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The new economy reborn in Sydney

The new economy reborn in Sydney


There is a taste for reforming and reconfiguring the economic system…

I DIDN’T MAKE A HEAD COUNT but with the main meeting space at Glebe Town Hall packed with conference participants I got the impression that a better, fairer economics is a topic grabbing the attention of a groundswell of people and organisations.

There is a taste for reforming and reconfiguring the economic system. It spans academia to those pioneering new ways of working and new technologies and on to those participating in alternative community trading systems. Something is definitely in the air around the idea of a new economic system.

Organised by the UNSW Law Faculty — yes, you read correctly — a university law faculty — August’s Building The New Economy conference in Sydney brought together people from as far away as Tasmania and Queensland to explore the shape of a new economic system.

Reunion, of sorts

For me, it was also something of a reunion because among those attending were people like Robert Rosen, who had worked with permaculture’s Earthbank in the 1980s, a project to stimulate the emerging social investment sector.

I should point out that the permaculture design system at that time was active in building an alternative economics even though the concept was then in its early days. Permaculture co-originator, Bill Mollison, was an advocate at directing money towards creating those things people wanted to see developed and away from those things desctructive of environment and society. Out of that early interest came investor, Damien Lynch, who launched August Investments that put peoples’ money through an ethical filter to avoid companies engaged in destructive activities.

Shann Turnbull, who has been a decades-long critic of mainstream economics and who was a well known figure during the first wave of alternative economics in that earlier decade, was also there.

Veteran new economy advocate, Shann Turnbull, addresses the Building the New Economy conference.
Veteran new economy advocate, Shann Turnbull, addresses the Building the New Economy conference.

Michael Burnley, the architect who started the New Economics Foundation in Australia in the early nineties, with which I was associated and for which I used to edit their journal, was present. And there was Ken McCloud, who has been involved in progressive social initiatives for decades.

These were the people of the first wave of new economy thinking in Australia. What a great surprise to find them still active, to find that a conference that suggested that an alternative economics is possibile drew them out. Through combining the past with the present the larger pieces of a new economic future started to fall into place.

So many interesting sessions

On looking at the program it became clear that it would not be possible to attend all of the potentially interesting discussions and workshops. There were so many interesting sessions occurring concurrently.

One of the university-based presenters, Amanda Carter, explained that we need to demystify the new economy. Just what is it? She said that her research has disclosed that conservative people were now asking radical questions about the economy and that this opened opportunities for the purveyors of a new economy.

You could be replaced by an algorithm…

We need a lot of ‘doing stuff’, she said, and we need to link the new economics community so that we learn from each other. We need a systems approach that incorporates economy and environment. Options already exist.

Among the Aboriginal participants at the conference were several active in their own regions, including the West Australian north-west. I was impressed by their political savvy. North Queenslander, Ross Williams, said there are parallels between the new economy and Aboriginal culture. He concluded by saying “We’re in… this new economy… we in Queensland are joining you guys”.

It was refreshing to hear speakers talking about the future of work. “Around 40 percent of existing jobs are likely to be replaced by automation within the next ten to 20 years”, said more than one speaker.

“You could be replaced by an algorithm”.

This is fast becoming a hot topic in mainstream society where workplace automation and robotic systems are soon likely to be joined by artificial intelligence. Many working class jobs have already been replaced by industrial robots and now the trend is starting to impact on middle class work previously thought immune to it.

The trend is an approariate focus for those engaged in building a fairer, better alternative economics because it is propelled by the increasing number of people engaged in the ‘contingent’ workforce of casual and part time work, freelancers, short term project assignments and consultancy. They make up what some call the ‘gig economy’ because their employment security is only as long as their present job. They are also known as the ‘precariat’ because their working life is precarious. We’re going to be hearing a lot more about these trrends.

A LETS currency was issued in a part of New Zealand to facilitate community-based trading.
A LETS currency was issued in a part of New Zealand to facilitate community-based trading.

Importance of the commons

The future of the commons was a topic and speakers mentioned successful actions to protect them such as the Montreal Protocol on closing the ozone hole in the atmosphere and the public pressure that resulted in the clean air acts around the world.

The commons are those shared resources we all make use of. The big ones are the atmosphere, the oceans, public lands like national parks. In urban centres the commons include public open space — the parks, community gardens, the footpaths. Less tangible are the internet, the worldwide web, the postal system, Wikipedia, public transport. Commons includes those held as public property in the trust of government as well as those with private infrastructure such as the worldwide web with its corporate server farms that contribute to a larger, open structure like the internet. Open source culture is a recent addition expanding the commons.

Privatisation destroys the commons, speakers said. Governments take what has been entrusted to them as a public good and sell it to private interests, pocketing the proceeds.

