A taxonomy of the Sharing Economy?

This is one of those ‘work out what you think by writing it down’ blogs. I hope it works. It’s fuelled by three things:

  1. My understanding that the ‘low carbon economy’ that each place will need to foster is about something much deeper than making widgets for wind turbines or even developing skills for retrofitting. It’s about new lifestyles and livelihoods in which the use of natural resources (and production of carbon emissions) is much, much lower than it is currently.
  2. A strong sense that we can now see many examples of what components of this new economy will look like, for example in the Compendium for the Civic Economy.
  3. My belief that most policy-makers don’t get this yet and we need to help them to do so, so that they can prime the development of the new economy. (I’ve written a bit about this, at least from a local government point of view)

So, recently I found myself at the launch of the Sharing Economy network, at the behest of People Who Share. A thought started to form, which I’m trying to crystallise. If this is helpful to the #SharingEconomy people, good. If not, no problem.

At the launch, I felt that much of the discussion people have about policy or principle relating to the sharing economy (anything other than ‘how to’ discussions) defaults to considering initiatives like Freegle, Streetbank and Freecycle, which are actually fairly similar to each other.

I may be wrong, but I think we default to these initiatives because the model they represent is accessible: buy something, use it until you don’t need it, then pass it on. I’m certainly guilty of this default myself: if I’m trying to excite people about the sharing economy, I often cite swishing, which is similar, only with the added thrill of the event.

This may not matter. But let me explain why I think it does. Most people involved in developing and promoting a sharing economy are keen on it because, compared with how we usually use/exchange goods and services, the Sharing Economy uses fewer natural resources and builds social capital. (Users, of course, are mostly taking part to save money – but hopefully feeling the social capital benefits, and maybe getting some insight into living lower-impact lives).

This is happening without much input from policy-makers. Fine, until now. But I think it is worth promoting to policy-makers as worthwhile and essential. And to do that, we need a narrative that also helps them start to see the sharing economy as a sector that can be encouraged. However, if every policy discussion about the sharing economy centres around the freecycle model, then much is lost.

My suggestion: develop a taxonomy of the sharing economy, so that we are clear what distinct types of sharing there are. If we do this, then the likes of People Who Share can have clearer asks of policy-makers, because they’ll be able to identify which parts of the sector are developing faster than others, which need specific incentives, and suggest interventions specific to different types of initiative.

How would you go about developing the taxonomy? It’s a research project, but I don’t think it’s overly complex. I’d start by identifying a long list of initiatives that meet ‘sharing economy criteria’ (lower natural resource use compared with conventional economic activity, possibility to improve social capital); for each one, categorise it according to a number of factors; cluster into a manageable set of typologies; and name them.

Which factors to use for the categorisation? Here’s my very rough starter for ten:

  • What is being shared (skills / clothes / electrical goods / space in car / etc)
  • Ownership (individual / community or shared / corporation)
  • Tangible / virtual / service
  • Type of utility offered (travel to work / cultural access / goods / etc)
  • Nature of sharing (temporary, in return for a fee / temporary, no fee / ownership passed on / ‘never owned’ / etc)
  • Platform (online / event / email group / noticeboard / etc)

In this way, we start to see how Whipcar is different from Freegle is different from Streetbank is different from Airbnb, and so on. And have more powerful policy ‘asks’ as a result.

So I guess the main questions are:

  • Would this be helpful?
  • If yes, has it been done (or at least started) already?
  • If not, who’s going to do it?

Over to Benita and co!

Can #advertising be ‘not evil’? #behaviourchange #neuroscience and cats with thumbs

I think the blog I’ve amplified below is significant because it’s from someone at a big agency and starts to respond to the “Think of me as Evil” report. I’ve posted my comments on the blog page (linked below and shown below. So I don’t need to add more comment here. Oh, and there’s a cute cat picture.

