Why I started The Brightoneers, and what I hope it will do

Last week we got The Brightoneersvision for a new local economy in Brighton out into the wild. It has been great to see so many people joining the meet-up group; tweeting about us and emailing offers to get involved. Thanks to you pioneering people who instantly ‘got it’ we are already making the vision closer to reality.

The Brightoneers is not a typical approach to business. It isn’t directly selling anything, it doesn’t have a bank account and isn’t even a company. Whilst there is a very clear vision guiding us – there are no defined goals for The Brightoneers itself. So understandably some people are confused:

This isn’t a problem. We’re building up a critical mass of people who do get it and I’m sure others will be drawn in over time. In this post I wanted to share my personal story about what I’m doing and why. If you’re expecting the specifics of a standard business plan you’ll still be disappointed, because this is not standard business.

What’s driving all of this are the huge challenges facing the world today: A larger rich-poor gap, climate change, and stagnation or even decline in standards of wellbeing in developed nations. Capitalism as we know it has failed, and socialism despite its good intentions hasn’t worked either. I want to have children one day, and I think they deserve a better world than the one they’re going to inherit as things stand.

Right here in Brighton there is enormous income inequality with great affluence in some places together with areas like Moulsecomb and Bevendean where child poverty rates are up to 45% versus the national average of 21%. This is bad news for everyone, not just the poor. For example, where I live on Saint James’s Street, the road is being gentrified with higher value homes, yet all residents suffer from the effects of poverty with crime and anti-social behaviour like street drinking. The largest employer in the city is American Express. The city badly needs the jobs that have been created, and I certainly don’t want them to leave, but it’s not owned by the people here and so most of the profits leave Brighton. We also have many smart graduates and other residents who struggle to find fulfilling, if any work at all here. The Brightoneers think we can do better than this.

We have some incredible home-grown industries like the creative and digital sectors where Brighton is a world leader, and we already have a number of pioneering businesses that are demonstrating how capitalism can be used to create jobs with real meaning, and deliver sustainable products and services that benefit society. Businesses like Infinity Foods; Mooncup and Brighton Energy Coop are demonstrating what’s possible. We’re not affiliated with these businesses yet but we love what they do and what they stand for. We want to see much more of this type of business so that it collectively becomes the largest employer in the city, sustainably and affordably providing everything that local people need, from food to transport to
energy as well as exporting the things we’re best at to the rest of the world.

Business alone can’t fix all of society’s problems, but it can go a long way. We need to re-imagine what business is for and make capitalists of the many, not just the few. We need to value and build human, social and environmental capital as well as the financial capital that greases the wheels of the economy. We need to set up businesses that benefit society, and help them to collaborate and thrive. We need to create jobs with real meaning and not just a salary. This is the purpose of The Brightoneers.

So where might this take us? One of my big inspirations for The Brightoneers is the Mondragón Corporation in the Basque region of Spain. Mondragón is a large group of worker cooperatives that come together to form a network that can behave like a large corporate entity with tens of thousands of employees at times when size matters (like lobbying government or setting up high investment shared resources like R&D facilities) but be small, agile and independent in their day-to-day running. Since they’re worker owned, all of the profit circulates around the local economy making everyone in the region better off. They even started their own cooperative bank that invests savings from local people into new worker cooperatives. Standards of wellbeing in the society there are extremely high and a big reason for this is the smaller rich-poor gap. And guess what, the whole thing has been extremely resilient though the economic turmoil in Spain, saving jobs and fighting poverty. Wouldn’t it be great if the local economy in Brighton was more like this?

It would be wrong to try to build a Mondragón from scratch in Brighton. Something like that will emerge organically if it’s needed. That’s what happened in Spain – they started bottom-up. What we’re doing with The Brightoneers is connecting and supporting the people and businesses that share the vision for a better local economy and see where that takes us.

This isn’t just a dream. There are various activities happening already. For example, we’re investigating how to turn my previous company into a worker coop so that it’s owned by the employees forever, and I’m supporting hiSbe – an ethical supermarket opening early next year. We’re also exploring whether we can secure a large property to house pioneering businesses working towards the vision in Brighton. Since we got The Brightoneers website live the council have been in touch to see how we can work together, and I’ll be doing all I can to steer local government towards our vision for the local economy.

The journey has already started, and everyone can get involved. It’s a network which all are free to join. If you haven’t signed up already, please come along to the free networking event and launch party in January.

10 thoughts on “Why I started The Brightoneers, and what I hope it will do

  1. Thanks for that Tom it contextualises the germ of an idea you had when starting the Brightoneers. I’m looking forward to being involved.

  2. Great post Tom.

    The comparative lack of worker co-operatives has always mystified me – is it access to capital or the motivations of the people who are likely to start successful businesses that inhibit this mode of organisation I wonder?

    This kind of empowerment has positive knock-on effects – for the workers, their families and their communities – because it isn’t just about a ‘job’ but about the kind of mindset that comes with exercising self-determination for the benefit of a group of which you are an intrinsic part as opposed to being a ‘human resource’.

    • Thanks for reading Mark and great questions! There are a whole bunch of reasons. The first is the gaping hole in education where people should be learning about cooperative economics. It’s possible to go through an entire business education, right up to MBA and know next to nothing about coops. So it’s little wonder that many of the people who could create successful coop businesses fail to do so. You’re more likely to learn about it on a sociology degree. It’s absolute ignorant madness considering that a billion people worldwide are members of coops and the top 300 have combined assets of $1.6TN.

      And then of course there’s our old friend, the vested interest. Given the combined size of coops, it should worry all of us that coops have no voice on the B20 – the business group that advises the G20.

      These are big problems that must be fixed, and it’s within our power to do so. We can build a better local economy in Brighton using cooperative principles and have this be an example to the rest of the country and world. One of the things that we’re starting to look at is getting cooperative economics into the business schools at Sussex and Brighton Unis.

      If you’re interested, I wrote this blog post about the disadvantages of coops, and overcome them:
      http://tomnixon.co.uk/2012/10/12/disadvantages-of-cooperatives-and-how-to-overcome-them/

      • I’m going to read that post right now – my ignorance on this is embarrassing. I guess this is one of things that exists in plain sight but if you don’t look you’ll only see the standard model of business – and believe that is the dominant mode. A billion people and assets that large in the co-op movement is staggering.

      • I empathise with the ignorant feeling. I only woke up to all of this stuff after 10 years in business blissfully unaware it. Many others are beginning to get it now as well – the time is right given the huge failure of corporate capitalism in recent times. I highly recommend David Erdal’s book Beyond the Corporation which has been massively influential to me in all of this. The book focuses on employee owned companies which I think are the most powerful type of coop.

  3. Hi Tom

    very interested to know more about this initiative, however, my security software is blocking me from looking at the Brightoneers website with a pop up box explaining that this site hosts malicious software. Could be just a technical hiccup with my security software, but worth checking out on your side.

    Gavin

    • Thanks for letting me know. It’s hosted on the wordpress.com platform so should be pretty secure, but we’re taking your advice and someone’s looking into it just in case. Sorry you can see the site just yet.

  4. Pingback: Our first week of Brightoneering | The Brightoneers

  5. Hey! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you
    I really enjoy reading through your articles.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same topics?
    Many thanks!

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