Archives for February 2013

Time for Sustainability

time spiral

When we think of ‘sustainability’ we don’t tend to think immediately of the relationship between humanity and our conception of time, yet the very idea inherent in sustainability is to ‘sustain’ – to organise how human beings live in such a way that we sustain ourselves and the planet over a long term time frame.

Sustainability debates often focus on the physical limits to growth – the non-negotiable biological limits of the closed system called planet Earth.

But there is another non-negotiable limiting factor that shapes our existence.


It is a great leveller. No matter who you are, or how much money you have, we all have the same number of hours in the day.

While it is true that how we are able to harness those hours as a resource in part depends on our ability to command, or be offered, resources to meet our needs, there is still a limit – constrained by biology – to what we can all do, regardless of our skills, social capital or bank balance.

Our cultural norms influence how we use time – and in turn, how we use this limited resource influences our culture, our health and wellbeing, and our impacts on the Earth.

How Culture Shapes Time

busy American city street with Thoreau's quote: 'It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?'

In our cult of speed, media messages and social norms influence us to equate ‘fast’ with ‘good’ and ‘desirable’.

Fast is sexy. Fast is savvy. Time is money. Get up to speed. Multi-tasking is seen to be a sign of efficiency and busy-ness, a demonstration of one’s importance.

In contrast, to be ‘slow’ carries negative connotations of being dull-witted or backward.

Yet could it be that the pace and complexity of 24-7 consumer societies is not savvy at all, and is in fact what is creating psychological and physical stress? Could it be that it is actually the cult of speed which is dull-witted and backward, burdening our adrenal glands with a constant flow of fight-or-flight stressors and stimuli?

In his 1970 book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler noted that:

…the acceleration of change…shortens the duration of many situations (which) hastens their passage through the experiential channel…while we tend to focus on only one situation at a time, the increased rate at which situations flow past us vastly complicates the entire structure of life, multiplying the number of roles we must play and the number of choices we are forced to make. This, in turn, accounts for the choking sense of complexity about contemporary life.

Moreover, the speeded-up flow-through of situations demands much more work from the complex focusing mechanisms by which we shift our attention from one situation to another. There is more switching back and forth, less time for extended, peaceful attention to one problem or situation at a time. This is what lies behind the vague feeling noted earlier that ‘Things are moving faster.’ They are. Around us. And through us.

Since the 1970s, things have sped up in ways that were unthinkable then.

In March 2012, the New Scientist reported that a multi-billion dollar submarine fibre optic cable link extending 15,600km would be built between London and Tokyo via the Arctic Ocean (now accessible due to the convenient retreat of sea ice!). This cable would cut the ‘friction’ between the two cities from 230 milliseconds to 168 milliseconds, and the article noted that ‘reduced transmission time will be a boon for high-frequency traders who will gain crucial milliseconds on each automated trade‘! No doubt this will facilitate more of the consumption that creates the greenhouse emissions that melts the sea ice – The Circle of Life, hakuna matata.

In recent years, the Slow Movement has sought to counter the societal obsession with speed, and the association of ‘faster’ with ‘better’. The Slow Food initiative is perhaps the best known example, rejecting the production-line model of mass produced, homogenised fast food in favour of local, traditional, diverse food cultures that reconnect people with their sources of food and encourage the enjoyment of food as a social experience.

One of the most compelling challenges to our short-term perception of time fuelled by a culture of fast is The Long Now Foundation in California. The Foundation, which expresses its dates in five digits (eg. 02013), seeks to stretch out how we perceive ‘now’:

…Steady but gradual environmental degradation escapes our notice. The slow, inexorable pace of ecological and climatic cycles and lag times bear no relation to the hasty cycles and lag times of human attention, decision, and action. We can’t slow down all of human behavior, and shouldn’t, but we might slow down parts.

‘Now’ is the period in which people feel they live and act and have responsibility. For most of us, ‘now’ is about a week, sometimes a year. For some traditional tribes in the American northeast and Australia, ‘now’ is seven generations back and forward (350 years).

Just as the Earth photographs gave us a sense of ‘the big here’, we need things which give people a sense of ‘the long now’…

One of the Foundation’s  initiatives is The Clock of the Long Now, which is currently being built in Texas, USA. The clock will be designed so that the ‘century hand’ advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium!

prototype of clock of the long now

Prototype of the Clock of the Long Now

Hamstrung by a political economy that trades off the future for present gains, and where the nanosecond horizons of global finance and three-to-four year election cycles hamper any serious long-term planning, the Clock and other projects of The Long Now seek to jolt us out of our short-term complacency. They invite us to think about how we can reinvent the world so that short-termism does not undermine our ability to sustain our civilisation, and the planetary systems which support it.

How Stuff Steals Time

‘The more things you get, the more you want
Just trading one for the other
Working so hard to make it easy, got to turn this thing around…’

Right Now, Van Halen

In contemporary western society, our pace of life seems generally faster than that of any previous generation in history, even though the number of hours in the day has not changed.

Part of the reason that consumer societies seem both increasingly fast-paced and time-poor is because a political economy reliant on economic growth demands rapid and constant consumption in order to perpetuate itself.

Wuppertal Institute founder Wolfgang Sachs and German Green MP Richard Loske eloquently captured this conundrum in their paper ‘Sustainable Germany’:

Beyond a certain number, things steal time…(they) must be chosen, bought, set up, used, experienced, maintained, tidied away, dusted, repaired, stored, and disposed of. They unavoidably gnaw away at the most restricted of all resources: time. The number of possibilities has exploded in affluent societies, but the day…continues to have only 24 hours. Shortage of time is the nemesis, the revenge, of affluence.

High levels of consumption not only require a lot of money (or debt), and nature’s resources, but also a lot of time, as expressed in the phrase ‘joy-to-stuff’ ratio – that is, the time a person has to enjoy life versus the time a person spends accumulating and managing material goods.

Toffler predicted that the increasing explosion of choice could, past a certain point, become more of a burden than an expression of freedom.