Amplify’d from wklondon.typepad.com

neuroscience vs cats with thumbs

There seems to be a lot of talk in the trade press recently about ‘neuromarketing’. And there was an interesting piece ‘advertising is a poison’ in The Guardian last week. George Monbiot makes some good points in the article. At W+K we don’t tend to think of our work as a ‘battering ram’  of ‘pervasiveness and repetition’; the people behind the likes of Go Compare may well have a different point of view.

But is advertising the cause of a society that celebrates image, power and status, or is it a symptom of this society? People have aspired to these values since they were jealous of the neanderthal with a better cave. The societies where the state has tried to enforce the suppression of these aspirations – hello, Stalin’s Russia, North Korea – have in the main been pretty miserable places. It isn’t just advertising that makes humans want a bigger house and a new car.

Since the publication of Hidden Persuaders in the 1950s, academics have been suggesting that advertising has the power to manipulate the subconscious. But it’s pretty rare that an agency team will have a conversation with clients about neurobiology, or how our message will be processed by the prefrontal cortex of our audience, or how we can conceal some sort of secret mind-control message in an ad. It’s just not that scientific or simple. We wouldn’t deny that advertising has the power to manipulate the unconscious mind. But pundits overestimate our ability to control or predict how we’re doing it.

Meanwhile, it’s ironic that Monbiot suggests advertising is to blame for low savings rates by UK families when at the bottom of the article there is an ad for… Barclays Investments.

In Marketing magazine this week, Dr AK Pradeep ‘one of the world’s leading neuromarketing experts’ says, “One of my clients trying to sell milk experimented with various imagery – farms, grass, hay, barns farmers…The one that always wins out is cows. Somehow the source of a product is more evocative in the deep subconscious than anything else. This is something we’ve learned through neuromarketing.”

So, what about cats with thumbs, as featured in our highly successful campaign for Cravendale milk then?


Our view: the difficulty with showing cows or talking about the other familiar benefits  listed above by Dr Pradeep is that it gives the audience immediate permission to ignore you because they assume you’re telling them what they already know. But something dissonant and unexpected like a polydactyl cat slaps you across the face (not literally, we don’t yet have the technology to make that possible) and makes you pay attention in a way you wouldn’t have done otherwise for such a functional product. An 8% sales increase suggests that this approach has merits.

Of course, perhaps if we had done a campaign featuring cows with thumbs, we would have sold even more milk.


Yes, but … you don’t really think (do you?) that the fact that humans had differential status before advertising wipes clean the ad industry’s responsibility for encouraging the type of consumption that is trashing ecosystem services, increasing inequalities, reducing social cohesion, increasing mental illness, etc, etc. Hope not.

By the way, my understanding is that our ancestors out-socialed neanderthals, though I guess they may have been jealous of the blighters’ caves as well. Status envy probably dates to about 10,000 years ago with settled agriculture. Some people had bigger crops, and they didn’t share it all.

Maybe a cool question to ask yourself as an ad industry person, on the back of this debate is: given that we know how to use behavioural insights to drive behaviours, how can we use this to make people feel good about doing low-impact stuff? A future blog maybe?

Read more at wklondon.typepad.com

Irish President’s Inaugral speech: wisdom on prosperity, materialism and dignity we hope to hear one day from UK leaders

Nothing to add, save that it’d be good to hear this narrative from British leaders BEFORE a financial crash or similar.

Amplify’d from www.thejournal.ie

In full: the inaugural address of President Michael D Higgins

However, in more recent years, we saw the rise of a different kind of individualism – closer to an egotism based on purely material considerations – that tended to value the worth of a person in terms of the accumulation of wealth rather then their fundamental dignity. That was our loss, the source in part, of our present difficulties. Now it is time to turn to an older wisdom that, while respecting material comfort and security as a basic right of all, also recognises that many of the most valuable things in life cannot be measured.

Read more at www.thejournal.ie

New analysis suggests we’re cutting resource use but let’s not over-interpret #decoupling #degrowth

I’ve copied a few paras below, but you really should go to the Guardian website and read the whole article.

