A resilient community

Human communities are a form of complex adaptive system. This means that they will demonstrate properties that stem from the system as a whole, not necessarily the parts.

Our economic order today is very much “part-driven”. Although it, too, is a complex adaptive system, we do not treat it as such. We think we can create linear process lines through it, predict their outcomes, depend on the result, to the point where we leave no other options available.

We call this efficiency. When reality shows up and disabuses us of the notion of predictability, we call it a “black swan” event. Or “bad luck”.

Communities going forward must guard against this trap.

For instance, a “part-driven” space might be a city block long, with fifteen small retail outlets at ground level (offices and residences above). Each small business goes and gets its own financing — leases its own space — is taxed separately.

Having invested the millions to do the development, you’d be unlikely to want to trust in the ability of a start up, or an independent operation, to succeed. You’d be far more likely to want to rent to a national chain, one which has some potential “staying power” and brand power to draw in the business.

This is how streets get filled with chartered banks, Starbucks, etc.

Suppose instead the community refurbished an older warehouse or light manufacturing space, but instead of subdividing it it was left mostly open, loft-style.

This corner gets rented to the fellow who wants to do a neighbourhood coffee house; that side wall over there goes to the chap with the bulk foods business; in that corner is the office of the community credit union; and so on.

Yes, all the participants would have to be able to trust one another: they’d have no walls separating their sections from each other.

This isn’t a new idea. Here in Toronto start up companies gather in shared spaces like this, with people renting everything from a desk to a few closed offices. The Centre for Social Innovation has done so well at this that it now has multiple locations, in different neighbourhoods — and it’s full. Here also, in Kensington Market, the Blue Banana looks like a two-storey store, but is in fact tens of different merchants operating under one roof, sharing the space, each with a few square feet of selling space.

It’s a very sensible idea, however, to make a system more resilient.

Shared space reduces risk, both for the person starting a venture and for the ownership of the space. Judging by our neighbourhood, it takes upward of a year for a storefront to reopen if it closes (in others close by, it can take two, easily). That’s for cases where the turnover was swift: it takes time for individual space to be equipped and made ready for business.

Here, it’s a shared space fee that’s lost between participants — there are fewer elements to be changed to make a space over for a new use — and there may be likely customers amongst the participants to help get established.

Ownership, in turn, can be put into the hands of a not-for-profit community corporation — a business co-op, much like a housing co-op — so that shifting real estate prices don’t interfere with the success or failure of the venture. (This could well be yet another way to keep money in the community, earning a return and being ploughed back into the community’s future.)

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to this would turn out to be our regulatory nanny state. It knows nothing other than individual business licences, individual cleanliness inspections, individual occupational health inspections, and so on. As the community moved on beyond shared space (and individual ventures in it) to truly shared ventures as well (let’s do a community gathering space with a place to sit, a lending library for tools and books, some food offerings, etc. that we all have a share in) regulators will be at a loss.

So they’ll keep trying to force it back to what they know — exactly the system the community is trying to move beyond.

Resilience isn’t about efficiency (although what I’m describing is a very efficient first-step-on-the-ladder creator of work and prosperity), it’s about robustness. Real free enterprise is thousands competing with each other, not a few global corporations dividing up the world. Our little shared space may have three hot beverage outlets: a brewed coffee and pastry place, a tea house with cakes, a European-style espresso bar with panini and biscotti. Each specialises — it keeps their costs down, so they need less business of “their type” to succeed — and all the vendors support each other.

That — not globalization — is what Adam Smith was talking about in The Wealth of Nations. It’s what Jane Jacobs talked about in The Economy of Cities. It’s a resilient, diverse ecosystem.

More of us will be creating our work instead of holding jobs in the years ahead. Let’s get smart and create ways to work, places to work, while we’re doing that.

It’ll mean that whatever the future holds, our community is a good place to be.

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2 Comments

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  1. William F. Spaulding 17/08/2012 — 01:33

    Going back to a simpler time (of doing business) , IS forward progress. I love these ideas Mr. Stewart.

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