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.