Most of us Europeans might be heading for a severe economic crisis, including mass impoverishment, food supply shortages, restricted personal mobility, and cutdowns on medical care. To err on the right side, let’s say, all of us are heading for a really severe such crisis. And some of us are in it – Greece is cutting edge, they’re the front warriors now …
With this approaching, I thought repeatedly what simple, fast to set up system could bring us safely through such a time. Because we won’t have much time and resources left to set up something once the crisis is there, and before it, hardly anybody cares … . Here’s what I came up with so far … nothing’s finished, but it might offer some inspirations.
The Basic Idea: Jump-starting Local Economy
What seems clear is that this resilience has to be provided in a local environment: the trans-local systems are broke then anyway, there’s no critical mass of people with enough resources to fix them in the near term, and lack of fuel etc. restricts activity to the local area naturally.
The basic observation behind this proposal is: everything for a strong local economy, including most everything we need is already available locally with limited effort. Even in severe mass impoverishment, a community is far richer than it seems: there will be much unused resources and things left over from the “age of affluence”, and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure … .
If only we would know of each other’s needs and wants! Because our current economic knowledge capturing and distribution system does not fit for the local level, and does not fit for crisis times at all. Because, it does not index anything about unused resources and reusable trash objects – these things are simply ignored as valueless in a “functioning” economy. But they’re all that is left after a breakdown.
So the basic idea is to have a “Local Resource Information System” on the Internet. (And to have Internet at least city-wide, obviously!). In essence, this is about sharing and collaborative consumption of plain everything that the multi-faceted collaborative consumption economy is about. It should provide all the information for local economic activity in the highest synergy that is attainable. And it should be able to provide sufficient autarky in any municipal area of 20 000 people and up (own wild estimate!). The idea is a bit similar to the “state services in a box” one, but rather meant to start within a quickly deteriorating situation (like in Greece or Spain these days) rather than from a momentarily crash.
Design of a Local Resource Information System (LRIS)
Eventually, every product and service that can be produced locally should be registered in the LRIS. But while the national economy is “just” tight but not completely broken down, the focus should probably be on unused and underused resources. It does not compete with the formal economy business while it’s still functioning, it still gets the LRIS running, and it offers the most benefit to the local population (namely, “free” resources).
Unused and underused resources to be managed by the LRIS would include:
- Unused things. There are literally tons of unused things available in private homes and companies. This would work similar to classifieds, but with the difference of trying to index all unused movable things available in the local area, whereas classifieds might only have 1-2%. Unused things include everything from unused mobile phones (40 million in Germany alone!) to unused and potentially broken agricultural devices in the barns of the elderly. In crisis time, we can’t afford not using this. Underuse is wasted wealth!
- Meal sharing. With realtime coordination on the LRIS web portal: you offer how many people you would invite, and if they register in time, you’ll cook a bit more and let them be part of the regular family meal, for a compensation in alternative currency. This amounts to a distributed community kitchen, of which the hosts profit by earning the compensation for little additional effort, and the guests by saving time for preparing their own meals. And as always, synergy means prosperity.
- Surplus food. This means both surplus agricultural produce, and also leftovers from meals that would else be thrown away. The latter would be done with a real-time coordination system, where you enter what is left over after the meal, and within 15 minutes somebody will drop by to pick it up. The goal is to reduce the amount of food that is thrown away from today’s 25% or more to 0%. Trashed food is trashed wealth! Update 2012-09-09: Here’s an example of somebody who started this in Lisbon, Portugal: collecting food leftovers with a bike from restaurants and markets, then distributing it to the poor [German article].
- Trash wood. And other burnable trash, as fuel.
- Surplus gardening materials. Like humus, earth, hay, grass. Some have too much, and others just need this.
- Storage capacity. Like in old and underused parts of commercial facilities.
- Private car sharing and ride sharing. Also including parking spot and car port sharing.
- Private transportation services.
- Accommodation. Both as re-use of abandoned houses and commercial facilities, and as taking in people in guest rooms. In crisis times, the standards for what is expected from a guest room will drop, which means that much more underused private rooms can get a reasonable use.
- Medical counselling. From experienced private persons, reputation based.
- Help with repairs and odd jobs. This is esp. to give a forum to people with free time and skills but no way to compete in a regular market – like the retired handicraftsman who likes to explain to the young how to do repair their cars. This is an underused resource like everything else, and not using it even in crisis times just means the local economy is poorer than it had to be.
- Privately tool lending and workshop sharing. With coordination via a web portal.
- Private workshop services. There are lots of underused special machines even in private homes, including welders, CNC cutters etc.. Their owners do not have the time to make a business from them, but might be happy to help out with them at times, or to let a well-reputed LRIS portal user access them in exchange for something else.
- Electricity sharing. From photovoltaics production etc..
