Lecture 1: Jenny’s Reflections

Overall I was pretty happy with this lecture. What did not work so well was the amount of material I had in the background section. I could feel the students start to drift off, but then they also seemed to appreciate a little bit of background into where I come from (for example, the slide where I could show them the street that I live in and relate how coal dust settles on everything (so pollution in Hong Kong may not be as bad as they think! Or maybe just of a different kind)).

What did work well was the workshop activity. We first discussed examples of economic activities sitting above and below the waterline. For example, Kimberley quickly identified the example of Housing Coops and a Tuckshop Coop (which students are involved in at at the University). Jamie knew about Community Supported Agriculture (so this was a great way for me to be able to talk about how I have been on the Board of Directors and Chair of the Beanstalk Organic Food Cooperative in Newcastle, which identifies as a CSA initiative).

We then each filled in the iceberg diagram based on economic activities that we participate in. When we “reported back” everyone gave one example of something they do above the waterline, and then everyone had two goes at giving examples of things they do below the waterline. Above the waterline activities ranged from working part-time for Hong Kong Disneyland (indeed, two students Jackie and Victor work at Disneyland!) to working part-time for WWF as a guide at the Mai Po Nature Reserve, a wetlands area that has been listed as a RAMSAR site because of the role it plays as a major resting ground for migratory birds. Below the waterline activities included the work that Conner does volunteering at a student residence to mentor new students and cook for student events. A selection of the class’s diverse economy activity is summarised in Our Iceberg Economy.

Jason asked what actually constituted an economic activity and Helen (our wonderful Teaching Assistant) provided a good example with the ‘work’ that she does in her family of practising the piano. We discussed how Helen’s practice can be seen as a form of service that she provides her family by bringing the pleasure of live music into the home. Jason asked whether studying at University is an economic activity. We discussed how it can be seen as a form of individual and unpaid work (think of writing an essay or preparing for an exam), but how it is also is part of the societal process of building knowledge commons (foregrounding Chapter 5 on Taking Back Property).

We also talked about how the distinction between above and below the waterline activities is not always clear-cut. Jenny provided the example of her work as an academic where there’s a blurring between her formal paid academic research activity and informal unpaid academic research activity and community service (such as writing materials such as this or participating in a management role at Beanstalk Organic Food Cooperative).

As a means of putting this individual activity in the diverse economy in a broader context we finished by looking at Richard Neuwirth’s TED talk, The Power of the Informal Economy (or Economy D, the self-reliance economy and the DIY economy as he also calls it). We had to stop the clip a few times as Neuwirth talks quickly and the students had trouble keeping up with him (indeed, it took me a few views to realise that he was saying System D, not System B). But the clip really highlights the potential of much of the activity that takes place below the waterline, albeit that much of this potential is currently being recognised by corporations who are selling their products via informal markets in places like Africa (this struck a chord as one of the students had mentioned that she had once worked for her father selling cigarettes informally). The other section that struck a chord was Neuwirth’s recounting how many of the mobile phones that are now sold in Africa are sourced from Guangzhou (just across the border from Hong Kong) and how this is a part of the world in which Intellectual Property Rights have little meaning (the shots of stores called VERSCC, ZHUOMANI and GUUUCI drew laughter as these types of products are pretty common in the street markets of places like Mong Kok, where I’m living)

Finally, given that I had been invited to do a presentation on the course to Urban Studies students the following morning I asked the students what would be worth mentioning. They said three things: taking back the economy is not economics as you know it (no formulas), the course focuses on practical things and the teaching is interactive. That seems like three pretty good qualities to me.