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Forum for the Future’s Daniel Ford says a more democratic and inclusive future is possible if companies put assets in community hands, power is shared, and people are put before shareholders
The external landscape for businesses in England is changing fast. We live in a time when people feel a sense of precariousness about their social context, with rising inequality, exclusion and personal debt compounded by centralising corporate power, and a retreating state preoccupied with Brexit. The social contract between business, government and civil society is being called into question.
Meanwhile, the economy is fundamentally restructuring. We are witnessing the decline of high streets across the country, with online retail hollowing out town centres. Boundaries are blurring and trust is declining, between and across sectors. At the same time, young people are seeking greater purpose, autonomy and responsibility in their work; the gig economy is both helping and undermining this search, further facilitating a convenience culture.
Community enterprises will prove there’s a much more democratic and inclusive way to run local economies
Shifts in the wider world are compounding these changes in England. The latest IPCC report suggests we are on the brink of a climate breakdown; the next 12 years will be critical if we are to prevent widespread social and economic collapse. As seen through Extinction Rebellion, civil disobedience is being advocated by leaders as not only a reasonable course of action, but our duty as citizens.
Civil society expects more from business – and different models of enterprise are stepping up to deliver. Community enterprises are locally rooted and accountable to the local community. They embody distinctive values, such as participation, transparency and solidarity, and are constantly listening to, learning from and adapting to local needs. They take many forms, from co-operatives to social enterprise, and are collaborative by nature, building momentum for economic democracy at the local level.
Forum for the Future was commissioned by Power to Change to look at how community enterprise could contribute to a thriving future economy and civil society. Drawing on the views and experiences of more than 40 community businesses and 20 experts in the wider social economy, our vision for Community Business in 2030 illustrates the transformative effect these models could have on both local people’s lives and society as a whole.
We envision that by the end of the next decade, community enterprises will have proven there’s a much more democratic and inclusive way to run local economies: by putting assets in community hands, sharing power, creating spaces for people to come together, and putting people (not far away shareholders) first.
As an established part of local communities and economies, they will have helped to drive a renewal in the importance of place, redefined meaningful work, and enabled greater local self-sufficiency and affordability. They will also have contributed significantly to the renewal of the natural world, by making the vast challenges outlined above relevant and actionable to local people.
We can see glimpses of this future in the community enterprise movement today. Sacred Earth is a bio-dynamic, community-owned land project that produces and sells biochar, a charcoal made from agricultural waste, which sequesters carbon and enhances soil.
A major shift would be meaningful changes in our underlying economic, social and cultural norms
A more scaled-up, long-established example is HCT Group, a transport social enterprise with a fleet of over 730 vehicles. HCT Group sets up local accountability structures whenever it starts operating in a new area, and reinvests profits back into the community. These are just two examples of many covered in the full report.
To make the vision a reality, we identified eight major shifts that need to happen in the next decade. These include the need for a massive increase in asset transfer, placing more assets permanently in community hands. Another major shift would be meaningful changes in our underlying economic, social and cultural norms, to provide a supportive environment for positive citizen and social action.
The report sets out the specific roles that a range of stakeholder groups could play to contribute to these shifts – from community enterprises themselves, to support organisations and funders; from central and local government, to citizens and mainstream business.
Corporations could help to enable a more accommodating economic model through their own employment and tax practices, for example affording sufficient work-life balance for employees to participate and volunteer in their communities, recognising that colleagues identify as citizens too. They could help to provide the physical spaces for community enterprise to flourish, by making vacant units available at reduced rent or allowing use of quasi-public spaces for community events.
Corporations have a role in distributing power and decision-making, valuing and recognising different perspectives through their governance structures – creating processes for participation, such as consultation processes that gather and then act upon feedback from the community.
Business could be positively influenced by community enterprise to help deliver the wider vision of a fair and just society
Where large companies are seeking to deliver public services in collaboration with community enterprises, they should approach the latter as partners, not sub-contractors. The aim would be to build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships, rather than negotiating one-off transactions that minimise the cost of delivering the contract.
Finally, mainstream business could be positively influenced by community enterprise to help deliver the wider vision of a fair and just society. This could involve adopting frameworks for responsible and sustainable behaviours, such as B Corporation status, integrated reporting, or “net positive” business strategies.
Alongside this vision for Community Business in 2030, Forum is one of the partners in the independent inquiry into Civil Society Futures, whose final report was launched last month. The inquiry emphasises the appetite in civil society for a genuine power shift, expressly calling out community enterprise as a route towards this.
The Civil Society Futures’ PACT for the future embodies the commitment that can be made by any individual or organisation operating in civil society to enact the shifts called for in the report. We would encourage you to explore further how the PACT might be applied in your own organisation.
If businesses are serious about contributing to a thriving civil society and economic system – and enhancing their own social license to operate – they need to help change the rules of the game, and the goal of the system. The community enterprise model stands as a great example of how organisations can do this.
Daniel Ford is strategist at Forum for the Future. If you have any questions or you’d like to discuss your role in contributing to a thriving economy and civil society email him at D.Ford@forumforthefuture.org.