The Sci-Fi Economics Lab: An initiative to get economics out of its box.
Edgeryders is working to extend the space of economic models that are conceivable and deployable to build a successful, fair civilization, while preserving the planet’s ecological balance
Conceivable: It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. But if we do not go beyond TINA (There Is No Alternative), we have to carry on business-as-usual. This will kill us all. Edgeryders therefore uses techniques from modelling, speculative fiction, economic history, anthropology and design to broaden the space of “conceivable economies.” Deployable: As argued above, there’s already a “mutant population” of economic agents that operate in the current economy, while aspiring to a more long-termism one. Edgeryders learns from these agents, in order to come up with policies to thrive and grow further.
Academia, tied down in publish or perish, is uninterested: we need a new space. So, we have partnered with EIT Climate-KIC , the European Union’s largest climate innovation initiative. Together, we are organizing a Science Fiction Economics Lab , to bring together SF authors, economists, technologists, activists and just ordinary citizens who care, like us, to to envision different economic systems. We are not interested in tweaks, one percentage point of budget deficit more or less. By “different” we mean radically different. And these systems need to be rock solid , not some kind of delusional fantasy good for another round of electoral promise.
With this effort we are working to co-create a template for re-energizing society’s capacity for designing paradigm-level reform; help raise the awareness of the climate crisis as a carrier of opportunity and hope, and not just of disruption and dismay; and embolden would-be reformers, especially in Europe. This space is what we are asking you to support. In 2019 we prototyped the idea in a barebones format, and started building a community around it.
You can help
Do get in touch. Edgeryders can keep events like this one free of charge and support the work of changemakers in more than 80 countries because people like yourself support us. With contacts, knowledge and resources. If you know of people at organisations who could be interested in exploring possibilities to work with us please feel free to send them our way: email@example.com
- Help grow our visibility
- Provide funding
- Hire us
- Partner with our research institute
We are grateful for the support of the EIT, a body of the European Union. Sci-Fi Economics Lab has received project funding from the European Union in 2020. Add logos of EIT Climate Kic and EU flag here
Who is it for
Economists, authors, artists, technologists, entrepreneurs, civil servants, activists.
What value does it add?
The Scifi Economic labs provides a Zone of Experiment as a place for independent growth and understanding. Participants co-create new models for economic activity that can withstand the shocks which will be soon be upon us as climate crisis and ecological devastation unfold.
- We lean heavily on science fiction as a tool to unlock more powerful, more creative policy intervention. This is what got Gaetano immediately sold. It should be up front in our copy, corporate image etc.
- We aim specifically at the regional policies ecosystem. Advantages: (1) well mapped; (2) European scale, so a large market; (3) you can deliver a very concrete outcome for participants (“you will learn how to secure Just Transition-ERDF funding to rewire your local economy!”).
How does it work?
We convene large scale conversations between a diversity of actors. We use our in house Data Science and Collective intelligence Technologies to surface deep insights born out of the conversations. We co-create proposals for joint interventions to put the insights into practice “on the ground”. The process takes place mostly online and is shaped to fit around busy schedules more on the format here.
|Good People||Conversation||Articles||Clusters of local actors that together try out new ideas to secure resilient livelihoods for their communities and themselves. Each cluster is composed of individuals, groups and organisations with deep ties to a place.|
|Interesting stories||Sensemaking||New Projects||How is a cluster different from a network? In a network, participants look for how to make the most of what others are doing. In a cluster, participants are willing to re-orient their work, so as to better work with the other participants.|
|Experience-based knowledge||New perspectives & ideas||Unlikely Alliances||If you are a construction company, you must not be lazy, and be open to using new technologies. If you are a social cooperative, you must look away from providing standardized services to customizing what you do in order to better valorize the capabilities of the people they are assisting. And so on.|
Good for society
Scifi Economics lab provides a methodology for building and channeling citizen engagement towards revitalising local economies
Policy Interventions to revitalise local economies do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they drawn on a blank slate. They are small piece of a large ecosystem with the institutional actors at its centre. The cultural differences between the culture of any large organization and the protagonists of novel paths to economic regeneration on the ground makes it inevitable to navigate tradeoffs, reach compromises, and incorporate constraints. We aim to reach a shared understanding of these in the case at hand, so that the new initiatives to rebuild regional economies can be radical and innovative, while not clashing with its parent organizations.
