Collaborative capitalism: describing the future

Written by: Philippa Roberts on 27 November, 2012
Filed under Economy

I recently wanted to buy something from a website, but had a question. As this was a well-know retailer, I thought I’d give them a quick call, so went to the “contact us” section of the website and it turned out they were trying their hardest to make sure that I couldn’t. First of all there were FAQs and support questions, then you had to fill in some boxes with drop-down menus about your queries, which took you to more FAQs, but nowhere was there a telephone number or the chance to interact with a real human being.

Increasingly it appears that the larger providers of our goods and services are less and less keen to actually deal with us as people. I used to have a bank manager, but now a rotation of managers fast-track through my branch and the banking world. If I went to a supermarket, there used to be a person behind the till, but increasingly, it’s just me and the swipey machine; I still speak, it just beeps. And most frustratingly of all is the bad call centre, with it’s multiple options and hold music that might take you through to someone who can help, but more often than not will take you through to someone who can’t. Which isn’t a criticism of call centre staff; my first job was in a call centre and I know what hard work it is. It is a criticism of this way of doing business.

I run a business. I know that the most important thing in business is the relationships that you have with your partners and with your customers. I think that as our economic model changes, and change it must, human relationships will start to be seen as important again.

Last year, Ed made his speech about predators and producers and it seems the time may finally be ripe for a “less degenerate capitalism”. So, now we are talking about the detail of responsible, ethical or moral capitalism, I want to add my model, Collaborative Capitalism, to that list.

Collaborative Capitalism is based on the principle of working together. It has a long tradition in the co-operative movement and the Quaker-founded businesses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Collaborative Capitalism means a long-term approach to business and the economy. This means productive investment in skills, in the physical workspace and in creating sustainable goods and services.

Collaborative Capitalism is innovative, because it pays attention to the viewpoints of many, not just the people with the largest share. It is open-source, crowd-sourced and crowd-financed. These might sound like buzzwords, but they are characteristics in which relationships between real people are key.

However, one of the problems we face right now is communicating this vision of what the new Collaborative economy will look like. In part, this is because the current paradigm is dominated by the language of those on the ‘right’ of economic thinking. This language tells us that the period of austerity is ‘punishment’ for a period of profligacy; that hard medicine and tough rules work best, regardless of the collective social consequences. Success is measured in economic growth and pounds and pence.

For those of us on the ‘left’ of economic thinking, however, unemployment is not a price worth paying for a ‘balanced’ budget (Which doesn’t mean that I think this Government will achieve this ). We measure success in health, equality and educational outcomes. But the dominant paradigm means that the language we use to describe the vision we have can sound weak. What we call social responsibility means something different to what they call social responsibility.

The economic vision I have described is one that is attainable, because it is already happening. I’ve interviewed different business leaders creating new business models that meet the triple bottom line of social, environmental and financial sustainability. Companies such as River Simple, who have created a hydrogen fuel-cell car, but won’t sell it to you. They will only rent it, so the monthly payment you make includes all servicing and maintenance, to ensure they keep making their cars better. The relationship between business and customer is key.

Across the country, communities are setting up co-operatives to create their own renewable energy. In my local small market town, with below national average salaries, the local Solar Co-op was oversubscribed. At a time when big business is stepping away from these personal relationships, the innovators and the ordinary people are stepping back in and redefining them. I don’t yet have the right words to describe the wide array of business that are out there building this new Collaborative Capitalism. These small business creators are doing the hard bit. However, we must reclaim the language of the economy and business and start describing what we want the future to look like, if capitalism is to work for everyone.