John Thackara is a writer and event producer who has spent a lifetime searching for stories about the practical steps taken by communities to realize a sustainable future. He writes about these stories at his blog, Doors of Perception, and organizes festivals that bring the project leaders he has met together.
In this interview, conducted by Darren Sharp and originally published in Shareable, John discusses ideas from his latest book How To Thrive In The Next Economy, which celebrates the power of small actions to transform the bigger picture.
DS: What’s the central premise of your new book?
JT: The book is about the proposition that taken together, the myriad and still growing swarm of small projects around the world in which people find new ways to meet their daily needs, that the total of these is greater than the sum of the parts. That is to say something big is happening which isn’t per say visible, it’s a coherent single story, but that in 1001 different contexts and situations people are not waiting for a big idea or even a label for a movement to do stuff, they’re doing things to meet needs on a daily basis. So the structure of the book is ten chapters about aspects of daily life such as moving, eating, clothing and so on, and in each chapter I tell some stories about people meeting the need for food, or moving around, or clothing themselves, in different ways which either explicitly or implicitly include the notion of doing less harm to the planet and in the most significant cases leaving the planet a healthier place. So I describe these stories partly to just prove that there’s a lot happening, because some people say well, it’s only a few isolated cases of people doing stuff, but I’m one of those people who believes there is a swarm of things happening that not many of which are visible if we have other things to think about, and then look at the ways in which design skills, service design thinking, notions of cooperation and sharing, notions of solidarity, can be a frame to help those individual projects connect to each other. And what the book does is to select from the projects that I’ve learned about over the last five years or so, write about them and then suggest – how they connect to each other and importantly, what kind of design actions could one imagine that helps them connect, scale, spread and multiply.
How can we accelerate the transition from an extractive economy based on endless growth to one that rewards stewardship of living systems?
Well, I think that is the single most important question, and the fact that you ask it, to me is a sign that we’re all looking for focus on that exact question, because I think the missing element of this fantastically inspiring and joy bringing activity is that it doesn’t necessarily have a shared meaning as a collective action, and indeed, it’s very easy – and what of course happened, is that lots of people can describe their activities as being green or restorative or regenerative when they’re not really anything of the sort. So I think there are two steps, one negative and one positive. I think the negative thing is for us all to focus on the fact that there’s a fundamental difference between doing less harm in a growth-oriented economy, where actually the net result is to do more harm because if you grow and do less harm that’s what happens, the bad stuff grows, and it ends up being bigger than the good stuff. In the book there’s a whole section in reference to a big furniture company which was an epiphany about that, but that is again a part of the ‘why we’re in trouble’ narrative. To me the thing that has opened my eyes and finally made sense is the notion that if we think that doing less harm is not a meaningful or terribly exciting project, but actually leaving the world a better place being specific, I think the soils and the living systems of which we are a part, is the one thing that finally, to me made sense as a reason for doing all this work.
So most people and including me, have not thought very much about the soils and the waters and the biodiversity and the rocks of the world, but I think as soon as one starts to look at that, and not just to look at it and think about it, but engage with it, connect with it, suddenly everything makes sense, oh, that’s what leaving the world a healthier place means… it’s not an idea, it’s not a statement of morality, it’s a practical thing. Is the soil where I live healthier, yes or no? Is the river healthier, yes or no? Is biodiversity flourishing, yes or no? And yeah, that to me is the point at which it all begins to make sense.
Isn’t part of that challenge around getting a handle on both negative externalities, in terms of pollution that we’re pumping into the atmosphere, and also positive externalities which just equally don’t get measured or talked about in some circles around the shared value that’s been created and these other positive externalities that don’t get measured by the prevailing economic orthodoxy?
Yes. It’s to do with how you imagine measuring things being an actionable task because – I’m sure we’ve both looked at and studied and reflected on the notion of putting a value of nature, for example – and I’m one of those people who says, oh, that’s a good idea, this is what ten years ago when the TEEB Project – The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity – when that started I thought that is a good thing because that means rather than just taking living systems for granted as something we can use in our economic activities, we have to actually take account of it. Except that what then happened was that the money people, the hedge funds, the fast moving actors, in a matter of seconds it looks like in retrospect, ah, good, here’s another form of value that we can package, speculate on, slice and dice and sell to each other or preferably sell to somebody else for a profit. So that it almost literally seemed to be like months between the notion of the huge institutional effort to put a value on nature being announced and being introduced to the world, before you could blink an eye the financial speculators, and the hedge funds, and the people who are looking for new things to monetize, were on to it far quicker than anybody else. The lesson I draw is that putting a value on something by itself, it’s absolutely capable of making things worse because then the people in the world of investment and securitisation [get involved] for whom value is just an opportunity to turn it into something else.