- A narrative . This tells people how they “push” for rewiring of local economies. It includes pieces of (unorthodox) economic theory (like Mazzucato); data (no, regional policies how we are doing them now do not always lead to your region “catching up”); and Doctorow’s “architect’s renderings” of possible alt economies.
- A library of models of interventions. For example, Messina is implementing a model based (in part) on relational goods. If others like the model, they could copy the very practical things that Messina did to realize this model.
- A network of like-minded people, that can then lobby together, apply for funding together, coordinate etc.
Who is behind all this
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EIT Climate Kic
- Add single line about the organisation and deep demo*
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Add block with profiles of contributorsgenerated from the scifi economics category
Activities in 2019
- Reading Groups
- Collaborative Economic Modelling
The lab was formally launched with a public event fearuringEdgeryders organised a Science Fiction Economics Lab to brainstorm on November the 11th. It received widespread media attentiona including a full page feature article.
Together with award-winning Canadian SciFi author Cory Doctorow — writer of Walkaway, Little Brother and Homeland — the event served to explore public interest in a new alloy of science fiction world-building and economic thinking. By bringing together SciFi authors, economists, technologists, activists and others, the event e different economic systems which move away from the usual minor changes.
We want to build a new society, because we see that the house is on fire,” says Alberto Cottica, Research Director at Edgeryders. “We need to move economic thinking out of its current box and envision a human civilization running a different economy; and trace a map to get from here to there.”
Edgeryders is a global community and a post-capitalist enterprise trying to build the infrastructure for a more humane, fairer, greener society by experimenting off-grid living, radical transparency and open source. The organization draws inspiration from 10th-century monks for serving local communities; and from coral reefs for a new approach to co-living and co-working.
This event was supported by EIT Climate-KIC, the EU’s largest public-private partnership, tasked with addressing climate change through innovation.
Article by Alex Levene
Why Sci Fi, why now?
The world is locked into a particular set of governing positions. Each individual state and region carries with them the baggage and heritage of how they have grown; separately and tied to their neighbours, to reach the position we arrive at now.
But this ‘now’ is a new thing: a globalised ecology, economy, and increasingly, discourse.
Despite (or perhaps in direct opposition to) this emerging factor, our governance is still driven by the interests of the ‘nation state’. Despite minor course correction, and changes in variations of governance structure taking place across the globe, we seem to be locked into this ‘state-based’ system. This creates a tension, both within populations and between systems. We see that the issues we face, and the opportunities we must take, are global in scale, but all our current problem solving mechanisms are levers that reside at the nation state level. This is a fundamental issue.
As Millie Begovic, Shelley Inglis and Indy Johar say in their post launching the UNDP IID2018 programme:
“we hypothesise our Governance models are broken. We are holding on to 19th century models that deny the complexity of the ‘systemocracy’ we live in — a world of massive interdependencies.”
So what do we do? Well to start with we look around at what we have available to us. Seeing a world of struggling complexity and complicated solutions, like our ancestors before us, we turn to our soothsayers.
In order to break our gridlock of complex interdependence, in order to free ourselves from the shackles of what we cannot achieve, we have to delink ourselves from the reality, we have to become unconstrained in our thinking - we need to dream new systems.
So we look to those who are already in the dreamspace; we find those people who are engaged on a daily basis with the creative activity of dreaming up the future, and we read what they write, and we ask them: what other options are there for us?
Science Fiction? Really?
I believe that all fiction is a crucible for the neuroses of each generation, and since its inception as a genre, Science Fiction doubly so. As I talk about in this post on the Edgeryders site,
“We seek to understand our current world by imagining new versions of it, speculating challenges and opportunities that allow us to better understand what we are facing today and prepare for tomorrow.”
You only need to look at the current fascinations of media created for mass consumption (Hollywood, Teen fiction, Television Box Set Drama) to see the anxieties that we all face mirrored back at us. But why are we stuck in a circus of post-apocalyptic hero narratives? The superpowered hero; the sole saviour; the wasteland where only the young can change the future. All idealised narratives that say “don’t worry, it’s someone else’s job to fix that.”
If younger generations must wrestle with the real world complexities for a stable and prosperous future, then where are the mediums that delve into creating those futures? That sees the danger and damage and looks beyond it, assuming that we will go on together? That sees that the ways forward require collaboration, imagination, cooperation and group action? That starts to imagine a new future with alternative economic systems that are better adapted to dynamics of 21st Century challenges?
