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Help Build a Cellular Economy

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By Damian Costello

One of the most fulfilling parts of my time as Economics and Politics lead in Pivot Projects is the evolution of the concept of the Cellular Economy. Exploring the neoliberal, global, consumer economy that dominates the world today and is hastening environmental catastrophe brought us nothing but despair until the Cellular Economy concept showed us the light on the horizon.

The Cellular Economy is a vision we developed of a swarm of globally coordinated, local initiatives to dismantle the unfair system that enriches the tiny few at the expense of the overwhelming masses. The good news is that cells already exist all over the world, they include any individual or group acting locally to improve the environmental or social justice, but the power of their mutual support and shared learning will only become a global economic force when they are coordinated on a global scale. The time has come to pull together and make the Cellular Economy a cohesive reality.

The UN’s Climate Champions have designated “innovation” as today’s theme during the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. People tend to think of science and technology when they hear the word innovation, but I believe that many of the most important innovations that will come to help us address climate change will be social interventions performed at both the local level and global —and the Cellular Economy model is an innovation that combines both levels.

Complex systems, like the world economy, evolve much like technology-driven industries do. In technology, every new technology has its own lifecycle. In its infancy it is feared and rejected, until it begins to work well enough to win people over. In its mature phase it increases its domination, until its owners’ complacency turns to distain for customers. This increases dissatisfaction, which prompts innovators and entrepreneurs to looking for alternatives. Most fail, but the variety of those experiments and all that listening to dissatisfied people eventually finds a breakthrough. As viable alternatives emerge, more and more people defect to them until the old guard becomes irrelevant in the market. We call the jump from an old lifecycle to new one a disruption, or, if it’s big enough, we call it a paradigm shift. They happen all they time. ‘Too big to fail’ industries periodically become obsolete. Yes, they can get away with ignoring the people for a while, but sooner or later a tipping point emerges, and the world surprisingly quickly flips from the old to the new.

The Cellular Economy model states that systems are disrupted by a swarm of trial-and-error experiments that learn from each other’s failures and focus on their wins however surprising those wins turn out to be. It says that in systems where ‘common-sense’ begins to make things worse, counter-intuitive ideas need to be tried. Many will just be dumb ideas as predicted by the nay-sayers, but if enough random attempts are tried, breakthroughs will eventually show themselves, not in academia, but in the real world. In this way, the Cellular Economy model reopens the old grassroots front in the fight against societal injustice and environmental devastation. More than ever, we need to commit to and support the type of top-down change that COP 26 is fighting for, but, if the model holds true, the local, bottom-up efforts that some have been struggling with for decades are about to deliver a huge pay off.

When our more vigilant predecessors created local initiatives decades ago the general dissatisfaction with the global system was not a big thing. In the 1980s Neoliberal greed was only kicking off with the endorsement of Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher. In the 1990s, capitalism had ‘won’ the Cold War. The carefully managed Western culture didn’t fear climate change and democracy didn’t feel threatened. Initiatives that didn’t capture that complacent public’s imagination back then, are likely to get a better hearing from the totally dissatisfied population that dominates the world today.

The Cellular Economy says that the public is ready for more sustainable alternatives to all aspects of their lives, travel, banking, education, healthcare etc., if they are not too inconvenient and don’t involve too much expense. It suggests that the masses are ready for a passive transition to a new world order. They may not be dissatisfied enough to fight for a better future, but maybe they are no longer going to fight against it, and that is a fundamental change in society.

Obviously, a less antagonistic population is not enough to save civilisation, but luckily there is a technological revolution happening in parallel that can make the Cellular Economy a major driver of a societal and economic paradigm shift. The latest wave of digital technology with its easy to use and communications and analytics platforms will help the lessons learned in the swarm of local cellular initiatives to be communicated, verified, and applied exponentially more quickly and more widely than ever before. Social media platforms currently used to sow the seeds of polarisation and falsehoods will help us build movements around any sustainable alternatives that is proven to work. Just as the world was not dissatisfied enough to want to change twenty years ago, this ability to share learnings and amplify our wins was not available to us in the past. The latest digital platforms also make these new alternatives more convenient and more cost-effective than their predecessors, making the new Cellular Economy compelling to even the most passive of beneficiaries.

The Cellular Economy is a celebration of the local, humane initiatives that generations of activists have fought for. It is a call to arms for a new generation of activists. It is an invitation to the indifferent to get into the game. It is a mechanism for the accelerating of learning needed to solve the big (and small) problems in the world and to promote newly proven alternatives. It is open to everyone and is at its best when networked into all like-minded movements. It sends out two clear messages:

· There has never been a better time to start bottom-up, local initiatives.

· There has never been a better time to defect to more ethical providers of goods and services.

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