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Finding a new gear

Recession makes everyone think again

Peter Salmon

[Community]

As the recession kicks into its lower gears, sustainability is taking on new, unregulated and more personal forms: frugality, DIY and community. Social media, localisation and recession are creating remarkable changes in community interaction. Transition Towns and suburban downsizing are popular in changing times.

As challenges and uncertainty increase, people turn to each other to remedy the inadequacies of current social and state systems, using technology to reconnect. In a recent poll in the UK, France, Germany and Spain, broadband was the last thing dropped in hard economic times. In New Zealand, Nielsen reports home-related and comfort purchases—chocolate, coffee, DVDs—continue to defy the downturn.

Increasing connection is leading to transitional thinking and new services with different value propositions. As Tyler Cowen notes in Fast Company, “online you can literally create your own economy”. He argues that we consume huge amounts of unmeasured value online everyday, and social media is “becoming more fun than a trip to the store”. He calls this ‘human capital dividend’: the online productivity that web consumers have in conversation, linking with communities and sharing ideas.

As a result, a frugal green economy is emerging. For example, www.veggietrader.com is an online trading platform for US gardeners to trade produce within local communities—a Trade Me for home gardeners that had over 1,800 members in a month. Look for more social network-driven solutions and perhaps more peer-to-peer microfinance as people build more trusted and stable financial relationships that traditional governments and banks can’t—or won’t—deliver.

The current issue of Good magazine reports on a range of community-level sharing schemes. Families in a North Shore cul-de-sac, Leroy Terrace, share power tools, clothes, cars, pet walking, security patrols and the school run. The sharing is not only cost–effective, it creates the sense of community involvement formerly experienced only in villages.

Could this frugality and community expand nationwide? We already have a strong Transition Towns movement. And although the current government has done much to discourage sustainability at a community and business level, some of our greatest innovations emerge from unlikely places.