Entrepreneurial Intentional Communities As Promising Grassroots Innovations

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
56 Barrows (Barrows Hall)
Christina Hertel, TUM School of Management, München, Germany
The fact that we will not be able to maintain our current lifestyles – accompanied by an exorbitant consumption of natural resources and detrimental social effects - has made its way into the heart of mainstream society. While some hope for the power of legislations and regulations, and others suppress the urgency of the problem trying to maintain the status quo, a growing number of people work together to create small-scale, bottom-up alternatives that bring about change. One example for these so-called grassroots movements are intentional communities, in which people live together on the basis of shared values and visions, and deliberately differentiate themselves from mainstream practices (Metcalf, 2013). 

While intentional communities were flourishing during the 1960s and 1970s, when thousands of people worldwide followed the hippie movement, in which intentional communities were perceived as isolated utopian islands, there has been a new trend emerging over the past decade: With the menacing danger of a crash of the economic system, and worsening social and ecological issues, the number of foundations of intentional communities is increasing again. A great number of communities tries to develop viable alternatives that combine solidarity-based ways of living and working. A growing number of them show great innovative potential and manage to meet the triple bottom line by bringing about sustainable community-based enterprises. These sustainable entrepreneurial ventures ensure the economic viability of the community, but might at the same time also influence the impact of such communities. 

While originally focusing on top-down technological innovations in a market economy, transition literature has more recently increasingly focused on the context of civil society grassroots initiatives that create niches for sustainable innovation (e.g. Seyfang & Smith, 2007; Feola & Nunes, 2014). In contrast to technical innovations, which are embedded in the market economy, community-led initiatives are based in the social economy (Seyfang & Smith, 2010) and mainly bring about social or institutional innovation driven by social needs and ideology (Seyfang & Longhurst, 2013). Transition research on grassroots innovations has highlighted three main problems that impede upscaling and diffusion (Seyfang & Smith, 2007): First, they often struggle with securing their economic viability since they tend to “fall between the interstices of traditional social, economic and environmental issue boundaries“ (p. 596). Second, they are often small in scale and geographically rooted, and lack mechanisms to bridge the niche with the mainstream regime. And third, by strongly differentiating themselves from the existing system, they undermine their potential to attract a broader range of people.

Socio-ecological intentional communities can be framed as a community-based grassroots innovation that creates an innovative niche for the development of new ways of living and consuming. While these communities have been described as grassroots innovation within the social economy, entrepreneurial intentional communities, as investigated in this study, constitute a hybrid: Due to their entrepreneurial nature, they are also embedded in the market economy and need to adhere to the “rules of the market“. This combination and its consequences for niche diffusion potential remain have not yet been investigated by scholarly research. 

By means of an in-depth ethnographic study of a successful entrepreneurial intentional community in Germany (Schloss Blumenthal), this study investigates how the inclusion of an entrepreneurial component might foster the potential of intentional communities for a transition to more sustainable lifestyles. It aims at answering the following research questions: How do members of sustainability-oriented intentional communities perceive the role of their community project? What is the role of the business component? How do the inclusion of a business component, and the interplay between different ‘logics’ (community, sustainability, business), may affect the overall potential impact of a community? The study builds on data gathered over several months in the end of 2015 (interviews with members, participant observations, interviews with external stakeholders, online data, and archival data). It shows how successful hybridization can enhance the success of grassroots innovations for promoting sustainable development on three different levels: individual or community, local or regional, and societal. 

Across all levels, the study identifies four main effects of a community-based enterprise: First, of course, they enhance the economic viability of the community. Grassroots innovations usually rely on grant funding and voluntary input (Seyfang & Smith, 2010), which hampers their activities and often leads to project failure. The businesses do not only generate direct income for the community, but also indirectly contribute to resource acquisition by enhancing legitimacy. Second, it guarantees a certain level of congruence. Many intentional communities strongly differentiate themselves from the mainstream and radiate ‘otherness’ that scares off most people from the very beginning. The businesses make community life less restricted and more interesting for members, and – although being sustainability-oriented – resemble ‘normal’ companies within the regime, thereby enhancing attractiveness for a mainstream audience. Third, while some grassroots innovations generate new approaches that might be working well in their respective protected niche space, but would not be viable in real-life conditions, entrepreneurial intentional communities create protected, yet ’real-life’ environments for experimenting with new ways how to lead businesses that serve humanity. Fourth, entrepreneurial intentional communities are not isolated islands, but rather encourage the exchange with the external environment. Permeability helps to diffuse ideas and practices, while ensuring the influx of of new stimuli and knowledge, thereby at the same time enhancing the quality of the ideas generated, and their chance of diffusion. 

Only with a high level of socio-political legitimacy social activist will be taken seriously and achieve the power to bring about change outside their niche (Suchman, 1995; Rao, Monin & Durand, 2003). All the above-mentioned positive effects enhance the legitimacy, not only of the single community, but of the idea or concept of entrepreneurial intentional communities as an attractive and socially desirable alternative way of living, while at the same time contributing to its diffusion.