Follow up LOTE4: thoughts on stewardship in context

Thanks so much to everyone who organized LOTE, who came to the event, and has done a nice job of summarizing the key topics and providing reflections online. I’m currently working on a condensed write-up of the weekend for another site, but thought I would share some more specific (and longer) thoughts here that were generated by my/our experience.

As Jimmy mentions in his blog about the event, the “sharing” economy was a running theme throughout various sessions, and the conundrum of how to tap into excess resources while not disenfranchising those who rely on existing economic systems was at the center. Classic examples that arose include the way that car services like Uber benefit certain groups of people by letting them take cheap rides – plus potentially reducing greenhouse gas emissions – but it also saps taxi drivers of their livelihoods and change community dynamics. Another is of course Airbnb, which allows certain groups of people (incidentally similar groups to those who use services like Uber) to make a living to support themselves – but in the process it has driven up subletting costs in neighborhoods over the past year, and has also changed the emotional landscape of many cities by converting interpersonal interactions into profit models. Those models may benefit some in the short term but may not in the long term; in any case in the long term we can assume they will profit Silicon Valley.

One recent (bummer) example of a situation in which formalized sharing economy meets self-organized local community serves as a parable of this conundrum for me. It’s the video that surfaced online of a bunch of Dropbox employees (sporting the logo on their shirts) showing up to a community soccer field in the area of San Francisco where they live and insisting that a bunch of (mostly Spanish-speaking) guys move out so they could play on the field. The justification was that there’s a new system in place – which is apparently accessible via an app – by which the soccer field can be reserved in advance for a bit of cash. Up until that time, the sharing of the field had been governed by people standing around, waiting their turns, and challenging each other to games to take over the field. Stewardship in action.

The part of the example that I don’t intend to draw out is that the start-up dudes act like assholes. That’s not the point. The interesting part stems from the obvious irony in the fact that DropBox is a service that allows people to share files freely (for a profit, probably with surveillance on their data, but anyhow) and so directly supports the concept that rationalized, formalized systems for sharing and allocating resources are the way to go to create fairness for all. And on the surface, saving time and making things more fair via an app that allows everyone to sign up for a time slot to use the soccer field in advance is an idea that makes sense. But what looks like it could be a happy way of giving everyone access to a community asset in an organized fashion in fact creates several barriers to entry for the people who are already using the community space. To use the new system, a person would have to possess the following:

  1. Tacit/social knowledge that the service exists

  2. Access to the communication routes or technology that make participation in that system possible

  3. Knowledge of the English language in order to use the system

  4. A bit of cash in order to participate (reserving the field in advance apparently cost the DropBoxers $27)

  5. Belief that the new system will work and be more fair than whatever ad-hoc systems are already in place

Those five factors more or less align with the factors that allow someone to become a steward of his or her community assets. To talk about stewardship is not only to talk about what the assets are and how they can be stewarded, but also who should be in charge of maintaining those assets by whatever means they see fit, whether or not those methods are deemed convenient or even fair by outsiders. Those wishing to help others learn to be stewards need to carefully balance their goal --removing barriers to entry by creating new platforms – with the possibility of inadvertently imposing systems that create new barriers to entry.

Many sessions at LOTE revolved around general concepts that affect all groups attempting to steward communal resources: from scaleability to replicability to membership to (non)profit models. But the tricky bit that we kept coming up against was the fact that any outside concept of stewardship invented artificially (meaning formally and with protocol) that does not arise from the community it serves, or at least in direct and long-term collaboration with that community, has implicit structural problems that cannot be tackled except for case by case.

I learned a lot from Jimmy and Gaia’s generative presentation on their current project gathering information on community access to resources via both ethnographic (on the ground) and digital (data collecting via social media) means. They were gaining a complex and multifaceted understanding of a neighborhood on the periphery of London, where there apparently exist some measure of community resources – but residents did not know about or have access to them. Thus they felt isolated from each other and also from the larger metropolitan area. The researchers are now trying to find a way to apply their findings to the way the community does/doesn’t organize itself in order to empower the residents, either by providing them access to information, improving communication among them, or examining the informal structures already in place and formalizing them. That last option seems to be the one that the session participants were most interested in, with possibilities including anything from turning a small informal gathering at a mosque or a park into an advertised public meet-up, or creating a transit app so people understand their own transit system better.

During this discussion a participant from Matera brought up the issue of public transit in the city where we were all sitting. He pointed out that, while a public transit app for the Matera community does sound like a good idea from someone not familiar with the place, in fact the transit routes there are so idiosyncratic and unreliable that the lack of access to information isn’t necessarily the problem; it’s the system itself. Furthermore, many Materans don’t have smart phones and don’t want to get them, so they don’t have access to the technology. He told us that what many people have already been doing for some time is organize car shares themselves via an open Facebook group. An existing social network, which formed offline, found a way to use an existing online social network for their own means.