This is important because it allows us – very briefly, and possibly illusory – a glimpse of decoupling. Could it be that it is possible after all to reduce material throughput while economic activity increases?

Like I say, it’s just a glimpse. Even if Goodall’s tentative conclusions turn out to be true (and there are important caveats), the degree of decoupling would be nowhere near that required to reduce our resource use enough to sustain our civilisation in the long-term. But – hey – when you thought you’d never see even a glimpse, be pleased.

Two quick points:

One of several important caveats about the metrics is that the story on carbon looks different. ‘Offshoring’ our emissions to China not only gets them off our books; it also multiplies them massively, according to recent (not yet peer reviewed) data I’ve seen.

My main reflection on this article is that this is exactly the sort of discussion that needs to be at the heart of our political and policy debate. This is just the sort of finding that we look at the implications of if we are trying, as Tim Jackson has challenged us, to create the new macro-economics.

We can’t pretend that it is in the mainstream. Yet. But we need to use the influence we have to make it so.

Amplify’d from www.guardian.co.uk

Why is our consumption falling?

From food to paper and water, Britain has gradually been guzzling less over the past decade. Why?

Peak stuff: the data

With so many significant events to look back on, one thing that few people will remember 2001 for is its entry in the UK’s Material Flow Accounts, a set of dry and largely ignored data published annually by the Office for National Statistics.

But, according to environment writer Chris Goodall, those stats tell an important story. “What the figures suggest,” Goodall says enthusiastically, “is that 2001 may turn out to be the year that the UK’s consumption of ‘stuff’ – the total weight of everything we use, from food and fuel to flat-pack furniture – reached its peak and began to decline.”

Goodall discovered the Material Flow Accounts while writing a research paper examining the UK’s consumption of resources. The pattern he stumbled upon caught him by surprise: time and time again, Brits seemed to be consuming fewer resources and producing less waste. What really surprised him was that consumption appears to have started dropping in the first years of the new millennium, when the economy was still rapidly growing.

In 2001, Goodall says, the UK’s consumption of paper and cardboard finally started to decline. This was followed, in 2002, by a fall in our use of primary energy: the raw heat and power generated by all fossil fuels and other energy sources. The following year, 2003, saw the start of a decline in the amount of household waste (including recycling) generated by each person in the country – a downward trend that before long could also be observed in the commercial and construction waste sectors.

Read more at www.guardian.co.uk

@theneweconomics points the way to reshaped economy & finance system, and I wonder what #localgov needs to do

I like this article by NEF’s Tony Greenham very much, because it explains what those who think the financial system is broken should be for, not just what they’re against.

You could give these ideas a number of different narratives, with pretty much the same result. I’d speak of a more localised economy and of the lower use of natural resources that would result from these measures.

Again, I’m struck that this is at the heart of shaping the places of the future and that therefore – in its long-term thinking, once it has dealt with the short-term financial issues – local government needs to be working out its role in this brave new world. Not to mention what it can do in the meantime, in the absence of central government action.

Amplify’d from www.neweconomics.org

The global economy is broken. Here’s how to fix it

Andy Wimbush

Tony Greenham
Head of Finance and Business

The system is broken, here’s how we fix it. Don’t tinker with ringfencing banks. Break them up as the first step to creating an effective local lending infrastructure. This is not pie in the sky. This is what the German banking system looks like. Its local public savings banks have supported small businesses and ordinary people throughout the recession, where big banks run away at the first sign of trouble. No annual pantomime of Project Merlin is required for our industrial competitors.

Don’t create new money just to feather-bed bankers and enrich the wealthy. Create new money to create new jobs and new wealth. Use quantitative easing directly to fund the renewal of our infrastructure, to build the new green economy, eradicate fuel poverty, reskill the unemployed and tackle the climate crisis at the same time.

