My name is Ale Fernandez. I live in Barcelona, Spain and I'm Chilean and Italian.
I am a web developer, artist and technical researcher.
I've lived in Scotland, Italy, Spain and England and career-wise I am interested in distributed systems and their applications to improvised performance and ecology.

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7/25/2008

Big Cafe on Transport Sustainability


About a month ago, I went to the "Big Cafe for Transport" event that was happening just around the corner from my house at the brilliant new "Co-Exist" sustainability business centre. Coexist run as a CIC and are just about to launch with a plan to open up green community and event spaces, funded in turn by work and business spaces. I really hope that means a market in stokes croft!


After I attended, I'd promised everyone I'd write up about it, and promptly left it as a nagging thing in the background as life took over. But now the official write up of the event has been published so I thought I should finish the abortive blog post I made that same night. A disclaimer: I'm allowed to make mistakes here, so if I've written anything wrong or stupid, please correct me!


A big cafe costs 20 pounds to attend. It started really early on a Saturday morning (thus excluding the entire population of Stokes Croft), but it included a lunch (from Kukuva Cafe across the road, locally sourced or at least in aid of justice, according to their vision). It didn't have to be so expensive though: 10 pounds for students, or 15 or 5(?) if you didn't want the lunch. You get to talk to all kinds of people invited from all over the place. So, for whatever misgivings I might have with the makeup of the people in the room and with how representative we were of the people affected by transport in Bristol, it was quite cool and very well intentioned.


Yes, misgivings, because there were too many green minded people there:


  • How come no-one brought up road tax (as mentioned that week in the venue mag as a pressing point for car drivers - in their view it should apply to cyclists as well), or even the issue itself of road maintenance?

  • How come when the idea was formed to "ban front door paving", it got a huge ovation across the room and was included in the summary poster? I just thought that kind of thing just creates opposition and disagreement, but there was no voice there to say that.



Oh well, I guess it was supposed to be a very green gathering. I hope there's more effort to bring in different kinds of people in future though - if the outcome can affect real movings of money around Bristol, then it's consultative in nature, and should try and reach out to as many groups and individuals as possible. Web postings are not really an inclusive way for people to express their opinions if they're not comfortable with technology in the first place, and city centre "sustainable" events will not attract all kinds of people in this diverse city.



Fortunately, Transition Bristol is offering free training in "involving hard to reach groups in environmental projects".


I was interested to find lots of opposition on the other hand, from some people, some of whom had been active in politics for a while, even one from the green party, to the idea that transport plans should involve a shift to a locally oriented society. This is the kind of set-up where travel is assumed to be slow, so everything fun or fresh has to be made and used where you live, although this hopefully includes local specialisation and exchanges between localities and globally as well. It's hard to step beyond cycle lanes and think about the whole picture, but I'd have thought a green vision no matter what the party should involve re-localisation, and should be considered holistically with respect to the various threats that we face and the many solutions we can apply to them (fuel, population, water, food, nuclear, climate and counting!).


There have been a few big cafe events so far, starting I think at the beginning of the year. There's been a bit of chatter about this already, but the chair, Vala - who has the controversial title of Professor of Sustainability came across very well. The format of the big cafe events is as follows: You debate some big questions - suitably vague so as to further the gathering of ideas, and then these get written up a summaries. Here are the summaries from this session:









(sorry about that first one, I played with it to try and get it brighter, but now it looks like it's been through nuclear fallout)


When I arrived there, late of course, David Bishop, transport geezer for the city council was talking:


He said we can't invest in train stations because of the infrastructure costs. The same reason seemed to rule out trams, which were community architect Keith Hallet's favoured investment of our money. He says they can be the golden ticket that makes Bristol a wonderful city - they certainly used to be.. (shit link alert - turn popups off!).


The bus routes on the other hand, needed to be like an overground subway network- like the London one. A distant flag waves for First if so, although they have redeemed themselves a bit train-wise with their expansion and publicity of the Severn Beach line - a line whose other name may as well be Easton-Clifton line. Still, I decided to stop taking buses so much, since the day a driver gave me a 2p change ticket that could only be redeemed in one little office in the city centre. Since then my bike has gotten more and more creaky, and my bus rides a lot more peaceful.


On the other hand, David conceded, the bus service is currently unacceptably bad and expensive. It was good to hear a few mentions of peak oil too, although he seemed to think we're not there yet. He spoke about a proposed Rapid transit network whose posters I think were on the wall behind us - I'm sure they'll be easy to find...


We are Smart wireless urban people, he went on. We need real time info, linked, integrated.
The vision for the next 30 years is to get to this integrated transport network.


I was very sad to hear him mention this same old growth agenda - proposed by some now disgraced politician from Blair's old cabinet, of 30,000 homes to be built in the next however many years. Why does this have to be the basis for the transport strategy? It's completely unsustainable. We've proven already not to have the water in the UK for such a development, and empty houses sit unmended, empty shops unused opposite our fancy cafe chats, and both awareness of climate change and of the credit crunch has seriously changed the situation since then. Already I think groups like artspace/lifespace, with their very elegant post-squatting, are a very attractive proposition of short term living and working possibilities. Also their stay deals with that painful issue of the recent empty buildings tax by creating temporary spaces like the Pro Cathedral, whilst attracting people to that building as an arts venue.



Anyway, back to Mr Bishop: He concluded by saying the council is not good at changing it's plans based on new opinions or information, but this is changing. It is starting to listen more and it is learning to communicate better.


Next up, Vala with some examples of good and climate helping transport systems from cities around the world. These have been shown quite clearly in the official write-up.

Then she introduced world cafe format, which I spoke about above, and she introduced the big 4 questions that were to form the rest of our day:



  1. if you had a bottomless pit of money to spend on Bristol's transport system, how would we travel around the city in 10 years time?

  2. What examples of better transport systems can we draw from the rest of the world or history?


  3. What would you enable you personally to make greener choices in bristol for transport.

  4. How do we encourage better use of and attitudes towards sustainable transport?

I'll stop now as this is getting long, but one last thing always gets me: I had the fortune that day to sit next to councilors, council staff and other people involved in local politics, and for all their hard work and merits, what gets me is always the institutionalised, bitchy, childish infighting between political parties. I call it infighting although it crosses parties, because together they, as a group, suggest, plan and carry out changes that affect us. We pay them to do this, so I really hate seeing time and time again how we pay for them to do tit for tat politics, complaining when someone else embraces their ideas if they are from another party or destroying good initiatives for the same reasons, insulting each other, and the whole competitive side of politics. A bit of competition is good, but fairly balanced with co-operation.


If the sustainable communities bill means we're going to see what the balance books are and be shown how they work, my first question will be how much of that money is spent in this kind of faffing, and how can we change it so local government can have a neutral forum to express their views and work together too.


Maybe they need a weekend cafe as well...

7/14/2008

Local Economy Management System



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:

  1. freeconomy - marc boyle of BBC walk-to-india fame implementing his free economy idea - a completely gift based system.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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


buy/sell

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.

A funded programme might pay for bikes, lessons and legal system for teenage kids to be able to deliver items in return for meals, food, items, services, training etc, but also money. 2 quid for a delivery is not much to ask, and economy of scale means lots of little things can be delivered (eg flyers).

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

  1. post an idea,
  2. people subscribe to it,
  3. you get meetings together and depending on what's agreed, for
    example:
  4. you organise flyering,
  5. you put out ads for coop materials or existing coops,
    for incubators (or raise cash for this and other care items /tools).
  6. You ask for space for grazing.
  7. Eggs, compost, weed and parasite pecking given in return.
  8. Needs transport system as well.
  9. 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


  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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