Nov. 19, 2012

A community swap, music, a conversation

What a way to highlight National Recycling Week—swapping instead of discarding into the waste bin.

As zero hour approached around 80 eager swappers crowded the tables laden with stuff people didn't want and with other stuff people did want. "Put everything on the table now", instructed Annette Loudon from Sydney LETS (Local Exchange and Trading System, a moneyless community trading scheme) ... " ...ready... 5,4,3,2,1... go!". With that, people swooped, clasping their new-found goodies, goodies that might otherwise have gone to landfill. 

Over the previous 20 minutes those goodies—clothing, DVDs, music CDs, books, kitchen utensils, a computer screen, toys and a bag of glitter paints for (presumably) children had been checked in and placed on the tables in exchange for a token for each item. In the lead-up to the swap people had handled and inspected the items, mulling over the question: 'Could I use this? Would I use this? Or should I keep my tokens for something else?".

You can imagine the scene—the crowd, including a fair number of children, grasping their new-found stuff and offering their tokens to the token-takers. Peter Dowson from 3dots studio, a local video producer, was seen making off with an armful of media books. A local permaculture educator deliberated whether she really should exchange a token for another pair of jeans (temptation won). A number of past-students from Randwick Council's Living Smart course sifted their way through the goods, looking for this and that, putting it back, finding an unexpected gem and holding onto it. A mother held a shirt against her daughter to check that it would fit.

It was another successful Big Aussie Swap Party organised by Randwick City Council's sustainability education crew, Fiona and Matshepo, assisted by Tina from Tide Events and a crew of community members from the Living Smart course who wanted to come along to make something good happen and to deflect some of those things that could otherwise have become waste in our landfill.

A talk, too

Swap party finished, people drifted into the Permaculture Interpretive Garden where a musician was playing boppy acoustic tunes; where WIRES—the wildlife rescue service—had their stall; as did Open Shed, the community swap enterprise; Task Runners—the service linking people who need small tasks done with those who would do them; and FindAUniform, a uniform exchange scheme for people seeking school and sports outfits. Information harvesting and socialising were the themes.

Under a marquee, horticulturist and garden educator, Emma Daniel from Natural Touch Landscapes led a children's activity that appeared to be quite busy. You could look over and see children and their parents busy making crafty things. 

Over in the corner of the garden, in the picnic shelter, the author of this story, Russ Grayson, led a conversation cafe session with people from those collaborative economy organisations mentioned above. They explained what their enterprise does and their start-up stories and how they overcame barriers to getting going. A conversation with the audience ensued. 

Annette Loudon spoke of the role of similar organisations during the present economic crises in Greece and Spain, saying that even though there is mass unemployment people still have their skills and that the schemes in those countries enabled them to continue to use them even though people have been marginalised by the mainstream economy. When that happens, it seems, people make their own economy. Someone said that this was not the hidden, 'black' market but the open and quite public 'white' market. 

What this suggests is that community trading systems, the collaborative economy, have potential as a community-based emergency response to crisis and increase the resilience of communities.

The state government's plans for trialling time banking was mentioned and ideas were cast about as to how local government could facilitate collaborative economy initiatives. Provision of publicity and premises were ideas, however one of the participants brought up the dilemma that councils can assist community voluntary groups and social enterprise but had difficulty when it came to assisting new business models that were not non-profit but that have social goals. 

These are known as 'social business' and the model is Bangladesh's Grameen Bank which provides financial services to villagers, mainly women, as part of its poverty-alleviation program. Perhaps the time is coming when local government needs to broaden its appreciation of enterprise and make the distinction between for-profit business of the conventional sort in which profit-making is the main motive and social business that uses a business model to achieve social goals, as well as being profitable. Making this distinction and offering its assistance in even modest ways would be a positive means of local government assisting businesses that bring social value, promote local economies and support emerging business models and small business start-ups.

The conversation was informal and something of a discovery event and people went away a little wiser about this new phenomenon called 'collaborative consumption' or 'collaborative economy'.

The new economy

These organisations—the Big Aussie Swap Party, Task Runner, Open Shed, FindAUniform and LETS—are all components of this new, collaborative economy that is noted for the diversity of its enterprises. These range from the community-based voluntary model, like LETS, through peer-to-peer hiring of goods, sharing of tools and other items and on to the social enterprise and small business models such as the provision of services like those offered by Task Runner.

This sector—the collaborative economy—is becoming self-conscious. It was only in September this year that the new sector had its first gathering in this country. What came out of that was a recognition that it was quite a diverse collection of enterprises with an equally diverse range of business models and that it needs to establish itself further in the consciousness of Australians.

The presence of Annette Loudon and Sydney LETS here in at the Randwick Sustainability Education Hub was auspicious because, around 15 years ago, LETS in Australia had its beginning just 300 metres own the street in the old Randwick Community Centre where the organisation then also known as Sydney LETS, led by the Canadian who invented LETS, Michael Linton—then resident in Sydney—tried to create a metropolitan scale LETS.

Sustainable urbanism

How does an initiative like collaborative economics contribute to sustainable urbanism—to making our cities convivial places... cities of opportunity?

First, they build the trust that any sustainable city needs in plenty. Through feedback about transactions on their websites, participants gain credibility... it's like a peer-to-peer voting system about how trustworthy you are. 
Second, they enable the recycling, reuse and repurposing of goods no longer needed. In doing this they subvert the take > make> waste business-as-boringly-usual model and turn it into the borrow > use > return economy. And that's just what our cities need.

With the peer-to-peer service and trading models—like LETS—the collaborative economy enables even marginalised, retired, unemployed people as well as those in who's lives those things are thankfully absent to continue to practice their skills. Collaborative economy, unlike the conventional economy of use-and-discard, provides the opportunity for people to play a continuing role in society by mainstreaming the marginalised.

The collaboratively economy model effectively takes economics away from the frequently arcane, confused, pseudo-scientific world of the economist and returns it where it belongs—among ordinary people, on the street, in our neighbourhoods. 

Collaborative economy builds community, and a sense of community is the basic building block of successful cities, cities where people want to live.

A Big Aussie Swap Party, a conversation, socialising over brewed coffee and tea, pleasant acoustic music, kid's activities, stalls—a fine Sunday afternoon in November during which a dark, threatening storm thankfully passed to our south—and all surrounded by the vegetables, herbs, flowers, ponds and the young fruit trees of the food forest here in Randwick's Permaculture Interpretive Garden.


Story and photos by Russ Grayson

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