure of the UK. Some of it because there’s no other viable way of keeping it going, while other institutional infrastructure – like education – is being actively challenged by changes in business model, by value extractable. We’re in a remarkable place that’s changing the nature of being, of who you are and how you have to behave. Whether you call it the Big Society or the Good Society, the idea that civic society is going to become more self-organising will happen. We’re on the verge of new tipping point around that. Whether it’s about setting up a co-op to buy energy that creates a whole new market relationship with providers or about DIY-producing our own furniture, this is the new behaviour of society and it will fundamentally change the nature of production, the relationship between consumers and producers, and the nature of investments. We are in a great restructuring, a great transformation. Technology, culture and human consciousness – how we exist in the world – are changing.

CAN YOU GIVE EXAMPLES OF THE RESTRUCTURING THAT NEEDS TO TAKE PLACE?
It’s about deeply changing our institutional infrastructure all the way up to changing how we structure GDP and how we structure capital and knowledge. You have to radically rethink all institutions of state and governance. So, corporate form and governance, capital and metrics are the three things that have to be restructured. There have been lots of conversations around metrics and GDP. Scotland has launched a new human development index and there’s recently been launched a bank based on conserving wildlife capital. Alternative GDP will happen – it will take a few developing economies to pull away from the classical GDP model and then suddenly everyone will trip. In terms of corporate form, it’s about the development of platforms and how they are owned equitably between content producers, designers, builders and equity investors. We’re moving towards a whole different corporate model which will be open and social. The third thing is around the way money is organised. Social investment funds are just the beginning. They are a different way of organising capital. We need to reduce the costs of moving capital to where it’s required and this is one of the things technology has allowed. The reduction of transaction costs and the costs of getting money distributed quickly and effectively will allow it to be invested into the long-term interest of place. The hard problem is that this change cannot be sponsored by big corporate bodies. It has to be civic, part of a shift between citizen and state. We talk too often about big and small state but the issue is the decentralised state, the dispersed state.

I would like to see the corner shop be reinvented for the 21st century, that’s the most beautiful thing that could happen.

WHAT ROLE SHOULD LOCAL AUTHORITIES PLAY IN THE CIVIC ECONOMY?
Councils should be strategic investors. They should be building social investment funds and starting to seed and fertilise their micro, ‘last mile’ economy. Not everyone has to build a Google. Google will happen in London or Stanford or wherever. We need to legitimise and accept that rebuilding the ‘last mile’ economy – the economy at the level of the ground – is really important. Reinventing the corner shop, the bakers and local farming is where we’re going to create our jobs and real viability on the ground level. Investing in these will make them resilient economies. Within two years most councils will be doing this, but it will take time to change. Councils are big organisations that have lived and operated in one way and to shift their power base and perspective and to be able to deliver this is a huge ask. We need to create platforms for strategic investors, public investors in their areas to invest through them or with them. Housing associations need to be active investors. They can protect their asset bases by becoming active social investors in the social economy. This is just the beginning.

Civic economy should become
the de facto economy. It should
be how we are all asked to
behave – to be civic in our
responsibility. It’s a lens of
seeing into the world.

HOW IS THE CIVIC ECONOMY DIFFERENT TO THE SOCIAL ECONOMY?
The civic economy is saying, yes, you have to transact in society, but you can also hold yourself to be civically accountable. So the corner shop has an economic transaction but also plays a huge civic service. The owner of our local corner shop did real estate brokering, he connected people up to festivals, he was an agent of change while still running the corner shop. What’s important is to frame the idea of the civic economy as the economy that generates, that operates using civic surplus to create a new tradeable entity. But the civic economy is also about openness and is deeply rooted to the openness of place. For example, community wind farms are assets owned by the local neighbourhood and open to anyone. It’s the ability to be highly social in the democratisation of assets but it’s not about creating new cooperative cliques. In the civic economy anyone can invest time, talent and capabilities and help organise and deliver. It’s an open invitation to new actors and entrants but it’s fundamentally social in its behaviour and these two things have to crystallise in the civic economy. Civic economy should become the de facto economy. It should be how we are all asked to behave – to be civic in our responsibility. It’s a lens of seeing into the world.