So it’s not enough just to give something a value, you have to say, it is not acceptable under any circumstances to make this physical place unhealthier. And so this whole new industry filled with consultants emerged very quickly called biodiversity offsetting which is a parallel and sort of bastard child of the natural capital industry and so the whole thing was based on abstracting nature from its context and saying, okay, it’s value, but you can move it somewhere else, which if it were true, would be possibly one response, but of course, it’s not true because nature evolves over very long periods of time and is by definition unique to its place, so even if you can comfort yourself by saying, or… no, you dig up a meadow in once place to build a factory on it but to compensate you plant another meadow somewhere else. That’s to oversimplify. And when you do that you’re just kidding yourself because the new meadow is just, so to speak, artificially created and may have certain parameters that are similar to the meadow you just dug up and built a factory on, but it’s not the same thing because the value of ecosystems and the connections between lifeforms and the connections between ecosystems is as, if not more important than the individual lifeforms themselves. We are only beginning to understand that so the fundamental myth about offsetting is that you can recreate nature at will because we’re clever human beings, but that’s just not true.
Let’s turn to a discussion of energy and resource constraints, because you write in the book about the fact that we don’t face an energy crisis so much as an exergy crisis and you describe this new story which is emerging, one that’s based on social energy in an economy that needs to use only 5% of the worlds resources, can you reflect on that?
So energy is at the heart of everything, arguably. Well, energy and debt, it took me a very long time to understand that those two subjects were connected, but certain writers like Gail Tverberg and John Michel Greer, say well why is the crisis so continuous when we seem to come up with partial solutions. When one understands that energy and debt are basically part of the same story, then it begins to become clear why the whole system has smoke coming out from under the hood.
I spent basically the best part of 20 years responding to the concept of ‘Factor 20’ by a man called Leo Jansen, who is one of the original Club of Rome people who was involved in the Limits to Growth project. He told me 20 years ago or more that the true measure of sustainability in the world is that we reduce our resource consumption by a factor of 20 times. He said, when he told me that, “but of course, 20 sounds impossible therefore we made it four because that sounded doable, but actually the true number is 20”. So that was quite a startling fact and that is when I became a fairly confirmed doomer as I say in the book, for many years because I couldn’t imagine any circumstance under which any sort of society could voluntarily evolve to 20 times less resource intensity per unit of activity.
Then what happened was from the mid-1990s onwards when I started travelling more in Asia and in India in particular, it finally sunk in that 80% of the world lives on factor 20 resource efficiency today, it’s just that they’re called poor or undeveloped, or in needing of our help. From that period onwards, I suddenly understood that actually it’s not such a big deal if you look at patterns of living in the world over thousands of years which are ‘sustainable’ versus the rather short period of time that we’ve had an energy fuelled one now, and so then you just turn the whole thing upside down.
So 80% of the population is more or less living sustainably, albeit under very trying circumstances, whereas 20% or less is not, therefore we need to learn from… to regain the understanding of what it is to live that lightly and to refashion our expectations about energy accordingly. So that, so to speak as a kind of social understanding begins to merge with this notion of local or distributed or micro or neighbourhood energy projects, which have been cropping up like mushrooms all over the place as part of this swarm of activities. You suddenly realise that actually that’s really fantastic that most of the kind of nuts and bolts of tools and certainly concepts that we need for an energy regime that is Factor 20 are already out there. And indeed in many parts of the world people are hacking together local energy systems which provide the majority of their energy needs from today’s tools and technologies. What they can’t do and nobody else can do is to magically run the industrial society on that kind of thing, but that’s because we can’t have industrial society, we won’t have it in the future. But that’s one of the other reasons that I became an optimistic person again because I said it’s actually all happening, not just at the level of people making clothes out of hemp, but rather sophisticated local energy projects of which there are tens of thousands.
At Shareable, we’ve been promoting this idea of sharing cities for four years now and obviously over half the world’s population now live in cities and that’s projected to get to something like 65-70% by the middle of this century. Cities are obviously an important level of scale in terms of trying to address a lot of these challenges. What is your view on this notion of sharing cities and its potential to support some of these projects that we’re talking about?
What I think has become quite exciting is the sense in which the issues of different sorts of sharing systems are becoming clear around this idea of platform cooperativism. I think over the last two years we’ve all celebrated the notion that sharing platforms like Uber or Airbnb enable us to share resources more effectively and it’s a bit like natural capital. I remember when I took my first Uber five years ago I thought this is amazing, we will now do away with the wasteful use of cars and we’ll just use them when we need them and the cities will be rendered healthy again by this fantastic invention, and then what happens is, it doesn’t work out like that because the business model of Uber and those sorts of platforms is predicated on growing to infinity like any other form of capitalist business and so there’s nowhere in the Uber resources sharing model called making public space car free. That is not its model, its core model is to provide a very high quality service which in practice has ended up increasing the number of car journeys in the places where it’s most intensely used, so that’s in New York now, they are discovering there are more car journeys because of Uber than there were before it was invented. So you end up with this rebound effect. That has taken people like me a while to figure that just because something is sharing resources does not mean it’s protecting common goods such as space, unless the protection of the space and the common good, is so to speak of a higher value than the success of the company.
