Fostering Consistent Stakeholder Engagement for a Maximum Impact

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Guest blog by Anna Godefroy, Director, Binners Project

Although a relatively new initiative, the Binners’ Project is often praised for its true grassroots nature and strong engagement with the community. Yet maintaining member involvement is a sustained effort for the project staff. This is a very common challenge for many community initiatives.

At its core, the Binners’ Project aims to decrease stigma surrounding binning (also called dumpster diving). Binners and staff work collaboratively to build new income-generating opportunities. We do so by fostering face-to-face interactions between binners, residents, and the community at large, in Vancouver and Montreal.

Initially a One Earth / Cities for People initiative, the Binners’ Project secured a grant in 2015/16 from the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation allowing it to test several pilot programs. In only one year, those burgeoned and we saw an influx of interest from binners and from the public.

Despite the success amongst participating binners, one of the biggest challenges we face this year is relying on their steady engagement. Consistent participation and reliability is the greatest source of anxiety for our staff, as the demand from the community and clients increases.

Anna Godefroy 1

Our community evaluation, conducted in the Spring 2016, demonstrated that members regularly involved with the Binners’ Project felt a remarkable impact on their overall wellbeing. However, most of our members lack stability in their lives, which prevents them from fully benefiting from our programs. Barriers include, but are not limited to, housing insecurity, addictions, mental health issues, physical disabilities, abuse, gender-related tensions and/or homelessness. These of course are drawbacks to consistent engagement.

Based on our two years of experience organising regular meetings and workshops, we now believe that the emphasis must be on fostering a web of interconnected individuals. Building tight network around and amongst group members is the best strategy to overcome involvement inconsistency.

This can be constructed around two central pillars: meeting recurrence and peer networking. Although it is too early to draw any conclusions, we are seeing encouraging results already.

We find that success in engaging individuals in the middle and longer-term comes down to the recurrence of our meetings. It is a matter of finding the right balance of meeting regularly without overwhelming people (our members are burdened quite literally with the daily struggle to survive, and therefore meetings occupy time that could be spent foraging for the recyclables from which they earn their living). Our experience has shown that regular gatherings translated into increased connection to people’s surroundings, and growth in confidence in their ability to take on new challenges and fulfil commitments.

Pre-set weekly gatherings require heavy staff involvement, but bring stability and structure in lives that often have very little or none. Perhaps even more important is rediscovering the feeling of expectancy, which might be the early sign of what it means to be part of a community.

Anna Godefroy 2

Building a peer-network system: Because dumpster-diving on the street is an extremely competitive activity, binners are most often marginalised and disconnected with their own community. Additionally, most binners do not have access to internet, mobile phones, and/or landlines.

To facilitate the process of connecting and staying connected, our group has selected two team-leader binners, whose roles are to work out ways to contact people at street level and help them organise so they can honour their commitment with the Binners’ Project. Often, finding people involves knocking on their door (provided they have one), or walking around Vancouver Downtown Eastside with the hope of crossing paths.

With this peer-network in place, we are finding that team leaders’ roles are going beyond expectations. They informally keep track of the other binners’ housing situation, addiction challenges, and mental health states.

New members look up to their team leaders and are able to approach them with specific questions and concerns. Joining a group is often challenging for new participants who are used to being, and working, on their own. Our programs aim to break isolation, while building on soft skills with the goal of reaching financial independence for binners. Peer-team leaders play an important role in supporting new members passing through the daunting early stages before they are able to reap the full benefit of joining.

Commitment issues are not rare when it comes to community initiatives. Despite proven impact in their stakeholders’ lives, some community initiatives’ existences are threatened because of a lack of commitment from participants. It must not be mistaken for a lack of enthusiasm from its members, adequacy, or relevancy to the group it serves.

Our track record shows that our programs are popular and truly improve people’s lives. Only time will tell whether the solutions mentioned above will help tackle the issues in the long term – but our early outcomes are promising.

Webinar! Voices of New Economies: Opportunity for All

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Mon, 9 Nov 2015


2:30pm Newfoundland, 2pm Atlantic, 1pm Eastern, 12pm Central, 11am Mountain, 10am Pacific


Free! Register now.


