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October 22, 2008

The Core Economy and Co-Production

Edgar Cahn is the champion of two powerful ideas for beneficial social change. The Core Economy is the social infrastructure on which our money economy depends. Co-production is the co-delivery of services by users. Andrew Simms, Policy Director of the New Economics Foundation, explains his enthusiasm.

Andrew Simms, The Guardian

Too many of us ended up believing in the reality of economic Narnia. Now it is left to the real economy of households, communities, natural resources and productive work to pick up the pieces. Standing in the wreckage of the old illusion, it’s easier to see the importance of the operating systems that underlie and underpin the economy, which too often are undervalued and taken for granted.

The inventor of TimeBanks, Edgar Cahn, writes of two economies, the money economy and the core economy, and the former depends on the latter. The core economy consists of family, neighbourhood, community and civil society. It is what you and I do when we provide care for children, families and the elderly. It produces safe neighbourhoods, makes democracy happen, and produces community and civil society. It’s what comes to your rescue when you need it.

Now, it seems, we’re going to need the core economy rather a lot. But how can it be reinforced?

We need to imagine a significantly expanded and broadened role for public services, but one built on reciprocity in which the manner of delivery builds self-worth, and in the process strengthens the human relationships on which resilient societies depend. One such approach produces the so-called extended schools and health centres.

Through these, people become involved in helping to “produce” their own wellbeing. An elderly person visiting the doctor complaining of symptoms linked to the cold, might, for example, be prescribed help from another patient able to fit insulation or low-energy light bulbs to lower fuel bills. In return, they might discover that they are able to offer to make supportive phone calls, checking on people returning home from hospital.

It’s called “co-production”. It’s based on reciprocity, can be applied in a huge range of circumstances, and it works. To develop such initiatives, however, there will need to be a duty on public services to collaborate among themselves, and with the voluntary sector. It is, perhaps, also time to rehabilitate the idea of a shorter working week. Even if it happens as a consequence of the current economic shock, it could be turned to society’s advantage, freeing people’s time to engage with the core economy.

For too long, the invisible hand of the financial market has been squeezing the life out of the invisible heart of the core economy. But it is the latter that we really cannot do without, and it must now take precedence.