Reflecting on The Informal Economy, October 2012

John Keith Hart, who first saw the economic activity of the “unemployed” in Accra, Ghana back in the beginning of the 1970’s, almost exactly 40 years ago, opened the symposium with the statement that the informal economy had gone mainstream. After all, he said, here was a gathering of folks from around the world, ready to discuss a concept he’d observed and named in some dusty research paper from so long ago.

Meeting him was the highlight of the day for me. Having him come up to me after my little talk on the principle of flexibility, to say that he’d appreciated my insights, was the icing and the cherry on the cake. It makes all the hard work worth the while when you learn that you’re on the right track and not simply on a wild goose chase of speculation. Thank you, Keith Hart, for giving me that extra bit of encouragement.

From the first panel, Richard Tyson’s presentation on the dark side of the informal economy, from Somalian pirates to Sahelian terrorist networks, made a big impact. His key point, however, was that this particular flavour of the complex adaptive system that is our global worldview/economy is out of date now and very badly needs a refresh in order for more accurate responses to the challenges ahead.

From the second panel on the future of money, I was struck by Ignacio Mas’ presentation which focused on disabusing us of the assumptions made on the role of mobile money within the informal economy and how little of a real impact it has made beyond the social network of the individual in areas such as financial inclusion or small business.

And finally, the last panel, where it was Timothy Brown of the Shanzai blog who opened my eyes to the real thinking behind the business models of what we tend to assume as simply “cheap Chinese fakes”.

Finally, all the food for thought provided by the myriads of conversations with old friends and new like Cordy Swope, Ben Lyon,  Scott Smith, Steve Daniels, Aldo de Jong, and John Thackara himself.

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