Playground for the New Economy: Stir to Action gets ready for its festival

Preview of ‘a three-day residential setting for people to build and form relationships, make connections, and challenge ourselves as a sector’

Among the many summer festivals taking place, the Playground for the New Economy is something a little different. It’s a combination of panels, workshops, open spaces, virtual reality experiences, sustainable food and live music that explores what a different type of economy could look like – and how we can get there. 

First held in 2019 in Frome, Somerset, the festival is organised by Stir to Action – a worker co-op “committed to creating a more democratic economy in our workplaces and communities”. Focusing on new infrastructure, business support, research and policy, and partnerships with local government, it supports projects, provides training and publishes the quarterly Stir magazine. 

The event went online during the 2020 lockdown, and in 2021 there was a small-scale event at Stir’s residential campus at Selgars Mill in Devon – where it returns next month with an expanded capacity for 350 ticketholders.

“We’ve always had this idea of an annual greenfield festival that would be atypical to conferences in the sector,” says Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, co-founder of Stir to Action. “We used the word ‘playground’ because it was this idea of playing and experimenting with political and economic ideas – using a three-day residential setting for people to build and form relationships, make connections, and challenge ourselves as a sector. It’s about having big conversations in small rooms.”

The term ‘new economy’ was used “because it can act as a bit of a catch-all for many different economic and social ideas”. But Jonny acknowledges that there can be a cultural assumption that ‘new’ economics is somehow better than ‘old’.

“I think it’s more about looking at how the economy is changing, and how old ideas may or may not be suitable or irrelevant to the current context,” he says. “We don’t want to fall into the trap of presenting it as something which takes the past as its departure and ignores it. One thing we’re trying to do is reconnect to the past and rescue and recover what might be useful for people working in the democratic economy today.”

The diverse line-up includes representatives from co-ops, community businesses and social enterprises – plus social and cultural activities such as book launches, a photography exhibition, punk aerobics, live music from the London Afrobeat Collective and hip hop group Mouse Outfit, spoken word poetry from Isaiah Hull, a quiz and wood-fired sauna.

Co-op practitioner Mark Simmonds will explore how new models can empower workers in the next generation of community businesses. Mark Walton from Shared Assets will chair a panel on the tension between investments in nature and the struggle for a more just land system. And Ella, Miss Divine, Rosina and Ruth – representatives from Bristol’s Black & Green Ambassadors Programme – will lead conversations on challenging perceptions, creating new opportunities and working towards ensuring the environmental movement is inclusive and representative of all communities.

Another organisation at the festival is Onion Collective, a 10-year-old social enterprise based in Watchet, Somerset. 

“We were set up by four women,” says director and co-founder Jessica Prendergrast. “Instead of sitting around in the pub, talking over cider about what someone should do, we tried working together to get some of those things done.” 

Related: Isaiah Hull performs a poem for the co-op difference

They began with a series of consultations and engagements in the town, exploring what it needed for a better future. “We’ve spent the last decade trying to deliver some of that,” adds Jessica, “ and on the way become an organisation that thinks much more about the wider systems change that’s going on, and what a different kind of economy could look like.” 

Like Jonny, Jessica is wary of the phrase ‘new economy’. “We often talk about a ‘next’ economy rather than a ‘new’ economy because some of this is already here,” she says, adding that one of the problems is a disconnect between the perceived and actual motivations of those working in and with communities. 

“Sure, we need to make some money to pay our bills, but that’s not the reason most people in community sectors choose the work that they choose […] One of the problems is that as a society we’ve separated our economic life out from all of these things that matter to us. But once you put them back together – as you see in co-ops, in social enterprises, in the public sector and charitable work – then you don’t behave in a way that is negative towards people.

“So in my version of how things would work, you would structure an economy around the things that people actually care about, rather than structuring it to reflect the incentives of some people at the top […] The current neoliberal capitalist version is unsustainable. We’re clearly destroying the planet in the interests of very few people; replacing that with a different economy seems to me to be a good idea.”

Onion Collective addresses economic, social and environmental justice, but also cultural justice. “Economic futures are determined by the place that you are in. In some areas you have extraordinary access to all kinds of cultural and creative activities; but if you’re in a rural peripheral area, you have very little access,” says Jessica. She believes access to culture is vital for building and connecting communities and reducing isolation – and at the festival, hopes to share this view through a session on attachment economics.

Onion Collective in action: Watchet’s East Quay opened in 2021 as a place that represents what the next economy could look like in practice. ‘It’s about purpose, connection and imagination’ (Photo: Jim Stephenson)

“Part of our thinking at Onion Collective is the way in which attachments to people and to place and across time are the driving characteristic of the way the economy works – rather than a pursuit of profits or greed or growth or any of the things that underpin the current economy,” she explains. “We explore what that would look like. Where are the pioneering examples? How would you have to reconfigure access to money, land, people and capital if you foregrounded communities and people and relationships instead of individual gain?”

Related: New federation planned for worker co-ops in the UK

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the sector and it’s “been extremely hard recently for community activists to feel there’s a continuing purpose and energy in the work we do,” Jessica says. “The last couple of years have completely floored people and there’s a palpable feeling that we’re trying to put a sticking plaster on a burning ball of fire. I’m really looking forward to being with a group of people who have still got some faith and hope and a sense of collective responsibility, but also, of collective possibility.”

What do the organisers hope people will get out of the festival? “A sense of collectivity, the building of relationships and social ties,” says Jonny. “One of the aims of the festival is to create a space outside the particular interests of any one organisation, which tends to happen with conferences. That diversity of having a local government representative next to a member of an unfunded community association, next to someone from a worker co-op, next to someone that might be a senior member of a business federation, that’s what we’re aiming for.”

There will be a fallow year in 2023 (although an urban event is planned for 19-20 May 2023 at Stretford Public Hall, Manchester) and Stir to Action is looking for a new, larger site for 2024. They also keep the event accessible by working with the sponsors to give away free tickets – and also have a 25 tickets for £25 offer for those from marginalised communities, young adults (aged 18-35), disabled individuals (with free companion tickets available), and those living in areas of deprivation.

With thanks to Rebecca Harvey,

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