“How can we change the system?”

There are different ways one can answer this question. One way that, at least to me, is increasingly becoming the silver bullet for large-scale transformation is Community-Based Wealth Building.

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Our current wealth-building system is based on individualism and therefore elitism. We’re totally focused on this idea of competition, on “beating” the opponents and gaining leverage against others to “win”. Those who outrun their competitors “lead” the race and therefore become the “leaders”. Society envies those who “made it”, who, through gaining competitive advantage, made a fortune and can now enjoy status, power, and independence points that seem almost unreachable for the ordinary person who feels stuck in the daily rat race.

“The dominant narrative around leadership in many areas of the world centers individualism over solidarity. It suggests that there is one kind of leadership and that a single person—one who intervenes to solve a problem or envision a bold new reality—embodies it. This “hero narrative” shows up in all spheres of life—in the lone TV show detective, for example, and in memoirs that credit Apple’s success primarily to Steve Jobs’ vision and relentless drive. It’s in remembrances of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work, which often leave out the stories of the people and activists who guided him and who took their own risks and actions toward greater justice.

The deeply entrenched notion of a leader as an individual hero is not accidental. Many individuals and organizations with positional power want to maintain the status quo—rooted in racism, colonialism, sexism, and other “isms”—of who has power and who has a voice. […]

Even the most well-intentioned social change advocates can’t unsee the hero narrative that surrounds us all, and so unknowingly echo and perpetuate it in the ways they choose leaders, decide what skills are most vital, and reward individual rather than collective gain.”

» Stanford Social Innovation Review | The Need for More Inclusive Leadership Narratives By Deborah Bae & Kiernan Doherty

In contrast, a wealth-building system based on community and therefore pluralism would look quite different: First of all, such a system would be designed to strengthen characteristics of cooperation, solidarity, justice and togetherness (or interdependence) as opposed to competition and “getting ahead”. And those who help the marginalized and cultivate a community spirit aren’t really becoming “leaders” but rather guardians or caretakers. Society wouldn’t envy those good at competing and winning, but those who are great at caring, supporting others, cultivating a community spirit, and helping everyone “win”.

Community-Based Wealth Building incorporates elements of democracy, cooperation, sharing, resilience, and sustainability. And to go back to the “how can we change the system” question, the core idea with Community-Based Wealth Building is that we change the system not from within the existing system but by building an alternative system that is created by and for the community. It’s a bottom-up approach.

More concretely, it’s about community– or worker-ownership (e.g. food, transportation, energy co-ops), community bonds and land trusts, people banks, community development corporations, peer-to-peer networks (e.g. lending), crowdsourcing and -investing, the sharing and collaborative economy, and maybe even web3.

Here is how the Democracy Collaborative defines Community-Based Wealth Building:

“Community Wealth Building (CWB) is an economic development model that transforms local economies based on communities having direct ownership and control of their assets. It challenges the failing economic development approaches […] and addresses wealth inequality at its core. It is a method for making local economies more just, equal, and socially and ecologically sustainable.”

“CWB […] is ‘predistributive’ rather than merely ‘redistributive,’ seeking to rebalance the economy so that it from the start genuinely works for us all, producing more sustainable, lasting, and equitable economic outcomes.”

I like the definition above, although I would stress the sustainability element more in my own interpretation of the concept and maybe even call this thing altogether a Community Economy.

A simple example of such an economy is this:

Conventional Scenario // Imagine a big energy corporation building a solar park near a village. The company buys the land from the municipality (or one single farmer who gets rich from this), creates a plan for the solar park in their HQ, gets the buy-in from a few people working in the municipality and starts building the thing with their standard contractors who come from far away. Maybe some in the village try to stop this and start some NIMBY protests. Things get delayed and more expensive, and nobody seems really happy. The company eventually manages to build the thing, sells the energy to the village inhabitants and the overall grid, and makes money – which looking at the CEO-to-worker pay ratio – will mostly end up in the CEO’s and investors’ hands.

Community Economy Scenario // Imagine the municipality working together with the residents of the village to build a solar park. Residents voice their ideas and concerns regarding the plan for this thing. Experts from the municipality office way in. Finally, a desired plan is voted for, with every citizen becoming an owner of the solar park. And it, therefore gets the full buy-in from the entire village. Everyone is excited. Maybe the plan makes sure that the construction and maintenance of the solar park involves small businesses from the village. The thing gets built and generates money. Because all residents own a part of the solar park, they all receive a share of the profit.

