This project is a conference being planned for October/November 20010 tentatively December 4th, 2010 titled “Wiring the Social Economy”. The conference will bring together community economic development practitioners, social enterprise operators and supporters and members of the social media and technology communities. The conference will focus on Vancouver and the Lower Mainland but also be open to participation from across the province and the country.

Background

The “progressive” community in Vancouver, BC and across Canada is very active yet also very fragmented. There is a groundswell of CED activities across the country through organizations such as CCEDNET, Community Futures and Western Economic Diversification. There is also a growing movement of social enterprises such as Potluck Café, Atira, and The Cleaning Solution supported by groups like Enterprising Non Profits. Finally, there is a vibrant social media community building websites, creating online marketing campaigns and doing web-based fundraising for non-profits.

Each of these communities has supporting organizations, events and conferences such as the National CED Conference, the Social Enterprise Summit and Web of Change. However, there is little, if any, cross-pollination of challenges, solutions and best practices between the groups. That is the goal of the Wiring the Social Economy conference.

The conference continues to explore themes developed during Vancouver ChangeCamp, namely: How can we help government become more open and responsive to citizens? How can we as citizens organize to get better outcomes ourselves?

Community Economic Development Goals

There are two main goals of the conference that support community economic development. The first is to help the social media and technology community understand the challenges, needs and constraints of social change agents along with the issues they face. For example, technologists building web sites for non-profits may not be fully aware of the “on the street” life of housing, HIV or police watchdog groups in the Downtown Eastside. By building awareness, we hope to open the door to new collaborations and possibilities.

The second major goal of the day is to help the social enterprise and community economic development communities understand the possibilities and potentials of using technology in their work. This could range from using information tools to better manage a social enterprise, to using interactive tools to help a band council choose between multiple CED options, to using social media tools like blogs, Twitter and Facebook to raise awareness of issues, generate funding and market events and products.

A unique piece of the day will be an underlying commitment to the core principles of CED including equity, diversity, participation and community building. We want to make this linkage explicit – that to have just and equitable economic development requires justice in dealings between the homeless and police; that to have environmentally viable communities requires the active participation of businesses operating in the community; that to have adequate housing for community residents, housing that feels like homes not shelters, requires engaging the development community along with the various levels of government.

Community Capital Goals

Natural Capital

The quality of natural capital in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland is incredibly variable. From the beauty of Stanley Park to the dark grey concrete and asphalt of East Hastings is only 15 minutes on the #19 bus. This diversity represents an opportunity for community economic development. We are just starting to explore the concepts of “Green Jobs” proposed by Van Jones, and at an even earlier stage in looking at how to include environmental components in inner-city development.

For example, projects like the Community Benefits Agreement between the City of Vancouver, VANOC and Millennium Development Corporation for the creation of the Southeast False Creek development brought over $24 million in spending to inner city businesses. The multiplier effect and job support of this is enormous. However, given that a large proportion of that spending was with Ocean Concrete, a product with a very high carbon footprint, what was the net environmental impact of building a LEED certified community?

At the conference we hope to convene conversations that address this and other issues that pose challenges for community economic development. Going further, there are many opportunities for using technology to drive green business development and to “green” existing businesses. For example, small businesses can use social media tools to engage customers in “green” conversations, develop live monitoring systems and demonstrate their performance online.

Physical Capital

Depending on the region being addressed, there are varying levels of physical capital in place. For example, work is ongoing to provide wireless access to the DTES. Groups such as W2 and Fearless City are creating the infrastructure needed for a growing cluster of technology companies in the area. There are still many infrastructure gaps, however, including transportation, housing, affordable food sources, etc.

The conference can facilitate improvements in these capacity areas by raising awareness of the needs with groups that can implement solutions. For example, highlighting the lack of broadband access in the DTES could spur government, or the private sector, to support physical capital development. In addition, we hope to highlight physical capital resources that already exist but may not be widely known such as shared office space locations, free and cheap computer access and social enterprise incubator space.

In addition the physical location of the event will serve to both inject economic capital into the local community and highlight the need for further infrastructure investment. We plan to host the day the W2 Media Arts Centre in the centre of the DTES

Economic Capital

Fundamentally, the project is designed to maximize the use of economic capital to build community. Even the briefest of mapping exercises serves to show the wide variety of economic capital available through grants, loans and development assistance. Just as quickly, one can see the challenges of making use of this capital – lack of basic financial support and community financial institutions, low economic capacity, low multiplier effect potential and difficulty in navigating “the system”

The project will convene conversations to address these issues while providing some immediate practical benefits. These include helping existing businesses to maximize their investments through low-cost technology and marketing, sharing best practices and using information to find and implement efficiencies in an enterprise.

Finally, there is a huge potential in inviting closer collaboration between the community economic development and social enterprise communities. While social enterprise is not the only way to “do” CED, there is much that each group can learn from each other.

Human Capital

As defined by the OECD (and quoted in “Toward Sustainable Communities”), human capital is the “knowledge, skills, competencies … that facilitate the creation of personal, social and economic well-being.” Put simply, a core goal of the conference is to build capacity in all of these areas. Sharing knowledge – both of the issues and of technological tools and solutions – is critical to building sustainable community economic development. To make that a reality, there needs to be a much greater level of skills development and competency building in community organizations. The presence of the social media and technology community will help this process.

This process can be facilitated through social media platforms such as Facebook, blogs, Twitter and wikis. These tools can be very powerful for sharing stories and best practices, connecting people and helping refine projects. While some community groups are using this type of technology, there is a huge potential for businesses and advocacy groups to “tell their story” in a more clearly articulated manner, to a much larger group.

At the same time, by having the different groups together, we anticipate that needs, knowledge and competencies will be uncovered that we have not even considered. The hope is that we will have the people in the room that can uncover not only the challenges but create solutions.

Social Capital

Interestingly, social capital as measured by community cohesion, connectedness and commonly accepted standards is very high within each of the groups we are targeting. The challenge is the low level of social capital between the groups.

The conference seeks to address this by building a common vocabulary and shared context, creating personal connections between individuals and attempting to situate the discussion in “real-world” communities as opposed to purely online or disintermediated environments. This is not to say that the online component is not useful. On the other hand, we plan to make the most use of all available tools to continue conversations and connections after the day is over. This will be done through methods such as blogs and hosted online conversations, a continuing series of conference calls and web meetings to re-engage participants and networking through sites like Facebook and Twitter. The hope is that some of these tools and media will be identified and created by participants of the conference, not just by the organizers – embodying the spirit of community-driven development

Cultural Capital

Thinking specifically of the DTES, there is a rich set of cultural capital available. To varying degrees, this capital has already been mobilized for community economic development. The goal of the conference is to help accelerate this process by providing examples where cultural capital has been successfully deployed in a CED context through use of technology.

At the same time, we wish to highlight to the social media and technology community the depth of value that this capital can bring to economic development projects if given the support.

Summary

In most instances where local groups do a community capital analysis of their own projects or communities, there are moments of realization when it becomes clear that many of the resources needed to solve community problems are in fact already available. We hope to bring that spirit of realization to all participants of Wiring the Social Economy.

More than just knowledge sharing and building connections, we are truly hoping that each group will recognize the tremendous strengths held by the other groups. And make the realization that by working together within the principles of community economic development – equity, diversity, collaboration, participation – we collectively have the potential to generate, and accelerate, sustainable community development.

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