The answer is that these stories are out there , and they are being thought about in so many different ways and places: like in theatre companies doing radical speculative work with trans youth; or in the manifestos of citizen-led movements bringing refugees and locals together for dinner and increasingly between the pages of a number of Science Fiction writers who are dealing with versions of this possible future.
Within the Edgeryders community we’ve begun exploring a particular niche of these works of ‘ EconSciFi ’, and alongside our other research initiatives we’ve started our own internal topic to look into this area of speculative fiction directly. We wanted to find out more about the people who dream it, what they’ve been saying, and, perhaps most importantly, are they on to something?
With this new topic of EconSciFi in mind, and a handful of examples each, we set out to find more representations of it. We threw the conversation open to our community and to the wider internet and encouraged people to reflect with us on this wild topic, and make suggestions for work we should be considering. We wanted stories that in some way gave us a representation of a better future, outside the limiting constraints of our ‘real world’ economic system. We ended up with a huge Econ-SF: a selection of works and authors, containing suggestions from dozens of community members. We asked the collective brain and they replied.
Alberto Cottica summed it up perfectly in his initial post on the topic:
“There is an important idea that is not receiving enough attention: the economic foundations of a modern society (let’s say late 21st century). All I am seeing being discussed is minor tweaks on capitalism-with-state-corrections. This was not always the case: in the 19th century we had attempts at sweeping paradigm design (Marx, Proudhon, anarchic collectivism and mutualism), as well as prototypes (Fourier’s Phalanstères, Owen’s New Lanark, and, later, Adriano Olivetti’s Ivrea factory as the economic engine of the Community Movement).”
I have always believed that fiction inspires theory; and theory inspires practice. But when we scan the edges of our societies, we see a lot of the speculative practice already happening, so where is the theory and fiction? Perhaps what we are seeing now is an inversion of the idea, and part of what research into this topic can give us is the tools to open these lived practices up to the spheres of theory and fiction, making them available and understandable to more people, and pushing these new methods of living and prospering back towards the centre? Importantly, Edgeryders is not an institution, a lot of us aren’t even academics, we’re interested individuals from a variety of backgrounds working together and using collective intelligence to bring people together and help build the world we want to live in. Our ‘research’ is public and our discoveries are shared.
What do I hope EconSciFi can do to move things forward?
It can provide an open platform and fertile environment for the discussion of the economic ideas in science fiction books between published writers of both, and that we lead from that discussion into further opportunities for deeper learning and research into these areas.
It can act as a bridge between the world of economics and mainstream speculative fiction, as well as a provocation to both sides to be more permeable with each other.
It can create the environment for a call to arms for economic writers and academics to try harder. As Alberto says above, where is the “sweeping paradigm design”? Where are the radical economics thinkers? Who is looking into the data generated in radical economic systems? There must be people out there doing this work, and perhaps EconSciFi can be a rallying point around which they can meet?
Similarly, EconSciFi can be a call to arms for Science Fiction writers to imagining better futures that operate outside the structures of market capitalism that dominate most 20th & 21st Century SciFi. By drawing attention to the work of those writers who are doing this ‘heavy lifting’ already we hope to encourage and inspire more writers to take up the mantle.
Finally, and I hope most importantly it can help explain innovative or nascent economic ideas to a wider audience through live events and clear communication. We also ask ourselves, what place does collective intelligence have in achieving this?
Perhaps alongside the work Edgeryders have done in the past to find ‘FutureMakers’ EconSciFi offers us a platform and a mechanism to find the ‘FutureMakers of Economics’?
But I’m not an economist or a writer, why should i engage with these ideas?
To my mind EconSciFi gives us a handful of useful tools; the most useful of which is that it breaks down our cognitive biases and actively encourages us to utilise the parts of our brain that ask “what if?”. To some extent all fiction does this, but because of the richness of the established tropes of Science Fiction we allow ourselves to fully step out of the quotidian experience of human global existence as we know it now.
It gives us a space to explore methods, ideas, solutions and compromises that challenge everything that we know about the world we live in. It doesn’t concern itself with establishing a complete, complex interdependent system of realities, but instead it often focuses on one germ of an idea, and then runs with it.