Preserving and expanding the commons is a priority. The act of ‘commoning’ was positioned as a post-capitalism tactic. Bushcare is an example in which participants take responsibility for an area of land, one speaker said. The more than 600 community food gardens around the country can be seen as a type of commoning too, with most being on land administered by local government and a few on school and church land. Engaging in community gardening implies accepting responsibility for a parcel of land and managing it properly.

New approaches to exchange

The sharing economy, peer-to-peer exchange, decentralised manufacturing with the new technologies of 3D printing, 3D scanning and laser cutting, co-working and maker spaces are among the newer forms being taken by the new economy. Some of these hold potential for decentralised manufacturing.

Co-working offers opportunities to some in the new economic sector, the precariat, with their limited-term employment. Here, in shared working spaces, they can sometimes gain advice from fellow workers.

Platform cooperativism was briefly discussed. The concept uses software as the platform for the development of peer-to-peer exchange and for initiatives that respect those working within them — unlike some corporate, so-called ‘sharing’ economy initiatives that underpay workers and have questionable working conditions — TaskRabbit being one sometimes mentioned. Loomio, the New Zealand-developed decision making software using an approach similar to Dynamic Governance, is a popular example of one type of platform cooperativism.

LETS trade

With Alison Bird from BrisLETS and Annette Loudon who did much with Sydney LETS and in popularising LETS trading software, I did a session on the cashless, community-based trading system.

LETS. which means Local Exchange and Trading System, is a form of mutual credit. It was popularised in Australian in the 1980s by Canadian, Michael Linton, who inspired communities, as well as participants in the permaculrure design system, to set up LETSystems. They flourished into the nineties then went into something of a decline. They continue today as do look-alike systems such as Time Dollars.

Alison Bird, now with BrisLETS, did much to establish Tablelands LETS in Far North Queensland.
Alison Bird, now with BrisLETS, did much to establish Tablelands LETS in Far North Queensland.


A new economy will emerge from the old and will be built using the energy systems, technologies and knowledge of the old economy. This someone mentioned at the conference.

What they were saying will be obvious: coal and oil energy build photoelectric panels, electric vehicles, the new tools and the software that runs them. Old knowledge is combined into new knowledge. Old agriculture is reformatted and augmented to make the better, new approach of regenerative agriculture.

Repurposing and reformatting existing models is part of this new economy…

Visible signs of the new economy incude the photovoltaic systems we see on home, local government and some commercial rooftops, water harvesting and storage, energy efficient retrofitting of old buildings and the design of resource-efficient new buildings, mainstream adoption of energy and water efficient design, new forms of small scale, intensively-managed urban agriculture, new models of urban food distribution through food hubs and the rapid spread of community and home food growing, carshare schemes, elements of the sharing economy, peer-to-peer exchange, decentralised manufacturing with the new technologies of 3D printing,  laser cutting and CNC (computer numerically controlled) tools, co-working, maker spaces, open source software and tool/technology design and platform cooperativism.

Repurposing and reformatting existing models is part of this new economy. Organisations like Regrarians are repurposing farming to both produce human needs and to care for the soils. Existing buildings will be reformatted into renovated, energy, water and resource efficient structures more than new buildings will be created. Parts of urban parks are repurposed for food production and community development as community food gardens.

Old industrial land and infrastructure is repurposed for both apartment construction and community infrastructure, like the old interstate bus depot in Adelaide reporposed as the The Common Ground. It includes Adelaide Sustainability Centre, Common Ground Community Garden, Adelaide Community Bicycle Workshop, The Joinery and other community initiatives. Then there is the Randwick Sustainability Hub, a one-time military facility repurposed for community resilience education, a community centre, public park and the Permaculture Interpretive Garden.

Speculative fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, whose science fiction stories are sometimes allegories for our present conditions and the futures that could emerge from them, describes the emergence of the new from the old this way:

“We see signs of this post-capitalism — the gift economy, open source culture (people who have a sufficiency, some capital, some free time, and who give something to the community), Scandinavian social democracy, the employee-run Mondragon nested co-ops including a bank”.

Yes, look closely, apply a little perspective and you do see the new being born in the old.

A diverse presence for a socially fairer future

That the conference agreed on holding the next Building the New Economy conference in Brisbane during August next year attests to the energy this idea is generating.

It was the diversity of those present at the conference that gives me hope that the invention on a new, fairer economy will be more than a university-based think tank.

On the evening of the first night of the conference we adjourned to a cafe, The Works, on Glebe Point Road. There, after socialising over drinks paid for by the conference organisers, we were treated to a musical performance around the theme of climate change. And, there, in that upstairs room, one element of the new economy was already visible in the adjoining co-working space.

More on LETS:

Damien Lynch and August investments:

Michael Shuman from Business Allaince for Local Living Economies in Australia:

Robert Rosen on Earthbank:

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