Let’s Go Cellular!
Ever since Damian Costello, head of Pivot Projects’ Economics, Law, and Politics workstream, coined the term Cellular Economy, I have been captivated by the idea. Oddly, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized that the small city I live in, New Haven, Connecticut, USA, is actually a fairly-well-developed example of Cellular Economics at work.
The Cellular Economy is a phenomenon that exists within the framework of modern capitalism and democratic governance. Small Cells of people self-organize to support themselves and their neighbors, solve problems, improve economic vitality and human wellbeing, and help us live more sustainably and resiliently. The Cells might be mission-driven businesses, non-profits, public-private collaborations, community groups, and even less-formal collective enterprises. The most important thing they have in common is their focus not on maximizing profits and traditional measures of value but on improving human and natural wellbeing.
Many of these Cells exist today. Pivot Projects aims to help new ones form and to connect Cells all over the world into a network of sharing and collaboration.
My hometown, New Haven, has always punched above its weight in terms of innovation and industry building. Starting in the early 18th century with Eli Whitney and his inventions, it has been the home to one thriving industry after another. Traditional manufacturing began to die out in the mid-20th century, which created a sizable unemployment and poverty problem in the city’s neighborhoods, and the downtown suffered as well.
In the place of manufacturing, the city has emerged as a major regional center of what’s often called an Eds & Meds Economy. The New Haven area is home to Yale University, three other universities, a liberal arts college, and a community college. It has a huge regional medical center. Yale’s School of Medicine and other schools have becoming incubators for a thriving biotech startup industry. Unfortunately, because these educational and healthcare organizations have such a large footprint, more than half of the city’s real estate is not subject to property taxes. As a result, the city has difficulty providing an adequate level of services to large swaths of the population—people who don’t benefit much if at all from the Eds & Meds Economy.
But there is something going on here that gives me hope for the future—the beginnings of a Cellular Economy. A lot of these activities center on the arts, entertainment, and the culinary arts. Many of the most vibrant institutions here are non-profits, progressive community organizations, or businesses—often family owned—that are innovative and community oriented.
Here are just a few examples:
The New Haven Independent: It’s a non-profit, online-only hyper-local news organization that encourages discussion in its comments section.
The New Haven Festival of Arts and Ideas: a non-profit cultural organization that puts on an annual festival that brings in artists from all over the world and tourists from all over the region.
The New Haven Documentary Film Festival: It features local and global filmmakers.
NXTHVN: An arts center that empowers emerging artists and curators of color through intergenerational mentorship, professional development, and cross-sector collaboration.
ConnCAT: Based in New Haven’s Science Park, the organization trains unemployed and underemployed adults for careers in culinary and healthcare fields. It operates its own café. It is also redeveloping a rundown commercial strip in the community.
Atticus Bookstore-Cafe/Chabasso Bakery: This family-owned operation just started an initiative, CT Food Launchpad, where they help local food producers develop products and get them distributed through area supermarkets and shops.
Collab New Haven: It empowers individuals and families—mainly within the Black and Latinx communities—to use entrepreneurship to gain autonomy, build wealth, and shape their communities.
District: It’s an entrepreneurship incubator and ecosystem designed to support people and businesses at every stage. There’s a school within the complex where local people can learn computing, communications, and leadership skills.
ArtSpace: The downtown arts organization operates a gallery but its big project is an annual event, City-Wide Open Studios, where people visit hundreds of visual artists in their studios or shared spaces, watch them work, and purchase art.
I could go on and on…
These initiatives and many more gain energy and momentum from one another. Wrap it all together, and we have the potential for developing a dynamic Cellular Economy in the shadow of the Eds & Meds Economy. Notice, this ain’t traditional capitalism, but it’s not “socialism” either.
Will New Haven’s budding Cellular Economy be enough to help create a dynamic city that offers all of its residents a chance at achieving the Good Life? (Meaningful work, satisfactory incomes, fulsome educational and recreational opportunities, good health, rich social lives, and safety and security.) This we don’t know.
What I’m certain of is that this model for building an economy and society is vastly superior to the values and approaches of modern capitalism, where maximizing profits is paramount, and humans and human values are subservient.
Let’s go Cellular!
This piece was written as a follow up to this earlier piece on our blog, The Cellular Economy – bringing democracy back to capitalism by Damian Costello and Steve Hamm.