We are, in fact, racing toward ‘overchoice’—the point at which the advantages of diversity and individualization are cancelled by the complexity of the buyer’s decision-making process.

The time-theft of stuff does not begin once we own it – it begins with the time we must exchange for our labour to earn money to buy it, or to go into debt for it.

This infographic, How The Things You Own End Up Owning You, reveals the time its creator had to work to maintain ownership of his stuff by plotting his personal financial metrics on a calendar:

calendar with first two weeks marked 'townhouse - mortgage owns me', three days 'car owns me', etc with utilities, food, transport - leaving three days out of the month for 'me' in discretionary income

Click for higher res image

How many of us have ‘stuff’ that we never or rarely use taking up space in the spare room, garage, cluttering our living spaces – or worse, which we are paying to store elsewhere?

People are increasingly become aware of this and embracing a culture of ‘voluntary simplicity’ in order to step off of the work-spend treadmill.

The emerging collaborative consumption and sharing economy movements, which allow people to leverage value from or share their un(der) utilised assets, could help reduce the demand for resources and associated greenhouse emissions, save households money, and clear or minimise clutter in hundreds of thousands of homes.

And if you could make money hiring out your spare space or equipment, or save it by borrowing or renting stuff belonging to others at low cost, it could mean freeing up time needed for paid work.

How Space Shapes Time

clock where the numbers have fallen off and the words 'whatever I'm late anyways...'

‘City life is closing in on me
The way things go, thirty years,
Bus timetable’ll be my elegy
Up at seven every working day
Pay comes in, pay goes out
It’s a week-by-week charade…’

One Long Day, Cold Chisel 

Before the Industrial era, work was much more intimately bound up with home life. Although the nature of some occupations necessitated them being sited at a distance from settlements and towns, on the whole, people lived where they worked.

With the Industrial Revolution came the rise of factories, of jobs separated from home life, of a much wider range of actual or potentially dangerous or unpleasant industries, it became necessary to invent ‘zoning’, physically separating ‘work’ from ‘home’ – and thus, the commute was born. One of the main reasons for public transit was to move large numbers of (mostly) men from home to work and back. Our cities developed in patterns that enabled access to transit networks, until the car allowed urban development to scatter anywhere.

In low density, car-dependent cities – where it is often difficult and expensive to service communities with frequent, convenient public transport – citizens have become locked into high-energy and time consuming patterns of living and work. The energy requirements of car dependency and urban sprawl are well documented, and there is also the potential risk in costs to households (with the VAMPIRE Index – Vulnerability Assessment for Mortgage, Petroleum and Inflation Risks and Expenses – identifying the relative degree of socio-economic stress in suburbs in several Australian cities), and consequently more time spent earning money in order to get to work!

tired and resigned looking youth in suit, tie dishevelled - caption 'buys a car to get to work, goes to work to pay for car'

Even so, people will absorb the gradual increase in fuel costs, in car parking fees, or continue to do so as long as they possibly can, because they are trading them off for convenience and saving time.

Calls for more car parking and measures to relieve congestion seem to make short term sense, however they only help perpetuate the situation and create a more complex set of issues to resolve down the track, because traffic is a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more roads that are built, the more traffic fills them. The more traffic flows freely and moves faster, the easier and more convenient it is to drive, the more people will drive, leaving transit less patronised and opening it up to justification for cutting services and funding, creating a vicious circle of making transit even less convenient and appealing.

The design of our urban space shapes, and is shaped by, the influence of technologies on time. At an average walking speed of 5-8km an hour, a pedestrian city can only be 5-8km wide before it passes an optimal point of how far people are prepared to travel on foot and starts to become dysfunctional. Similarly, a transit based city with an average train speed of 30km/h can extend to 30km wide, and a car dependent city with an average speed of 50km can grow to 50km across before it passes its optimal point.

Italian physicist  Cesare Marchetti developed an interesting measure, known as ‘Marchetti’s Constant’, which states that despite changing urban forms and methods of transport, people will adjust their lives (including the relative locations of where they work and live) so that the average travel time stays constant. When cities become more than one hour wide, when it takes more than an hour to get to work, human beings appear to hit a psychological barrier, ‘Marchetti’s Wall’, their limit to tolerance for travel time within a city.

In his book Reclaiming our Cities & Towns, placemaker and designer David Engwicht challenged the transport engineering approach to planning and city design by asking himself ‘for what purpose do human beings build and maintain cities?’

Cities are an invention to maximise exchange (goods, culture, friendship, knowledge) and to minimise travel. The role of transport is to maximise exchange.

This is a critical distinction Engwicht makes, which flies in the face of engineering-based approaches to planning and urban design that have held sway for decades – the role of transport is not to maximise mobility, it is to maximise access to exchange.

Roads, carparks and other requirements of cars lock up large amounts of land that would otherwise be used for the purposes cities are made. If we prioritise ‘movement’ space over ‘exchange’ space, we are undermining the very reason for cities’ existence.

One of the key ideas of the ecological city movement is ‘access by proximity’ – succinctly expressed by Ecocity Builders founder Richard Register who notes that ‘the fastest way to get from A to B is to build B next to A’.

If we are to address a myriad of challenges from household and business fuel costs in a post-peak oil era, to the dispersion of places people need and want to access and the theft of time by commutes, we will need to move from a mindset of urban sprawl to one of urban shrink.

Designing cities for people, not cars, along with relocalisation efforts and flexibleinnovative work practices in an era of digital connectivity – from co-working to location-independent modes of organisation – could help us reclaim time (and energy and money) wasted in commuting.

How Haste Makes Waste

wall date calendar which shreds pages as the days go by

Our sense of what is ‘normal’ and our spatial arrangements in cities – such as length of commute, separation of  work from home – in large part determines how we experience time, which in turn influences our daily choices.

In her book Time Bomb, Barbara Pocock, Director of the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia, notes that:

Time is a resource that makes change possible and without it, new ways of living are crowded out – decisions to reassess behaviour and do things differently require an investment of time and thought.