And that, I think, is what platform cooperativism is about, is that Uber is a brilliant invention technically because it enables use of the technology that’s coming into radically improve the resource sharing of something which we know is bad, like cars, except that we didn’t put into the equation the city shall be healthy and have clean air and it will be safe to walk around, and in particular – and this is the biggest thing – the low carbon environmental and energy footprint of the city is, so to speak, the higher reality below which the convenience of Uber should be a subsidiary thing.
We’ve all been in different degrees of coherence, saying this seems to be fantastic but it’s not quite as beautiful as we thought, and that’s what the platform cooperativism and that whole cloud of initiatives begins to address. If Uber is actually an extractive industry that takes the value out of equations and local economies and has all sorts of negative consequences, what can we do about it? And I think that’s what’s so exciting, is that all sorts of answers are there, ready and waiting to be used, such as either the kind of cultural, the political concepts of the health of the world, the health of the public, the health of public space, is a higher value than the health of Uber, but secondly, the tools that people in different groups have been busily developing, like the blockchain technology and new forms of contracts and all that stuff which is pretty deeply nerdish and hacker-ish to most people, suddenly you realise what they’re useful for.
I think the single most exciting thing that I’ve learnt about from the recent Platform Co-ops Conference is this project out of Israel called La’Zooz which is basically another transport sharing platform but with the explicit objective that the benefits of platform sharing or ride- sharing shall be shared equally amongst the people who benefit from it and not by some third party. And so you have something called the common good of sharing transport resources like existing vehicles, where the platform is owned by the people who use it, and where you can actually begin to see a non-monetary form of value sharing very practically implemented in something which has been until now pretty theoretical. So in other words, if you have a car and you drive well and you share it well you get zooz tokens, where a community of people are sharing a resource but agreeing to rate each other’s contribution to the whole in a peer-to-peer way which is on a large scale, actuates and cannot be gamed or faked, but absolutely crucially where the modern technologies, such as blockchain, answer the question that has bedevilled the commons for the last 500 years, then how do you deal with people who don’t play fair or don’t really do their bit? How do you deal with the incredible social complexity of groups of people casting judgment on each other? We know that that has just been the problem of the commons as we know for a long, long time. So I’m not saying that blockchain technology will magically resolve the free-rider problem, because as far as I can tell it’s a pretty powerful bit of the answer. In a city complex where you’re sharing, I don’t know, transport or rooms or whatever, you can actually begin to see in a live project which is out there right now today, answering questions which have bedevilled theorists and philosophers for generations. So that’s why I think it’s pretty exciting.
What is the relationship between platform cooperatives and sharing cities, and the main tensions that arise in your view?
I was in Vienna a few weeks ago where I saw the presentation of a platform called Moovel, which is a company set up by Daimler to enable the sharing of transport resources. I keep touching on transport a lot but I think that it’s something that most people recognise. So Moovel is a platform that you can, so to speak, with your smartphone press a button and it will tell you which bus, which tram, which walkway, which e-bike, which car share, a whole variety of different options are all integrated into one journey and by the use of that platform the citizen or the visitor doesn’t need to run around buying tickets for lots of different things, it can be done for you and you pay, for example, by the distance covered, and it’s all automatically done and you don’t have to pay getting on or off vehicles and so on.
Now this is an amazing thing because it’s a very complicated piece of integration, not to mention the politics, not to mention local government regulations and so on, but it is offered to the world as a turn-key solution by a private company, Daimler, the Mercedes company, and the debate that we had in Vienna was, this is amazing but is it actually what we want, that a private company shall be the provider of integration of resources when again, as we saw with Uber or Airbnb, it will be in their interest to maximise the use of this platform because they get paid a cut of every transaction.
Whereas, maybe the city of Vienna or Berlin should be the owner and the user of this platform because then they can, so to speak, tune it to optimise the amount of vehicles moving around in the context of the greater good, namely, having a liveable city or a healthy city. My point is that that is happening right now, today, in Europe and other countries where probably half a dozen big players that develop these integration platforms are going to all of these cities saying you need one of these. And it’s tremendously hard for a city to say no because it’s like a complicated, expensive thing to develop. So I think Moovel has 200 odd people developing this prototype platform – and there’s another one in Finland being trialled right now – whereas the city of Vienna’s transport integration department has five people in it. It’s not a poor city, Vienna, it’s a rich city – and they have a brilliant public transport system. But at the end of the day it’s this huge cultural and social and technical shift towards sharing platforms, it’s very hard to say no if somebody like Daimler comes along and says, don’t worry, we’ll do it all for you.