Don’t let people become the slaves of distant creditors. It’s time to talk of a massive relief of debt. The UK’s problem is not really the public deficit that so obsesses the chancellor, but private household debt and the daunting treadmill that awaits a generation of young people burdened by student fees, relentless rents and a housing market that is still in the realms of fantasy.

Don’t wait for money to trickle down. Experience shows that, left to its own devices, it will flood upwards. We can start by setting up local barter currencies in every city that help new enterprises use wasted land, buildings, resources and people. Ultimately we need more dispersed ownership and control of the nation’s natural, human and financial capital. We need to restore large sections of the financial industry to the mutual ownership that served this nation so well until the scandalous smash-and-grab raids of demutualisation in the 1990s.

In short, we need to reassert the public interest. It turns out that, as a governing principle for the financial system, greed is not good. Financial plutocracy must give way to financial democracy – banking as if people mattered.

Read more at www.neweconomics.org

How can #localgov encourage #collcons? (blog archive)

The consumption-based carbon footprinting work I’ve been involved in in Greater Manchester and West Sussex has identified the aspects of our carbon footprint that policy-makers have not addressed. It’s half of our footprint, and it’s overwhelmingly the supply chain carbon resulting from our (over-)consumption of goods and services.

So the question I’m keen to get local authorities addressing is: how can we and our partners create the conditions where the sort of enterprise thrives that will reduce this footprint and at the same time improve wellbeing, social capital, sustinainability, etc?

To illustrate this, here are seven US initiatives in collaborative consumption. There are UK examples too, of course, but Brainpickings just sent me a link to this. Q: How to encourage this sort of stuff in localities, amid the white noise of the ‘growth agenda’?

Amplify’d from www.brainpickings.org
30 AUGUST, 2010

Inconspicuous consumption, or what lunching ladies have to do with social web karma.

Stuff. We all accumulate it and eventually form all kinds of emotional attachments to it. (Arguably, because the marketing machine of the 20th century has conditioned us to do so.) But digital platforms and cloud-based tools are making it increasingly easy to have all the things we want without actually owning them. Because, as Wired founder and notable futurist Kevin Kelly once put it, “access is better than ownership.” Here are seven services that help shrink your carbon footprint, lighten your economic load and generally liberate you from the shackles of stuff through the power of sharing.


The age of keeping up with the Jonses is over. The time of linking up with them has begin. NeighborGoods is a new platform that allows you to do just that, allowing you to borrow and lend from and to your neighbors rather than buying new stuff. (Remind us please, what happened to that fancy blender you bought and used only twice?) From lawnmowers to bikes to DVD’s, the LA-based startup dubs itself “the Craigslist for borrowing,” allowing you to both save and earn money.

Transparent user ratings, transaction histories and privacy controls make the sharing process simple and safe, while automated calendars and reminders ensure the safe return of loaned items.

Give NeighborGoods a shot by creating a sharing group for your apartment building, campus, office, or reading group — both your wallet and your social life will thank you.

UPDATE: Per the co-founder’s kind comment below, we should clarify that NeighborGoods also allows you to import your Twitter and Facebook friends from the get-go, so you have an instant group to share with.


Similarly to Neighborgoods, SnapGoods allows you to rent, borrow and lend within your community. SnapGoods takes things step further by expanding the notion of “community” not only to your local group — neighborhood, office or apartment building — but to your social graph across the web’s trusted corners. The site features full Facebook and Meetup integration, extending your social circle to the cloud.

You can browse the goods people in your area are lending or take a look at what they need and lend a hand (or a sewing machine, as may be the case) if you’ve got the goods.

Growing one’s own produce is every hipster-urbanite’s pipe dream. But the trouble with it is that you have to actually have a place to grow it. And while a pot of cherry tomatoes in your fire escape is better than nothing, it’s hardly anything. Enter Landshare, an innovative platform for connecting aspiring growers with landowners who have the space but don’t use it.