Across Canada and around the world, people are rising up to shape new economies.  Recognizing that the ecological, social and even financial costs of our current economic system are unsustainable, innovative leaders are finding different paths forward.

As part of the third annual New Economy Week, this session will challenge us to explore how we can scale promising social innovations towards larger systemic change.

The contributors will share big ideas and concrete examples of real solutions to further explore perspectives that they and others shared in Voices of New Economies, a report produced as part of Cities for People by One Earth and the Canadian CED Network.

The session offers inspiration for new possibilities that can bring us closer to a just, sustainable, and democratic society.


Hosted by Dagmar Timmer, Managing Director and Co-Founder of One Earth, the session will begin with an introduction by Michael Toye, executive Director of the Canadian CED Network and Vanessa Timmer, Executive Director and Co-Founder of One Earth. It features insights from the following Voices contributors:

Marianne JurzyniecGovernance Liaison Manager, Affinity Credit Union

"We know youth are our future therefore investments to educate, mentor, and most importantly to ensure they are contributing to the decisions of today are invaluable.”

Sean GeobeySenior Associate, MaRS Solutions Lab

"Wealth comes from our capacity to invest materially, socially, and intellectually in the creation of institutions and infrastructure that support collective efforts to try and make the world a better place.”

Lis Suarez Visbal-Ensink, Executive Director, FEM International and Co-Director, ETHIK BGC

"The capacity to choose what is best for you and yours and embrace it, not to take what you can because it is your only option, or the only thing you can afford.”

Pallavi Roy, Youth Environmental Co-ordinator, CultureLink Settlement Services

"The energy sector, which has traditionally been highly controlled, has immense potential to be revolutionized through new economic practices.”

Victoria WeeComputer Science student, Stanford University

"Young people are the ingredient x to really carving out the future that we want.”

Nabeel AhmedNetwork Co-ordinator, Social Enterprise Toronto

"At the core, new economies have to be focused around people and protecting public interests, not falling prey to short- term, profit-driven private interests."

Alexa Pitoulis, Managing Director, OpenMedia

"How we interact with media has changed dramatically in the last 20 years.  Local ownership and control over Internet infrastructure is a key component to thriving new economies of the future."


You will need speakers or a headset on your computer to participate.  To ensure your system will be compatible with our webinar platform, try this connection test or look at the Adobe Connect quick start guide prior to the session.

NOTE: There will also be a French webinar on November 11 Voix de nouvelles économies : occasion pour tous. Visit the event page to register.

Webinar: The Role of Cities in Sustainable Consumption (20 Oct; also recorded)

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West Coast Climate Forum’s next webinar:

The Role of Cities in Sustainable Consumption: Making the Case for Local Action

Tuesday, October 20, 9:30-11:00 am, PT 

 Register here: Consumption Report_Cara Pike

In this webinar, we return to the role of cities in advancing sustainable consumption and explore how municipal leaders can effectively frame the issue for successful local action.  How do we engage in positive, meaningful conversations within our communities about changing our consumption patterns in a way that resonates with our shared values?

In this webinar, Babe O’Sullivan, Sustainability Liaison with the City of Eugene, will provide a review of the Eugene Memo which lays out the rationale and opportunities for cities to take action, and Vanessa Timmer, Executive Director of One Earth and Cara Pike with Social Capital Strategies will discuss the report, Sustainable Production and Consumption Framing: A Research Summary.

This webinar is free and open to the public.

If you are unable to attend this webinar, you can find the webinar recording here by October 27th.

The Coffee Cup Revolution: Binning For Used Paper Coffee Cups

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On Thursday, September 10th, the second Coffee Cup Revolution was held, with 130 binners participating. In four hours, 31,300 paper coffee cups were redeemed for 5¢ each at Victory Square.

This is the only public event in Vancouver that brings binners together and celebrates the work that binners do. The event also highlights the generation of non-recycled waste in the form of paper coffee cups in Vancouver (they are recycling since 2014 for residential waste only). Binners and volunteers gathered to demonstrate the importance of binning and the BC refund system for used conLogo-green-typo-20150515tainers from both environmental and social justice perspectives.

The Coffee Cup Revolution featured two roundtables bringing together community activists and experts in wide ranging discussion. More specifically, the roundtables focused on: 1) new environmentalism in the City; 2) new economies in the City.