The point is until now if somebody said there’s no use dreaming about the commons or dreaming about sharing everything with no money, that’s not possible, that’s just hippy-fairy tale stuff. That was sort of true until recently, but with these parallel approaches and tools, like platform cooperativism in which the commons as the shared and ultimate good is explicitly written down in black and white, so to speak, combined with tools like blockchain so that communities of people can actually share value without using money. It’s all out there now so we’re not far away, maybe we’re there now, embryonically with something like La’Zooz, we have all the bits of a shared commons, including the technology, including the philosophical problems of whether human beings are capable of acting fairly or not, that answers that question, because these guys, that’s what they’ve been thinking about for the last ten years, is how to do it. This is why I choose to be optimistic, because if we can get into the public discourse very clearly the notion that the public good and the shared good of commons is in all our best interests, then when somebody says, it would be nice but it’s not practical, they say, no it is practical, it’s happening now, we’ve got these prototypes throughout there and if you think it’s a good idea lets go and use them.
I want to get your thoughts on questions of scale because obviously bigger is often seen as better in an endless growth economy, but in nature small is beautiful, to use the term, and when it comes to things like social innovation and the bottom up change that we’re talking about, it’s often the small changes that are connected up that can make all the difference. So I’m keen to hear your views on the so-called need to scale a lot of these grassroots transition projects, and what living systems can teach us about scale and transformation at the local level?
Well, it’s a very fundamental question and there’s a new book that has been published by Civic Systems Lab called Designed to Scale, is a major intervention into the answer of that question in the sense that it’s five years of work, again, by the team mainly in the UK, but with projects in different parts of the world, very practically, what are the nuts and bolts under which, for example urban farming could be increased to be this quite a serious part of the nutritional requirements of a city rather than being as they perceive to be at the moment, a very small hipster-ish kind of micro part of the story.
And so you have in this incredibly dense piece of work, a whole variety of explanations of how a city could make the sharing of resources or the collective growing of food or the caring for older people, a mass and significant part of the story leading to the majority part of the story rather than, it would be nice, kind of thing. The only question I have is that the scale is also being driven by people who consider themselves to be service provides who say it, as I just said with Moovel, and also with all sorts of social services, there’s a very powerful business interest in saying, we understand scale, you need a large organisation, you need a large enterprise, a large network in order to deliver this valuable service efficiently and professionally etcetera. Which is at the same time very persuasive and also based on the notion that you cannot multiply as well as scale up projects. How can a multitude of things work well together?
I think there’s a difference between enabling, for example, a city, or I prefer to use the word region, or a bioregion, needing the majority and indeed a growing majority of its needs from local resources, that I think, is something we could discuss as a desirable and necessary part of a healthy future and whether that has to be done by large enterprises, social or otherwise, rather than lots of small ones collaborating, I don’t know. All I do know is that the push for the scale comes from people in organisations who, in my judgment, have an interest in being the providers of these services. So I think that and I’m worried about the notion if only the large entities can do it, you get the problem of do they therefore have to be private entities? Does the cost of co-ordination on a large scale mean that you need to monetise services that have otherwise been provided free, and so on?
So I think the alternative to the scale question, that we must scale up things and make them huge and integrated and therefore rather expensive, is well, by the way large numbers of social needs are being met by small scale activities collaborating together, in other words, the multiplier effect, perfectly well already. And this is where the care economy is such a powerful alternative to the massively scaled social economy. I think that the care word, I think, is the word that explains practically why large scale is not necessarily an automatic requirement, i.e., people who look after each other on a daily basis, whether for food, or with children, parents, loved ones, sick people, that is already a vast global and very powerfully meaningful activity which isn’t scaled up from something, there’s just a lot of it happening in lots of different places.
Finally, what are you most optimistic about when it comes to the emerging futures that you describe in your book?
I think I’m most optimistic by my experience of people realising that shaping and organising the commons is not as hard an idea as it sounded, like when you read books about it. The fact that organising a city so that space is shared and that the quality of the air is more important than the economy, or that it’s actually not a bad thing for weeds to be growing up through the cracks of the pavement and that by the way we don’t have to render taxi drivers impoverished in order to share transport. All of these things are coming together right now and I don’t know how it’s going to unfold but I’m genuinely sure that some kind of big unfolding is happening right now and I just try and kind of train myself to look for these very positive signs and I think they’re pretty significant.
How To Thrive In The Next Economy is published by Thames & Hudson and is available now.