Industrial slash and burn or the no straight lines of possibility?

March 26th, 2010

In his article for The Observer Tony Judt writes,

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth.

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatisation and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.

Indeed, this is a point of view that I share (here) and (here) and (here), in fact I have written a book about it (video) – Judt’s article goes onto examine the role of the state in the context its enthrallment with all things market driven. And yet we are told whoever comes into power in the UK slash and burn of core pubic sector services is inevitable. And of course this will be done in a manner redolent of the industrial age.

Yet – a networked approach to solving problems can help re-frame our world vision – providing new solutions to once seemingly age old and intractable problems.

From an automotive perspective we have the story of Local Motors, from a humanitarian perspective there is Ushahidi, from our own backyard the story of Microfinancing in London, and in terms or orgnisation of labour there is txtEagle. Of Ushahidi, the New York Times writes

Ushahidi, which has become a hero of the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes and which may have something larger to tell us about the future of humanitarianism, innovation and the nature of what we label as truth.

Ushahidi also represents a new frontier of innovation. Silicon Valley has been the reigning paradigm of innovation, with its universities, financiers, mentors, immigrants and robust patents. Ushahidi comes from another world, in which entrepreneurship is born of hardship and innovators focus on doing more with less, rather than on selling you new and improved stuff.

Because Ushahidi originated in crisis, no one tried to patent and monopolize it. Because Kenya is poor, with computers out of reach for many, Ushahidi made its system work on cellphones. Because Ushahidi had no venture-capital backing, it used open-source software and was thus free to let others remix its tool for new projects.

Ushahidi remixes have been used in India to monitor elections; in Africa to report medicine shortages; in the Middle East to collect reports of wartime violence; and in Washington, D.C., where The Washington Post partnered to build a site to map road blockages and the location of available snowplows and blowers.

On top of that I would add, entrepreneurship, regional development and sustainability. Lightweight, flexible and adaptive systems that can work at velocities that are unprecedented, and where sociability is embedded into the very fabric of the process. Where in the case of Local Motors, cars are developed in half the time and 100x less the capital cost. And of the Micro finance scheme,

Nearly 10 years ago, armed with a degree in geography and a credit card, Faisel Rahman, a slight and softly spoken man now 34, had a big idea: he decided he would open his own bank in the East End of London. The idea, he says now, was really a response to a puzzle: why was it that the poorest people in Britain – the people most in need of some financial assistance, most in need of fair rates of interest – were also the people who were denied access to bank accounts?

Closed minds in closed systems of course said what worked in poor countries could not work in the UK – because we were not poor! Well that is not entirely true is it. This is a land where people at the edges of society that banks deem untouchable, can only get finance for loan sharks or money lenders at rates between 600 to 2500%.

Rahman spent a lot of time talking his idea through with people in the financial industry. He was told that microfinance might work in the developing world but it would never work here. That the poor would not save. That bad debtors would never become prompt repayers. That he could never develop the idea at scale. In the face of this scepticism Rahman obtained a grant for a few thousand pounds from the overdraft of a charitable trust and secured it against his credit card. He then opened the doors of Fair Finance to Business.

Not only has Rahman help people get out of debt, he has help entrepreneurs start businesses that otherwise would have been impossible. And in fact is expanding his business to 8 to 10 more sites in London. John Thackara writing In the Bubble: designing for a complex world, describes how we have created a ‘heavy world’, both materially and psychologically. It’s an ideology that is so powerful and all consuming that we fail to see or comprehend it. A little like a recent local government “expert”, that sneered at my hard won knowledge and perspective, because I did not come from his world. I exaggerate, only slightly. So lets see who else we can learn from…

Nathan Eagle who founded txteagle said,

There are over 2 billion literate, mobile phone subscribers in the developing world, many living on less than $5 a day. Corporations pay people to accomplish billions of image, audio and text-based tasks. txteagle enables these tasks to be completed via the mobile phone by people around the globe.

No Straight Line thinking is concerned with understanding and comprehending – to be able to better apply that knowledge in real world situations. To me, Local Motors, Ushahidi, Fair Finance to Business and txteagle come from a perspective that is non-linear, and understands through necessity, to seek viable and workable solutions to complex real world problems. For example, Rahman is interested in finding practical solutions. Along with other lobbyists he has recently been in talks with the Treasury about ways in which the “contract between banks and the community can be renewed”, and in which the privations and anxieties of financial exclusion can be avoided. What if we took Nathan’s txteagle capability and used that in the UK – where we have a mobile penetration rate of 120%, where many live on the £39.50 job seekers allowance, locked into a life of poverty, poor physical and mental health. So, these people could be earning maybe a little more, as a distributed workforce in ways previously thought impossible. With the tantalising prospect of a life better lived? As the Boston Globe (smlxl – the future of work) pointed out,

The jobs – short stretches of speech to be transcribed or translated into a local dialect, search engine results to be checked, images to be labeled, short market research surveys to be completed – come in over a worker’s own cellphone and the worker responds either by speaking into the phone or texting back the answer. The workers can be anyone with a cellphone – a secretary waiting for a bus, a Masai tribesman herding cattle, a student between classes, a security guard on a slow day, or one of Kenya’s tens of millions of unemployed.

At the core of every one of these examples is people, how people are, how they work, how trust is built and repaid in loyalty. Not the cold glint of an industrial process or linear thinking. Our tyrannical obsession with efficiency, a false god, over effectiveness is a deep flaw in this heavy world, that weighs us down. Judt writes about the sell off of public utilities in Britain, eviscerating the state’s responsibilities and capacities, as I think the belief was they would perform better,

What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility on to the private sector to no discernible collective advantage. Contrary to economic theory and popular myth, privatisation is inefficient. Most of the things that governments have seen fit to pass into the private sector were operating at a loss: whether they were railway companies, coal mines, postal services, or energy utilities, they cost more to provide and maintain than they could ever hope to attract in revenue. For just this reason, such public goods were inherently unattractive to private buyers unless offered at a steep discount. But when the state sells cheap, the public takes a loss. It has been calculated that, in the course of the Thatcher-era UK privatisations, the deliberately low price at which longstanding public assets were marketed to the private sector resulted in a net transfer of £14bn from the taxpaying public to stockholders and other investors.

So when it comes to planning what to cut, slash and tax to pay our huge debt, at a moment when economically Britain has to be punching above its weight, we could learn from these people, these organisations and companies that have shown us how we can do things better, quicker, smarter and more effectively and more humanely – often without the huge sums required when the industrial machine comes into play.

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