“The Binners’ Project, generally, and the Coffee Cup Revolution, more specifically, are exciting developments in the civic landscape of Vancouver. The energy generated towards recognition of the key role binners play in a sustainable urban environment and towards empowering the Binners’ community is remarkable,” says Margot Young, Professor, ALLARD School of Law, UBC. “Leveraging the recycling of the hundreds of thousands of coffee cups that now go into our landfills weekly is a worthy goal. And, increasing the profile and economic well-being of binners is equally impressive.”

The Binners’ Project is a group of waste-pickers dedicated to improving their economic opportunities and reducing the stigma they face as informal recyclables collectors. The Binners’ Project is supported by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and the City of Vancouver.

It is a project on Tides Canada’s shared platform, which supports on-the-ground efforts to create uncommon solutions for the common good. Tides Canada is a national Canadian charity dedicated to a healthy environment, social equity, and economic prosperity.

Find out more about the project: and the Coffee Cup Revolution.


Calgary’s Re-localize Fair demonstrates possibilities for community-based economies

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We are pleased to share some of the exciting work being undertaken by the We Are Cities cross-Canada convenor network! In addition to hosting and supporting We Are Cities roundtables this past spring, several convenors have been working on demonstration projects in their communities that test new approaches to resilient and livable cities. These projects are meant to engage convenors’ networks while forging new connections to strengthen localized city-building efforts. Demonstration projects range from pop-up public citizen spaces to neighborhood fairs to public transit experiments.

In this blog, we adapted the reflections of Calgary convenor Gerald Wheatley, Manager at the Arusha Centre, on their demonstration project: the Re-localization Fair, held at Calgary’s Bridgeland Riverside Community Association on April 18, 2015, as part of the 2015 Down to Earth Week

relocalize fair logo.

About the Re-localization Fair

What is Re-localization? Put simply, it is a movement away from global dependences and towards building resilience through strong local economies. It’s about buying local, yes, but also involves capitalizing on each community’s unique capacities to share knowledge and resources to build autonomy. (See here for an explanation of Re-localization from Megan Quinn Bachman). from In that vein, the Fair was an afternoon gathering of workshops, a market, and keynote speech all about the local movement, featuring Re-localization expert and author Michael Shuman. The event featured local music, waste diversion, pedal powered demonstration, and family activities. All this took place in a community association building located in a Transit-oriented Development (TOD) community with a tool lending library, farmers market, grassroots granting program and rooftop garden. The Re-localize Fair attracted 450 attendees and 26 market vendors; many attendees participated in one of the eight workshops on topics central to the Re-localization movement (workshops are described in detail below).

The Fair had several positive impacts on surrounding communities. First of all, it demonstrated that there is popular interest in Re-ocalization, a concept that is emerging and includes important social justice and environmental sustainability principles which have not been widely embraced. The event had a synergistic buzz of excitement between attendees, vendors, and workshops engaged in food, economy, and livability.

Second, the spirit of sharing and learning that characterized the Fair is central to the development of new economies based on knowledge-transfer. The Fair had an atmosphere of popular education with many local resource people sharing with Calgary citizens and businesses. These interactions were linked to networks of community economic development such as THRIVE employment development and the Respect for Earth and All Peoples (REAP) triple bottom line business network.

relocalize fair 5

Showcasing Calgary dollars - a local currency!


One of the standout features of the Fair were a series of eight one-hour workshops covering topics from gardening and composting to social engagement and activism. Using social media and word-of-mouth advertising, the sessions each brought crowds from five to 40. Many attendees were vocally supportive of the hosts and the workshop format, as many were hearing of the organizations and topics for the first time. Sessions on SPIN farming and Viegages (a community model that provides affordable financing– the opposite of “mort”gage) provided an opportunity to learn about something new, while the We Are Cities Mobilization (in which roundtable participants discovered the power of funny hats!) and Bike Calgary sessions provided ways to be active in community-building in Calgary. The experience was an empowering one, as people were able to learn, display, and activate a depth of skills and interests in a socially conscious and intimate setting.

SPIN farming

SPIN (Small-Plot INtensive) farming: look at those beautiful greens!