Though currently only available in the U.K., we do hope to see Landshare itself, or at least the concept behind it, spread worldwide soon.


swaptree is a simple yet brilliant platform for swapping your media possessions — from books to DVD’s to vinyl — once they’ve run their course in your life as you hunt for the next great thing. Since we first covered swaptree nearly three years ago, the site has facilitated some 1.6 million swaps, saving its users an estimated $10.3 million while reducing their collective carbon footprint by 9.3 million tons.

Inspired by the founders’ moms, whose lunch dates with girlfriends turned into book-swap clubs, swaptree makes sure that the only thing between you and the latest season of 24 is the price of postage.


Most of us are familiar with the concept of regifting. (No disrespect, but the disconnect between good friends and good taste is sometimes astounding.) Luckily, GiftFlow allows you to swap gifts you don’t want for ones other people don’t want but you do. The platform is based on a system of karmic reputation, where your profile shows all you’ve given and taken, building an implicit system of trust through transparency.

So go ahead, grandma. Hit us with your latest sweet but misguided gift. Chances are, there’s someone out there who’d kill for that kitschy music box.


We’re big proponents of bikesharing but, to this point, the concept has failed to transcend local implementations. While some cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Denver are fortunate enough to have thriving bikesharing programs, we’re yet to see a single service available across different locations. Until then, we’d have to settle for the next best sharing-based transportation solution: Zipcar, a 24/7, on-demand carsharing service that gives its members flexible access to thousands of cars across the U.S., U.K. and Canada. Zipcar has been around for quite some time and most people are already familiar with it, so we won’t overelaborate, but suffice it to say the service is the most promising solution to reducing both traffic congestion and pollution in cities without reducing the actual number of drivers.


Lend me some sugar, I am your neighbor. More than an Outkast lyric line, this is the inspiration behind share some sugar — a celebration of neighborliness through the sharing of goods and resources. Much like SnapGoods and NeighborGoods, the service lets you borrow, rent and share stuff within your neighborhood or group of friends

Read more at www.brainpickings.org

My take on what #localgov must do now: create conditions 4 #sustainability #innovation

This is my analysis from last week’s Local Government Chronicle. What’s it about? Here’s a clue: though I learned many years ago that sub-editors never accept the author’s suggestion for a title, I still try – and for this one my attempt was “It’s The Local Economy, Stupid”.

The challenge councils are working on now, dealing with funding cuts, are minor compared to the challenges our places face as a result of systemic global problems. This is why people like Neil McInroy focus on the concept of local ‘resilience’.

I accept that there aren’t yet many local politicians looking to reshape their local economies to meet these fundamental challenges. So the argument needs to be won.

You can help by asking your local leader, “What will the local economy be like if the financial markets meltdown after a default by, say, Greek and Portugal? And wouldn’t it be good to start right now to shape it so that it can deal with shocks like that?”

Amplify’d from www.lgcplus.com

Creating a sustainable future at the grass roots

22 September 2011 | By Warren Hatter

All local economies are facing instability in three systems on which we depend: in the financial markets, in energy supply and prices, and in ecosystem services. And we can already see local problems caused by instability in these systems: just look at the boarded windows on a typical high street, rapidly rising domestic energy prices, or the way that more homes are becoming uninsurable due to flood risk.

Worse, whatever the causes of the recent riots in urban England, they are a sure sign that there are many who feel detached from their local economy. Worse still, all these systems are now subject to major shocks, whether this is financial meltdown from a European country defaulting on its loans, massive jumps in food prices or cuts in oil supply.

There are concrete ways of getting to the understanding that your locality is vulnerable. Maybe through ecological footprinting of the area and starting to understand ‘one planet’ principles (like Sutton LBC); through commissioning a consumption-based carbon footprint, revealing that the true scale of the carbon challenge is more than twice what NI186 has had us believe (like West Sussex CC); or through a networked approach to place planning (like CLES’s work on local resilience).

