The Cellular Economy – bringing democracy back to capitalism
Updated: Mar 26
By Damian Costello and Steve Hamm
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, there’s a chance for society to pivot toward a more sustainable and resilient future by reforming our economic system. We must reshape capitalism, pivoting from today’s focus on consumption and maximising profits and instead harness the positive forces within capitalism to improve the wellbeing of all living things. We call this pivot to a people-powered future the Cellular Economy. We’re asking for your help to turn the vision of the Cellular Economy into reality.
Make no mistake, humanity is at a critical inflection point in history. A change of this magnitude is necessary if we hope to save civilisation and the environment that we all depend on. Cellular Economics seeks to do this not by scrapping capitalism and replacing it with a new ideology, but rather by making capitalism more transparent and by extension more democratic. Ordinary people have the power to do this by exercising their rights as citizens and consumers to reward sustainable and equitable thinking in politics and in the economy. The team at Pivot Projects needs help getting our message of hope out to the world. We are seeking people to help develop networks and to disseminate a toolkit that we believe can help make the Cellular Economy work for everyone.
The Cellular Economy model is being developed by the Economics, Law, and Politics workstream in Pivot Projects, an international group of diverse experts and citizens convened at the start of the Covid crisis. The ideas underlying the Cellular Economy are not new, it’s building blocks exist already, as the world is full of organisations and individuals focused on making the world a better place. These “cells” are democratic, humanistic, science-based, diverse, collaborative, community-oriented, and experimental. Some are mission-driven businesses. Some are social enterprises or community organizations. Others are innovative government agencies or programs. Right now, most operate in isolation. We believe a that these meaningful, pivot-minded initiatives can change the world, if there are enough of them are if they are technically and socially aligned enough. We intend to work on that alignment by fostering solidarity and cooperation between a global network of these cells of positivity, to accelerate a peaceful, global economic revolution.
The biggest issue with the current economic system is that it has become too big, too ossified and as a result too greedy to deliver on the needs of all but a tiny number of elites. Supply chains are too long, and economies of scale deliver too many consumables at too low a price, encouraging overconsumption and waste. The financial system is monumentally complex and ever-more profitable for the owners of large enterprises, at a time when regular people in the real economy are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. In the last financial crisis, the reckless banking system was deemed ‘too big to fail’ and our elected representatives bailed them out at the expense of future generations of taxpayers. If the lessons are to be learned this time round, it is not enough to invest in Green New Deals. We need a fundamental shift in the very foundation of capitalism as it is practiced today. The Cellular Economy model describes what we need to do to make this brighter, safer future a reality.
We take our inspiration from R. Buckminster Fuller, the 20th century polymath, who argued that rather than fix a failing system, it’s better to replace it by developing disruptive new system that work better for more people. The current economic system runs very efficiently on behalf of shareholders, but it turns people into cogs in its inhumane mechanism. Large globalised hierarchical systems ensure that decision-makers are insulated from the outcome of their actions. The system ensures that executives have no reason to empathise with the people impacted by their exploitation, allowing them to ignore the real-world hardships they cause. The cellular alternative is very different; human scale initiatives are delivered by people who care about the societal and environmental impact of their activities.
The current orthodoxy serves some people very well. It is understandable that they would want to retain their advantages. They have the money and the power to do it, too. But their greatest weapon is one of the oldest military tactics in the book: divide and conquer. When ordinary people are fighting each other and blaming their problems on those below them on the economic ladder, they don’t notice how much they are being exploited and are too disorganised to do much about it. The real power in the Cellular Economy is that it transcends the political left and right. It is practical, making a difference on the ground for ordinary people and their communities all over the world. It asks to be judged on what it delivers, and the real-world difference it makes, rather than what it promises.
The team in Pivot Projects has begun to explore and map the complex systems dynamic at play in the Cellular Economy. Now we’re looking for places where cellular principles and practices are underway so we can learn from them and, perhaps, give them a boost. The first two communities we’re exploring are Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Humboldt, Kansas, both in the United States. We chose them because we know people there and not because they are well-known bastions of progressive thought. Fayetteville has a population of 78,000 and Humboldt is tiny, with just 1,800 residents. While these are ordinary-seeming places, they have extraordinary people in them doing extraordinary things.
Fayetteville is a university town in the northwest corner of Arkansas. Twelve years ago, the mayor and others launched an initiative, Fayetteville Forward, aimed at bringing all types of people together to re-envision the city’s future—focusing on economic and cultural vitality, sustainability, inclusion, and creativity. They kicked off the project with a three-day charette, where more than 200 people participated in the rethinking of the city. They set up committees that produced proposals for policy changes and new programs to be considered by the city council. As part of the city’s recovery from the pandemic, a group of citizens have proposed a new initiative, updating and building on the last one.
Humboldt is a farming community in southeast Kansas. Because of changes in the economy and retailing, the historic and beautiful downtown square was lined with many empty storefronts. Things began to change when a local farmer, Joe Works, invented a new trailer hitch design and launched a company to manufacture it. B&W Trailer Hitches now employs more than 400 people. Flush with success, Joe invested in revitalising the town, and his four children followed in his footsteps, launching an initiative, A Bolder Humboldt. They operate several shops, set up a rustic resort at the terminus of a bike trail, and plan a host of other projects, including a boutique hotel and a brewery. Creativity is a key component of the Cellular Economy, and Humboldt clearly has lots to teach us about how to harness it in a living community.
Humboldt and Fayetteville are examples of how the cellular dynamic creates positive feedback loops and virtuous circles. In Humboldt, one individual who cared enough to invest his passion and talent locally, infected his whole community with hope and the practical means to make a real difference. The lesson here is that each caring individual and each act of love is critical. How do you make a system that’s ‘too big to fail’ obsolete? You undermine its utility and its power by creating small pockets of alternative solutions and inviting others to substitute them for their old solutions.
If we can build a network connecting such pockets of local and caring value, we can erode their monopolies and with them their ability to hold us to ransom. Energy microgrids, farmers markets, crowdfunded community initiatives, and countless other types of cells are possible with a little imagination and some readily shared knowhow from the wider cellular community. Regular people know what their communities need better than all the experts in the world, they may need some inspiration and some expertise on demand, but they are the ones on the ground, they’re the ones with everything to gain.
We, in Pivot Projects, intend to build a light-touch support mechanism that helps foster a sense of agency in emerging project teams and solidarity between all pivot-minded activities the world over. We intend to celebrate the diversity of the cells and their participants, while building a common culture between cells based on the belief that collectively our positivity, practicality and our humanity is the real power in society.
So, we are sending out a plea to all our fellow pivot-minded citizens: Let’s start working together and supporting each other. While our missions may differ, we need to recognise and celebrate what unites us; the belief that enough is enough. An economic system that no longer serves our needs, needs to go. We need to abandon a capitalism based on exploitation of people and natural resources and rally round anyone we see doing their best for their fellow human beings and for the planet. We need to get the message out there: do good and the rest of us will stand with you. At the same time, the Cellular Economy has a polite and peaceful message to the rich and powerful: Work with the people and share in their prosperity, or work against them and find yourself out in the cold.
Anyone who thinks this is a message that should be shouted from the roof tops, want their existing cellular activities celebrated, or want to seed a cellular dynamic in their geographic or virtual community - please contact us, the Economics, Law and Politics Workstream in Pivot Projects, using the form below.
See Steve Hamms follow up piece, Lets go Cellular also on our blog.