From Economy to Community
In 2005, a group of people from all over Italy started to meet on the Internet with the intention of discussing the outcomes of some previous local currency experiences. They predicted the impending financial crisis and wanted to create a system that helped to make the regions and communities economically sustainable. This led, two years later, to the birth of the SCEC - Italian acronym for “solidarity that walks”. Ethel Chiodelli reports.
SCEC is not exactly a local currency, but rather a discount that circulates, adding, and at the same time, anchoring purchasing power to local communities. The SCEC is freely issued to all the members of the association at Euro face value, although it is not redeemable in Euros. In addition to the notes, an online electronic version has been created, facilitating internet transactions both on computers and smart phones. The ultimate purpose is to restore social cohesion, fostering economic relationships of reciprocity and trust.
Owing to the systemic nature of the present socio-economic crisis, through a deep collective reflection about its underlying causes - along with a process of trial and error - it became clear that the project needed to evolve into something more holistic. After an incubation of several years, a whole wealth of satellite projects stemmed from the SCEC branch of solidarity. The mission became clearer, regaining all the sovereignties lost in the last three decades: monetary, territorial, energetic, educational (self-determination), food, health, political and many more.
Have you ever heard about the concept of ‘No profit utilities’? Collective actions and personal responsibility join together in a virtuous circle where the individual's know-how is put to the service of the well-being of the entire community and, indirectly, of the individual itself.
The profit generated by the utility is then reinvested to improve its quality, thus lowering the costs for everybody. The facility can also be utilized by businesses, generating additional profits that can be diverted to fund welfare social services curtailed by austerity measures. There are two essential premises: the wealth produced by the community must be reinvested locally, and individual profit cannot be made from basic community services.
Let us see how it works by analysing two projects:
Empori & Botteghe (Emporia and Small Shops)
This is definitely the most ambitious of all the projects: the reconstruction of a local economy that will guarantee affordable, high quality nutritious food to everyone. The three pillars of the economic process - production, trade and consumption - are reorganized in a local and balanced cycle, overcoming the cultural divisions between all the economic actors and restoring trust instead. Working on the three levels at the same time is of paramount importance, this is why the project needs a long incubation period and it is still in its very early stages.
At the first level, a net of small, local producers is created. They share their knowledge and machineries, thus optimizing production and transportation costs. Yields are collected by communal lorries and processed in the emporia that supply local shops, hospitals and school dining halls, restaurants and hotels. When managing costs are paid, the remaining profits will be distributed among farmers, dignifying their work and giving them the incentive to improve the quality of their produce, instead of struggling with the costs.
Nowadays in fact, farmers are too often underpaid, suffering from the monopoly of large retailers. Wheat is a typical example. The cost of the raw material is just 5% of the price of the end product, which tells a lot about the importance given to the care of the land.
At the trade level, local shop retailers should play an important role in selecting the best-quality products available on the market, influencing both producers and customers.
Last but not least we, the consumers, should realize that what we save when shopping at a discount, will be later repaid in terms of poor health. In addition, 95% of what we pay to the big distributors migrates from the local community to far away markets.
The participation of local institutions is essential and could involve the provision of some municipal buildings - a disused warehouse for the emporia and some empty venues for the local shops, for example. The collaboration with schools and technical colleges would educate the students who will be employed in the structure, giving them the opportunity to experience first-hand what they had learned. Workshops and informative campaigns will be targeted to the wider public to raise the awareness, not only about the benefits of the project, but also to facilitate a shift that is complex and paradigmatic.
An attempt to realize a pilot project has been made in the town of Crotone, in one of the poorest regions of Southern Italy. The preconditions were set up, but for a variety of reasons no further progress is being made at the moment. This is also part of the transition, an amazing journey where (sometimes), we know where we start, but don’t how the path will unfold. A process where it is essential not to lose sight of the initial question, but stay with it, every time exploring new ways.
We often hear claims about the democratization of the media through the increasing use of the Internet. But have we really achieved this? What would a communication network look like according to a truly democratic vision?
This project is a practical contribution to this question. Once again, the aim is to empower and rebuild the community through a business process. The technical know-how and the economic resources owned by the individuals are put to the service of a cooperative of citizens in order to regain part of the telecommunication infrastructure and become less dependent upon the monopoly of large internet providers.
After three years of research and planning, a pilot project has recently been launched, that involves an area in the digital divide of Rome, plus two on the outskirts of the city. The technology employed is called 'mesh networking', and it is a type of network in which each node not only captures, but also disseminates its own data. It also serves as a relay for other nodes, i.e., it must collaborate in order to propagate the data in the network. Instead of the traditional 'one-to-many' we have a 'many-to-many' flow of data.
A mesh network whose nodes are all connected to each other, is a fully connected network and every user owning a smart phone or a computer is able log in from all the areas covered by the signal. Thanks to broadband technology, the network has a large potential in terms of data flow: speeds of up to 11 Mbit/s can be achieved both in upload and download. Ideally it could support Internet telephony, digital TV broadcasting, e-government services and much more.
What needs to be stressed here, is that the commonly used technology - ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) is, in fact, an asymmetric one, meaning that the amount of data that the single user can upload is much lower than that which can be downloaded. If we agree with the famous sentence that “the medium is the message”, we can easily grasp how a mesh structure can shape a truly democratic process; where a collective production of content is being enhanced instead of subtly hindered.
Should the system spread further - eventually becoming a single network - it will be possible to link all the local areas and ideally use one account to log in from everywhere. From an ecological perspective, the strength of the signal – 20-30mW for each wireless device supplying up to ten people – and the amount of energy required - just 6W per device – are much lower than average .
The signal of a mobile phone, e.g. ranges from 500 to 1500 mW, not to mention that of the antenna tower . The visual impact is also quite low, only being taller than the height of the devices around by 20 to 30 cm. The Achilles heel is that the nodes must be in sight of one another, and obstacles such as trees or buildings can get in the way.
At the moment, the activation fee is 200 Euros - which is also the share of the capital for each member. The subscription fee is 50% less than average also because a percentage is paid in SCEC. Needless to say that the more the people, the less the costs. Furthermore, in line with the no profit utility concept, the proceeds from the sale of future services to businesses would be reinvested to lower the cost to almost zero, improve the infrastructure, with the remainder funding a social project such as a community school.
As in all the projects, the real challenge is not so much the technology involved - which has already been widely tested - but the ability of the community to get together and organize itself, thus creating enough critical mass to start the process. A few favourable outcomes had been achieved in that sense. A crowd-funding of 13.000 euros had been reached to kick-start NoiNet. The same happened for another project about transport optimization.
On a less positive note – the money had already been granted by the regional institution– the payment was delayed with the risk of defaulting on paying the suppliers. Having 44 banks refuse to lend any credit, 71.000 euros were collected from the Archipelago network in two months, used to secure the liquidity, and returned two months later. The last successful crowd-funding has raised 8000 euros for a documentary about the whole project, which should be ready by the end of this year.
After the massive privatization of the last three decades, it seems that – slowly, but steadily – a different attitude is emerging. The old dream of the commons is back, but this time through a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down one. In fact, although institutional help is welcome, these projects are really by the people for the people. Whoever is interested can join in, not just in Italy, but also outside, as the is SCEC adjustable to a much wider and heterogeneous context. The know-how is available for everyone. Do you want to join?
I would like to express my deep gratitude to Pierluigi Paoletti, Luca Vannetiello and Gaetano La Legname for their help and the inspiring conversations we had.