Blog post

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
  • A soup 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.


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Reader Comments


Seems consistent with what is already happening

From: Orion Kriegman, Sep 8, 2010 12:13 PM

I like the concept and have been involved in doing something similar in my neck of the woods -- in taking on this task I've encountered multiple active community based groups all doing a piece of this puzzle, from farmer's markets to loan modification consulting to resisting evictions to organizing support groups to re-skilling classes to educational evenings, etc., etc.

So, what's the new piece here?

Very Good Ideas

From: Stephen, Sep 2, 2010 10:57 AM

I think that creating these kind of localized economic centers would be a very good idea in each community. I think that this is part of relocalization. Certainly the community education center I like a lot as well as food production for small scale local growers and backyard growers.

I am also for legalized squatting. Max Rameau of Take Back The Land in Florida is moving people into foreclosed homes. I think that we need also need to turn some foreclosed homes into community gardens too.

I also think that we should rethink the motion that one has to lose their possessions, home, and quality of life during a job loss. Maybe we should work to free expensive items like land, housing, and other basic needs from debt trap liens altogether if permanent economic decline is imminent. In this time of resource depletion, wall street investor profits should not be the highest priority for society.

I also think that we should divert a large amount of resources and such to rebuilding our railroad system, especially passenger rail. Where I am going to school now (NAU in Flagstaff), lots of trains pass by but only two a day are actually for passengers. All the rest are freight. Yes, we need freight trains but I think it would be better to use our tracks for passengers as first priority and expand and rebuild tracks to more cities.


From: Judi, Sep 1, 2010 08:37 PM

... and a lot like the vision for the Share Exchange in Sonoma County. (Find it on FB.) And don't forget Time Banking, which is doing great things in these challenging economic times.

FWIW, I started a Transition Town a few years ago -- and this is not "like a Transition Town" although it certainly could be incorporated into one. I like Durwin's idea of including young males, too -- I just came back from the Grand Opening of the Conservation Corps near here and there are many wonderful opportunities for trail building, for recycling, etc. among disenfranchised young people. And they all sound like they are having a blast while doing good work.

Linking disillusioned young males with these efforts

From: Durwin Foster, Aug 28, 2010 09:23 AM

Dear Richard:
Thanks for your post. This idea seems somewhat similar to what the Transition Network is getting going.

One link that makes sense to me is that there now exists a sizable proportion of young males who are alienated from the postmodern education system, and yet obviously looking for a sense of meaning and engagement in their lives. A specific effort to connect young men with these pressing issues of sustainability could result in a win-win scenario.

What do you think?



From: marion, Aug 27, 2010 07:59 AM

Kinda sounds like a Transition Town, doesn't it?

CEL in Boulder, CO

From: Ben Levi, Aug 24, 2010 08:29 PM

Hi Richard,
Thank you for bringing this 'meme' into the forefront of our consciousness. For those of us interested in experimenting with 'lifeboats,' it makes sense to create a container such as a CEL to practice in. This is a natural evolution of the concept of an eco-village.

We have the beginnings of such a CEL in our Boulder foothills community, including a non-profit (chartered as a church) and 150 acres of prime foothills real estate. We're looking for the funding and can-do visionary energy to bring this experiment into reality. Anyone interested, please contact me.

Thanks for all that you do, Richard.