The Coin to the Kingdom: Re-THNKing Capitalism as a Key to the Housing Crisis
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According to provocateur and THNK alumni Michell Zappa, “an industry-toppling, government-shifting, sector-disrupting revolution is underway. Think Napster, but bigger.” You’ve probably felt the undercurrents. Yet as economic waves rock the boat of capitalism, many are unprepared for what’s next. Excitement and fear mix as so-called sharing economies, shifts in philanthropy and alternative currencies emerge, balancing possibilities with the untested nature of new models. Capitalism as we know it, even money itself, is one of the most complex systems mankind has ever created. And part of the problem we face, as our world is bending and breaking, is how to describe the relationships between systems – they are nested, intertwined, interdependent, and deeply emergent. From a cultural and emotional perspective, we sense the inadequacy of our financial systems but often feel powerless to change something that feels monstrous and unshakable, yet everywhere we turn our attention to we can find signs of change.
So, in my role as the Director of the Challenge track at THNK’s newly launched Vancouver campus, I couldn’t wait to dive into examining the Future of Capital(ism). THNK School of Creative Leadership is a C School that combines venture design and innovation leadership and focuses on action and implementation. We take the best from business schools and design schools to create a greater sum: truly transformational creative leadership to build human-centered systems for a better future. Within this journey, the Challenge is a 6-month effort that takes a humble, curious, and forward-looking cohort, a global network with a shared intention for impact, and trains them in a structured approach to human-centered creativity using a topic of deep societal relevance.
Envisioning a Better Future and Orchestrating Creative Teams
We begin by co-creating a moonshot vision to align our efforts and help us determine some of the most promising areas for exploration. We tap into a diverse ecosystem, inviting subject matter experts, rabble rousers, and master practitioners to roll up their sleeves – an incredible group rallied around the Future of Capitalism, out of which emerged our Innovation Partners on this initial challenge cycle: the City of Vancouver and the Digital Finance Institute. These partners bring a rich depth of knowledge, broad networks that can be harnessed, and platforms for rolling out concepts with promise. They collaborated on shaping the brief and, after much deliberation, we decided to use the Vancouver housing market as a petri dish for discovery, asking “how might alternative and digital currencies increase access to affordable low-carbon housing for those in need?”. The profound ripple effects from the current housing crisis are being felt well beyond Vancouver, and the aim with all of our Innovation Challenge work is to use a local context to drive global learnings.
With teams that sound like they could have been the set-up to a bad joke (an accountant, a restaurateur, and a creative director walk into a leadership school…), the cohort examined the needs of varied demographics, from vulnerable populations to mid-to-low income families. They interrogated data around perceptions of “green” housing options, changing patterns of ownership and engagement with living spaces – from co-housing to nomadic living – and the impact these shifts are having on property development. Participants from around the globe tore apart existing financial vehicles tied to earning equity in housing, models of developing and recouping energy upgrades, and assumptions underpinning ideas of community development – from the potential of smart multi-generational housing blocks to how community assets are often undervalued. The outcomes of this process are a first step towards driving breakthrough change and fashioning a future of capitalism predicated on the belief that “we’re all better off when we’re all better off,” as THNK Forum Guest, Eric Liu, so plainly remarked.
Turning One Small Step into One Giant Leap
During the next several years, across 6-month program cycles in Vancouver and Amsterdam, THNK is uniquely positioned to continue convening diverse groups of changemakers around examining, reframing, and driving societal impact. But impact is more likely when we join forces with exceptional Innovation Partners to drive new thinking around how we can become positive participants in the marketplace by harnessing the technological and complex dynamic cultural forces shaping these systems. While growing disparities in income and access cause global upheaval and strife, we see the renewed focus on our interdependent financial future as a massive opportunity for those bold enough to dive in. As encouraged as I am by the team triumphs, concepts and momentum, this is but a first milestone in service of a much larger vision – catalyzing this kind of change requires commitment, support, and evangelists. We and our Partners and Participants are in for the long-haul, and we hope you’ll join us!
Find out more about what we’ve discovered around how fintech and alternative financial models are impacting urban landscapes and providing surprising hope for global communities at our Digital Finance, Alternative Currencies and Housing in Vancouver panel at 2:25pm on Thursday, October 22nd at Meeting of the Minds (or check out the live webcast).
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.