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The Militant Optimists

By David Barrie
An Essay for Hand Made:
“26 innovative perspectives and projects from around the world”
compiled and published by Tessy Britton
September 2010

One thing that makes life worth living is the Thirteen Tribe of community life –
call them ‘The Militant Optimists’ - people who are committed to improving
society, prepared to organize and give it a go.

Recession may invite pessimism. But if there’s a mission for prosperity,

growth and confidence in hard times, it has to be to find ways and means by
which these citizens can be mobilized and the multiplicity of their social
struggles realized and grown.

And if they can’t mobilize within the current system, new opportunities need to
be created to enable them to thrive and prosper - and convert ‘militant
pessimists’ along the way.

Two initiatives that I have supported have attempted, in a concerted way, to

create opportunities for optimists to come together, make change and in turn,
convert others by inspiration and word of mouth.

I think that a clue to the effectiveness of these initiatives rests in their

emphasis upon re-using local facilities, their interactive, idiomatic design,
dispersed entrepreneurship and commitment to becoming, in the words of
economist Muhammad Yunus, " engines that never stop running and need no
fuel from the outside."

The People’s Supermarket

In Spring 2010, a group of social entrepreneurs, commercial retailers and

activists committed to creating more sustainable urban economies opened a
new supermarket in central London - a retail outlet determined to offer local
people healthy food at affordable prices.

The People’s Supermarket is co-operatively owned and managed. In

exchange for an annual membership fee and four hours volunteer time each
month, members win a discount on their shopping.

You don’t have to be a member to shop in the supermarket but the aim is to
convert customers to members once they see the quality of the produce, its
prices and a corner shop that can be theirs.

Rather than be over-righteous in its product offer, the supermarket sells

products that you’ll find in an ordinary mid-sized shop but also offers a simple
choice between a standard product and an healthy, locally sourced

The People’s Supermarket can hold down the price of the healthy option
through members giving their time to work in the store, expert sourcing from
independent suppliers, equipping almost the entire operation with recycled
fittings and capturing maximum value from waste generated.

Only about 10% of the value generated by a conventional supermarket is
captured by its neighbourhood - in staff salaries. We aim for 90%+, as
members and shoppers recoup the benefit of investment of their time and
shopping in a new, local, non-profit venture.

The People’s Supermarket has been supported by an army of local

volunteers, pro-bono advisors from the world of social business, retail,
property and urban renewal and investment of time and money by the London
Borough of Camden, Development Trusts Association, Esmee Fairbairn
Foundation and Transition Bloomsbury.

Dott07 Urban Farming

Since 2007, thousands of people in the town of Middlesbrough, North East

England, have become ‘urban farmers’ – with their efforts rewarded by a
recent award of £4m investment by the U.K. Government to support healthy
living in the town, with urban agriculture at its core.

The commitment of the town to self-sufficiency and pioneering a more

sustainable, local food supply chain was triggered by Dott07, an initiative of
regional economic agency One NorthEast and the Design Council,
Middlesbrough Council, real estate developer BioRegional Quintain, NGO
Groundwork South Tees and the Soil Association.

The Dott07 initiative sought to brainstorm ways in which North East England
might support sustainable growth and invited service designer Nina Belk,
artist and educator Debra Solomon ( and me to
consider the design of food supply and systems in the region.

Building on the commitment of Middlesbrough Council to improving the

healthiness of residents, the popularity of food-growing and surplus ‘leftover’
space in the town, we asked the people of Middlesbrough how they felt their
town could become more productive in terms of health and well-being.

Their answer: progress an initiative in which people could grow food in public
places, learn how to cook their crop in special cookery classes and then share
the final harvest in an epic ‘town meal’.

In 2007, over a thousand ‘urban farmers’ grew food in over 250 places across
the town. Professional chefs led cookery classes. And the final meal was
enjoyed by over 6000 people.

Where people chose to grow food was mapped by a team of architects and a
new spatial plan that highlighted urban agriculture was created - and has
since been adopted so that urban food growing now forms part of the town

There has been investment in the creation of new allotments or kitchen
gardens close to where people live – rather than away residential
neighbourhoods, in ‘edge city’ - and several new ideas have come forward,
including the start-up of new non-profit restaurant serving food cooked from
ingredients grown in the town.

One of the reasons why these initiatives seem to have been successful at
triggering participation is because they have picked a certain media – food.
Food is a currency of life and fosters social relations and communication and,
in the words of social reformer John W.Gardner, communication is “a means
of cutting through the rigidities that divide and paralyze a community.”

Both initiatives have set down a strong marker or narrative and sought to
develop audiences through collaboration and word of mouth – yielding a value
brilliantly captured by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, when he wrote: “When people
work together for a common cause, one man does not deprive the other of
space; rather he increases it for his colleague by giving him support.”

These projects have established opportunities for people to engage,

exchange and network but also grow their local economies. In effect, they are
hybrid forms of local enterprise that allow people to be the people who they
want to be, help increase the effectiveness of their time and money and yield
new value from local property assets - important alongside efficiency
management programmes and outsourcing to the wealth of the public

Home-made and resourceful, these new enterprises have allowed local

optimists to express themselves and a multiplicity of people to mobilize but
there’s also something unconventional about them.

That’s because ‘militant optimists’ are high on motivation, low on ready-made

road maps to get them to their destination, get easily bored with playing
strategic war-games and distrust marketing.

‘Militant optimists’ understand that to take a hostile region, it helps to establish

a series of safe areas.

‘Militant optimists’ are also highly creative. They understand what fashion
designer Nicolas Ghesquière of Balenciaga - a man who works the
extravagant, not the austere - was getting at when he said: "We have idols but
no models to follow. You have to define your own model."

David Barrie is principal consultant at David Barrie & Associates, a company

that specialises in the design and delivery of urban renewal projects and

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