As part of our series on the 100 Women Who Are Co-Creating the P2P Society, Michel Bauwens interviews Lynn Foster of Mikorizal Software and Network Resource Planning.
Dear Lynn: Can you tell us a bit about the history of your engagement, and also about the interesting aspects of the place and region where you are living now?
I came of age in the late 60’s and early 70’s, when a lot was happening on high school and college campuses in the US, and I was very influenced by the civil rights movement, anti-war movement, women’s movement, and urban political movements of that time. I knew coming out of college that I wanted to dedicate my time to making change, but had no idea how to go about it. I rather haphazardly started working in a system of food co-ops in the Midwest US, so I started early with economic forms.
I was ever so lucky to run into people who knew a lot more than I did. This period of my life was formative and transformative in every way – politically, theoretically, organizationally, ideologically, personally. I got an understanding of how the world works, and an understanding of how I fit into that world – why it is the way it is, and why I am the way I am. I developed a healthy anger about the system, and (as a person who has always had basic access to food and shelter and education) for the first time understood the effects of capitalism on me personally, in addition to the obvious ills it has brought upon the world. And I didn’t like it, on a gut level.
All of my work since then has been shaped by my development during that period. For a while I worked low-wage jobs to pay the rent, and worked on various political and economic programs. I happened into computer programming around 1980, when you could get a job with 6 months of night school (my art degree from college wasn’t that helpful in terms of jobs). This has been my career ever since, and through it I’ve had the opportunity to observe capitalism at play in many industries, and have been able to develop skills which I hope are useful to the movement.
Another formative period in my life was having a couple kids, and raising them largely as a single parent while working full time. Being responsible for developing human beings teaches a person a lot, and for me this was around the nuances and complexity of thinking holistically – unlike computers, which appreciate logic and basically do what you tell them. Although I loved this process, there wasn’t time for deep political involvement. It did however round out my understanding of capitalism in a different way.
Now I’m in a different phase of life, the kids are on their own; I’ve retired and am living on US social security with my later-in-life partner Bob.
We moved with some trusted friends to the country in Southwest Wisconsin 5 years ago, which enabled us to become debt free and to live reasonably sustainably, in our mini housing co-op. With 40 acres of peace and quiet and good internet, it is great working conditions for us at this stage, and for me as a city person it is very interesting to become familiar with rural issues.
As you mentioned, this is an interesting area. Although we are mostly working with people elsewhere in the world, we are also putting down roots here. For example, I’m working a lot this summer with a local herbal network, which coordinates growing, harvesting, and selling food and medicinal herbs locally, and which is using our software.
People here consciously identify with our bio-region, the Driftless Area (where the glaciers never came). There are a number of organizations working in the area on different levels, such as small organic farming, rotational grazing, permaculture, solar and bio-diesel energy, water quality, small business ecosystems, teaching of traditional and sustainable skills, co-op and network experiments of various kinds. There are lots of pieces that have potential to be organized into something cohesive to enable a better future here.
You play a role in the development of software infrastructures for peer production, such as open value accounting. Can you explain to us what that project is, why it is important and what is the nature of your own contribution to that project? How do you divvy up the work with your partner Bob Haugen, who is also part of that project?
My current full time project, with my partner Bob, is called Network Resource Planning (NRP) – like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), but for networks. It does open accounting, as you mention, but more as a side effect of being operational software for economic networks. We focus on economic networks that support peer production and other egalitarian means of production, and which build commons. We consider our software to be very aligned with the P2P Foundation’s goals, especially as those more and more include the material side of production in addition to the immaterial.
There isn’t other open source operational software out there that was designed bottom up for economic networks. And networks have emerged as the form for this time of our productive forces. The software is unique in that it uses methods developed over the last decades in manufacturing and supply chain settings, but takes that into the age of networks. It records people’s contributions of all kinds, and links them together in flows of resources, where output from one process is input to another. As value is realized, the returning resource (usually money but doesn’t have to be) is distributed back along those resource flows according to rules embodied in a “value equation” decided democratically.
For us, the software is a part of a round of experimentation with new economic forms. The software, like most of the alternative economic experiments going on, is transitional. It is designed on the ground working with living groups, so it has ups and downs with the groups themselves. But in the process, we are consolidating a flexible model and set of requirements that can support P2P production and exchange into the future, which I suspect is a more important contribution than the software itself.
We also spent some time working with a group in Nova Scotia, which had lots of potential but has unfortunately disbanded, on alternative regional/local economic analysis for the province. We did a working prototype on a higher level, looking for gaps and opportunities for various communities and clusters by higher level resource, like fish or timber. This software uses the basic resource flow network model that our NRP software uses, and was designed to feed data back and forth with the lower level software, so that real data can inform the regional view and gaps visible at the regional view can give insight into the formation of networks on the ground.
