Today I did lots of healthy, useful things*, while the news around us is that we are in a recession, a very quick and serious one, and not just as a country but as a globalised western world. What this has led to is exemplified really nicely by the great Big Issue headline that came out a while back "The answer to the food crisis - Grow your own!" - and in general people are rushing to get more and more into planting and cycling and generally into more sustainable lives as they see this is probably the best time to do it - even if this is just a mini bust due to speculation.
And when I read an article in the weekend paper about a poor freelance journalist wishing he had studied engineering as a backup trade - and now impoverished by the credit crunch, I was inspired to expand freecycle and other stuff like that into an online community task/project/exchange coordination system, that could fall back into wireless if there was no main internet.
That's what I've been thinking about since: how to create an open source management system for localised urban economies to exchange, buy, give resources and skills, and organise those exchanges into tasks. But of course it's only about 30% a web application - the rest of it is hard work and face to face trading, discussion and agreements between the people involved, and ways to ensure people without computers don't get excluded and in fact are encouraged to use it.
But this didn't just come out of nowhere: I've recently become one of the webmasters for Transition Bristol. I was chatting about this last week with a friend who is stuck in his house with ME and lots of family heirlooms and clutter, which really get him down. One bit of this clutter is a very nice collection of ecologically oriented books. So we thought - let's start a distributed library for Transition Easton - so just in that part of town, for local people to be able to share say, a lawnmower or a book. So I suggested it to Zoe who is one of the people running Transition Easton - and in doing that I researched all the other exchange systems that have come and gone in Bristol already:
Existing local and UK DIY stuff:
- freeconomy - marc boyle of BBC walk-to-india fame implementing his free economy idea - a completely gift based system.
feral trade, an even fairer than fair international trade system where transport happens via DIY trade routes, organisation by SMS and emails, and selling home made Cube Cola, coffee, and now even grappa and antidepressants.
- Diss Free eXchange. Part of the Norfolk based Diss community system. Gary Alexander, the author of this plone based system, is currently working on a new version, so it's something I'm going to propose to my colleagues at work, since they all work on plone as well.
- Bigger things: ebay, freecycle, gumtree. (I know that freecycle is getting a second version written quite soon - to have a web interface replacing the yahoo groups).
- Older/less IT based things: BEETS, LETS and the farmer's market!
Larger versions: many existing open source systems have very similar requirements to what I feel a local economy manager would need: The typical version control software used for programming with open source, issue trackers for reporting software bugs, project planning software and team/groupware have basically all the functionality needed. Also they're written in convenient languages allowing a new project to have a peek or even lift functions to get the same things done - some (like the version control software Bazaar) are distributed systems. This is good because they'll not need a central server, but will be made up of all the individual little computers running it. Moodle also has similar capabilities.
Most importantly - It would aspire to the lofty goal of being a "Moodle for communities". A free, open source, world wide project which could then be used by lots of different groups on a local basis. From speaking to Gary Alexander (who wrote the Norfolk based Diss exchange system) , I know there's a systems philosophy called VSM that can be used to inform the development of this, as well as of course the participative and self organising aspects of Web 2.0, permaculture as a design science rather than strictly for gardens, and finally Participatory Economics(or Parecon) - an underused field that I don't believe has an implementation but which I find a good basis. The wikipedia article on population mentions this as possibly the only system that could allow economies to continue functioning at the scale we are at now, without involving a huge die-off (or a war) first.
The first simple thing that Parecon gives is that for example on a web page about a particular transaction, anyone would be able to have their say on it - like "you can't buy those eggs, we need them here at the cafe" or "Oh and can I have the egg shells? I use the powder for my bone disease" etc - which would be a very web 2.0 way to buy and sell, and would make the experience of trade into more of an ecosystem.
The first great thing about VSM on the other hand, is that I was actually born into it! It was only ever implemented on a national scale in Chile during Allende's rule. So there's something wonderful about all this!
Here are some of my notes on this(written on the laptop while gardening, out of range of any internet):
Database-wise it would need tables for people, items, projects/interest groups and actions, a plug-in system for extensions and integrations (like with feral trade for international commerce), a strong wifi-mesh enabled back end allowing stronger traffic with wifi networks running same software. And lots of ways of exchanging resources as a community.
All the systems need no more than a way to profile an item - this could be an idea or an instruction, a bit like an issue in a request tracking system or in a project management system.
The system needed is a stripped down, simple to use and expandible(plugin based) way to
Exchange: offer/"take"/advertise/ask for
Exchange indirectly using internal system (timebank extension plugin fits here, as do many others).
So allowing for exchanges - it becomes like a marketplace of skills and resources, products and deliveries.
Also it should allow for the complex elements involved in organising a more extended project requiring stages of production - it would also have inputs and outputs, and tasks allowing for their organisation in a decentralised way - a tasks wiki.
It shouldn't tell you what to do with it, but allow lots of generic options. So this system is like a programmer's CVS of the 90s. It's a first stage towards a programmed economic/exchange system for a community.
So for example a chicken coop: You
- post an idea,
- people subscribe to it,
- you get meetings together and depending on what's agreed, for
- you organise flyering,
- you put out ads for coop materials or existing coops,
for incubators (or raise cash for this and other care items /tools).
- You ask for space for grazing.
- Eggs, compost, weed and parasite pecking given in return.
- Needs transport system as well.
- Needs at least 2 hosting people with working enclosures to get started.
Could this run via a wireless protocol? querying wifi networks findable via the computer, as well as geolocated network via p2p to connect and offer a node of info each, each page looking like a facebook of tasks and ideas, and such that if the main internet is lost, it can still function via wifi/bluetooth/sms
* Healthy things I did that sunday (from above): I planted lots of recycled potatoes in the garden, hoping they'll come up in a clump (but I think I should have put some mushroom and fungus poison on them first), and I bought an SWC. It will have basil, cucumber, tomato and an assortment of other things like green beans for nitrogen. I learnt a bit about companion plants and germinating seeds rather than planting direct. I might look in ebay for other seeds of nice herbs... Also I cycled off to see a friend, did some exercises, figured out a compost-food recycling system for my house which now needs black magic marker penned instructions as to what goes where. I invented, on a proverbial napkin, the concepts of
- a water or smoke powered musical box, set into a victorian fireplace wall and using the rising smoke to turn it, or with little paddles, linked to a flow of water.
- a bike powered seed planter with pneumatic seed laying spokes and solar panels to play music as you pedal.
And I called an electricity company for a quote to do my house up with solar panels. Nice lazy sunday.