The Fair also featured speaker Michael Shuman, who offered insights from his work with the Business Alliance for a Local Living Economy (BALLE). Michael is the author of “Small Mart Revolution” and “Local Dollars, Local Sense” and ensured that attendees understood the social and environmental benefits of localization. Building on the theme of strengthening local economies, the Fair accepted Calgary dollars (Calgary's complementary currency system, started by the Arusha Centre in 1995), as well as promoting egalitarian business models being used in Calgary and beyond, such as the Canadian Worker Coop and Grain Exchange Worker Owned Bakery.

Finally, on the creative side, Ecoliving Events showcased chairs made from shipping pallets, and renowned local artist Daniel J. Kirk unveiled “Relocalize the Box”, an interactive art piece that allows users to create a three dimensional art piece from wood pieces featuring different themes. The Kidzone offered do-it-yourself buttons, a scavenger hunt, pedal powered lights, and three live music performers.

relocalize fair 7

Artist Daniel J. Kirk demonstrates the interactive art piece “Relocalize the Box”

Given the success of the Re-localize Fair, many participants and vendors expressed interest in a similar event next year. We are excited to continue following the Arusha Centre and other participating organizations’ work, and find out what might be in store for 2016!

You can see more photos of the fair on Arusha’s Facebook page.


About the Arusha Centre

The Arusha Centre is a collectively run, member-supported organisation that provides resources and initiatives on social justice and environmental issues. We help Calgarians through community economic development and community resilience programs and offers varied practical resources, animating activities which educate, inspire and connect with and between people and projects. Click here to learn more about their mission and here to find out what they’re up to and who they’re collaborating with.

Arusha logo with Programs lowres

About We Are Cities

We Are Cities was launched by a number of organizations that believe that a prosperous future for Canada depends on thriving cities. For cities to succeed, citizens need to take an active role in identifying a path forward to achieve resilience, prosperity and inclusivity. Through community roundtables and an online idea forum, Canadians are helping to build a vision and action plan to make Canadian cities healthy and exciting places to live, work and play. We Are Cities is also connecting existing city-building work in order to strengthen and mobilize our collective efforts to enable the change we need. Stay tuned for details on We Are Cities Day, coming up September 15!


New video: Artist Roundtable (A.RT) on New Economies

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Last May, as part of the second Disruptive Imaginings gathering in Vancouver, Simon Fraser University hosted an Artist Roundtable (A.RT) on the theme of New Economies.

The A.RT brought together a diverse group of panellists who have provocative ideas about art, economy, and transformative change. Set within a staged 1983 corporate boardroom, the A.RT started off with a presentation by artist Marilou Lemmens about her collaborative, multidisciplinary practice with Richard Ibghy. She presented artistic projects that explore the ways in which the economic system pervades nearly every facet of our daily lives. In response, panellists from various fields engaged in lively discussion, digging deeply into the issues at the heart of the duo’s practice. The panellists drew on their experiences in the realms of art and culture, activism and citizenship, and sustainability and radical urbanism as they shared stories, debated ideas, and challenged each other and the audience with thought-provoking questions.

About the panellists:

Community organizer, writer, and activist Matt Hern teaches at UBC and is known for his work in radical urbanism, community development, and alternative forms of education. He is founder of the Purple Thistle Centre, Car-Free Vancouver Day, and Groundswell: Grassroots Economic Alternatives.

Cédric Jamet is former Project Manager at the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre and a Curator at Cities for People, now pursuing a degree in Human Systems Intervention at Concordia. His work explores the relationship between the urban imaginary, active citizenship, and the co-creation of sustainable cities. He has worked on many citizen engagement projects including coordinating 100in1 Day in Montreal.

Artist and cultural producer Todd Lester has dedicated his career to supporting and enabling socially engaged artists around the world. He is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and founder of both freeDimensional and

You can watch the full video here - and if you want to know more about new economies, read the recent Report on New Economies by CCEDNET and One Earth here.

New Economies report released!

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One Earth, in collaboration with CCEDNet, has released their Voices of New Economies report, inspired by all those who are rising up to shape new economies that work for people, places, and the planet. The report brings together visually engaging content from the New Economies blog series to map out key ideas, patterns, and perspectives and chart new economic approaches.