Another track we are on is to collaboratively develop a common vocabulary for interoperability between different software systems used by P2P economic groups. This is one of my main focuses lately, and I’ve been meeting with various groups and people in a slow process to agree on the pieces of vocabulary we need. There are a couple small experiments in motion on this, and hopefully more soon. I see this as a key infrastructure component for developing networks of networks.
The NRP project is Bob’s vision originally. Like me, he has focused on the economic side of movement work. And he spent many years working in manufacturing and supply chains. He did a few other versions of this software (a timber network, several food networks) before he started working with Sensorica (an open source hardware network) on the current incarnation of the software for open value networks. I helped on the side for a several years, and was able to join him full time a couple years ago. Last year, we co-founded Mikorizal Software (http://mikorizal.org) to more solidify the effort.
These days Bob and I are equal partners. We share in designing and writing the code, figuring out our approach, and collaborating with our network partners. We take a daily walk up the hill to talk about design issues, plan the day, and discuss larger direction – and get some exercise and enjoy the woods too. We do have somewhat different strengths, so we sometimes focus on different roles. But we both have decades of full life cycle software development experience, so mostly we just swap back and forth as needed. It is a fun and productive collaboration. And we truly hope we are creating something useful.
Do you think we can move beyond open value accounting to a fully alternative mode of production. Do you share the belief of many around the P2P Foundation that open supply chains will be an important part of a phase transition?
I do share the belief that we can move to a full phase transition, from our current dominant mode of production, to networked cooperative transfers of the resources we need for life. But it is not a certainty; there are many directions things can go, and difficult struggles ahead. Really, when it comes down to it, we MUST completely transform our current system, for the good of the species and the planet. But we can also only move FROM where we are now.
Open value accounting, as we have implemented it, is part of an effort to move from where we are. The ideas are useful in providing infrastructure support to open value networks, cooperatives, any non-competitive economic experiment. But many of the concepts around the way resource flows work will be applicable beyond this intermediate phase to full phase transition.
Supply chains are part of the history of these ideas, but now we in our productive lives are moving beyond supply chains to complete networks, then networks of networks, then ecosystems of networks.
At the same time, the economic effort, although fundamental, is still only one leg of the several that are needed for full phase transition. It needs to complement changes in political, ecological, and other spheres of life for this all to become possible.
I am sure you have had many broken dreams over time, given the many failures of alternative political and social projects in the last few decades What gives you hope and what is your recipe for social change?
I’m actually an optimist. Although I hope this isn’t just a personality trait and that the 99% can manage to collectively move beyond the decaying but still incredible forces arrayed against us.
It is certain that the system can’t continue on its current trajectory, can’t fix itself either, and is either locked in stagnancy or imploding (although it tends to lash out at the same time). Everywhere you look, competition and personal power are holding back the potential of society to become more productive, and really holding back further human development in every way. And with resource depletion, pollution, and most importantly climate change constraining the requirement for compounding expansion embodied in the capitalist system, it does seem like things are coming to a head. I hope so.
I don’t know if I have a recipe, it is pretty complex. But here are some thoughts.
Looking at our software, I see a small tactical effort. But if many people build economic networks on the ground, then network the networks regionally or globally (the heavy is local, light is global concept makes sense), we will start to have something substantial, something that actually supports people’s needs.
And again, we need to address all spheres of life, and they need to support each other. There is the political, of course. I don’t really think that economic alternatives will sort of naturally supplant capitalism by themselves.
And there is the ecological. When we think of ecosystems of networks, we need to really include the eco part. An ecosystem needs to include the environment and the people, including our economy. If we look at networks and resource flows, clearly the resources that flow between us and the environment need to be balanced for the need of all species, just as much as we want that for humanity. We have to move beyond resources as commodities.
Where do you see yourself five to ten years from now?
Hard question. Depends a lot on what comes down.
I’m not tied to writing software, and hope to be doing less and less of that. So I hope to get to a place where our software and model contributions are complete enough to be used and forked by more people. This means also that we will have worked through preliminary vocabulary and protocols that will support P2P interoperability between networks, and people can move forward more easily with whatever software they can imagine and create lots of new and useful infrastructure.
So, the direction I want to generally go is to help build networks of networks. And to use this to help move towards bio-regional development of sustainable ecosystems.
In conjunction with software and infrastructure, I’d like to personally focus more on helping develop new forms of organization and connection. And related to this, I hope to contribute in the area of human development, our learning to work together in new types of economic organizations, and in the process becoming better kinds of humans. This will both be necessary for change to happen, and personally liberating for people.
Five to ten years could be a time of incremental development, or change could start to spin out quickly in feedback loops, as it tends to do when new periods are being birthed. If nothing else, it looks to be an interesting ride.
Lynn Foster’s Bio
Lynn grew up as the oldest child of two economics professors, graduated from Carleton College in the U.S. in 1973, and has lived in the midwest U.S. since then.
Her day job for three decades was software consulting in different industries, including manufacturing, railroads, gas utilities, food, health care, accounting, and others. She focused on business analysis, modeling, development methodologies, project management, coding, and testing.
Lead image by Victoria Storhard Gallery