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Innovating From the Margins

When Amazon announced its intention to build new headquarters, cities and states across the country scrambled to put together incentive packages to lure Amazon’s business. Cities and states have many mechanisms at their disposal to attract businesses, including tax breaks, offers of cheap land, and investments in infrastructure such as roads and transit. In 2017, as Amazon’s plans to build a second HQ were announced, many state and local governments moved to identify and deploy such enticements in furtherance of this familiar model of economic development. Yet, these traditional development approaches -- which often offer “as of right” automatic incentives for expanding or relocating companies, have not necessarily benefitted the residents of cities. In fact, more often than not, they have exacerbated wealth and income inequalities.   

When New York City’s Amazon HQ deal fell through last Spring, many felt a general sense of frustration at the loss of a major opportunity for economic development. The MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) is asking whether, in its wake, a democratic and distributed entrepreneurial ecosystem can create robust development opportunities and help drive an inclusive local economy. We call our approach economic democracy, a system of governance that prioritizes community agency while puts capital and resources under citizen control and ownership. Economic democracy reimagines the specific roles of civil society, the private sector, and government in making local economies more inclusive.

To this end, CoLab seeks to put residents and change makers at the center of planning local economies. They collaborate with residents and leaders to draw from local knowledge about assets and needs.  With community partners, CoLab brings together critical stakeholders who have many useful assets for building strong local economies. They help build relationships among, anchor purchasers, entrepreneurs, and community groups to help create economic value from higher levels of coordination. Throughout the calendar year, CoLab works with MIT students, placing them with community partners to learn the methods and tools of participatory planning. 

Economic Democracy in New York City

For over eight years CoLab has been working in New York City to support economic democracy initiatives in communities that are full of hopeful contradictions. The BronXchange is creating an online marketplace that seeks to localize procurement and creates a community of anchors, businesses, and community organizations to engage in long-term planning. The Development without Displacement initiative seeks to combat accelerating gentrification in the Bronx using participatory planning, community land trusts, and other mechanisms.  

In Brooklyn, CoLab works with the Maimonides Medical Center as well as community and labor leaders, local educators, and higher education institutions -- including high school and college students -- to conduct participatory action research (PAR) to assess local health needs and assets. PAR led to recommendations for a comprehensive wellness-based development approach to reduce health disparities and costs by addressing the underlying social determinants of health. Two emerging efforts from this work include: Citizen Share Brooklyn, which seeks to mobilize Central Brooklyn communities to use collective purchasing and bargaining power to shape local economies; and Brooklyn Communities Collaborative, a multi-sector initiative supported by Maimonides Hospital to strengthen coordination across a broad array of existing community wellness efforts. “The collective knowledge of experts, along with local residents and students in neighborhoods from Bed-Stuy to Bay Ridge is helping to forge a shared vision and long-term planning for improving the health, lives and livelihoods of people in Central Brooklyn,” said CoLab’s Gretchen Susi, Program Director for Wellness Based Development. 

Inclusive Development in Latin America

The Pacific Region of Colombia is one of the most ecologically diverse regions in the world. It has extraordinary natural, human and cultural resources. Yet, this wealth contrasts with a socio-economic reality characterized by extreme poverty and lack of access to basic services, an extractive development model that damages the natural environment and reproduces inequality, the effects of a decades-long armed conflict, and structural racism that drives social exclusion and inequitable development. In its simplest form, this can be seen as a failure of coordination between assets and needs. “For the last four years, we have worked with a range of local leaders across multiple sectors to build capacity for collaborative innovation among individuals, across institutions, and now at the regional scale,” said Taina S. McField, Deputy Director who oversees this and other programs for CoLab.

“With local partners, our effort is to support the creation of non-extractive development models grounded in the identity, assets, and traditions of the region,” added McField. This work is informing CoLab efforts across the Americas, which can be thought of as the “Atlantic economy” a single economic region still impacted by its historic origins in the trade of enslaved African peoples. Our ultimate goal is to build wealth and ownership for low-income people of color who have been marginalized by centuries of race-based violence and exclusion. It is part of a larger strategy to advance a movement for economic democracy and self-determination.”  

Culture and Self-Determination 

CoLab also is investigating the ways in which culture supports efforts towards self-determination. The recent civic manifestations in Puerto Rico are a powerful example of creative expression playing a critical role in driving a movement for systemic change. There, citizens used multiple forms of expression -- from banging pots to open-air yoga practice to ongoing musical and theatrical performances -- successfully to demand transparency and accountability in Hurricane relief efforts. Mass protests continue after the resignation of Governor Ricardo Roselló, demanding an audit of the debt, the dismantling of the Island’s Fiscal Control Board, and the design and implementation of a development plan that centers equity and the needs of the people most affected by the humanitarian crisis. “The manifestations have been self-organized and non-hierarchical, with strong participation and leadership of women and the LGBTQ+ community, unity between people of different political ideologies, and a wide array of creative responses,” said Shey Rivera, CoLab’s Inclusive Regional Development Director.

Supporting Marginalized Communities

“Whether we’re in the Bronx or Brooklyn, the Pacific Region of Colombia, or Puerto Rico, CoLab seeks to support marginalized communities advancing their own aspirations for ownership of their local economies,” said CoLab’s Executive Director Dayna Cunningham. “Our work is perhaps more critical than ever with mounting inequities and growing unrest in the world.  We are inspired by the innovative efforts of communities facing the sharpest edges of societal failures and are always looking for partners interested in action research to undergird their change efforts.”

The MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) is a center for planning and development within the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). CoLab facilitates the co-creation of knowledge/exchange of resources between MIT and community organizations working on issues of social and economic justice.