The Stewardship: what have we learned about engaging the networks?



Living on the Edge 4: The Stewardship (LOTE4) was our fourth annual community event, bringing together an unusual, global mix of change makers around a collective statement: “we believe the ability to come together to take care of assets in an unstable context is a key skill for surviving and thriving in the future”. Our online conversation ended up with 115 articles, 570 comments and over 30 live sessions in Matera (not including the organisational work and over 100 tasks and related comments). What have we learned about producing knowledge at these parameters of scale and reach: global, distributed and grassroots, and where can it go?

Supporting each other’s intellectual development

Since stewardship is a difficult topic to grasp (and in our experience the word itself does not help), we built common understandings of it from scratch and into a semi-structured conversation. Three areas were discovered, each based on the locus of projects: physical stewardship (primarily public assets like buildings, water, transport infrastructure), digital stewardship (online surveillance and data protection, the open software movement, the Internet of things), community stewardship (sharing economy, peer to peer services, unMonastery international residency hosting LOTE4). Organising LOTE4 was in itself a meta project of community stewardship, mobilizing talent and skill in a loosely coordinated process to build a setting where people would come together and engage with each other beyond professional fields and the biases that come with. By the time of the conference, everyone participating was equipped with citizen expert knowledge (the one that traditional experts don’t have) on how taking care of common assets, digital/ physical spaces or communities can contribute to bettering lives around them. The shared knowledge is going to be packed and made available as a research report and test of the Open Ethnographer software starting February.

Community members contributing on their own terms

One of the advantages of operating under a decentralized architecture is that literally anyone can choose what to contribute and do it on their own terms. The most adventurous Edgeryders like @Ben and @Lauren launched themselves into the Case Study Adventure to meet their peers across the world working passionately to make a difference. The rationale was:

“We want to engage projects that we think exemplify notions of Stewardship[…] We’d like to find the initiatives that are confronting the difficult questions head on, both newly started and those with a long history. Despite our work over the last couple of years within Edgeryders and the unMonastery project we recognise that our perspectives are still limited by the networks we’re most familiar with, we’d like to take this opportunity to broaden our horizons”.

A lot of exploratory work was done in the region of Basilicata and largely across Italy, where @NicoBis travelled to talk to people doing meaningful work. Video interviews gave us an opportunity to understand both citizen and policy makers approaches to stewardship, and where these two meet. For example, here Fabrizio Barca in the Italian ministry of finance legitimizing stewardship by communities as a third way: “Community stewardship is a reaction to a double failure. The failure of the state to provide services tailored to places; and the failure of the private sector when privatization became the new game in town, but turned out to be ineffective and unjust”.

These efforts were entirely voluntary, and it made sense that the broader community would back them up with outreach support, helping host events in cities like Berlin, Athens, Amsterdam, Stockholm, or London. The others were happy to exchange notes when documentation was posted online, as per the long time nurtured practice in Edgeryders.

Mixing the online channels with field work, and many to many conversations with more private meetups turned out to be very useful in understanding stewarding as a practice. As someone noticed, “if you’re asking the right questions with just one or two people it can still be hugely productive - perhaps more so than a big group speaking together.”

Making global knowledge relevant locally, and vice versa

Almost all of the projects mentioned before and during The Stewardship live deeply in local contexts. An international event and global storytelling culture slightly removes them from those contexts in order to emphasize relevance, but only to examine them closer when people come together in a room. In one of LOTE plenaries, focusing on learning from the Case Study Adventure, it became clear that acting as stewards in highly regulated environments requires self sacrifice and sometimes even transgressing rules (eg: occupying or repurposing public spaces to meet community needs). Some countries are more sensitive to this than others, depending on legislation or simply degree of conservativeness in those cultures etc.

Another example is the unMonastery, a project birthed internationally whose work is focused on local challenges. Bringing to Matera an event like LOTE4 in its aftermath put the city on the map of many of the continent’s hackers, activists and radical social innovators. Projects like CoderDojo or Kiderwind are taking off in the city, and provide chances for the local community to learn from or to learn how to interact with global innovators.

Building ongoing collaboration

Coming from a natively European environment, Edgeryders (the organisation is a spin off from a joint Council of Europe / European Commission project) has a history of interacting with policy makers and interfacing between formal structures and citizens at the edge. We think some of the most relevant work for social impact can happen at the intersection of these two, and this is why we insisted on having a former member of the European Parliament as an event curator:

“I tried to make my experiences of the European Parliament useful for other visitors at #LOTE4 by encouraging more interaction with political institutions. Especially in a community which so often restricts its interaction with policy to interaction with governments and civil servants, my hope is that some people now feel more encouraged to speak with directly elected individuals.“ (Amelia Andersdotter)

Learning how to activate and involve the citizenry, and give them space once they got involved is also at the core of Edgeryders collaboration with Matera 2019. Community members and former unMonastery residents have recently entered an open data contest held by the municipality of Matera, winning two out of the four prizes with an open app mapping the public transport infrastructure. Instead of taking the prize and walk away, they are now re-investing it in an upcoming collaborative event to continue developing the project, all in an attempt to leave something behind that the local community will benefit from.

The topic of stewardship and what Edgeryders are learning collectively is paving the way forward for “blue sky” ideas generation and where grassroots communities will put in skills and energy. It happened at #31c3 event, where some set up an assembly to explore new dimensions of well being and peer to peer care (among which a collaboration with the Food Hacking Base on social cooking) and how they can be an integral part of innovative event formats. As part of a social contract that empowers the doers, it is up to every one of us to step forward and take ideas wherever we see fit, and that is perhaps the strongest asset we have as a collective.

We need to better support and reward the stewards

In several sessions at LOTE the stewards’ precarious condition was explored, particularly since most truly innovative projects are low resourced and voluntary, with small groups shouldering a great size of the effort (see examples). The risks are manifold for achieving impact, from mismanaging expectations or resources (not enough eyeballs), to loss of reliability (achieving growth by compromising) or even burnouts (‘temporary ownership is an aspect of precarity’, notices one of the stewards). These all reproduce the same inequalities which stewarding is trying to address by increasing use value: inequalities in access, in consumption, in relative gains and so on. Who is caring for the stewards? Who else can and should act as carrier for the learnings? What can we learn from open hardware/software projects combating scarcity (‘so hard to do that without ending up homeless eating nothing but beans’, says an Edgeryder)? These are but some of the deeper questions we could begin to address with our approach of network engagement and Open Ethnographer.

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Very insightful!

Congrats, Noemi, this is very insightful, short and sweet. But maybe incomplete: for example, did we learn anything about fairness issues? Many people pointed out stewards tend to heroically give their best to stewardship until they burn out for the common good, and that’s not fair. I don’t remember if we reached a conclusion, or a shared doubt at least, on the point.


You’re right

I added a paragraph at the end, and look forward to see where are we going with it… Hope @Inga_Popovaite in her upcoming ethnographic analysis could shed some light as to what ways forward have been suggested or hinted at. I think it would be tremendously useful for us all if a significant part of the report is built around paths forward rather than simple diagnosis of existing issues… which is of course rich in itself, given the “stewardship” concept.

Then again, if we haven’t gotten down to some ideas of fixes, how would we move forward the conversation? just thinking out loud…


First draft of the Open Ethnographer report is now online

Noemi, this is a great writeup. For those who wish to review/ and comment the first draft of the Open Ethnographer report produced by @Inga_Popovaite is available here:

If anyone wants to help translate Inga’s report into a deck of slides there is a budget (600USD) available for that (so that anyone who wants to do presentations has a nice deck summarising the results of our collective conversation around Stewardship):