The downside is that Materans who don’t use Facebook (no online access) and/or who don’t already have social ties to that group of people (no offline access) can’t find out about or use the network. Therefore, the question became: how would it be possible to take this situation in which a community is already stewarding its own assets via an imperfect but self-organized method (just like the community who is already stewarding its own soccer field via an informalized process) and make that existing system more accessible without imposing use of a particular technology or social system on residents? Is there a way someone could access this service who doesn’t have a computer or doesn’t want to give one’s personal data to Facebook? (Suggestion: what if a member of the existing group was just paid 50 bucks a week by the city government in order to create awareness and then utilize the service on behalf of residents over 60 years old? A technological solution might not be the key.)

I bring up these examples – however particular they might be – because they’re exactly that: specific examples. Throughout LOTE we were consistently reminded about the importance of context, about the fact that no top-down or bottom-up organization is going to be universally applicable. A car-sharing service in Berlin is not necessarily a good fit for London, or San Francisco, or Matera, and it shouldn’t be, because that would mean that local culture is being flattened into a lump of the international creative class. That differentiation between localities means that in order to generate productive stewardship for communities it’s necessary to start with the specifics and build a platform based on them, rather than the other way around. A lot of problems stem from creating umbrella models to address situations perceived to be universal. The tough part is that it takes a lot of time to gain the tacit knowledge needed to understand what makes a given situation so particular. The importance of speaking the local language cannot be understated in this regard.

Many mentioned that it would be ideal for unMon to stay rooted in Matera for many years to come – so it could not only learn from its mistakes (which it is doing with Bembo & Katalin’s beautifully written and comprehensive Book of them) but apply them precisely within the context in which they were discovered. While it’s useful and important to learn from others’ experiences, the same lessons learned at unMon aren’t at all template to be applied elsewhere. Many sessions were occupied with the scale-ability of the unMonastery (as well as EdgeRyders in general), as well as the question of what to do with the unMonastery name in the event that it becomes perceived as a brand that anyone could potentially slap onto their communal living project.Should it be replicated? Is there a responsibility that the original members have to make sure it’s replicated in a certain way? Would that necessarily define an inside and an outside, or a dogmatic way of doing things? How can knowledge about stewardship be shared without imposing that knowledge as a rule across very different communities? The ethical implications of those decisions on existing local communities will have to be considered.

PS  - The hackpad on Helen/Jimmy’s discussion on the art/science binary gets to a lot of this. thanks guys.


Fixing what’s not broken

Thanks for this, Elvia, very insightful. I definitely agree with your point about limited reproducibility. I would just like to add a couple of side notes:

  1. On the app to reserve the soccer field: I am not sure who made the app, but here is a bet: it was a company out to make some cash. Why I think that? Because the allocation pattern of hours for the soccer field worked. The only reason to fix something that is not broken (the only one I can think of,  at least) is that the fix will generate some money. Classic tragedy of the commons type stuff, create artificial scarcity around a resource then charge for access. As @teirdes pointed out at LOTE4, part of stewarding is to keep a watch on changes in the law, make sure that self-interested actors don't make a grab for rights to access and then sell you back what you had in the first place!
  2. I get the impression that you might have some misconceptions about people in Matera. They are not some kind of noble (or not so noble) savages out there. In my experience, they use technology (both as Facebook and as smartphones) more or less in the same proportions as everybody else in Europe, give or take a few percent (smartphone penetration by country 2013).
  3. Language barriers are definitely there – this is Italy, after all. My interpretation of language barriers is backwards: we thought people could learn to speak a bit of Italian in the course of 4-6 months, and it did not happen (interestingly, it is mostly the anglos who seem resistant to learning by just being in the country. Marc, French, has become fluent in Italian; Juliana, hispanophone, speaks quite well). I tried to convince a lady with a project of teaching Italian to foreigners in a playful way to apply for the unMonastery, but she did not – shame.

Apps Shmapps

I think the Materani are much more connected than we give them credit for, in fact there is an “unMon” app that everyone in Matera has on their phones that is used for reserving the unMonastery out from under the unMonks’ noses!

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Stewardship as constant state of vulnerability

One of the things that I’m left with after hearing so many examples at Lote is that just as it doesn’t make sense to stop at one-and-only working definition of stewardship, it is damn hard to find and trust a model that works for everyone, even in a specific project context. Depending on who you ask you will get a different response as to what is wrong and what could improve it.

Another thing is that when you are working in a social environment, fairness becomes quite a relative concept, so is community.

From the stewards’ point of view and assuming you start something with good will and genuine interest to make something better (we don’t know if that’s true in profit making businesses, but consider the non money making), I see it as an endless set of choices, constraints and ultimately trade-offs. Already “giving everyone access to a community asset in an organized fashion” means someone is in the position to give access, whether it’s one person, a group, or an entire subset of a community. And position comes with either/or politics and money, which always tend to bring up complex issues and make anyone in the position of stewardship, or their projects, deeply vulnerable.

Hope you are well and inspired in your writings,