The report includes interviews with leaders in the areas of Rethinking our Fundamentals, Healthy Ecosystems & Happy Communities, Building an Inclusive Economy, Tools & Policies to get us there, and New Economies at Work.

“Although the large-scale patterns of economic inequality and inadequate measures continue to prevail, individuals, institutions, and communities around the world are beginning to awaken to a new economic era. This compendium was put together to spark dialogue around the question: What might new economies in the 21st Century look like? The following pages feature the insights of various thought leaders and practitioners from across North America, with backgrounds ranging from policy to computer science to accounting to biology.” - excerpt from the Introduction, written by Jane Zhang.

You can access it in full on Issu - see the link below. And, as part of the ongoing collaboration between One Earth, Musagetes, Adjacent Possibilities, and others, the Artist Round Table (A.RT) on New Economies brought together a diverse group of panellists with provocative ideas about art, economy, and transformative change. Watch a video of the A.RT, hosted at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, here.

Feel free to share the report and video widely!



Sustainable Degrowth and Relocalizing our Economies: An Interview with William Rees

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This blog is part of the 'Voices of New Economies' series within Cities for People - an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.
The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.
This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need - ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.

By Jane Zhang*WmRees

  1. In your view, what are three key elements of "new economies"?
  • Recognizing natural limits
    The overarching problem is one that the mainstream has yet to acknowledge: on a planet already in overshoot, there is no possibility of raising even the present world population to developed country material standards sustainably with known technologies and available resources. By 2008, the world population had reached 6.7 billion—it’s 7.3 billion today—while there were only about 12 billion productive hectares on Earth, or just 1.8 average hectares per capita. We can refer to “1.8 average hectares per capita” as one’s equitable “Earth share.” It represents the biocapacity available to support each person, assuming the world’s productive ecosystems were distributed equally among the entire human population. The problem is, it currently takes 4-7 global average productive hectares to provide ‘natural income’ (resources) and life-support services to the average European or North American. How many more planets do we need for sustainability? You do the math!
  • Societal cooperation
    (Un)sustainability is a collective problem. No individual can implement the policies necessary (e.g. carbon taxes, resource quotas) to significantly reduce his/her ecological footprint or revamp the social programs needed for social stability. No country, however virtuous, can be sustainable on its own or remain insulated from global turmoil. Thus, the so-called developed world, long steeped in the rhetoric of competitive individualism, must now grapple with the notion that individual and national interests have all but converged with humanity’s common interests. Working co-operatively for the common good will require the ardent exercise of several intellectual and behavioural qualities that are unique (or nearly so) to our species, such as high intelligence, the ability to plan ahead, socio-behavioural means for cooperation, moral judgment, and empathy. The question is, are we up to the task or will we succumb to primitive combative tribalism?
  • Planned economic degrowth
    Renegrade economist Kenneth Boulding once said, “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.” The contemporary growth economy is a malignant social construct. We need to replace it with an ecologically benign and socially equitable no-growth variant. This idea is not new— in the mid-18th Century, Adam Smith predicted the slowing of growth as inevitable. Almost a century later, John Stuart Mill argued that society would reach a “stationery state”, but he hoped people would plan a deliberate transition to this steady state before nature imposed it upon them.

2. Why degrowth, and what does steady-state sustainability with justice look like?

First of all, remember that continuous growth of anything in a finite space is anomalous and ultimately self-correcting. For 99.9% of human history, local populations rarely grew for extended periods but rather fluctuated near carrying capacity as a function of food supplies, disease, etc. The recent 200 years of continuous growth that we consider the norm is actually the single most abnormal period in human history.

Keep in mind that economic production is actually mostly a consumptive process. Manufacturing, for example, immediately irreversibly transforms large quantities of useful energy and material into an equivalent mass of useless waste (and even the smaller quantity of useful product eventually joins the waste stream). Humans are literally converting the both the non-renewable and self-producing ‘resources’ of Earth into more human bodies, toys and furniture, and the infrastructure needed to maintain civilization. The present scale of economic activity depletes essential ecosystems faster than they can regenerate.

Remember too that beyond a certain income level (long passed in high-income countries), there is no further positive correlation between GDP per capita and objective indicators of either population health or perceived well-being. Indeed, growth can become destructive. Once basic material needs are met, it is not rich countries but rather countries with greater income equality that perform better on standard quality-of-life indicators. Greater social equity is “better for everyone.”

