Building a cooperative economy

by Oliver Sylvester-Bradley @defactodesign

In permaculture terms the economy sometimes feels like a segregated monoculture planted with terminator seeds, sprayed with patented pesticides on venture capital backed farms designed to maximise profits in an unsustainable market place full of thieves and cheats. No wonder people prefer to potter in their gardens and allotments - and try to forget the craziness of corporate capitalism!

But no matter how much we try to ignore the corporate machine it ploughs on regardless and at various points in all of our lives we are forced to interact with the unsustainable, greed-based economy whether we like it or not. We all need to travel, buy energy, we like presents and holidays and now we are buying more and more of these goods and services online, from people we do not know.

As local banks close in favour of apps, local taxis are driven out by Uber and the likes of Airbnb and other holiday and comparison websites offer us 'guaranteed savings' - the brave new world of digital platforms is being thrust upon us, whether we like it or not.

The dominant form of business in our economy has not changed, but the method of delivery has. Platform businesses which reach further and wider than conventional 'bricks and mortar' businesses, that are able to 'scale up' and attract customers in their millions are forcing out the smaller players, just like supermarkets killed the traditional garden market. Except these "platform monopolies" are taking things to a new level - often unbeknown to us they're gathering our data and using sophisticated algorithms to work out how to sell us more things, that quite often we don't need or want. They're aggregating data and dissintermediating in ways that we never knew were possible. Uber is valued at over 60 billion dollars but does not own a single taxi…

 

From monoculture to platform co-ops

To someone practicing permaculture, there is something almost offensive about vast fields where businesses cultivate the same single crop and, in a similar way, the exponents of 'peer to peer' and 'open source' technologies get equally offended by monolithic platforms that dominate the digital landscape.

Peer to peer, (where individuals share content with other people, rather than relying on centralised servers) and open source software (which is free to use and adapt, without requiring a licence fee) are like the digital community's own versions of permaculture. They provide a pathway to greater independence, autonomy, diversity and resilience than is offered by the dominant system.

David Holmgreen's ideas about creating small scale, copyable, adaptable solutions which have the power to change the world by creating decentralised, diverse, and more resilient systems have huge parallels with open source, collaborative software projects, which are developing as a response to the monolithic, proprietary and profit driven enclosures that dominate today's Internet.

The end goal of this work is to create 'platform cooperatives', as alternatives to the venture capital backed platforms. Platform cooperatives that are member owned and democratically controlled - allowing everyone that is affected by the business, be they customers, suppliers, workers or investors, a say in how the business is run and managed. Co-ops are an inherently different form of organisation than Limited or Public companies, which place community before profit, hence have entirely different principles than their corporate rivals. For this reason they are more resilient in downturns, more responsible to their communities and environments and more effective at delivering real (not just financial) value to everyone they interact with.

Platform co-ops provide a template for a new kind of economy built on trust, mutual aid and respect for nature and community. By placing ownership firmly in the hands of the people and applying democratic forms of governance they offer a legitimate alternative to the defacto form of business. There are several platform co-ops that already provide comparable, and often better services than their corporate rivals and with more support others will continue to develop.

On 26 and 27 July the OPEN 2018 conference at Conway Hall in London will showcase platform co-ops such as The Open Food Network - which is linking up local food producers and consumers through Europe, Resonate - the music streaming co-op, and SMart from Belgium which provides support for a network of thousands of freelancers throughout Europe. The beginnings of a viable, self-supporting and sustainable economy are stating to emerge and OPEN 2018, along with similar events in the US and across Europe, is bringing together the people with the ideas, the tech developers and the legal experts to help catalyse the transition.

Shared values and the network effect

By Dmgultekin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8273108There are so many similarities between permaculture's philosophy and principles and the works of other progressive groups that hope to encourage a more sustainable, more resilient and equitable future. From Occupy to Open source, Permaculture to Peer to Peer and Collaborative Technology to the Commons Transition groups there are clearly overlapping values.

David Bollier, writing on the Peer to Peer Foundation blog has suggested that "…permaculturists and commoners need to connect more and learn from each other…" and the idea that these communities are ultimately working towards the same objective seems especially important to recognise if we are to accelerate the development of a more sustainable world.

There is already an evolving "shared narrative" between these various, disparate initiatives, but it is often sidelined by our self-selecting filters which lead us back into the communities we know and trust. Collaboration and cooperation can be hard work and as groups get bigger they can become harder still but that's no reason not to try. The fact that Wikipedia provides a better encyclopaedia for free in more languages than Britannica ever managed proves that online, open source collaboration can deliver greater value than proprietary, closed source systems.

The true value of a collaborative, open networks only really manifests when its members communicate, and work together, through connected systems. Sharing ideas, discussing problems and addressing challenges in larger networks creates positive feedback loops via the network effect - a term which describes how the value of something increases in proportion to the number of people using it (like a phone, or social media network) - something all the various ethical and progressive networks could benefit from enormously.