Brixton Village, one of the case studies in the Compendium for the Civic Economy. Photo: Andy Broomfield

IN THE COMPENDIUM FOR THE CIVIC ECONOMY YOU LISTED 25 CASE STUDIES OF THE CIVIC ECONOMY IN ACTION.
Yes, in the Compendium for the Civic Economy we were trying to make a proof case of business models and how they come together. In a sense we wanted to prove there were lots of things going on in the world, so that people can see the civic economy as a visceral and tangible reality. With the Civic Crowd, which launched last month, we’ve extended that and are helping create communities of learning that are organic, not driven by us but supported by us. There’s smart stuff happening everywhere. You can see it happening with supply chain models – for example the NHS Trust in Nottinghamshire. There are innovations around finance with social impact bonds. There’s Wiki House and DIY furniture. These are poems of the democratisation of production; DIY Ikea, commuter repair shops, sharing skills. These are the beginnings of a genuinely social economy that are facilitated because technology reduces the cost of human transaction allowing a radical social economy to re-emerge.

HUBWESTMINSTER – A CO-WORKING SPACE AND INCUBATOR OF SOCIAL BUSINESSES IN CENTRAL LONDON – IS NOW SIX MONTHS OLD. HOW DOES IT FOSTER AND SUPPORT THE CIVIC ECONOMY?
Through its structure firstly. Hub Westminter is a community interest company (CIC) with shares. It has 40% investment from Westminster Council, 40% by Architecture 00:/ and 20% by a private investor. The CIC structure was important as we needed to respect our members. The 65% asset lock means the value contributed by members is always retained in perpetuity by the members. It respects the contribution – intellectual, social and environmental content – that our members create as opposed to the extraction of capital by equity members. It’s about creating a respectful space for members of the Hub and their contribution. We’ve learnt a lot about leadership and governance through the Hub and have tried to build leadership models so that we don’t do everything. There’s no single entity leading it, instead it needs to be multi-layered with many people leading it in slightly different directions. Designing that structure and tension is really important. It mustn’t condensate around my opinion but around multiple contradictory opinions that are actively held in the space. Its intelligence will be if it can hold contradictions.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE TRADITIONAL MODEL OF REGENERATION?
My critique is that most regeneration was based around a real estate model rather than a human capital model. It was focused on the wrong pillars – real estate, consumption, and large corporate jobs. So it was about getting people into work, which was about getting consumer industries to relocate there. It didn’t actually understand fundamental production and how you design new equitable open markets that don’t congregate around a few providers of consumer goods. It said ‘let’s build a Tesco’, which was about implanting jobs rather than building real indigenous economies, and really starting to democratise the assets and liberate and fertilise those assets to be the natural productive economy. It was easier to buy Tesco in than reinvent and invest in the transformation of the corner shop, or the pub or a bakers. We have to deeply reinvent community investment. I would like to see the corner shop be reinvented for the 21st century, that’s the most beautiful thing that could happen. It can be a platform for so many things – sharing goods made in different houses for example, bringing together the problem of local food wastage with local skills around baking and cooking. It’s about reinventing and supporting these small everyday fractals of real lived society and making them so much better, so much more competitive and value added that they challenge the big boys. That’s the imagination challenge and it’s absolutely possible.