With integrated fiscal, tax, employment and population policies and the like, it should be possible to create an ecologically viable, more equitable, economically stable, no-growth economy with minimal unemployment and poverty. It is important to emphasize that such a ‘steady-state’ economy need not be a stagnant economy. It can be dynamic, evolving, constantly improving. For example, as we phase out obsolete industries, new technologies and the service sector will actually expand. The idea is to maintain energy and material consumption at constant sustainable levels while creating the conditions necessary for greater personal development and improved quality of life. Society needs to get better, not bigger.

3. How does this relate to cities?

Urban designers and planners should begin now to rethink cities—or rather urban regions—so they function as complete quasi-independent human ecosystems. The least vulnerable and most resilient urban system might be a new form of urban-centered bioregion, or eco-city state, in which a densely built-up core is surrounded by essential supportive ecosystems. The goal is to consolidate as much as possible of the human community’s productive hinterland in close proximity to its consumptive centre. Organic “wastes” and nutrients could then be economically recycled back to farms and forests. Such a bioregionalized city would reconnect its human population to “the land.” Citizens would see themselves to be directly dependent on local ecosystems and thus have a strong incentive to manage them sustainably. Ideally, regional eco-cities would develop economic and social planning policies to maintain sustainable populations and to facilitate reducing their residents’ ecological footprints to a globally equitable 1.8 gha per capita.

4. What does real wealth mean to you?

Real wealth is the contentment that comes from a sense of self-worth and belonging. Real wealth derives more from intangibles than from material goods. It is rooted in community, rich personal relationships, success in the achievement of one’s potential and the opportunity to contribute to the betterment of one’s society. It is dependent on the security of person that can come only from supportive family and friendships and a society characterized by well-developed social infrastructure (e.g., public education, health care) and governed for economic and ecological stability.

*Mostly adapted from “Avoiding Collapse: An agenda for sustainable degrowth and relocalizing the economy”


William Rees is an ecological economist Professor Emeritus and former director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. The originator of eco-footprint analysis, he has an extensive opus of peer-reviewed articles on the biophysical prerequisites for sustainability in an era of accelerating ecological change. Dr. Rees was a founding director and past-president of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics, a founding director of the One Earth Initiative and, a Fellow of the Post-Carbon Institute and the winner of several major international awards.

Finding our Sorcerer: An Interview with Ken Lyotier

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This blog is part of the 'Voices of New Economies' series within Cities for People - an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.
The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.
This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need - ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.

By Jane ZhangKen's face (1)

  1. In your view, what are the key elements of "new economies"?

 I really wonder if there is truly such a thing as “new economies”, or maybe just variations on old ones. New wealth is only created where there is additional human input, hopefully some of it genuinely innovative that produces some new value.   We happen to live in a material world where we spend a lot of time and energy converting some forms of material into other forms of material that we hope will be more useful to us, and have more value than what they were in their previous state.   Unfortunately, this process frequently ends up causing pollution.   Frequently the way we use materials is actually quite primitive.

For example, like some species of birds which are heavily invested biologically in dramatic colourful plumage used to attract mates, we humans do a lot of that kind of showing off too. We display our material possessions in ways that attempt to relate them to our value as individuals. I drive a big flashy car therefore I must be important. I own a mansion therefore I must be of worth as a human being. This kind of behaviour is a misuse of material.   It attempts to make material be and do something that it will never be able to be or do… Material possessions can never give us an accurate measure of a person’s character nor, apart from satisfying essential needs, or when used in creative expression to satisfy aesthetic senses, can they complete the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of being human. Perhaps some human qualities can be commodified and measured, like attaching a commonly agreed upon value to the worth of certain work, but I’m not so sure that things like human imagination can be so easily measured. In addition, time, space, and repetition of certain actions create structural boundaries that tend to limit abstract conceptions including our ability to even imagine genuinely different ways of creating value. Basically because we have a material aspect to us that is supported and sustained by material, we tend to get bound up in the material world.

  1. What does real wealth mean to you?

Real wealth is what is seen as having value because it is usable by humans. Real wealth needs to be used in ways that recognize its impact on the real world and protects us from potential dangers caused by its use in the physical and social environment.

