If we want our technology to be more in our hands, we can learn from permaculture

Here's another piece from our partners in the Open: 2018 conference. Open: 2018 is bringing together a new generation of cooperators and collaborators, who want to build their initiatives around digital platforms and services. 

The article makes an interesting parallel between permaculture and this new "platform cooperativism" - and suggests that the second can learn a lot from the first.

To begin with, here's a good definition of permaculture from the writer Emma Chapman: 

Permaculture, originally 'Permanent Agriculture', is often viewed as a set of gardening techniques, but it has in fact developed into a whole design philosophy, and for some people a philosophy for life.

Its central theme is the creation of human systems which provide for human needs, but using many natural elements and drawing inspiration from natural ecosystems. Its goals and priorities coincide with what many people see as the core requirements for sustainability.

Permaculture tackles how to grow food, build houses and create communities, and minimise environmental impact at the same time. Its principles are being constantly developed and refined by people throughout the world in very different climates and cultural circumstances.

So how might all that relate to organisations that are trying to build more participatory and non-exploitative versions of Uber, Airbnb or Deliveroo? 

Here's an excerpt from Oliver Sylvester-Bradley, Open: 2018's organiser, and his post in the Permaculture Association blog:

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. 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 and 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 reach further and wider than conventional 'bricks and mortar' businesses. They are able to 'scale up' and attract customers in their millions, and 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. 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. 

The permaculture thinker David Holmgren talks about creating small scale, copyable, adaptable solutions which have the power to change the world - by creating decentralised, diverse, and more resilient systems. This has 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 de facto 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.

The article continues here. And click on the graphic below to sign up to Open:2018