Asking people to ‘live sustainably’ requires them to make a conscious effort to do something different within existing system conditions. And where habit takes precedence over considered approach, sustaining a constant, conscious effort is difficult for people who are often expending most of their decision making capacity just trying to make it through the daily routine of work, school, commutes and getting the evening meal together.

Time pressures are therefore more likely to result in the use of energy intensive appliances like clothes dryers instead of line drying; of driving rather than cycling or using transit. Pocock notes:

Convenient, time saving energy consumption is common, even if it contradicts pro-environmental attitudes or incurs financial costs.

Changing behaviour takes time – energy and water use are shaped by home, work, community circumstances and demands these create on time, and convenience and comfort are also influences on behaviour.

When it comes to not wasting energy, water or materials, Pocock says, ‘time is at the heart of our adaptive capacity’.

At the macro level, technological developments have allowed us to access resources at faster rates – and technologies are not only chainsaws and drills, but also phenomena like instantaneous communication and ease of currency conversion (and submarine fibre optic cables), which lessens ‘friction’ in the system and facilitates faster access to resources, fuelling hyperconsumption.

How Hurry Hurts Our Health

‘Life in the fast lane 
Surely make you lose your mind 
Life in the fast lane, everything all the time…’

The Eagles 

Living fast can affect our personal well-being – the pace of life not only saps us of time and energy to sustain ourselves and our relationships with others, but it can have serious physical and mental consequences. For example, there is a direct correlation between the volume and type food we consume, long hours of sedentary work and lifestyles which impacts on available time to exercise (which has now become a separate activity we have to schedule time for), and concerns with levels of obesity in our society.

Along with becoming ‘hooked on speed’, we’ve created a world of industrial time which, while necessary for so many aspects of modern life, often clashes with the natural time and rhythms of nature and our bodies. Most of us have to artificially manage when and how we get up – meet ‘Clocky’, a wheel-mounted alarm clock that leaps off your bedside table if you hit the ‘snooze’ button, and scurries off to different parts of the room until you get up to silence it:

wheel-mounted digital clock

Ironically, it is an almost-ten second film, Late For Work, which best expresses the toxic mix of industrial time + speed:

From fast food to overwork and overscheduled lives, ‘hurry sickness’ contributes to a range of stress-related illnesses, from adrenal exhaustion and lowered immunity; from increased obesity to heart disease; from impatience with loved ones and strangers alike to debilitating mental health problems.

The Western Australian government’s Office of Road Safety grasped this connection when they initiated ‘Enjoy the Ride’, an innovative campaign that diverges from preaching the ‘shalt nots’ of speeding, and instead links the issue to the wider cultural context, and how speed affects different areas of our lives:

In his book Growth Fetish, Clive Hamilton noted that research into the incidence of modern day psychological and mental health problems such as anxiety, stress and depression has unearthed a range of predisposing factors. These include being unemployed, impoverished or living in a dysfunctional family, along with broader social changes such as geographic mobility, urbanisation, changes in family structure.

But the foremost factor and common denominator is social isolation.

Consumption promotes the definition of individual identity and focuses our attention on what we are doing to maximise our consumption and generating the income to sustain it. While people are busy concentrating on the pursuit of individual lifestyles, there is a corresponding retreat from involvement in civic and community life, and a weakening of the social cohesion that has been part of life for centuries.

quote by Vandana Shiva from The Economics of Happiness movie - lonely people have never been happy people

Although we are more materially well off than at any previous time in history, we are, on the whole, less satisfied and experiencing higher levels of anxiety and other impacts on our wellbeing.

And our fa(u)stian relationship with time is threatening the ability of our bodies, minds and spirits to keep doing what we need and love to do.

How Time Poverty Erodes Families and Communities

‘And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home son?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then son
You know we’ll have a good time then

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away…
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time…’

Cat’s In The Cradle, Harry Chapin

The more time we are at work, or getting to and from work, the less time there is available to be split between a variety of possible needs and desires, from caring responsibilities (be it for children, elders or animals); the self-care that ensures our wellbeing by allowing time for exercise and for organising, preparing and eating food that nourishes us; leisure, hobbies and enjoyment, or simply rest.

Research by The Australia Institute in 2009 found that each year Australians work more than two billion hours of unpaid overtime, worth the equivalent of $72 billion or six per cent of GDP. Australia has morphed from being the ‘Land of the Long Weekend‘ to a society where we have created a reality TV show that encourages people to take their annual leave.

There’s very clear evidence we’re working longer hours and we’re spending more time travelling to and from work, which means less time for leisure activities, friends and family.

Dawn O’Neil, CEO of Lifeline Australia

This ‘speed trap’ persists, even though as Slow writer, speaker and activist Carl Honoré expresses it, people are yearning to ‘reconnect with their inner tortoise’.

Honoré, author of In Praise of Slow and The Slow Fix, describes us as being ‘marinated in the culture of speed’ – he traces his own epiphany to when he caught himself speed-reading bed time stories to his son, skipping pages, and reading portions of paragraphs:

My life had become an endless race against the clock. I was always in a hurry, scrambling to save a minute here, a few seconds there. My wake-up call came when I found myself toying with the idea of buying a collection of One-Minute Bedtime Stories: Snow White in 60 seconds. Suddenly it hit me: my rushaholism has got so out of hand that I’m even willing to speed up those precious moments with my children at the end of the day. There has to be a better way, I thought, because living in fast forward is not really living at all. That’s why I began investigating the possibility of slowing down.

One of his funniest and most bizarre examples of what he calls ‘road runner culture’ was when he stumbled across ‘speed yoga’!

But time poverty not only threatens our health and that of our connections with people we care about, it undermines the wider community fabric.

