Back to Bologna…

in June of 2009 I had an experience that would transform my career. I applied and was selected to join Vancity’s annual tour to the vibrant co-operative sector in Bologna, Italy. In the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, where Bologna is located, up to a third of the GDP is created directly by co-operatives. Consumer co-ops, worker co-ops, producer co-ops, social co-ops and others all contribute to a vibrant economy.

While in Bologna I blogged a lot and tried to make the most of my valuable time there. Since that time, I have become quite the self-progressed co-op geek. Although I had been a member of some co-ops in my life such as MEC and REI and I grew up visiting Vancity branches as a kid with my Mom, I didn’t know much. At the time I went to Bologna, I was living in a housing co-op where I was Treasurer, and I remember what I learned studying co-operative economics at the University of Bologna and visiting so many different co-ops on our tour made me realize how little I know about the model where I was elected as a governor.

If I hadn’t been to Bologna in 2009, I doubt I would have run for the board of Modo, where I have been a happy board member for over four years. I most certainly wouldn’t have been able to give the talks I have given on co-ops over the years.

And now, nine years after that first visit, I’m hours from leaving to go back to Bologna, leading this year’s tour of Vancity colleagues and community partners. I feel very privileged to return, to take a dive with my more experienced eyes into the academic and hands-on aspects of one of the world’s great co-op success areas. I am even missing my beloved Credit Union Water Cooler conference, which I never want to do.

I’ll be blogging, as I did nine years ago. So follow along, ask questions and leave a comment, and let’s explore the world of co-ops together.

What a co-op means today.

It has been a year since my trip to Bologna when a group of 15 Vancity staff studied co-operatives in this region of the world where co-ops are modern, big, profitable and also progressive and responsible. A new group of Vancity employees just wrapped up their adventure in Italy and from those I’ve spoken to, it sounds like they’ve had an equally amazing and inspiring time. Bringing back this knowledge and experience to strengthen our own financial co-operative is incredibly important as Vancity gets more in touch with its roots and focuses on our new vision of Redefining Wealth.

A couple of weeks back, Corporate Knights released a list of responsible companies in Canada and the top three are all co-ops. Vancity ranked third behind Mountain Equipment Co-op (Canada’s equivalent of REI) and The Co-operators, a large national insurance company (whom Vancity sold its Insurance division to last year).

In thinking about co-ops in a 21st Century context, it seems to me focusing on the seven co-operative principles and our system of governance is a bit of a non-starter. It is my opinion that as co-operatives, we should be adjusting our message to fit with the times. The co-operative message will still resonate with some, but I think that to many it seems outdated and esoteric. People don’t get excited about governance, or voting for a bunch of people for a Board when they don’t really understand the role of a Board or the impact of their vote.

But there is an increased consumer focus on the behavior of the companies they deal with. Social connection equals social responsibility and people can learn more about the behind-the-scenes actions of companies than ever before. Through social media, people are used to participating, and co-ops can offer ways to participate and engage that perhaps other companies cannot.

In Vancouver, where the term 100 mile diet originated, I think we have something in common with the locavore movement. Eat local, shop local, keep your money local. When Vancity talks about Redefining Wealth, to me that’s what it means. Profits can go to shareholders in another part of the country or world, or the profits from your bank accounts, mortgage, investments and credit card can stay local and be invested back into your neighbours and community.

Vancity has become a slang word for Vancouver and the idea of “keep your money in Vancity” seems like a strong value proposition.

In the art of acting there is a practice of memorizing your script and stage directions and character attributes perfectly so you can forget it all and improvise knowing you have that base to work from. I would say the same is true here. Internalize the co-operative principles, live by them, socialize them within your co-op, and then forget them and start improvising so you can increase the relevance of this movement to fit into today’s modern, connected world.

PS: I must credit Morriss and Gene for their posts that inspired me to write this.

My final ChangeEverything.ca guest column.

My final Guest Column on ChangeEverything.ca has been published. It’s called Reflections on Bologna – It’s all about the Social, and attempts to sum up my main takeaways from my amazingly inspiring adventure in Bologna. (check out parts 1 and 2 of my journey, or all my blog posts about it).

It also gives me a chance to explore the term social. Something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.

What I know is, it was all about the social. The connections we developed among the group of participants are strong and deep, and will serve a great purpose as we all struggle to make full sense of, and take action on, what we learned. The personal social connections made the greatest impact on me; but I also come back with a greater sense of the social fabric of our society and how it can be both fragile and incredibly enduring and forceful.

So, it’s led me to think a lot about what social is.

So check it out, and please leave me a comment there with your thoughts.

The last thing I want to do is upload a boatload of photos from the trip. All in good time…

Cooperation on The Drive.

I have a blog post on ChangeEverything.ca about something I’ve been thinking about on this trip I call Independent Collectivism. Take a read.

There is one area in Vancouver that I think comes closest to this model. After several years of living in the Commercial Drive neighbourhood, it strikes me that the attitude of that area, the number of coops, both retail and housing, the defiance but focus on equity, and the Italian roots is perhaps something we should be looking closer at for inspiration.

Those funky areas in your town where the coop bookstore is and the indie bands play may be that same kind of neighbourhood in your town. Maybe there is something we can learn from those neighbourhoods and how they operate.