When asked what I do, and who I work with – I draw a honeycomb.
I’ve worked in economic regeneration for longer than I want to remember and seen big ideas come, go and come back again. But, the problem with most of what we’ve come to know as regeneration and the economy, isn’t accessible, unless you have money. Want to build a building, bring derelict land into use, create jobs? You need money. Start a small business? You’ll need money and a credit rating.
So, we look to inward investors – people from elsewhere, with lots of money. Trouble is, inward investors tend to take their profits back to wherever they inward’ed from.
Yes, we get to rent those houses, work on that land and take up the jobs created. But this regeneration leaves us dependent on things, and people, outside our control. Most of the wealth we create goes elsewhere.
With the Beautiful Ideas Company (BICo), the rules are simple. We put out a call for good ideas – they must have a chance of viability and will do some good in the local community. The first time we did it, we were looking for 15 ideas, got over 100, and eventually invited 30 to a series of monthly gatherings, to build on their ideas.
As those 30 ideas started to meet, bring their mates, bounce plans around and access other networks, those daft, outrageous, disruptive ideas got serious! They used their six degrees of separation to find each other the expertise, connections, buildings, equipment, friends and families that each needed to give it a go.
In that first call we had some money, earned from running match day car parks near Goodison Park and Anfield football grounds. With it, we invested between £5,000 and £30,000 in 25 ventures across two neighbourhoods in Liverpool and Manchester.
It’s now 18 months since our first investees drew down their investment. Those beautiful ideas have used a shared £375,000 from us to secure another £800,000 of investment. Collectively, they already have a turnover of £2.5m and brought 60,000 sq ft of derelict space back into use. They’ve created 68 full time and 37 part time jobs with over 50 trainees and volunteers. Almost all of them are still in touch, helping each other when it’s tough and encouraging others to add to this honeycomb world of mission-driven entrepreneurs.
It could be that this was a unique phenomenon; but we’ve tested the approach in three more places since. Disbelievers start out, as I did, thinking ‘if only we had better ideas, better people, more money…’ We are always wrong.
We didn’t require business plans or feasibility studies – if you want to run a community garden, try planting a carrot. And if one project goes wrong, there are another 24 buzzing away, so risk is low. As I write this, all those first ventures are still trading.
I looked up why honeycomb is the shape it is. Why not a triangle, square or something more random? It’s because every cell fits together and everybody can pitch in. An easy jigsaw in which all the parts fit – perfect in economising labour and wax.
So, when I draw my honeycomb I can now be confident I’m part of the kind of economy I want to build and be part of. Not reliant on inward investment nor independent, but interdependent, inclusive, and kinder to people and planet.
Erika Rushton is a creative economist. She runs the Beautiful Ideas Company, and chairs Baltic Creative CIC.