Robert Putnam, prominent US social researcher and author of Bowling Alone, has identified three features of American society (many of which translate to other countries) that have significantly contributed to a decline in both formal membership and levels of participation in organisations, and informal social interaction, especially with neighbours:

  • time pressures, which are partly or largely associated with working longer hours and longer commutes
  • urban sprawl, which is a product of car dependence (also related to time pressures of commuting; an hour commute each way is two hours’ less time for other activities each day)
  • extensive television viewing, which keeps people indoors, siphons time away from other activities and promotes consumption through exposure to advertising

If, as the prominent urbanist Jane Jacobs noted, ‘sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow’, and all the things we are doing are conspiring against this spontaneous exchange, then it is less surprising that people feel less of a sense of community than they once did.

In our urgent rush to get “there,” we are going everywhere but being nowhere

Kevin Cashman, author of The Pause Principle

Compare this with the ‘Civetta’ (Little Owl) contrada I visited in the car-free town centre of Siena, Italy (apologies for the blurry photo – I took it without a flash so as not to be intrusive), where the residents eat shared meals in the street in the summer. It’s part of the culture, but the design and shaping of space absolutely influences what choices people can make and how they interact. It is interesting to note how many people love to visit small European towns which grew up without the influence of the car to immerse themselves in human-scale urban landscapes.


Compounding the atomisation of consumer societies is the commodification of a range of goods and services – we now have to pay for things that used to occur as a transaction of trust and friendship, from how we entertain ourselves to how we care for children. Often these commodities – such as child care and fast food – are bought because people are time-pressed from working longer hours and have longer commutes to and from work.

In a profound departure from the integrated community life, spontaneous social contact and support of extended family, friends and neighbours that has characterised human lifestyles thorough the generations, more affluent societies have begun leading lives that are increasingly privatised, segregated, time impoverished and disconnected.

Creating a healthy, resilient community means having time and energy to be a citizen, not just a consumer.

Along with Honoré, there are many other thinkers, academics, researchers and activists challenging the relationship of time to the pace of life, working hours, and work life balance, including John de Graaf, who founded the Take Back Your Time initiative in the US and Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.

In a comical irony, one can only wish the Slow Movement would hurry up!

Time As a Pain Point 

watch where all times are screened out except a window called 'present' (which shows the current time), in between 'past' and 'future' on the watch face

‘It’s just another Manic Monday
Wish it was Sunday
‘Cause that’s my fun day
My I-don’t-have-to-run day…’

The Bangles

I believe that time and time pressures – work-life balance and fractured connections with family and friends – is a key ‘pain point’ of life today for many people.

You can Google a plethora of results on this, or you can simply ask the next five people you see if they feel they have enough time in the day, if they ever feel time-pressured, and note what the response is.

If we are going to make sustainability more immediately relevant in people’s lives, we need to consider using frames that sit at the nexus of what they are craving, and where it connects to sustainability.

If environment/sustainability framing isn’t working as well, or not working for many people, would a better approach be to show how it relates to the pain point of time?

Here is one of my favourite stories to illustrate this approach:

With time being a key factor in everything from waste and energy use, to working long hours to pay for consumption, to physical and mental lifestyle diseases, maybe it is time to ask:

What if we framed ‘sustainability’ as a way to free up people’s time, reduce stress, and improve their work-life balance?

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Changemaker Profile – Michel Bauwens, Founder of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives

This is the first in a series of Changemaker Profiles, which introduces the work of changemakers I know and admire, and offers insights into their approaches to communication and change work.

Michel Bauwens is a co-founder and leading activist of the P2P Foundation (Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives), which works in collaboration with a global group of researchers exploring peer production/governance/property and the open/free, participatory, and commons-oriented modes of human cooperation.


1. Tell us about the work you are involved with:

In 2006, I founded the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives. We are a knowledge commons and a global ‘collaboratory’ of researchers into peer production, peer governance, and peer property. I realize I need to unpack these words, so here we go.

Our key belief and hypothesis is that the internet is creating not just a great horizontalisation in communication, but also new forms of cooperation and actual ‘production’, not just of knowledge and code (software), but also the capacity of making things in a wholly new way. It is now possible for people to meet together, declare their joint intention to produce something, and go about organizing this using a combination of ‘virtual’ and ‘physical’ means.

These systems are based on people engaging with their passion, ie. doing things they actually want and like to do, to create a community around it, and to start jointly producing their knowledge online, but also physically coming together in new types of co-working such as hackerspaces, co-working hubs, and the like. Just as mutualizing immaterial things such as knowledge, code and design are now possible through internet cooperation, eg. the miniaturisation of the immaterial means of production, just so it is now possible to mutualize physical production, through the miniaturisation of manufacturing machinery, such as 3D Printing and other forms of distributed manufacturing.

The new rule is: heavy is near, light can be far away, ie. producing locally but cooperating globally. This is happening both from the bottom-up, in every area of human life, in what we call peer production, but also top-down, as existing hierarchical and centralized institutions try to adapt, engage and even co-opt these same possibilties. Thus we have crowdsourcing, collaborative consumption, open innovation and many other trends.

Our purpose then, is to observe and analyze them, but also to work for their advancement, as we believe that freely engaging producers is a great advancement, not just in terms of economic democracy, but also in terms of human life and happiness. So we don’t believe in a utopian future (though there’s nothing wrong with dreaming of a better world) but to actually look at existing practices and seek out how to extend them.

2. What motivated you to be doing this work?

Though I was a disaffected and radical youth, after a long spiritual search and self-work, I adapted to the world, and undertook a career as a librarian, then corporate knowledge manager, and finally internet enterpreneur. But from my early forties on, I felt an increasing disquiet as I could observe that all indicators seemed to go in the wrong direction. Not just the ongoing destruction of the biosphere, but also the increased precariousness facing youth in the West, the increased inequality, and what I saw as the deterioration of the human psyche in corporate settings.

So I pretty much decided at some point that I had to re-engage with the political and social world. But what can really change the world? Though I am by no means a technological determinist, ie. driven by the belief that technology is good or will liberate humanity ‘by itself’, I am convinced though that we are essentially a technological species, and that human history pretty much proceeds by technological shocks, which periodically re-arrange the deck. It is in these periods of transition that human emancipation gets a new chance to re-arrange the balance of power. We are now going to precisely such a period, in which the internet is changing our ways of being (ontology), ways of knowing (epistemology), value systems (axiology).

