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How can evolvable p2p habitats be created bottom-up without star architects?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
28th March 2014


A contribution from Eric Hunting:

“The big question is, most certainly, how can such evolvable habitats be created bottom-up without star architects? I think the answer to that question can be suggested by changing its context. For instance, how can a custom personal computer be built without the benefit of a bunch of computer engineers? Well, we know the answer to that because people commonly build custom PCs ever day; PC components are designed to a set of common interface standards such that, no matter who manufactures them or where, affords them interoperability and skill-less assembly. You don’t need to be an engineer to build a PC. A child can be taught to do it in an hour or so. The engineering has been compartmentalized and encoded in the topology of the components. They can go together in a great many ways offering an endless variety of options, combinations, and physical configurations, but are more-or-less precluded by their discrete design from going together in functionally ‘wrong’ ways. We see this works every day. The most amazing thing about the contemporary personal computer is not that we now have so much computing power so cheap in such small packages. It’s that a child can take a bunch of parts, each made by a completely different company in a completely different place in the world, put them together in minutes into what is arguably the most complex and sophisticated machine humans have ever devised, and 9 times out of 10 this thing will boot up and run the first time you turn it on. That is the single-most amazing feat in the entire history of human industry, the hallmark of a second industrial revolution, and we completely take it for granted.

The architectural equivalent of this is called a ‘vernacular building method’, which is a term usually applied to old technology that we associate with a particular regional culture and often disregard as anachronistic. But vernacular building methods are, in fact, extremely sophisticated in the same way the design of PC components is. They encode a great deal of ‘experiential engineering’ in their methods and conventions. The difference is that their knowledge evolved bottom-up through trial and error over very long periods of time, not top-down through a lot of mathematics, simulation, and staged experiment. But the end result is a similar encoded physical knowledge with a big benefit; follow these simple rules and techniques dictated by tradition and you can design and build functional and attractive buildings without any special talent or difficult skills. With the establishment of the ‘ken’ measurement system and standardization of building elements in old Japan (specifically for the purpose of easing the rebuilding of communities after war and natural disaster), the construction of entirely custom houses was done in a direct conversation between homeowner and carpenter with little difficulty in predetermining time, materials, and costs. The homeowner might not have the same woodworking skills as the carpenter, and the carpenter might not have a complete understanding of the homeowner’s needs, but they were on equal terms in a basic knowledge of how things were built and so could collaborate as peers on design. Sadly, the Industrial Age systematically destroyed much vernacular building knowledge on the presumption of anachronism before the new formally educated professional class really understood it.

The fact of the matter is that there were no architects or engineers for most of human history and, somehow, we managed to stay alive and, to the present day, most of the world’s built habitat is not built with the aid of these people. Sure, there may be problems where tradition lags behind in contemporary standards and in exploiting the benefits of new technology, but for the most part, at modest scales, vernaculars work. It’s only when we develop this compulsion toward extreme scales of construction, extreme structural performance, for the ‘processing’ of people in masses, or communicating state/class power and mythos through the psychological impression of design that we start needing ad-hoc design, engineering, and building method performed by a professional class. And now that we’ve systematically destroyed so much vernacular knowledge, we’re increasingly stuck with this way of doing things and a trend of disempowering and disenfranchising the inhabitants of an increasingly alien built habitat. It used to be every human being had a basic knowledge of how to shelter himself and to cooperate in a group on this. We all had some degree of vernacular knowledge, a basic understanding of the composition and creation of our habitat passed down through culture. We’re nesting animals. Building things, creating villages and cities, is a fundamentally human schtick. Now, who knows what the hell is behind the plasterboard!

I think the role of 21st century architect is not so much in the design of specific structures with an anachronistic idealized function, perfection, and permanence. Rather, it is like the role of the genetic engineer seeking to realize emergent forms through the development of systems/platforms/vernaculars conveying a particular aesthetic genome. It’s OK to produce objet d’art, but the ultimate objective should not be to produce pretty perfect buildings but to empower inhabitants and communities–to enable habitation–in the same way a computer empowers a user. I often say ‘city’ is a verb. ‘Housing’ is a verb. They’re not things/products, they’re applications of systems. They are the desktop on a computer screen that, like human consciousness, only exists insofar as the system is on-line and running. This is why the past attempts at the industrialization of housing were such a failure. They treated it as a product–an appliance–shoe-horned into a production paradigm that, in practice, has never sustainably manufactured anything bigger or more diverse than the automobile. That missed the point, the same way the dedicated word processors that once, very briefly, competed with personal computers missed the point.”