When leaders realise that their local economy is not fit for purpose, what do we do? First, recognise where we need to go. We often hear leaders talking about the opportunities of a ‘low carbon economy’, but there is much more to this concept than benefitting from ‘green growth’ by providing goods and services related to energy provision and efficiency. The local economy that evolves will need to be:

resilient to shocks linked to food supply

resilient on energy

using much lower-carbon supply chains for everything

able to maintain its natural and social capital

If we don’t choose to be laissez faire, what can local government do to create the conditions for this new, sustainable economy to thrive?

Recognise that place is important

The “little platoons” approach to localism and big society will not suffice here. I believe that there is a vital role for leadership of place (place shaping, place stewardship, call it what you will) that is often absent from Big Society narratives and which is best carried out by a strategic body with a mandate: the local authority. As NLGN has suggested, some places are better equipped than others for the ‘Big Society’, so some intervention is needed. But this has to be about supporting communities, not top-down approaches which stifle innovation.

Grow our economic capacity

Relatively few economists work for local government; still fewer who are engaged with the ‘new economics’ and want to develop policies that let diverse, local enterprise flourish and resource loops become closed. In the future, for example, how can we encourage funding through a new local lending infrastructure? There is a range of models being used and proposed by the likes of NESTA.

Evolve our approaches to local leadership

More than ever, local authority leadership has to allow others in the community the space to lead. To do this, we need to excel at recognising civic entrepreneurship, and nurturing it. And enable the networks that are most likely to bring innovations to scale, so that every place might benefit from innovation elsewhere.

A sophisticated approach to behaviour change

More resilient, successful places can only be created with significant lifestyle changes, but we know that, in recent years, attempts to persuade people towards lower-impact lifestyles have had limited success; increasingly, we are learning to make sustainable living aspirational and in tune with people’s values.

Different metrics

We will have to measure our wealth in a much more rounded way than GDP and GVA do at present. One benefit of new ways of understanding success is that it will make sense for local assets to be used to their full potential.

Whatever we call it, the signs are that the new economy, the Civic Economy, the Big Society, is emerging, with massive energy, with diverse leadership and funding mechanisms and with a strong sense of place. Though these disrupt business as usual, they point to a high-wellbeing, resilient future with high social capital; this is unequivocally an opportunity agenda.

If we can work our way through the challenges, we will find that the local initiatives like these become mainstream. Delivering them is not our job in local government; creating the fertile ground for them to grow and thrive, is.

Warren Hatter is a local improvement advisor specialising in climate change, behaviour change and local leadership

Two recent reports make it clear there are already plenty of initiatives to inspire and councils are involved in many of them. Among the many initiatives highlighted in NESTA’s Compendium for the Civic Economy and NLGN’s Realising Community Wealth are:

  • Fintry community energy partnership, producing profits from sustainable energy for a whole community
  • Nottingham University Hospitals’ sustainable food procurement, promoting local entrepreneurs and growers while improving value for the NHS
  • Sutton Bookshare, a virtual library where members lend books to each other
  • Time Banks network in Islington, enabling people to share skills
  • Southwark Circle, a co-designed membership scheme for older residents
  • Surrey Museums’ provision by volunteers

By me, on @RSAMatthew and whether stagnation means we can challenge #growth narrative

One of the things that has surprised me about advocates of ecological footprinting (on which basis we have been ‘eating into capital rather than living off the interest’ of the biosphere since the 1980s) and of capitals metrics (where we measure wealth by adding up social, environmental, human, physical and financial capital, and then watch the trends) is that they have not in the past used the narrative that we have been in recession for a long time.

The evidence has been there to make the case for donkey’s years.

So, while I agree that there is an opportunity here, because the economic situation is so high profile and affecting most people personally, the big question is ‘where is the leadership going to come from to make these ideas mainstream?’. There’s even a populist case to be made that we’ve been tricked by always hearing about mean, rather than median, income: the top X% have been getting wealthier at the expense of the rest of us. You don’t even need to reference capitals models or wellbeing metrics to make this case. But even this sort of argument seems beyond those in the political mainstream.