There is both a decomposition of the mainstream world, and a recomposition of the outline of a new type of society and economy, and I would argue, a new civilisational model. This model is based on the potential to globally scale small group dynamics, ie. to scale the trust and honesty and cooperation we feel and practice when we are dealing with those close to us. Peer to peer is the leverage that brings us an unprecendented opportunity to rehumanize our world; it is not a given, but it is worth fighting for.

So, at some point, I undertook a two-year sabbatical, did intensive reading on previous phase transitions (the change from the Roman Empire to the feudal system as well as the birth of capitalism), and slowly started developing a P2P Theory which is geared towards transforming our present society, but which is closely linked to all the positive things that people are already doing. I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to this quest.

In discovering those patterns, inter-relating them, spreading them, I am hoping that these inter-related patterns will find each other and coalesce in a new ‘sustainable’ logic for the future of humanity and the planet. I proceed from an extension of the existing peer to peer relationships we have with family and friends, with our chosen communities of practice over the internet, and try to expand this happiness-producing dynamic in as much aspects of life as we possibly can. We don’t want to be the leader of any of these trends and movements, but be one of the catalysts, by bringing greater awareness to what is now difficult for most people to see.

3. What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

It’s difficult to pin it down to one specific aspect. This engagement with social change is bound with my personal history. A first attempt as a disaffected youth, then an abandonment of the impulse, and a re-engagement with it on a more mature level after a mid-life crisis. If you have a deep impulse in life and you abandon it for whatever reason, even if you are successful in other ways, you have a black hole that sucks up your life energy. So when I decide to re-own my deep impulse as a world-changer, I achieved a higher level of personal integration, a kind of twice-born experience as explained by William James in his famous book, ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’. Once you feel aligned with your ‘cosmic self’, a deep sense of purpose and a intimate feeling that you know why you are on this planet, a deep baseline of happiness arises.

The second thing is that if you are free to follow your passion, to self-allocate your energies with others who do the same, and you minimize the authoritarian impules, it’s simply a very happy way to work. I strongly feel that what was once an aspiration in the sixties and seventies, the free-flow of cooperation between like-minded people, is now simply a daily reality. Other aspects are the constant learning, and the fact that we are in service of others, constantly helping people finding the right resources and contacts so they can in turn advance their own projects. But you have to realize as well that it is not a bed of roses. The hardest for me has been the constant financial insecurity, the lack of income for healthcare, insufficient funds for my own family. So it is a source of happiness, but also a sacrifice, and a source of worry. But at least, the worry and anxieties occur within a baseline of happiness and purpose.

4. What do you feel is your biggest communication challenge?

There are two issues for me. The first issue is one of our own networked culture, and the problem there is fragmentation. For example, our P2P Foundation is pretty good with its communications, we have a constant interest and are growing at about 30% every year, without any professional marketing, expanding just by word of mouth. We have 20 million viewers for our wiki and reach about 26 thousand daily. Still, there are many networks out there, and while it is easy to filter out quality in your own field, what do you do with other fields? There are so many domains that are under-reported by the mainstream, but it is very difficult to find the best alternative sources in all the different domains. I think this is a general problem for many people.

The second problem is the communication between the p2p subcultures and the mainstream. You still want to reach a broader population but the mass media have significantly dumbed down and become ever more corporatized. So you have two worlds, a well informed alternative networked world; and a fundamentally misinformed mainstream. But it is still important to reach the broader population. For example, when I write for Al Jazeera, my audience jumps hundredfold, and I don’t recognize any of the names of the retweeters, which shows we are reaching a different audience that is not familiar with our work.

5. How do you handle a situation when you find yourself in conflict with someone about your work or ideas?

I’m an adherent of integral philosophy and methodology; this means a recognition of the complexity of any reality and the impossibility for any person or movement to get a fully correct understanding of the world. Furthermore, it also follows that no one can be 100% mistaken. This means that difference in perspectives is fully constitutive of our world, and that truth building is necessarily a collective process, whereby the ability to see the world from various perspectives, those of others than yourself, adds to the capacity to shed light on any ‘object’ of knowledge (which of course is no object at all, since knowledge is a participative process).

This is how the P2P Foundation work is constituted. Our wiki is not neutral or objective like the stated aim of the Wikipedia, but is a ‘perspectopedia’ in which various viewpoints are honoured, on the condition that you are interested in peer to peer dynamics. Our boundaries are: overt and hostile racism, sexism, and other forms of rankism that deny the equipotentiality of the other members of our community, ie. their capacity to offer useful contributions to our collective project. We make a big difference in the freedom to say what you want, in terms of context, but pay attention to ‘how you say it’, ie. we ban personal attacks. This means that overall, our internal and communications are generally quite peaceful. Of course, occasionally, both online and offline, there are occasional outbursts. From my own experience, love and hate are usually intertwined (you can only be really angry at something you love), and outbursts are often tied to unprocessed ‘hot buttons’. In other words, you get into conflict not exactly because of what the other person says, but because it awakens something you condemn within yourself.

And finally, cultivating some form of self-awareness about such processes, helps you regulate your own negative emotional outbursts. Of course they do happen to me as to others. I try to be civil in all cases, to be exclusively defensive in terms of doing hurtful things (ie. never initiate any aggressive action), and if the conflict seems unresolvable, to part ways, and simply decide that each party goes on its own path, without unduly disturbing the other. Peer productions contexts are  helpful, because they allow permissionless action of individuals, and keep conflicts where they really needed; and because they happen in a common context of love for the commons, ie. the social object that binds us. A final rule is, bring conflict into the open, submit it to the arbitrage of the collective wisdom of the group, do not take authoritarian actions based on individual power.

