Community 2.0 and the Built Environment: Communeconomics

It's not exactly news that the internet is an innovative marketplace. While the urban commercial landscape is fairly predictable (commercial activity centers on and near arterial streets to take advantage of concentrated traffic), online marketers are continually figuring out newer and more effective ways to sell you more stuff and/or services. There are no streets in the virtual world along which to concentrate retail. Instead, websites with something to sell (which means every site with a .com address and then some) must take the idea of the traditional urban retail corridor forming a sort of informal, symbiotic and vaguely cross-promotional environment and try to replicate it. As technology has evolved, direct cross-promotional advertising and monitored preferences have created their own commercial "arterials," increasing commercial activity by focusing marketing efforts on increasingly specific audiences.

As Community 2.0 technology begins to influence this evolution, the internet is starting to change how retail is organized at the local level. 43 Places, from the people who brought us 43 Things and 43 People (surprised?), allows users to create pages for locations as specific as individual businesses within their neighborhoods. Well-regarded services like Yelp and UrbanSpoon (which is one of my favorite sites) allow people to check out businesses and restaurants in their neighborhood that provide both sponsored and user-generated reviews and ratings. Local businesses like the third places described in yesterday's post can become exponentially more popular as they receive free, customer/user-based publicity on the web. And with services like Twitter facilitating mass texting, web-based social groups can move their operations off of their desktops and into the proverbial real world. And with neighborhood-focused sites on the horizon, the need for web presence increases for local businesses looking to attract these highly wired groups to hold their meetings at these businesses. (I apologize for the wording there...it's a bit awkward.)

The internet is changing the model for independent, locally-based businesses. For the first time, these businesses are being provided with a marketing tool that allows them to level the playing field, somewhat, with large chain stores that spend more money on marketing than most independents spend in a year. (I'm guessing, but could you honestly say that's a stretch?) Local, community-based businesses have long been shown to reinvest more of their profits in the local community; now, C2.0 tech is enabling people to invest in their communities by promoting local businesses in an unprecedented way. One particularly exciting possibility for this symbiotic relationship is the strengthening of local businesses in the face of gentrification. While the question of how to provide equitable housing to residents in gentrifying neighborhoods remains unanswered, the C2.0 movement is providing a potential answer for business owners who provide a high-quality product but can't otherwise compete against international, hyperbranded machines.

There are an infinite number of ways that this could all play out, so I'm not going to try to make any predictions. But a suggestion, perhaps? I'd like to highlight a website that I almost featured in a Conscious Urbanism post a few weeks ago but decided to save for this series: Kiva.org. From their website: "Kiva lets you connect with and loan money to unique small businesses in the developing world. By choosing a business on Kiva.org, you can "sponsor a business" and help the world's working poor make great strides towards economic independence. Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you can receive email journal updates from the business you've sponsored. As loans are repaid, you get your loan money back."

This wonderful service has an international focus. The idea, however, is easily transferable to the local level. This type of service, replicated in the urban centers of the developed world, could do some pretty amazing things. Imagine a site that allowed neighbors to make small donations or loans to local businesses to help with repairs, expansions, or infrastructure upgrades to help fend off encroaching corporate interests in a neighborhood. Or a site that, more closely along the lines of the Kiva model, facilitated loans from citizens to small business owners in depressed areas of their city in an effort to strategically combat poverty and relieve stress from the social services system. Or even a site that helped residents of a neighborhood to come together to determine what is lacking from their local retail/services district and create community loan funds to encourage and help neighbors who might be thinking about opening a business, or even to create community owned and operated establishments.

The possibilities for the Community 2.0-enhanced economy (or the communeconomy, as I've so facetiously nicknamed it for the sake of creating a snappy title) are endless, and have a great deal of potential in terms of not only empowering local residents to preserve the character of their neighborhoods, but also even to give people a reason to gather together, face-to-face, and really invest in their communities and each others' well-being. This all sounds pretty optimistic, I know, but I'm sure that Kiva's founders were told the same thing. And they've now loaned over $6 million to small business owners around the world.

Series Posts: Introduction; The New Agora; Neighborhood Futurism; The Phil Tadros Interview

43 Places, Yelp, and Twitter

UrbanSpoon (gets its own line for being so awesome...Chicago is the default, but there are several different cities along the top right of the page.)

Kiva.org (Photo from Kiva)

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