Eric Hunting continues his reflection, in relation to the property issue:

“”Everybody will own it” is actually a possibility depending on the organization. The Paracity article notes the intention to create a kind of centralized organization for the community that manages the infrastructure and the superstructure while leaving the particulars of human-scale retrofit habitation to inhabitants. Presumably, this organization is going to be the primary land holder in some form and primary interface to the larger city bureaucracy. This could be as simple as a sort of loft apartment or trailer park model or employ a more distributed ownership model. These details haven’t been covered yet on Marco’s blog so we’re speculating here, but there is a model I know of that could potentially suit. It’s a concept I’ve long proposed as the basis of large intentional communities, particularly such things as marine and space settlements. It’s a concept called a Community Investment Corporation or Land Home Bank.

Some here may recall one of Buckminster’s Fuller’s most ambitious project proposals; the Old Man River City project. Intended as an economic stimulus project for chronically troubled Mississippi, the (probably far too) ambitious plan called for the creation of a vast domed city that would provide modern housing for the region’s poor as well as economic opportunity. Key to the plan was an equally ambitious real estate development concept devised by Fuller’s colleague economist Louis Kelso. Kelso was the inventor of the Employee Stock Ownership Program once popular among technology corporations. But what is less well known is that this concept was just one small part of a larger economic development scheme Kelso called the Just Third Way of economics that was intended to repurpose the conventional mechanisms of Capitalism toward the purpose of systematically expanding public ownership in the nation’s industrial and economic infrastructure and thus establish an equitable social share in national productivity and the dividends of progressing technology. Key elements of this system were, on the national scale, a program called the Capital Homesteading Act–a kind of national mutual fund intended to develop a Basic Income–and on the corporate level the ESOP and CSOP, or Consumer Stock Ownership Program. On the community level there was the Community Investment Corporation, used as a mechanism of socially equitable real estate development, particularly in the context of disadvantaged communities.

Basically, the CIC is like a condominium corporation expanded to cover an entire town, city, or region. Started by a government land grant, the CIC owns and develops all the property in the community but is, in turn, owned through shares by all the residents of the community. When you move into this community you don’t buy land. You buy shares of the CIC which equate to an option on the use a certain amount and type of property as available–hence the alternate term Land Home Bank; a kind of bank or credit union for property. You can trade available space anywhere in the community as you like. When you leave the community you can sell the shares back to it or to others. The advantage of this system is that it gives you largely the same kind of potential for household wealth-building as owning property but with much less risk. The CIC doesn’t just develop homes. It does all sorts of commercial development like any normal community. So the stock one acquires when buying-in grows value and generates dividends like any other corporate stock, according to the productivity in the community. But being a stockholder rather than a land holder means you enjoy a share in the collective growth and productivity of the whole community rather than relying on the vicissitudes of one little lot somewhere. And this helps avoid the kind of racist and classist NIMBYism that so plagues American communities. Your property’s value isn’t keyed to what’s happening immediately around it. It’s keyed to the whole community. It doesn’t matter who your neighbors are or what sort of house they choose to build. Imagine if buying an apartment in New York or San Francisco earned you a dividend on, well, damn-near everything. This also gives communities a powerful mechanism for uplifting the poor. Being based on a land grant intended for this, in Old Man River City it was planned to provide loans of shares for housing secured by their own dividends, based on the premise that simply living in a community means you are in some way contributing to its economy and productivity. This could provide great security for people who might not have consistent employment while allowing them a means to build wealth toward retirement. Also, the CIC might employ ESOPs and CSOPs for its workers and leased space tenants, allowing people to earn stock in the community they might eventually exercise an option for a home on.

Now you may have already guessed why I was interested in this model for such things as sea and space settlements. Those kinds of structures can’t do real estate in the silly manner we commonly do it today. These things are arcologies by definition. Necessarily unified macrostructures. You simply can’t treat the space in a habitat on Mars as some mass of permanent private parcels when a collective maintenance process must be maintained and, at any time, it may be necessary to move people and change the structure. Such changes may be frequent and often be a matter of life or death for everyone. You can’t have knuckleheads grandstanding about their property rights or trying to exploit a situation. With a CIC you can maintain the necessary ability to compel people to move without causing them any economic loss. It may be a hassle if they have to move from one place to another in the settlement, but they haven’t lost any present or future equity. That equity is keyed to the settlement as a whole, not any one space in it. And they can have their immediate pick of any other available space on-demand without having to deal with a market. If you design to anticipate such change, the hassle of it can be greatly minimized.”

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