There are costs attached to everything we do, whether it is as a result of the plants we eat or the soil we tread upon. In addition to existing in a material world, we exist in a functional reality, and I believe we need to become more sensitive to the impact we have on our surroundings.

It might be useful to contrast real wealth with “not real” wealth. I think we sometimes confuse what are actually the tools, such as money, used in the creation of real wealth.

  1. How have your life experiences shaped the way you view economies?

I’ve lived in Vancouver my whole life, and in making my way have come to live in Vancouver’s the Downtown Eastside for many years. There are many reasons why people live on the streets here. While living on and close to the street, I picked cans and bottles, and things that I thought might have value out of the garbage. In this process of hunting and gathering, I learned something about the amount of effort it took to collect material and convert it into currency, in this case nickels and dimes. While the compensation for this work may not have always equated to my sense of what would have constituted a fair value, it did at least equate to something inasmuch as I was able to exchange the currency I gained in this effort for goods to be had for a price in the broader economy.

For us in the West, there are other supports available that help compensate for the extremely limited returns that can be realized through activities like binning. Here in Vancouver, I think of us as living in the later days of the welfare state. We still have health care, homeless shelters, public income assistance, bread lines, and drop-in centres. During the years I was binning more seriously, all of these kinds of services were available to me. Such benefits are often not available in other parts of the world. While probably no one can ever truly have a life experience that equates exactly with someone else’s experience, I think that through my time on the streets and binning in Vancouver, I did gain some degree of empathy for people in other parts of the world whose standard of living is somehow managed on a very few dollars a day.

  1. What do you think we need to prioritize as a society and as individuals? 

We need to look at the broad sweep of human history, rather than this narrow perspective represented by the short few decades punctuated by our own births and deaths.

Human neediness, especially European neediness of recent centuries initially responded to actual material needs, but our economy has moved systematically over time from efforts to meet basic needs to attempting, as mentioned earlier, to fill our spiritual and intellectual needs with material. We’ve veered dramatically off on a tangent, which has done some serious damage to our own psyches, to other critters in the neighbourhood, and to the planet as a whole. It reminds me of the Mickey Mouse cartoon The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – we are still that apprentice though we don’t like to acknowledge it, we have created a flood of junk, and we desperately need the sorcerer back.

In our discovery of each other and our multitudes of various cultures, we’ve come face to face with the fact that on the surface anyway, the cultural values and beliefs of the diverse groups that go to make up the 8 billion of us who populate planet Earth, do not always seem to match. But hopefully we will be able to discover that there is a deeper unifying shared humanity slightly hidden underneath these apparent cultural divides. To make these discoveries about our common humanity requires some humility

As societies, we tend to want to find that one perfect solution, put it in a box, put our stamp of approval on it, and say, now we finally know the truth. It is all so self-contained. This tendency often gets us “stuck” and into a great deal of trouble. This life is not about packaging our solutions after all. It’s not about forcing our solutions on each other to prove how powerful and clever we are; it’s about what it means to care for one another and about the spirit that is generated in the process of this caring. I believe it will be crucial to our future, to learn to create safe places for ourselves and each other, where we can share our unique experiences of the truth together.

I’m an optimist. We humans have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to cooperate in times of need, and this encourages me. Of course, we do have many counterexamples where civilizations have gone seriously off the rails. But we really need to get it right this time because the work we need to be doing is global in scale and if we get it wrong, we don’t have another planet where we can hide. To our advantage, we do have about 5000 years of written records and millions of years of archeological evidence from which to glean and learn.

We also need to change and adapt in an equitable way, and this likely means sharing power and wealth. It also means realizing that not everyone needs the same things at the same times. Adults have different needs than children, the sick, than the healthy… we need measures that respect these kinds of variables.

There is tremendous energy in the free market economy, with its ability to generate a pace of change that far exceeds the pace at which we are willing and able to address social inequities. If we could harness that energy and put it in the service of generating progressive social change, for example, we may be able to create the change we need. To succeed, this would take an unusual amount of humility willingness, hope, commitment, moral courage, and ultimately, action that is not only predicated on a guaranteed positive outcome but is also based on principles that allow us to distinguish right from wrong.


