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Exploring Resilient Communities with John Robb (2): the infrastructure

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
14th September 2008


Resilience comes in two main parts: food production andindustry, supported by two underlying infrastructural elements: smart local information networks and local money systems.

1. Agricultural and food resilience

As the first solution for farming, John Robb proposes subscription farming:

In addition to entrepreneurial mini-farms, local farming can also be supported through subscriptions (aka Community Supported Agriculture). These subscriptions entitle the buyer to weekly deliveries/pick-ups of fresh produce. Subscription farming grew from 50 farms in 1990 to over 2000 today.

What makes this interesting to our exploration of community resilience is:

* Subscription farming (like mini-farming on small plots) spreads the risks (if you know farming, then you know that it is a VERY risky business) among participants and smoothes cash flows.

* It’s a model that communities can implement on arable public land, where the rent for the land is provided as a share of the crop to the community.

* If you combine both models (subscription and mini-farms), you can develop hybrid models where individuals rent/manage small plots on a larger parcel and purchase services (from weed/pest control to tilling) from the land’s manager.”

The second solution is SPIN, Small Plot Intensive Farming for the cities and suburbs.

John Robb:

The a return to local agriculture within suburban and urban environments won’t be a redux of amateur gardening nor will it be done on local traditional farms (mostly, long since paved over). Instead it will feature high tech, intense, and energy efficient efforts on clusters of small plots. In short, it will buffer families from the risk of soft and hard disruptions as well as provide an opportunity for income generation. In fact, we are already seeing signs of resilience entrepreneurs in this space. One example is SPIN (small plot intensive) farming, a company that has optimized/packaged techniques for suburban/urban farmers.

Elements include:

* The aggregation of plots near demand. SPIN farmers cut deals with the owners of suburban yards and/or unused spaces to put together viable acreage for farming. Local landowners are paid in kind (produce).

* Intensive utilization of plots. Optimization of plots to generate the highest possible yields depending climate, sun, and rainfall. Low energy methods are preferable since they maximize profitability. There is also an ability to leverage local utilities for water and electricity without any infrastructure expense.

* High value products. A focus on products that cost the most and are the most valuable to local buyers (restaurants and farmers markets). Freshness premiums and fuel cost ratios are important variables.”

Does a SPIN-like approach work?

Early indications are that it works. An interesting study done by Urban Partners for the city of Philadelphia indicates that a fully ramped up effort can generate upwards of $120,000 a year in sales and $60,000 in net income.

How it Will Accelerate

Factors that will accelerate local farming include (in addition to the acceleration of effort due to negative pressure, like those listed above):

* Open source tinkering networks. Everything from the optimization of crop layouts to low cost DIY farming equipment.

* Clustering. Shared equipment, insight, etc. While some of this can be achieved via online connections, local physical connections improve productivity.

* Community support and demand. Relaxation of zoning/community regulations against yard conversions, support for a farmer’s market, etc.”

2. Local industrial fabrication networks

For industry, what is needed is the creation of fabrication networks:

“John Robb:

Already, the fabrication equipment necessary to build complex objects/products costs only $20-50 thousand (some systems are in the hundred dollar range) and the costs are plunging. Given the technological trends, it will be possible in the next decade or so to produce nearly any product locally through these local fabricators in a cost competitive way — some at home and the rest at a local shop. The system like the one I built above would make it possible to take designs you purchase or acquire on a Web site, modify them as you see fit, and then send them to a local fabrication company (or your desktop) nearby for production.

So What Does This Mean?

The shift towards local fabrication and fabrication networks, added to local food/energy/security/etc. completes the transition of barren bedroom communities into resilient communities. It’s a 90% solution for communities, where only the most complex and difficult items are globally sourced. It also enables:

* A torrent of crowd-sourced improvements. Rather than a small design team deciding when/how a product is improved, products can be improved by vast global tinkering networks. Further, you can modify it yourself, if you are so inclined. In the not so distant future, buying a mass produced or unmodified product will be seen as a buying a broken/used/antiquated item.

* Self-supply. 21st Century military units (like Marines in the field), with a trailer full of fabrication equipment, will be able to produce nearly anything they need — from parts to DIY weapons. It takes “make do” to a new level. Capturing and sharing (in real-time) the innovation produced here is going to be a challenge.

* Comparative/competitive advantage. Communities that shift to self-production early will benefit from an ability to not only deal with shocks/disruptions better than global competitors, they will be able to generate wealth faster through cost reduction and commercial exploitation of innovations.”

3. Smart Local Information Networks

All this need to be tied together through smart local information networks, you can’t just rely on the international infrastructure, he insists:

Most of the local loops (from telco fiber to cable company coaxial) currently in place and/or being installed in the US are dumb (I suspect it is the same globally). They simply route data from local customers to regionally clustered corporate server farms and then outwards/back. This means that any disconnection (physical or logical fault) between local customers and these remote systems will result in a complete cessation of service.”

They have 3 characteristics:

“* A high availability local network for emergencies. A local emergency network that connects all homes and business in the area by accessing the local aggregation nodes of cable/telco operators (which is actually a relatively trivial/inexpensive network exercise). It should become the default network if access to the greater Internet fails. Optimally, the network should sit astride both cable and telco services to provide a seamless community “footprint.”