ARE LOCAL AUTHORITIES AT THE RIGHT STRATEGIC LEVEL TO HELP THE TRANSFORMATION OF LOCAL DEMOCRACY AND CIVIC ECONOMY TAKE PLACE?
Local authorities may be in the worst of all positions. They’re not local enough to mine economies of scope and not big enough to mine economies of scale. The parish council level is more interesting. We can build urban parishes and clusters of urban parishes which take over the services of local authorities and clusters of clusters that procure infrastructure and other providers. If 20,000 urban parishes got together and wanted to buy an energy contract or get services from a supplier they could aggregate their buying power and social investment. In ten to 20 years we will move to that model. The urban parish scale allows you to create huge economies of scope where people can organise and invest locally while back-end economies of scale can be aggregated. We need multiple systems to deal with those things. It’s a transition from the industrial delivery model but not by destroying local authorities. They are trying out different models and will carry on.

Soar Works enterprise centre in Sheffield, designed by Architecture 00:/ Photo: Andy Broomfield

HOW FAR WILL THE SOCIAL VALUE ACT HELP LOCAL ECONOMIES?
It sets a benchmark. It opens up space for a conversation and good people will take that responsibly and drive it for what it is. But good people are already doing this in local authorities. The act increases their muscle and gives them the ability to be able to negotiate with large monopolies of school meals providers, for example. But unless we have a legal aid fund for local authorities I’m not sure we’ll be able to take on the interests of organisations. I know local authorities that are threatened with a subpoena if they cancel a corporate deal. There’s no lack of desire or capabilities in local authorities but it’s about real genuine institutions being given the balance of power against corporations. Social value gives them another piece of armoury but they need the weapons too.

SHOULD WE CONTINUE TO FOCUS ON ECONOMIC GROWTH?
An evolutionary biologist once said, ‘we’ve been doing growth for six billion years. What’s the problem?’ From a biological sense growth is about the complexity of civilisation as a social organism becoming ever more complex. It’s about richness and diversity. The problem with the current economic growth model is that the way we’ve structured it is that there is no real growth. All we’ve been doing is consuming human, social and environmental capital and converting it into low grade products that don’t have any systemic growth.  We need to find the right way to grow, we know it’s biologically possible. The challenge is not to stop us dreaming and becoming a civilisation that conquered stars. The challenge is to get us there in a way that actually preserves the ecosystem and preserves the future of thousands and billions of people that are unborn. That’s not unconciliatory; it just requires a different way of operating.

HOW DOES THAT IDEA OF GROWTH TRANSLATE ON A LOCAL ECONOMIC LEVEL?
We have to change the nature of finance and change the nature of what we consume. Do we consume for sake of psychological value or for utility value? What is the nature of the non-transaction economy and of the transactive economy? It requires changing institutions, democratising capital and finance, production, governance. A radical democracy has to be at the heart of the model, democracy that makes more and more people accountable for the externalities we generate and how we operate with those externalities. And we have to democratise the ownership of productive assets and make productive assets investable. To build HubWestminster cost the price of two semi-detached houses in zone three or four in London. I think that says it all about an economy that’s structurally misaligned. Non-productive assets are amazingly overpriced.
At 00:/ we do it by doing it. The more we do it rather than evangelise about it, the proof is enough. People believe its tangibility.

  • A full version of this article will be published in the New Start ezine at the end of May

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Jill Carter
Jill Carter
12 years ago

Stirring stuff – I like it!

Dave Conroy
Dave Conroy
11 years ago

Beautiful …

Mike Riddell
Mike Riddell
11 years ago

The only two things i think that are missing from Indy’s excellent synopsis are data and currency.

Data is the new oil and when converted into useful information will simultaneously produce ‘cashable savings’ for the enterprise and a joined up experience for the consumer of the goods or service being offered. Think the ‘knowledge economy’ or the ‘experience economy’.

Secondly, an alternative currency is now needed to unlock trade. Money is scarce, and it incentivises greed, dishonesty and pollution. A community currency issued to individuals for their personal time contribution to community will end up becoming a CV that demonstrates what they’ve given to their community (rather than taken from it). Thus, corporates can see which individuals deserve to get concessionary prices so linking contribution to entitlement.

Personalisation in other words is a game-changer in economic and social terms.

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