6. What’s your best piece of advice for change-makers and activists?

That’s a tough one.  I don’t really feel successful enough, nor able to generalize easily from my own very specific experience . Very generally speaking, as an advocate of peer production, ie. passionate production, I feel that every individual should look at the confluence of these three factors: 1) what do I want to do (your passion), 2) what can I do (your skills), 3) what does the world need (this only can guarantee a livelihood through donations or any other means of support). Take your time to find this, and wait for your gut to tell you what the right decision is. It may still be a wrong decision, but as long as you have integrity with others, and sincerity with yourself, it does not matter, as even wrong turns can be productive and a gift to the world. Bear in mind that no good deed goes unpunished and therefore, your motivation cannot be the success of the endeavour, which is not under your control.

Combine a steadfastedness based on principles, and a long term vision of your strategy, with an adaptation to emergent realities and what the others and the universe will dictate you as the ‘next step’. The way is the destination. In all likehood, you will fail, but if you hadn’t made the effort, it’s much more likely that the world would be much worse off. Find the right mix between selflessness for the goal, and the enjoyment of life, ie. engagement with your own wellbeing, those of your loved ones, and the communities you are engaged with. Listen to your heart, your instincts, but also to your reason. Be integral and integrative, not monological in your search for solutions. We’re all just part of the puzzle, but each part of the puzzle is necessary, so the key is to find your right ‘fit’.

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Awakening Our Collaborative Spirit

This guest post by creativity expert and author Michael Michalko explores the concept and principles of Koinonia, in the context of collaboration and exchanging ideas in conversation. This article has been republished with the author’s permission.

The physicist, David Bohm, while researching the lives of Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli and Bohr, made a remarkable observation. Bohm noticed that their incredible breakthroughs took place through simple, open and honest conversation. He observed, for instance, that Einstein and his colleagues spent years freely meeting and conversing with each other.

During these interactions, they exchanged and dialogued about ideas which later became the foundations of modern physics. They exchanged ideas without trying to change the other’s mind and without bitter argument. They felt free to propose whatever was on their mind. They always paid attention to each other’s views and established an extraordinary professional fellowship. This freedom to discuss without risk led to the breakthroughs that physicists today take for granted.

Other scientists of the time, in contrast, wasted their careers bickering over petty nuances of opinion and promoting their own ideas at the expense of others. They mistrusted their colleagues, covered up weaknesses and were reluctant to openly share their work. Many refused to discuss their honest thoughts about physics because of the fear of being labeled controversial by their colleagues. Others were afraid of being called ignorant. The majority of scientists of the time lived in an atmosphere of fear and politics. They produced nothing of significance.

The Spirit of Koinonia 

Einstein and his friends illustrate the staggering potential of collaborative thinking. The notion that open and honest collaboration allows thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon can be traced back to Socrates and other thinkers in ancient Greece. Socrates and his friends so revered the concept of group dialogue that they bound themselves by principles of discussion that they established to maintain a sense of collegiality. These principles were known as “Koinonia” which means spirit of fellowship.The principles they established were:

Establish Dialogue

In Greek, the word dialogue means a “talking through.” The Greeks believed that the key to establishing dialogue is to exchange ideas without trying to change the other person’s mind. This is not the same as discussion, which from its Latin root means to “dash to pieces.” The basic rules of dialogue for the Greeks were: “Don’t argue,” “Don’t interrupt,” and “Listen carefully.”

Clarify Your Thinking

To clarify your thinking, you must suspend all untested assumptions. Being aware of your assumptions and suspending them allows thought to flow freely. Free thought is blocked if we are unaware of our assumptions, or unaware that our thoughts and opinions are based on assumptions. For instance, if you believe that certain people are not creative, you=re not likely to give their ideas fair consideration. Check your assumptions about everything and try to maintain an unbiased view.

Be Honest

Say what you think, even if your thoughts are controversial. The ancient Greeks believed these principles allowed thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon. Koinonia allowed a group to access a larger pool of common thoughts which cannot be accessed individually. A new kind of mind begins to come into being which is based on the development of common thoughts. People are no longer in opposition. They become participants in a pool of common ideas, which are capable of constant development and change.

The notion that the collective intelligence of a group is larger than the intelligence of an individual can be traced back to primitive times when hunter-gather bands would meet to discuss and solve common problems. It is commonly understood and accepted practice. What’s difficult is the willingness of a group to discipline itself to brainstorm for ideas openly and productively. Alex Osborne, an advertising executive in Buffalo, New York, recognized this and formalized brainstorming in 1941 as a systematic effort and disciplined practice to produce ideas in a group.

Osborne’s idea was to create an un-inhibiting environment that would encourage imaginative ideas and thoughts. The usual method is to have a small group discuss a problem. Ideas are offered by participants one at a time. One member records ideas and suggestions on a flip chart or chalk board. All withhold judgment. After the brainstorming session, the various ideas and suggestions are reviewed and evaluated and the group agrees on a final resolution.

There are many problems with traditional brainstorming. Sessions can be undercut by group uniformity pressures and perceived threats from managers and bosses. Other sessions fail because people find it difficult to avoid judging and evaluating ideas as they are offered. Personality differences also come into play: some people are naturally willing to talk, while others tend to be silent.

All of us had a taste of good group brainstorming sessions at some time in our lives that provided ideas and thoughts we could never have imagined in advance. But these experiences come rarely and are usually the product of certain conditions. Following are suggested conditions that help overcome these attitudes by enhancing “Koinonia” in your brainstorming sessions:


Jonas Salk, developer of the vaccine that eradicated polio, made it a standard practice to assemble men and women from very different domains to interact during his group sessions. He felt this practice helped him bring out new ideas that could not arise in the minds of individuals who were from the same domain.

Consider the weaving together of multiple people from different disciplines that led to the discovery of DNA’s structure. The successful collaboration included James Watson (microbiologist), Maurice Wilkins (X-ray crystallographer), Francis Crick (physicist), and Linus Pauling (chemist). Their different styles of work and approaches were a key aspect to the discovery.

