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In the household economy

Many innovations begin in the informal life of households – a conversation around a coffee, a kitchen table or a bar. A group of friends or families start living in a new way. Informal associations develop social movements that put pressure on big business or government. Then over time what they do may become more formalised and shift into the grant economy and subsequently into the public or market economy.

The informal household economy has generally been under-recognised as a source of innovations. But it has played a critical role in fields including the environment and health, usually leading ahead of government and business, and is set to become even more important as issues of ageing and behaviour change become more prominent.  In the case of chronic disease, young children and the elderly, for example, householders and their networks of support are already the primary source of care.

Within the household economy, we can see a number of emergent trends. One is new forms of mutual action between individuals - whether in the form of open source software, or web based social networking around specific issues (there are reportedly 18 million cancer related websites, the great majority generated by those affected by the disease). In these instances the innovations are generated outside the market and outside the state, many of them explicitly so.

The implications of collaboration of this kind for many contemporary social and economic issues have only begun to be explored, and prompt the question of whether and how such systems of highly distributed innovation and mutual support can be encouraged. How do they relate to the state and the market, and to their terms of funding and employment? Who will provide the necessary tools and platforms? Can they be self managed, or will they need hosts and intermediaries? These are some of the questions thrown up by this explosive force for innovation.

However, this is not just a virtual economy. It is also about care and support in the home and the neighbourhood, volunteering of both time and money, and ‘real world’ production. There are a whole range of questions about what it takes for households to participate fully in this new world.  There is the issue of household time and how it relates to social production and innovation. One of the questions here is how if at all it would be possible to acknowledge the voluntary time contributed by the household sector, either individually or collectively, in some form of credits for cash or public rights and reduced obligations. This is already becoming a key issue in relation to ageing – how to recognise and reward different types of care and volunteering.

To make the household a force for social innovation, we will need to re-think many of the ways in which the household economy relates to the two main sources of finance – the market and the state. Issues such as the distribution of working time, the valorisation of voluntary labour, the content and channels of life skills learning, the role of many of the social and educational services, the arrangements for retirement and unemployment, the size and location of public service centres such as schools and hospitals, and the organisation of public safety – all these will need radical changes.

Online platforms for collective action

The spread of the internet has made possible a range of new tools to mobilise people and energies quickly and effectively. It has provided an infrastructure to extend the range and capacity of social movements, including consumer movements, as well as enabling new forms of collaborative purchasing and management.

Propertising not privatising

In the age of online collaboration, the old distinction between public and private ownership no longer holds. In the social economy, rather than restricting access to knowledge and information, there is value in diffusing and sharing ideas and information as widely as possible. Online, this means that once the costs of generating information are paid, there is a strong economic case for circulating it for free. Offline, communal or collective forms of innovation can spur innovative and creative uses of assets.

Valorising the voluntary

Another set of methods have tried to give formal value to time in the household. This has been achieved through quasi-financial means of payment, encouraging volunteering across sectors and freeing up people’s times to enable them to care for friends and families or volunteer.  Many statistical offices are beginning to study time use in much more detail, opening up new kinds of policy to encourage creative uses of time.

Public spaces for social innovation

The availability of public or communal land increases the household’s capacity for innovation by providing the physical space for innovation but also by providing a focal point for initiatives and community action.

Informal trading systems and currencies

One way in which household time has been valorised is through time bartering and the development of informal currencies. These currencies are distinct from those issued by regional or municipal governments (like the Patacón in Argentina or the Californian IOUs) or those aimed at encouraging particular types of market purchases (like the Totnes pound).


There has been a marked development of users becoming more engaged in the production of services. In the words of Alvin Toffler, they have become ‘prosumers’ – producers as well as users of services.

Constructed households as sites of innovation

The long standing practice of institutionalising those with special needs or who are considered a public danger – in mental hospitals, prisons, care homes, children’s homes, or special schools  - is being re-assessed, and attempts made to retrain people as members of their own or constructed households with a range of external support.  In some cases the institutions themselves have been remodelled as extended families, with the mutual commitments that this entails.

Informal mutualism

Many new forms of collaboration and co-operation are emerging. These are having profound implications on services and models of collective action.

Social movements

Social movements have been the source of major waves of social innovations over the past forty years – notably in food, the environment, health and in transforming the social relations around gender, race, disability and sexual orientation. They have been largely generated from within the household economy, and have developed innovative forms of distributed network organisation and action, further facilitated by the advent of the internet.