Ken Lyotier was born in North Vancouver in 1947. He has lived and worked in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a socially and economically depressed area of the City, for the past 30 years. In 1990, along with other members of his community, Ken began work to improve beverage container recycling services in Vancouver. He participated in discussions, which guided the drafting of regulations to expand industry stewardship of beverage container recycling in British Columbia.

He was also the founder and Executive Director of United We Can, a non-profit bottle depot, which has operated in downtown Vancouver since 1995. Ken’s work has been well recognized and he has received numerous awards and commendations including Meritorious Service and Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medals from the Governor General of Canada and an honorary Doctor of Law Degree from the University of British Columbia.


Freeing Ourselves from the ‘Free’ Market: An Interview with Nabeel Ahmed

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This blog is part of the 'Voices of New Economies' series within Cities for People - an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.
The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.
This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need - ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.

By: Jane Zhang

Nabeel Ahmed

In your view, what are three (or key) elements of "new economies"?

  1. At the core, new economies have to be focused around people and protecting public interests, not falling prey to short-term, profit-driven private interests. They are designed with the real experiences of people in mind and both accessible and accountable to those people – not just the relative minority that most of the market caters to.
  1. We are often told that the current mainstream economic system is theoretically focused on the most efficient allocation of resources, which is pitched as the equivalent of maximizing returns to the greatest number of people. But we also know that structural failures, varying political interests and simple lapses and incompetence lead to massive inequity. So the second element is that new economies understand and take into account questions of power and privilege. They are grounded in an understanding that the economy and power are intimately linked and changes in one have powerful implications for the other.
  1. New Economies are normative, based on a set of values that center around questions of fairness, such as preventing oppression. Too often we hide behind shaky claims of objectivity and shake our heads sadly at the outcomes that follow. An approach that claims to be objective often fails to protect the basic values and rights that should be at the foundation of our society.

How does this relate to cities?

As sites of concentrating both people and ideas, cities are ideal grounds for piloting new economies that are connected and accountable to communities. Those who are supporting the development or adoption of these new economies can garner feedback from communities even in the process of trying out new ideas. It can be easier to track and measure the progress of a system in a dense area - and easier for people to hold others accountable.

And of course, cities are where most people already live and where power relations are most clearly visible - this supports the development of the new economies I began to describe above.

How have your personal experiences shaped the way you view economies?

Living in the big, city of Karachi, Pakistan is what drove me to think about and understand political economy. It's where I first understood how alternative models could flourish, when I learned about social enterprises and when I first began to poke holes in the mainstream economic system we live within. Since then my work has focused around helping great non-profits and social enterprises flourish, and in this I have been reminded over and over again of how pervasive economic and political structures are.

Even when initiatives think they are somehow free of , even when entrepreneurs resolve to stick to their values and never compromise on their beliefs, they eventually succumb and either submit or fail. The most stable, well-funded and well-respected organizations are and don't ruffle too many feathers. Large multinational non-profits know that it is risky to be too outspoken, to be too honest. This is deeply frustrating to me because it means that markers have been laid down about what constitutes acceptable speech or not, and clearly shows how economic dependence stifles freedom.

What does real wealth mean to you?

Real wealth is knowing that you and your loved ones are safe and comfortable. That's a peace of mind that I think really gives people the freedom to pursue their dreams and passions (beyond having the means necessary, of course - but safety and comfort are based on material well-being). Most people in this world struggle for basic security (broadly defined) and a minimum level of comfort, so can never be the best versions of themselves because they may never have the opportunity to explore what that means, let alone meaningfully pursue it. That's a huge loss and I think a feeling of safety, broadly defined, is something that all truly wealthy people enjoy.

Real wealth leads to real freedom.


Nabeel Ahmed helps non-profit social enterprises launch target-based sustainability programs in Ontario as Member Experience Manager at Sustainability CoLab. Nabeel worked at the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing as the Managing Editor of before a fellowship with Aga Khan Foundation Canada in Kyrgyzstan. He is currently a Guest Editor on the New Economies theme with Cities for People and volunteers for a number of local and international non-profits. Nabeel studied public policy and administration at the University of Toronto after business school in Karachi. He enjoys cricket, culture (especially from the subcontinent) and good arguments.