Sharing the future

Peer to peer theorist Michel Bauwens. Photo supplied
Peer to peer theorist Michel Bauwens. Photo supplied

Economic theorist, activist, public speaker and a pioneer of the peer-to-peer movement, Michel Bauwens envisages a world in which the concept of co-operation has real value, writes Shane Gilchrist.

''If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.''

So wrote Sir Isaac Newton, the 17th-century English scholar responsible for groundbreaking physics concepts (among other things), but whose contributions to mankind's greater understanding of the universe was a product not only of his vision but the work of many other minds.

Michel Bauwens believes the same could be said for the concept of open-source, a term that might have its roots in software development but has been expanded to encompass the idea of people working together for a common goal.

The Belgian-born, Thailand-based economic theorist, activist and public speaker arrived in New Zealand earlier this week for a series of speaking engagements that include a talk at the Dunedin School of Art on Monday titled ''Culture, technology and business in a peer-driven economy''.

Named one of the Post Growth Institute's (En)Rich List's 100 most inspiring people in the world, Bauwens has worked as an e-commerce adviser for BP and Belgian telecoms company Belgacom, was a dotcom entrepreneur (before that bubble burst in 2001) and is a pioneer of the peer-to-peer movement, establishing the P2P Foundation in 2005.

Mention peer-to-peer and many might think of the file-sharing process that spawned Napster, Megaupload et al and is responsible for up to 70% of internet traffic.

Yet its implications reach much further and deeper than cheap - or free - entertainment.

''If we talk about peer-to-peer file sharing, we are referring to a particular structure in which every computer can connect to every other computer without passing through any middleman,'' Bauwens explains.

''Behind every computer is a person. Peer-to-peer networks enable relationships between people, but also mean people can create value together and organise themselves. The way this expresses itself is through open knowledge and open design. This creates new economic forms.

''An American report on the Fair Use Economy calculated that one-sixth of the United States GDP - involving 17 million people - revolves around shared resources. That's what peer-to-peer is, people sharing common resources.''

Bauwens notes we live in a world where people are able to connect with one another to produce ''common value'', be it a universal encyclopaedia such as Wikipedia, a computer operating system (Linux) or economic models operating outside the paradigms of traditional corporate organisations, government institutions or NGOs.

In 2013, he began a strategic research project aimed at fundamentally restructuring Ecuador's economy.

The ongoing project focuses on a range of interrelated issues, including open education; open innovation and science; arts; design; distributed manufacturing; sustainable agriculture; and open machining.

He points to three key tenets of open-source methodology:''Firstly, there is the mutualisation of knowledge, the idea that it is unethical to withhold basic keys of knowledge that could solve the problems of the world.

''The second key point of open-source is called the `sharing economy'. It involves mutualising idle resources.

''The third point is relocalising production. New types of technology - such as 3-D printing - mean we can apply a typical rule: what is physically heavy is produced locally; what is light is globally distributed.''

It's a twist on the traditional economic paradigm of supply and demand.

''At present we have a supply-driven economy in which companies either respond to real needs or try to create a perception of need; they centralise production, have massive over-production then require marketing and advertising to get rid of products.

''Studies have shown that two-thirds of matter and energy go into the transportation of goods, not their actual production. If we can diminish that transportation, we can have a much lighter impact on the planet.''

Bauwens suggests an economic model involving micro-factories that produce designs created via open-source networks.

Technical and scientific knowledge would be shared; like-minded entrepreneurs being able to see what others are doing (or thinking).

''We need a new vision of what it is to be a company. We need to move from extractive models to ones that co-create value around common resources.

''In New Zealand you have a great example of this in Enspiral. This is a coalition of social entrepreneurs who want to do good things around sustainability and fairness.

''They are still businesses; they are still operating in a market, but they have ideals that are harmonious with the interests of their community. Enspiral are exploring that. It doesn't mean they have all the answers, but they are looking for answers.''

The same could be said for Bauwens.

Although he envisages a new class of knowledge workers (in much the same way as the ideas of socialism appealed to industrial workers of the 19th century), he acknowledges such a vision is fraught.

The concept of a new class of worker empowered by not only access to computer networks but by ideals of co-operation is all well and good, but isn't it burdened by the presumption that all are technologically savvy?

How do we ignore traditional organisations of labour, based on physical, social and/or intellectual ability?

In short, not everyone has the facility to be a scientist, inventor or computer programmer.

So how will everyone share in or contribute to Bauwen's vision of a new economic model?

''We need to allow both knowledge workers and those who are more physically oriented to work together.

''I'll use Ireland as an example. There is an emergence of fab-labs, makers-spaces and co-working centres. These primarily attract knowledge workers.

''But there is another movement in Ireland that has been growing exponentially. It's called the Men's Shed Movement, involving people who want to work with their hands ...

''Another example is in Bologna.

''The city has a law that concerns the 'care of the commons'. This allows any neighbourhood collective within the city to propose their own improvements for specific areas; there is a review process and negotiation between city officials and the collective about how the city can help.

''The people provide the initiative and the city becomes a facilitator.''

Ah, yes.

But what if only the richer neighbourhoods make such initiatives?

''We need to be wary of creating more inequality,'' Bauwens acknowledges.

''We need to empower everyone, not just the elite. And this is something that can't be solved merely by economics.''



The talk


• Michel Bauwens discusses ''Culture, technology and business in a peer-driven economy'' at the Dunedin School of Art on Monday, November 30 (5.30pm-6.30pm; refreshments from 5pm; free entry).



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