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Now, this community scenario isn’t actually a fictional one. It’s inspired by the German town of Feldheim (and there are many other similar examples out there):

“A bold experiment launched in the mid-1990s saw Feldheim erect a handful of wind turbines to provide electricity to the village. Then it built a local grid, solar panels, battery storage and more turbines. A biogas plant put up to keep piglets warm was expanded, providing extra income to the farmers’ cooperative, which pumps hot water through a village-wide central heating system. A hydrogen production facility is also under construction. Now, […] Feldheim and residents enjoy some of the cheapest electricity and natural gas rates in Germany. […]

Letting locals participate in — and benefit from — the project was key to Feldheim’s success, said Michael Knape, mayor of Treuenbrietzen, a municipality to which Feldheim belongs. “Citizens need to feel that it’s their transition and not one imposed from above,” Knape said. […]

Feldheim’s grassroots approach to generating clean energy contrasts starkly with the prevailing practice in Germany, where large energy companies tend to build and control vast power projects. […]

Siegfried Kappert, 83, is similarly optimistic. Born and bred in Feldheim, he enthusiastically paid the 3,000-euro fee to connect his home to the electricity and heating grids when they were built. That investment has paid off manifold since, with lower energy prices for him and the village, which has no unemployment and was recently able to afford new pavements, streetlights and a cultural venue in a converted barn topped with solar panels.”

» AP News | In one tiny German town, nobody worries about energy bills by Frank Jordans

Note the words used in this excerpt and their deeper meaning with regard to how I differentiated community-based wealth building from existing, individualistic-focused models: cooperative, participation, grassroots, ‘citizens need to “feel” it’s their transition’, optimism, and enthusiasm. Other articles I read about the village note how “proud” the people there are, how this all started with a student who had the idea to do this and actually did it after he finished his studies, and how the Feldheimers were already familiar with cooperative models due to their farmer cooperative (more on the Feldheim model here).

So, as I said, I increasingly believe that Community Economies are the silver bullet for building a better world and defying those people and systems that want things to stay the same. Why? Here are ten major reasons, sorted by significance:

  1. It doesn’t really require “permission” or “buy-in” from those in power
  2. It can tackle sustainability, loneliness, social polarization, and rising inequality in one go, helping everyday people reap the benefits of a sustainable transition equally while cultivating a community spirit and togetherness
  3. Therefore, it’s a solution with high potential for mainstream popularity and buy-in from those who are struggling financially or do not want their standard of living to be diminished
  4. It democratizes decision-making (and economic value creation) and therefore provides disillusioned and marginalized people with agency and power
  5. It fosters community-sufficiency and therefore resilience, both super important in an increasingly uncertain world
  6. It’s a combination of existing or old (abandoned) models with new, enabling and useful 21st-century technology
  7. It doesn’t really require a complex, inter- or transnational cooperation
  8. It can be implemented fairly quickly
  9. It’s the foundation of a flourishing community that champions well-being for all and spreads to other communities (the Feldheimers now welcome +3,000 people every year from around the world to teach them how they did it)
  10. There are already lots of amazing examples of community economies out there

So, all in all, I think it’s about time that we reframe wealth-building in a way that places communities at the center rather than individuals and cherishes caretakers and guardians instead of winners and leaders.

But wait, that’s not all! Let’s add one more element to this:

What if, in addition to shifting from an “individual economy” to a “community economy”, we also reframed our definition of “community”? What if community included not only humans but also nature (or other ecological systems)? Because, let’s be real, what is a community without its forest, water, soil, plants, animals, mountains, etc.? Mother nature’s wind plays the biggest role in Feldheim’s success!

“Once well established, ecoprotective law could evolve into what [philosopher Jonathon] Keats calls ‘ecorepresentational’ law, which would give standing directly to nonhuman beings. What if, for example, trees were named the owners of the land upon which they stood? Ecorepresentational law might in turn grow into a future where species could receive patents for the “intellectual property” contained within their genes: if a medicinal plant inspires a drug, the profits from its sale would be placed into trust for the plant. Keats calls such future laws ‘ecocompensatory.’ […]

[And the list of new law ideas] goes on: ecogenic, ecometric, ecocompatible, and, ultimately, ecocratic — law that is developed in collaboration with other species.”

» Noema | Giving Trees A Vote by Boyce Upholt

So this is where things become even more interesting! And where we substantially emphasize the element of sustainability within the concept of Community Economies and ask ourselves how shared ownership can look like if nature is included, if the forest, for example, becomes a shareholder or a board member.

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That’s it for this unusual Friday edition!

If you want to dive a bit deeper, here is some more info on Community Economies:

Teaser image credit: AI generated

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