The ideal brainstorming group should be diverse, including experts, non-experts, as well as people from different domains within the organization. For example, a marketing group brainstorming for new marketing ideas could invite a customer, someone from manufacturing, an engineer and a receptionist to the meeting.


All participants must regard one another as equal colleagues, even if you have nothing in common. Thinking of each other as colleagues is important because thought is participative. Just the willingness to consciously think of each other as colleagues contributes toward interacting as colleagues. We talk differently and more honestly with friends than we do with people who are not friends. Any controlling authority, no matter how carefully presented, will tend to inhibit the free play of thought. If one person is used to having his view prevail because he is the most senior person present, than that privilege must be surrendered in advance. If one person is used to withholding ideas because he or she is more junior, than the security of “keeping quiet” must also be surrendered.

Suspend All Assumptions

Collegial collaboration is a process we must come to understand and work hard toward. The difficulty of effective collaboration has been demonstrated by several experiments conducted by Howard Gruber and his associates at the University of Geneva. In one experiment, he demonstrates a box which allows two people to peer into it and see the shadow cast by what is to them an unknown object. Because of the angle, each viewer sees a different shape to the shadow. Their task is to share the information about what they see in order to identify the object casting the shadow. For instance, if a cone is placed in the box, one viewer sees a circle, the other a triangle.

The idea was to encourage the viewers to collaborate like two astronomers taking a fix on the heavens from different positions, and they see the world in slightly different ways. They take respectful advantage of the fact that one sees it from here and the other from there, and they put together a richer, more soundly based idea of what is really out there than either one could reach alone.

But the opposite happened. Each viewer assumed their view was the correct one and that the other person was apparently confused, blind or crazy. “How can you see a triangle? I see a circle.” This was true of highly intelligent, educated adults. The assumptions made by the viewers made it difficult to collaborate about even a simple object, like a cone. 

In order to give fair value to ideas, the group collectively must free themselves of all preconceptions and suspend all assumptions. Suspending assumptions allows you to look at new ideas in an unbiased way. It is undeniable that by the sheer power of his imagination, Einstein suspended all assumptions that other physicists made about the world and completely reoriented reality. Once one makes assumptions that this is the way it is, all creative thought stops. The group’s agreement and discipline of suspending assumptions is key to unblocking the collective imagination.

Suspend Judgement

In an atomic pile, an explosion is prevented by inserting rods of cadmium which mop up the particles that are shooting around. In this way the energy in the pile is controlled. If there are too many rods, the chain reaction stops and the pile can no longer produce any energy. People who are unable to appreciate new ideas are like the rods and when you get too many of them, it becomes impossible for a group to generate creative energy and the group will shut down. Require everyone to suspend all criticism and judgement until after the idea generation stage. Whenever someone says “Yes, but…” require the participant to change “Yes, but…” to “Yes, and…” and continue where the last person left off. This simple change from the negative to the positive will help change the psychology of the group.


Hold your meetings in a risk-free zone where people can speak their minds without fear of criticism or ridicule. Encourage people to say what they are thinking, even if their thoughts are radical or controversial. Once people realize they can speak freely without being judged or ridiculed, they become comfortable and open. As soon as participants become concerned with “who said what,” or “not saying something stupid,” creativity is retarded.

Play classical music when people are thinking. Music can be a powerful catalyst in the creative process. It puts participants into a peaceful state of mind, which facilitates reflection. Einstein’s son once reflected that whenever Einstein came to a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in the music of Beethoven and Mozart, and that the music would exhilarate him and help him resolve his difficulties.

Make the environment visually stimulating by posting pictures and diagrams that are relevant to the subject around the room. For example, suppose you wanted to design a car for upwardly mobile families. You might start by putting together a wall-sized board of photographs and drawings. Use pictures to answer some questions such as: What kinds of houses do these car buyers live in? What kind of watches do they buy? Where do they go on vacation? What kind of art do they hang on their walls? Mix your own idea sketches in among them. As the swarm of pictures grows, an understanding of who is going to buy this car and what might appeal to them begins to emerge.


One of Walt Disney’s greatest secrets was his ability to draw out the inner child in his business associates and combine it with their business acumen. Because he made the work playlike, his associates worked and played together with a missionary zeal. Disney was a true genius who needed to collaborate with other people to express his concepts. Disney got the creative collaboration he needed by consciously creating a humorous and playful environment.

An environment of playfulness and humor is highly conducive to creativity. Playfulness relaxes the tension in a group. In a state of relaxation, individuals show less fixation and rigidity in their thinking. Consequently, a playful group will lose its inhibitions about combining dissimilar concepts and ideas and looking for hidden similarities. These actions are highly conducive to creative thinking and, consequently, a group will generate a much wider range of options than would otherwise be considered.

When we play, we become childlike and begin to behave in spontaneous creative ways. Play and creativity have much in common. In particular, play often involves using objects and actions in new or unusual ways, similar to the imaginative combinations of ideas involved in creative thinking. Picasso once remarked that he became a true artist when he learned how to paint like a child. Einstein has been described as the perennial child and was very much aware of the parallels between creative-thinking thought patterns and those of playful children. It was Einstein who suggested to Piaget that he investigate the way children think of speed and time, thereby inspiring one of the psychologist’s most illuminating lines of research.


A skilled facilitator is essential to the process of brainstorming. In the absence of a skilled facilitator, habits of thought will pull the group toward critical, judgmental thinking and away from productive, creative thinking. The skilled facilitator should have strong interpersonal skills, understand the principles of fluent and flexible thinking and be able to paraphrase and find analogies for suggestions. The facilitator is often a good curator, keeping the group focused, eliminating distractions, and keeping creative thinking alive by liberating the group from trivial and bureaucratic thinking.


Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed ‘Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques’ and ‘Creative Thinkering: Putting your Imagination to Work’. His latest book, ‘Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius’, describes the common thinking strategies creative geniuses have used in the sciences, art, and industry throughout history and shows how we can apply them to become more creative in our business and personal lives. Find the books at most major bookstores and on Michael’s site,

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Design is the New Green

young child in a forest touching a web of energy, green light

Image credit: ‘Contact’ by Ira Ratry

Climate change. Biodiversity loss. Poverty. Hyperconsumption. Lifestyle diseases.