Parallels between collaborative, open source software development and permaculture principles:

1. Observe and interact

Progressive software projects often utilise 'user focused' design strategies to ensure they meet people's needs. Taking time to understand how users interact with software systems via user experience testing groups and an ongoing, iterative design processes are recognised to deliver higher quality solutions which suit specific user needs.

 

2. Catch and store energy

Peer to peer networks don't rely on centralised servers but instead make use of the latent capacity of other user's machines. Imagine how much more efficient it would be than deploying huge server farms if our computers were not shut off at night, or left idle, when they could be providing valuable processing power for others. The Holochain project aims to make it simple and secure for anyone to join a truly peer to peer network and to share files and processing power in this way - and to even earn credits for hosting other people's files and applications.

 

3. Obtain a yield

The Peer Production License provides a means by which open source developers can make the code they develop available for free and still benefit from it's use. Sites like the Internet of Ownership, which contains a directory of cooperative platforms use the PPL to "permit reuse exclusively for non-commercial and worker-owned enterprises" thereby helping to grow the commons. The ultimate goal of the PPL is to enable mechanisms so commoners can support themselves and ensure their own social reproduction without resorting to capitalism.

 

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

This principle is particularly integral to open source development since the concepts of 'user focussed' and 'agile development', 'branching' and 'forking' are all designed to ensure that software projects are self-regulating by listening to the users needs, driven by user feedback and that they are able to be adapted to changing needs.

 

5. Use and value renewable resources and services

Open source technology is inherently more renewable in the way it enables the reuse and repackaging of code for new purposes. Ethically minded hosts and developers such as Green Net power their servers with renewable energy.

 

6. Produce no waste

As above, open source code is often re-used and repurposed but progressive developers still have a lot to gain from better collaboration. There are often multiple teams working on identical problems and ideas and whilst this has benefits in terms of developing strength and resilience through diversity it also leads to waste, mainly in terms of time. At least the waste 'product' of web development is only digital and so old technology and code doesn't littler the streets or pollute the environment as much as physical products can, especially if archives are stored on renewably powered servers.

 

7. Design from patterns to details

Genuine online collaboration has been slow to evolve, with the best examples being Linux (the open source operating system), Firefox, the open source web browser and Wikipedia, the open source encyclopaedia. It is only recently, with the rise of monolithic capitalist gardens such as Google and Facebook and Amazon that the hive mind of the internet is recognising the need to step back and redesign its' systems according to new patterns. The push for "Net neutrality" and Tim Berners-Lee's Solid project are examples of this in action as is the Holo project, a very exciting and truly peer to peer "community of passionate humans building a distributed cloud, owned and run by users like you and me."

 

8. Integrate rather than segregate

The move from centralised to decentralised, to distributed and federated technology is a a key element of open source and collaborative technology design. The entire Peer to Peer philosophy is based on the recognition that the connections and relationships between nodes (people or computers) in a network is what gives it strength and value. Collaborative technologists still have a lot to gain from developing deeper and wider integrations, like we see in nature, and which permaculturists know so well.

 

9. Use small and slow solutions

Designing a computer system to be slow is not something you will normally (ever?) hear a programmer talk about but they often talk about small, in many guises. Small packages (of code), small apps, "minified" (meaning compressed) code and even small computers, like the Raspberry Pi are key features of collaborative technology which all aim for increased efficiency.

 

10. Use and value diversity

Diversity is intrinsic to open source and collaborative technology. The plurality and adaptability of open source solutions ensures a highly diverse ecosystem. Users are free to adapt open source code to their needs and the open nature of most open source projects values contributions from anyone, irrespective of race, gender, age or any other factor. It is true that the majority of contributors to open source projects are normally young, white and male but the reasons for that seem more to do with societal inequalities and stereotypes rather than any specific prejudices or practices.

 

11. Use edges and value the marginal

The explanation of this principle places most value on "the interface between things…" and this is a central component of web design. Web services have now realised the necessity of providing intuitive user interfaces, to allow users to navigate complex data and to investigate deeper informational relationships but, more interestingly the latest developments in linked open data enable users to interface with more specific, more granular and more timely data to provide increase value. The Internet Of Things will facilitate a massive increase in the number and type of products which can interact over the internet. Whilst it is not the norm, drawing diverse information from the edges and valuing the marginal is something the open internet can really facilitate.

 

12. Creatively use and response to change

Most open source, collaborative projects use some kind of agile development, which advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change. Permaculture and open source see eye to eye on this principle which bodes very well for a growing, symbiotic relationship in our rapidly evolving world.

How can the permaculture principles be applied to the cooperative economy? Join the conversation...