* High availability servers (computers that host Web sites) in the local loop. Servers that are on the community network and located within the communities environs. Back-up power should be provided to ensure that these servers maintain high up time.

* Community coordination software to sit on these servers. Easy to use and edit social software: blogs, wikis, etc. If the market is large enough, there will be software packages (hopefully open source) that replicate the functionality of a fully functional emergency response system (i.e. locally cached Google maps, etc.). In terms of operating this software, most communities could ask schools/boy scouts/etc. to maintain the software, even during an emergency (young people are much more likely to have the skill sets to do this w/o specific training).”

4. Local monetary systems

Finally, control of local money may be very important:

John Robb:

despite spotty record so far, scrip is an extremely powerful means of accelerating local economic activity when nothing else seems possible (in economic extremis).

Past experience with depression era scrip Abschein_vornelike Austria’s Worgl indicate that the following will accelerate scrip adoption, velocity, and robustness:

* Allow community members to use it to pay all or part of their tax liabilities to local governments. This instantly establishes a market for the currency. Also, pay local government employees a portion of their wages in scrip.

* Deflate the value of the scrip (optimally, one percent per month) to promote immediate use rather than hoarding.

* To the extent possible, connect scrip to local production rather than retail. Locally produced food (farmer’s markets), energy (via local microgrids), products (personal fabs), and labor/services. Further, work with local banks to establish checking accounts for scrip and to enable conversions hard currencies (at a slight discount).

There is one element of the above explanations that strikes a doubtful chord, i.e. the jump from present 3D printing of simple molds, to complex personal fabrication networks, in just a decade. I may return on that topic after consultation with our own network.”

Here’s another commentary, from Sam Rose:

Robb recognizes the technology and infrastructure systems that we need in place for resilient community. “SPIN” ventures are a definite focus on Ohio Local Food Systems Collaborative.

I think Robb is also on the right track in thinking about people pooling resources to create “coworking”-style facilities (the local place-based “clustering” that he talks about above)

One of the items missing from Robb’s outline, is a general Literacy of Cooperation. People will need some real insight into the gravity of the situation we are in as a world, and into their local situations, to help motivate them to adopt what Robb is talking about. People will also need to learn to volntarily collaborate together effectively, which is something that has for a long time been suppressed in industrial cultures. People without this literacy will want to understand how these choices are better long term choices for themselves and their communities, and this boils down to understanding the core concept of the “commons” (and the “tragedy of the commons”), and the realization that there is a good chance that adopting what Robb is talking about will help people live effectively within a commons, and avoid the dystopian outcomes that so very many people wake up every day and march about the face of the earth believing to be inevitable.

I think that Literacies of Cooperation/Collaboration, participatory culture, human nature, and foresight must go hand in hand with systems that leverage people’s ability to work together. And so, education systems, local money systems, local production systems should also provide infrastructure and support for people who are learning to transition away from unsustainable unlimited growth systems.

For instance, a person new to these ideas could follow a “plan” that would help them become self-employed, voluntary network participant withing 3-4 years time. This is similar to general plans that show people how to plan/save for retirement, how to buy a home, how to be more energy efficient, etc. It’s just that in this case people would be learning how to change the way that they procure food, technology, etc …

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5 Responses to “Exploring Resilient Communities with John Robb (2): the infrastructure”

  1. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Via Sam Rose:

    One other thing that I see missing from Robb’s outline that would have fit in well is “waste equals food”.

    http://www.mbdc.com/c2c_ee.htm

    In peer fabrication networks, this is key (even in the earliest academic fabrication networks, like at MIT, this emerged out of necessity).

  2.   Business,Lifestyle,Nature,Uncategorized | Farmers delighted as near-record rains yield bountiful harvest for … — Recycle Email Says:

    [...] Exploring Resilient Communities with John Robb (2): the infrastructure By Michel Bauwens Factors that will accelerate local farming include (in addition to the acceleration of effort due to negative pressure, like those listed above):. * Open source tinkering networks. Everything from the optimization of crop layouts to low … P2P Foundation – http://blog.p2pfoundation.net [...]

  3. Tom.Christoffel Says:

    Google’s Blog alert sent me to this post because of the term “regionally.” This article and blog should be useful to the subscribers of Regional Community Development News, so I will include a link to it in the September 24 issue. It can be found at
    http://regional-communities.blogspot.com/ Please visit, check the tools and consider a link. Tom

  4. Michel Bauwens Says:

    From Eric Hunting, via email:

    I find little to fault in this concept. Whether one is betting on collapse or simply pursuing a future with a more rational system and a higher quality of life, this presents a seemingly practical starting point for pre-existing community to pursue a shift to localized support networks. I’m pleased to see a much more pragmatic trans-community network model for sustainability here. I think there’s too often an assumption of some sort of absolute self-sufficiency on an unrealistically small scale -something that has probably never existed in human history. Here we see a much more realistic model of civilization evolving out of Industrial Age hierarchies into flat adaptable networks. I see a lot of parallels here to P.M.’s suggestions on the interrelationships between ‘Bolo’ communities. However, it seems to assume a pre-existing coherence of local community that may not exist everywhere or be respected by larger regional and state government -especially in the US. We live in an age where community is a lost and actively suppressed skill set for many industrial societies, only now being rediscovered on-line. Some transitional activities may be needed to reintroduce the societies in existing towns and cities to community and its virtues. It may also assume an urban environment or a structure of small towns that is also rather rare in the US. (what I sometimes call Eastern railroad towns; old -sometimes colonial era- towns relatively close to large cities that still have a physical center associated with proximity to a railway station that were earlier era farm nexuses and mill towns and then, before WWII and automotive ubiquity, hosted the first wave of upper-middle-class suburbanization based on rail commuting. A form typified by towns like Morristown, Hackettstown, Boonton, Madison/Chatham, and Chester in NJ. These forms tended not to survive the automobile, either dying out or bloating into amorphous semi-urban lower-class suburbs -suburban slums- as a dumping ground for ejected urban poor from gentrified regions of the cities)

    Concerning the pace of progress in independent industry he suggests, one should bear in mind that there is an assumption here of a compulsion to accelerate this development based on the perceived threat of imminent collapse. (of course, how many people actually perceive this threat and to what degree is debatable. This form of collapse has been predicted since the 1950s and Capital has proven very skillful at keeping the dinosaur on artificial life-support) This would induce not only an acceleration in the pace of tool development but a complimentary redesign of artifacts to accommodate smaller scale tools. Form and function are not independent of production technique. The technology of production is reflected in the design of artifacts independently of function. (the difference in look between electronics of the early 20th century and today has more to it than just a decline in the popularity of Art Deco) But there’s almost always more than one way to do anything. Most of our contemporary artifacts could be accommodated easily with smaller scales of production with lower-overhead technique simply by redesigning them to suit. It’s not automatically true that centralized mass production is the most practical for any artifact, especially in the context of expanding labor and transportation costs. That presumption has just not been tested very often in the past -most often by entrepreneurs seeking ways to crack market hegemonies whose standard production models they can’t afford to buy into. For instance, why is a refrigerator a single appliance and not a kit of parts? In fact, some recent designer refrigerators are kit of parts systems intended to allow one to convert any kitchen cabinets and drawers into functional refrigerators -a tactic popular with some of the New Modernist home designers and which, oddly enough, produces more energy-efficient performance because the kit-of-parts systems have to use more advanced technology to function at all, not just compete with the rest of the normal refrigerator market. Flat Pak furniture is another great example that. It didn’t just make furniture simpler to make and cheaper to ship, it made it possible to pass-off the labor cost of end-production assembly to the consumer. That made IKEA. Many such ‘rethinks’ are possible. Few of them have been explored.

    In my documentation of the Open Source Everything project under TMP2, one of the example projects I listed is an idea called Enclosure Profiles. This would be a collection of open source aluminum extrusion designs that are intended to be used as quick-assembled pre-finished enclosures for electronics and machines. You just extrude these tubes in various dimensions like stock lumber or extrude-on-demand. Grooves on their inside hold circuit boards and components and flat cover plates of most any material host bezels for controls/displays, sockets, etc. Some extrusions would come in variants of the same base dimensions. They might have protrusions for legs and fins for heat sinks. Segments of these would be used in combination stacks. You make a case on demand by cutting the tubes to length, mill the ends clean, and then cut your flat stock covers to suit and the whole thing is held together with set-screws. The end result is just like the famous Tivoli Model One radio -a luxury product by current standards. And it’s easy to recycle or reuse. This is actually how a lot of industrial electronics is currently made -they often don’t have production volumes to justify fancy molded ABS cases but can often afford a custom extrusion. Most electronics appliances that exist today could be accommodated by these kinds of enclosures. Very often the elaborateness of production of Industrial Age goods is merely for style or a deliberate attempt to suppress start-up market competition by conning the market into setting the bar on ‘quality’ pointlessly high. Statistics like clock speed, torque, horse-power, 0-60mph ratings, and so on are very often just another form of tail fins and chrome. There’s a stand-up comedian who had this routine where he described how, when he was a child, his mother would constantly fiddle with dashboard controls whenever she was driving him anywhere so that it made driving seem so ridiculously complicated that when he got old enough to drive himself he had no interest in it because it seemed like too much work. This is the psychology behind a lot of product design. This is why houses still use light stud framing, cars have pressed steel welded unibody construction, and personal computers still need operating systems.

  5. Openworld Says:

    Further opportunities to advance resilience in communities –

    1. Spread local awareness of jobs in fast-growing global freelance markets for telework (50,000+ projects offered daily at http://www.freelanceq.com)

    2. Set up microscholarships offers residents to update skills via free and low-cost on-demand learning and certification networks (brainbench.com etc)

    3. Engaging free/affordable talent to build eGovernment solutions that remove barriers to business growth ( http://www.rewiredstate.org and openworldinstitute.org)

    – Mark Frazier, Openworld.com and EntrepreneurialSchools.com

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