Fuelling the “can do” possibilities from within local communities

by | Aug 31, 2023

In a time of economic, social and climate crises, the chance to witness the power of community is an opportunity for joy, says Jay Tompt, Regenerative Economics lecturer at Schumacher College.

It arrives with the annual Local Entrepreneur Forum & Community of Dragons, (LEF) in Totnes, an event where something special happens.

View of the Hermitage of Santa Eulalia d’Alendo from the Centre d’Art i Natura, Farrera, Catalan Pyrenees.

Pitching an idea to the community (pic courtesy Emilio Mula)

“One of the things that comes to mind is the emotion – tears, all the love in the room, people investing themselves in each other … it’s the magic of conviviality,” says Jay.

He has helped with the LEF for over a decade, bringing together enthusiastic investors and bright-eyed entrepreneurs, in similar, but also profoundly different ways, to the TV programme Dragons Den.

Unlike the TV version, supporters and members of the community invest their skills or time or funds – or even childcare, cakes, massages – to help their local entrepreneurs get off to the best possible start.

Jay says this design fosters a culture of ‘can do participation’ in which anyone can contribute creating a powerful energy as the wider community becomes invested in the outcome.

“Part of the success of this approach is the many connections that are created because that’s how change really happens, through relationships.  Together, they are all catalysts, able to effect real change.

“On the surface it looks simple and it is – and it isn’t – and it is!” he laughs.

Jay believes such activities are fundamental to successful communities, particularly in rural areas and cites examples of the Amish in America who hold ‘barn raising’ events, or in Ecuador where it is called a ‘Minga’ a word of Quechua origin referring to something that is a collective effort for the common good.

Having left San Francisco in 2011 to move to UK to help care for his wife’s elderly father, Jay became involved with the team in Transition Town Totnes and drew on his experience of launching a business in an incubator programme in San Jose, California, in the early 90’s.

The group approached three friendly dragons and explored possibilities. But it was Pete Yeo, an ecologist from North Devon, who lit the spark when he suggested community involvement.

He cited the example of a local community cafe in North Devon which had faced closure because the owner was finding it hard to juggle work and family.  The community stepped in – they didn’t want to lose a useful asset – volunteering their time to pick up her children from school or to work for a few hours in the cafe.

The cafe thrived, not just because of the support, but because the community was emotionally invested in it being a success.

Looking around the local area of Dartington and Totnes there are countless thriving ventures, all of whom have pitched to the Community of Dragons over the past decade, such as School Farm, Edgy Veggie Café, Dartington Mill, The Apricot Centre, Montreal Bagels and The Woodlands Presents.

The endurance of the event itself is also something to celebrate as it has now marked up 11 years.

“Part of the reason for its success is that it is annual, so it’s part of the community’s economic ecosystem, part of their culture,” says Jay. “I put in some hours with this, maybe about a week a year, but that is my activism,” he adds.

Over the years he estimates the Totnes project has had participation from around 1,300 people – not bad for a small town. Yet he acknowledges the ripple effects and the benefits for the wider community are harder to calculate, and he is convinced tackling our economic systems is key to addressing the inequality which is causing so much damage to our communities.

“Maybe we can change that with more events like this.”

Jay Tompt is a lecturer in Regenerative Economics, co-founder of the Totnes REconomy Project and Local Spark Torbay.

He has been at the heart of citizen-led regenerative economics for over ten years, co-developing the Local Economic Blueprint course and handbook, co-founding the Totnes REconomy Centre and the Local Entrepreneur Forum model.

He teaches on the master’s degree at Schumacher College as well as a variety of short courses.  The master’s degree is at the forefront of new economic thinking, drawing upon diverse disciplines including psychology, anthropology and living system design.  It is delivered in a blended learning format enabling students to combine work and study.

Centro de Residencias Artisticas, Matadero, Madrid.

Jay Tompt (pic courtesy of Emilio Mula)

The magic of conviviality (pic courtesy of Emilio Mula)