- Sharing of home produced goods. Many people can produce canned food, marmelade, fruit juices, furniture, firewood, bread, herbal extracts etc. for themselves, and could easily produce some surplus. Legal restrictions mean that they cannot do so commercially, which basically is a waste of production capacity. Which should be fixed by enabling a trade with these in the LRIS.
When it’s about local economy and restricted mobility, resource maps and vicinity search are a great help for navigating to the best options for economic interchange. An interesting tool for this is the free and open source Ushahidi platform (also available as the Crowdmap web service). It’s normally used for crisis mapping in natural catastrophies, so why not for crisis mapping in economic catastropies … . But an economy software has of course to add a tight integration of the map with the trading feature, including live information on supply and “online shopping”. That’s missing so far in the applications I’m aware of.
With proper map integration and vicinity search, it would also not be mandatory to have one portal per municipal area, but instead one can have one for a region. Because depending on the type of resource, some things are economically relevant beyond city boundaries even when mobility and transport capacity is severely restricted.
Using a local currency for the trading in the LRIS seems to be a good idea, because it can protect the local economy from the global one, where there would always be a company with lower prices. However, the experiences with launching local currency systems are a bit disappointing: it works in crisis times, but it does not reach critical mass while the economy works “normally”: people don’t see the advantages then that would persuade them of using a less convertible currency.
However, a good and workable preparation could be to introduce the alternative currency for just the “unused resources exchange” part of the LRIS. It can be easily explained as a system of exchanging trash for trash, ensuring mutual synergy by prohibiting people to capitalize on others’ trash by selling in commercial scale. In addition, the LRIS’s trading section would need a feedback and evaluation part for trust building in the local economy.
To implement the alternative currency, one could re-use an existing software for that (cf. for example my analysis).
In crisis times, where a city will lack the money to provide certain public services and citizen do not have any (legal tender) money to spend on this, these public services can be provided by shared work from citizens. The LRIS software would include sophisticated project management that can organize (for example) to build a huge public hackerspace as a community project, where everything is provided from private means: the tools, the workforce, the meals for the workers. It leads to extremely cheap solutions, cutting through all the slack and overhead of commercial “solutions” (where the incentive is to make money, not to provide something good as a public service). Citizens would be required to work (like) 100 hours a year for such community projects, but could choose those that match their interests and skills. If done right, this way of grassroots community provided public services is “the efficient style of planned economy”, because it has the service users as service providers.
Ease of Use
When an economy is confined to be local, there’s no way around integrating plain everybody. If somebody does not contribute because of technical difficulties or usability issues, he or she might still survive without the synergistic trading, but the worse issue is, it’s a severe blow to this small local economy because the synergy is also missing from the economy as a system. Making it more fragile and less efficient. To ensure everybody’s inclusion, there are several usability and interface issues to take care of:
- All-in-one portal. The current collaborative consumption economy is highly fragmented by type of product and service. Within a local area, none of these sub-markets would have critical mass. The LRIS should be one central web portal for the complete local economy.
- Active data sourcing. It’s the most effective way to real critical mass locally: going around and asking all the people for their resources and persuading them to contribute and also asking for updates on resources.
- Phone and office interface. Where every local inhabitant is so valuable for the local economy, this also includes the elderly people who simply cannot deal with computers, but also have needs and offers (like unused rooms for storing things, taking people in, unused agricultural devices etc.). A phone and personal interface can be provided by a small company operating the LRIS, see below.
- Help with computing. Even those who are open to use the web interface may need a bit of training, a helpdesk and the active distribution of computing equipment (also via the LRIS) to get everybody connected.
Resource Mapping as Business?
Even better than starting the LRIS once we are in the middle of a crisis would be to have it up and running and becoming well-used before that happens. There seems to be a way for this. Because, it is an opportunity for a small (2-10 people) social entrepeneurship business / collective consumption startup to set up the LRIS for their local municipal area. Apart from setting up and maintaining the software, these people would mainly travel around and collect the data by themselves. Because in many cases, this active data collection is the only way to reach critical mass for a web portal in a localenvironment that is not in crisis mode yet. And it surely is the only way to register all the unused and broken things lying around: the problem with trash is, people are too lazy to even do something to offer it.
Collecting the data is as straightforward as visiting people house by house, explaining the idea, and if they want to be part of the system, making pictures and notes about what own products, unused resources and trash objects they would offer in the local economy. For the business aspect, I suggest that these resource mappers should work on a donation basis to be a truly social, non-capitalist business. This won’t generate any riches, but should keep the business floating. Like for example, people will offer them more often than not that they could have trash objects that they’re currently recording, if they remove them. Which they would do, storing them in unused buildings that they also mapped out, and offering them like everything else in the LRIS, to then get food and other essentials in return.
By the way: LRIS-as-business idea was inspired after reading an impressive list from a U.S. author about jobs to do in a recession. There was a “list broker” job in there, which was essentially the LRIS core idea before the advent of the Internet. There is some truth to the saying that U.S. citizens have this ingenious self-made-man and entrepeneuring approach of adapting to a recession …