Remember when you were given an injection at school? You were told to look away and then, before you had time to panic, the nurse was telling you it was all over. Maybe the best way to get people to accept something daunting is to tell them it’s happened already.

June 28, 2011 by Matthew Taylor

This thought occurred to me following a conversation yesterday and reading an article today. The conversation was with Jonathan Porritt, the Founder Director of Forum for the Future and perhaps our most influential and distinguished environmentalist (by the way I am very impressed by the ambition and rigor of Forum’s new strategy, based as it is on fundamental system reform).

As our conversation ranged far and wide,we agreed that in these times of economic difficulty and public spending austerity, the suggestion we should question traditional ideas of economic growth seems to most people at best irrelevant and at worst barmy.  We didn’t pursue the issue much further but the implication was that it is only when growth feels reasonably secure that we can begin again to ask ‘but what kind of growth?’

Then, this morning, I read a powerful article in the Financial Times headlined ‘spectre of stagnating incomes stalks globe’. Here is a quote from the piece:

‘Median male real US earnings have not risen since 1975. Average real Japanese household income after taxation fell in the decade to mid-2000. And those in German have been falling for 10 years’.

We know from research commissioned by the TUC and the excellent work of the Resolution Foundation that the same is broadly true for the UK. The future looks no better (indeed it looks much worse in the short term for many countries including the UK). The impact is not just on those in the ‘squeezed middle’ but, arguably, on the whole liberal market model.

A second FT article on the same topic concluded thus:

‘Dick Longworth of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is more categorical ‘this is a consumer society and they’re the consumers…if they don’t buy, we don’t survive’

It is important to understand that what we are seeing is not the result of a downward blip but the collapse of the device – excessive household and national borrowing – which disguised the reality for the decade up to 2007. This is a profound crisis of global capitalism in the developed world.

But if you put the FT piece together with the Porritt conversation a surprising possibility emerges. Instead of talking about abandoning traditional growth as some kind of outlandish and unrealistic green vision, how about recognising that for most earners in the West no growth (in their living standards) has been the reality for over a generation.

In other words, the question is not how do we create a different model of growth but how do we adapt to the long drawn out end of the traditional model of growth? Or, to put it another way, how can the quality of our lives and our society improve even if for the majority of citizens disposable incomes (including the social wage of public investment) are not?

Read more at www.matthewtaylorsblog.com

Wondering if the new @Kaiser_Chiefs album is an EG of how to do Prosperity Without Growth #decoupling

Anyone who has read Tim Jackson’s brilliant Prosperity Without Growth will be aware that there is plenty of evidence of industries and economies becoming more carbon efficient (per £ in the economy), but no examples of absolute decoupling: economic growth with falling throughput of natural resources / emissions.

So there is a massive question mark over the concept of ‘sustainable growth’ – not that you’d know this from listening to most mainstream politicians.

And so I occasionally find myself in conversations where we try to imagine what a decoupled economy would look like; I know good people who believe that economic growth is possible without breaching environmental limits. This economy would be much more localised than at present, less focused on goods and more on (largely virtual) services.

This came to mind when I came across this morning the launch of the new album by Leeds band the Kaiser Chiefs. Have a look yourself <actually, you can’t anymore – March 2012 edit>. I like it as a potential example of the sort of non-local thing we’d buy and sell in a busy, high-GDP economy that can’t afford much use of natural resources. Innovative, engaging, co-creating (with such a sense of ownership that even a CD addict might give in and start downloading): what’s not to like?

Why Wellbeing is a Big Deal

I’ve held back from blogging on the moves to introduce an ‘official’ wellbeing or happiness measure, as I think of a new angle on the issue about twice a day, but it’s important stuff so I’ve decided to focus on one key point: that central government introducing a wellbeing/happiness measure is a great opportunity to embed localism.