These are wicked problems – those that are complex, and for which there are no simple answers, or no easy-to-implement solutions, or no known process to address them. And sometimes all three.

They are also symptoms.

Symptoms are clues that a system has been designed in such a way that it is not delivering the desired results (or that it has been designed to work to benefit particular interests). They are the manifestations of an underlying field of energy and intent.

Another way to think of ‘symptoms’ is as the logical consequences of a set of system conditions – for example, if you make energy-dense high calorie foods easily and cheaply available to a population that is car-dependent and in sedentary work, they are very likely to become overweight or obese.

Sometimes, symptoms are unintended consequences of a course of action. One of the most illustrative examples of attempting to fix symptoms with ‘solutions’ instead of taking a systems approach is the tale of ‘Operation Cat Drop’, cited in Amory Lovins, L Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken’s book, Natural Capitalism:

Sometimes single-problem, single-solution approaches do work, but often optimizing one element in isolation pessimizes the entire system…

Consider what happened in Borneo in the 1950s. Many Dayak villagers had malaria, and the World Health Organization had a solution that was simple and direct. Spraying DDT seemed to work: mosquitoes died, and malaria declined. But then an expanding web of side effects (‘consequences you didn’t think of,’ quips biologist Garrett Hardin, ‘the existence of which you will deny as long as possible’) started to appear. The roofs of people’s houses began to collapse, because the DDT had killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars.

The colonial government issued sheet-metal replacement roofs, but people could not sleep when tropical rains turned the tin roofs into drums. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were being eaten by geckos, which were eaten by cats. The DDT invisibly built up in the food chain and began to kill the cats. Without the cats, the rats multiplied.

The World Health Organization, threatened by potential outbreaks of typhus and sylvatic plague, which it had itself created, was obliged to parachute fourteen thousand live cats into Borneo. Thus occurred Operation Cat Drop, one of the odder missions of the British Royal Air Force.

Sometimes, it can be reasonably predicted that a course of action will generate undesirable symptoms, but even so, decisions are made with the acceptance that certain outcomes will happen.

Ideally, we’d be able to attend to the short term concern of symptom management and also put some effort into preventative measures. Yet frequently, investment in prevention is traded off in favour of cure – ‘fixing’ the problem after the damage is done.

Symptoms absorb time, attention and money, often so it can be shown that something is being seen to be done, while the underlying causes go unaddressed, and continue to perpetuate the problem.

In a recent post on The Daly News, conservation biologist turned steady state political economist, Brian Czech, drew the comparison between environmental journalism and the doctors in terms of their attention being focused on symptoms:

Environmental journalists are like doctors. Doctors run from patient to patient, harried, dealing with symptoms more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing pills to talk about holistic health. It’s an approach that makes money for the health industry but isn’t so great for public health.

Environmental journalists run from issue to issue, harried, dealing with environmental impacts more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing stories to talk about context. It’s an approach that makes money for the media but isn’t so great for environmental protection…

Similarly, we have a society — a readership — that considers economic growth the top priority. This unhealthy obsession has led to all kinds of problems: biodiversity loss, climate change, and ocean acidification to name a few. Yet the reader is just not making the connection. Growing GDP seems like the answer to all problems, not the cause.

Yet in the same week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impact on the east coast of North and Central America, the connection between climate change and economic growth was cited by a somewhat surprising source – Businessweek:

In his book The Conundrum, David Owen, a staff writer at the New Yorker, contends that as long as the West places high and unquestioning value on economic growth and consumer gratification—with China and the rest of the developing world right behind—we will continue to burn the fossil fuels whose emissions trap heat in the atmosphere.

Wicked problems like climate change will not be effectively addressed while we continue to focus on the symptoms – perhaps our biggest challenge is the shift in mindset needed to understand that the things ordinarily listed as being a ’cause’ of climate change (burning fossil fuels, destruction of forests, industrial agriculture etc) are, in fact, symptoms.

Now, it’s certainly easier to keep describing the problems, and what can be done to ‘fight them’, and it’s harder and messier to have to change the complex systems that are producing them.

But we cannot resolve our intractable social and environmental problems by focusing on the problems themselves.

A system is a big black box
Of which we can’t unlock the locks,
And all we can find out about
Is what goes in and what comes out.

Perceiving input-output pairs,
Related by parameters,
Permits us, sometimes, to relate
An input, output and a state.

If this relation’s good and stable
Then to predict we may be able,
But if this fails us — heaven forbid!
We’ll be compelled to force the lid!

Kenneth Boulding, in ‘Thinking In Systems: A Primer’, by Donella Meadows

Successfully meeting sustainability challenges means we need to stop focusing on ‘reducing’ and ‘managing’ energy, emissions, water, waste and everything else (which are outcomes of how people live) and start looking our systems through a lens of design (not just physical design) and social innovation.

pic of black box with 'opening the black box' in white lettering written on it

Ultimately, environmental organisations and programs are not really about ‘environment’ at all – they are social innovation, because they set out to create new patterns of behaviour among human beings in order to lessen our impacts on the ecological systems which sustain all life. And social innovation is a design process.

This approach might also help reach those groups for whom the the ‘green’ or ‘environmental’ frame is no longer working or for whom environmental or sustainability messages have never resonated, because design focuses on how to make life better rather than offering up a laundry list of problems to be ‘fixed’.

If we ‘open the black box’ and design systems and environments that enable us to live collaboratively, share more and consume less, we might just find that the trend lines start to reverse, and we won’t need to tackle ‘obesity’ or ‘waste’ or ‘saving water’ or ‘greenhouse emissions’ or ‘social breakdown’.

If we want to address symptoms, then we need to design new systems.

Design is the new ‘green’!

green background with schematic chalk drawing by hand in white, linking three people with a light bulb in the centre

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