If you speculate ‘What if the one thing that was required to successfully pilot intergalactic spaceships, and therefore oversee an Universal Empire, was only available on one, tiny, deadly planet?’ Then you get Frank Herbert’s Dune and the complete (and still ongoing) saga of stories that lead from that creation.
Similarly, if you ask ‘What if instead of remaining on Earth within Nation States, the massed followers of Marxist socialism have moved to The Moon?’ you would get Ursula K. LeGuin’s masterpiece novella The Dispossessed.
Both of these examples deal with the tropes of SciFi at their farthest limits (yet always with parallels closer to home) but the genre is a broad church and it doesn’t have to be in the depths of space to classify as SciFi.
For example, imagine an Earth where we had reached a tipping point: the intersection of climate change threat; regressive national policies; divisive rhetoric; increased polarisation; income inequality; massed power and economic resource in an ever diminishing number of hands; wholesale dislocation and disengagement with political and economic structures; a growth of stateless peoples… How prescient does Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway seem?
We’ll explore more of the ideas that come out of that book within the EconSciFi Zone of Experimentation? at the UNDP IIDs, or you can dive into our discussions around the economic arguments here.
What will we be doing for UNDP IID2018?
Our reports detail the ideas and work we have done around making our Zone of Experiment as a place for independent growth and understanding.
At the centre of the Zone however is an open discussion and Q&A between Alberto Cottica, Data Scientist and Research Director at Edgeryders, Science fiction authors, and economists.
We expect that through bringing these people together we can create a dynamic of tension and speculation between the spheres of understanding in a room: The challenge of the pure science, the mathematics, the measurable and measured; The understanding that underpins the systems of our current civic and social interaction; Demonstrable; Alignment; Stable. (Perhaps we should call it the ‘Field of Economics’).
Brought together with the freedom to innovate within a creative space; The ghost of the idea, and speculation that sees something outside of a measurable system and explores that centrally through imagination, freed from analysis of the world as it is and towards creating a world where it can be. The tenet. The inciting concept.
(Perhaps the ‘Field of Speculation’.)
In and around that interplay we are mediated and provoked by researchers and creators who ask the central questions of both sides: how does that look in our world? Can you point to examples of where this ‘fictional’ idea exists in our world now? How can this idea be communicated so that it is understandable? What elements of these ideas are we already living/exploring/understanding?
For me this zone of experiment acts as a way to open ourselves up, and through research, understanding and collaborative practices work to build better systems and futures. It tells us its okay to look elsewhere for answers to the problems we face. I hope that it can point to new pathways for governance to “provide a framework for the creation of public value and preservation of the public good” Preferably through the most surprising and imaginative ways possible.
“the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” TS Eliot
Article by Inge Snip
Can Science Fiction Save the World?
Societies strive to produce what they perceive as valuable.
Our own only perceives what can be traded on markets as valuable. As a result, we strive to produce cars, phones, and financial derivatives. But we don’t strive to ensure biodiversity, clean air, and social inclusion. Contemporary economics has produced a way of thinking underwriting the above mentioned issues. From being reduced to a sad, uninspiring numbers game — 1% deficit less here, 1% growth there — it has lost the blue-sky radicality of Marx and Keynes, and the audacity of Fourier, Owens and Olivetti. This has lead us a downward, rather than a forward, path.
“The climate crisis is not there because people are evil or because people are stupid and don’t really see what’s happening. The climate crisis is here because it is profitable.” Alberto Cottica, Co-founder and research director at Edgeryders, explains that the current system of economic thinking is broken, and both economists in high places of power, as well as academics, haven’t been able to make a difference:
“Economics, as we know it currently, has pivoted from being a place where you could imagine, to a discipline which re-enforces and improves itself in a single model,” explains @alberto.
When economists started gaining power — from becoming ministers to serving in senior posts in international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — they had to underwrite the system already in place in exchange for the power.
“Since I started my studies more than 30 years ago, we are left with a very narrow range of economic systems that current economics can expose. It’s become impossible to think about any alternative, any radical alternative organization of our economies,” says Alberto.
In academia, a similar problem has arisen. Researchers looking to make a career in academia need to be published in well-known journals, discussing topics already part of the academic debate. Economics doesn’t allow you to stray too far, Alberto explains. “It’s a kind of risky proposition to shift the academic debate and it doesn’t make sense for a researcher striving to get tenure and to get a job to do that.”