Jo Swinson MP argues that the move is good for policy, good for democracy and of symbolic value. I’d like localists to go further: to ensure that the move is good for local policy, local democracy, and more than symbolic.

To do this, we need to start treating the new measures as paradigm changing. Instead, it feels to me as though the mainstream response has been a narrow one: that measuring wellbeing means that policy-makers will focus more on enhancing wellbeing, with the commentator’s view resting on whether or not they think that this is appropriate. So in what way is this stuff paradigm changing? As the Stiglitz Commission and others have ably demonstrated, relying on GDP as the main measure of a nation’s success is fatally flawed, for two main reasons. First, our success is about much more than economic success; second, GDP is flawed even as a measure of economic success. The PM’s adoption of much of this analysis in launching the initiative shows how mainstream this view has become and also, I hope, opens the door to a more radical interpretation of the move than I’ve described above. I’ve blogged about these ideas before for some time, so won’t repeat myself much here.

However, in respect of Stiglitz & co, we need to start by recognising the limitations of a wellbeing or happiness measure. The case for measuring wellbeing should not be simply that our current metrics are lacking a bit, but that our current metrics are fundamentally flawed, as they do not have a true understanding of our wealth. The Stiglitz Commission proposed measuring wealth in terms of a number of different capitals (natural, human, social and physical). Do this, and we can track our success much more effectively than we can by looking purely at the size of the economy.

This is not easy. There is much detail and many practicalities that are not yet clear, but it is the future, because we manage what we measure, and economic growth has now outstripped our planet’s ability to cope. But the cat is out of the bag; already, it is expected that wellbeing measures will be shot through the Treasury’s famous Green Book.

Jill Rutter, currently at the Institute for Government, suggests that the real test for wellbeing is whether explicitly incorporating it into policy making makes governments do different things, and adds that The Treasury looked at this a few years ago and concluded the answer was no. I think that this supports my argument; if it’s just seen as a clever piece of social research, or evidence to feed into some evidence-based policy, then we are limiting not only its scope, but its impact.

This sounds, though, like an argument about the national accounts; so why should localists argue this case?

First, a wealth measure such as that suggested by Stiglitz would gives us all the chance to understand how well our places are doing, which strikes at the heart of what local government is for. I’ve often said that the central duty of a local authority should be to secure the future viability of the place, and it seems to me that a capitals-based measure of wealth is a big part of measuring how well this is being done. Regeneration by shopping mall would make much less sense if decision-making were driven by a truer, more rounded definition of wealth.

Second, and linked, is the understanding – both unremarkable and unnoticed – that national wealth is the sum total of our local wealth. Given that these measures will be people-centred, is there really a case to be made that my wellbeing or happiness is different from a national or local (or sub-local) perspective? Surely not; I have different feelings about my neighbourhood, borough, city/county and nation but, as a citizen, I do not have a ‘national wellbeing’ and a separate ‘local wellbeing’.

If we work towards a capitals-based measure of wealth being both the core local and core national metric, then we will have solved the problem of top-down, centralised target setting for good. I don’t believe that this is pie in the sky. Look at Maryland, a US state which has introduced the GPI (genuine progress indicator), replacing GSP (gross state product) as the main measure of success.

 So, for this opportunity to be realised, there are two main arguments to be made by localists. First, that the new measure should provide both local and national metrics, with a clear understanding that national wellbeing is the sum total of wellbeing in all localities; second, that a course should be explicitly charted towards such measures being part of the national accounts. These are achievable goals, it seems to me. But the case is not being made, as yet, by the local government family.

It’s important to look at the challenges, as has LGIU’s Jonathan Carr-West, but I believe that we can aim higher than this. We can see this as the vital first step to measuring our success and wealth at local level in a way that will: give local government and residents a holistic way of understanding our places’ success; in the long-term, drive the primacy of local indicators over centrally-driven ones; and, progressively, reward rounded, sustainable decision-making.