Alberto decided to study economics thirty years ago, because he had the desire to change society and influence policy. “I became an economist because I wanted to understand what was wrong in society and improve the way we all live together,” says Alberto.
It’s the same reason why he started the well-known and politically engaged Italian rock band, Modena City Ramblers: he wanted to contribute to a national debate, influence how people think and what they are trying to achieve together. It’s for that same reason he decided to co-found Edgeryders, to try and make a difference in the world, running a post-capitalist enterprise working with a community of thinkers, economists, activists, doers, and makers.
When economists and academics can’t dream up a new, plausible, economic system to help us divert the crisis we are in, who can?
Alberto has been looking for a solution to our economic systems for the past three decades, disillusioned by the inability of current economic systems to improve the lives of people. How can we find new approaches to rebuilding our societies, combining how humans interact, live collectively and make collective choices about their lives?
It is clear we are at a crossroads of change. From the Extinction Rebellion movement, to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg being grilled in the US congress for the platforms gross violations of people’s privacy, to it’s unstoppable spreading of disinformation.
Right now, together with the Edgeryders community, he’s set his eyes on science fiction as a tool to radically rethink our economy.
“Science fiction is an intellectual exercise. A good SF author turns the fabric of society in his or her head, with a scientist’s curiosity. What happens if I pull a specific thread? For example: what if progress in medicine and biotech made extreme longevity possible, but only for the very rich?” explains Alberto, adding that science fiction authors have been creating fictional economies that aren’t real, but plausible — doing exactly what economics itself is no longer doing.
“Science fiction was a very early interest for me,” says Alberto, explaining he got into it when he was in primary school. “I really liked the idea of imagining alternative universes.” And that is why he’s now venturing into combining science fiction and economics. Especially the world-building part of science fiction novels is what could provide an alternative: what would happen if robots could think? What would happen if there were a bunch of miners mining asteroids for precious metals? What would happen if we could travel through time?
A few science fiction authors have created fictional economies, which are completely different from the one we have, while also being based on economic thinking. Some of them will be viable, Alberto says, some of them won’t, and some of them wouldn’t even be desirable (like the capitalism-gone-rogue worlds of many cyberpunk novels).
As a prime example Alberto mentions Cory Doctorow’s books Makers and Walkaway, reflections on well-known economic problems.
In the first, Doctorow describes a world in which people hack hardware, business-models, to discover ways of staying alive and happy even when the economy is failing them.
In Walkaway, the author dives into a world of non-work, ruined by human-created climate change and pollution, where people are under surveillance and ruled over by a mega-rich elite. The main characters decide that they have nothing to lose by turning their backs and walking away from the everyday world or "default reality." Through open source technologies such as 3D printing – and especially the ability to use these to fabricate even better fabricators – and with machines that can search for and reprocess waste or discarded materials, they no longer have need of Default for the basic essentials of life, such as food, clothing and shelter. This gives rise to a “dual economy”, with two co-existing economic systems: Default runs capitalism, Walkaway runs a sort of commons-based peer production.
Doctorow is one of the speakers at the first Sci-Fi Economics Lab event Edgeryders is organizing in Brussels on November 11th. The event will consist of four parts: a double keynote lecture – which will also be live-streamed; Reclaiming Utopia, a workshop where you can learn how to mobilize yourself for a more humane, fairer, greener economy, in collaboration with Extinction Rebellion; a party, because “if we can’t dance, we don’t want your alt-economy;” and a brainstorming session to create abstracts for contributions to economic theory and economic policy underpinning fictional economies.
“Basically, what we are trying to do from a societal point of view, is to build a range of alternatives that society could choose from. Maybe we want to keep the present system, but we shouldn’t keep the economic system because we can’t think of a better one,” says Alberto
The event is taking place in Brussels, as it’s the capital of Europe where “we can multiply the impact of a shift in thinking”
The keynote lecture is going to be chaired by Kirsten Dunlop, CEO of EIT Climate-KIC — the European Union’s largest agency, funding climate innovation. “We want to generate a fresh kind of thinking, which we can share with the public, the public authorities, the public powers.” Alberto adds. “If we can show to economists and to science fiction authors the interest of the public powers, then we can incentivize them to do more work in this area.”