By James Gien Wong and Jose Ramos 

The city of Cape Town is confronting an unprecedented water crisis. Because of a complex number of factors, including a prolonged drought, the city is facing a complete shutdown of its municipal water distribution. The city has already established a “Day Zero”, the day when all taps will cease to flow, and its inhabitants will have to walk, drive, taxi or take the train each day to one of 200 water distribution points set up around the city to pick up 25L emergency rations of water. Bottled water is flying off the shelves, and home-owners are locking up their faucets to discourage water theft. The city has levied heavy fines against those violating the strict quota of 50L of water per person per day. The Day Zero dashboard shows all the new water supply projects to supply water to the city, but as of this writing, most of them are behind schedule. The city of 4 million is in a race against time to stretch the remaining reserves of water to last until new water arrives. If the reserves run dry, Cape Town will be the first major city in the world with the dubious honor of shutting off its water supply.

The citizens of Cape Town are responding with an equally unprecedented show of creativity, demonstrating that even in a crisis, there is a silver lining. In response to the crisis, the global citizen collective Stop Reset Go, the Cape Town Science Centre,  the global Berlin-based Open Source Circular Economy Days, and Envienta are banding together to launch a global ideation hackathon to crowdsource open source solutions. The hackathon will physically take place on Feb 24 and 25 at the Cape Town Science Centre with guest speakers, panelists, workshops, displays, and spaces for DIY citizen innovators. The process will be supported by SAREBI, a South African Renewable Energy Business Incubator, who will help in judging various ideas and offering valuable Master Business Incubator classes to promising technical water innovations. Simultaneously, the hackathon will take place virtually at the Open Source Circular Economy Days community page. Local physical participants will transcribe local work onto project pages, where global participants can co-participate.

The rationale of the hackathon is to mobilize the sleeping giant of “the commons”, creating a systematic and large-scale process for a planet of innovators to help solve a local crisis. In other words, what if Cape Town were not alone in addressing its crisis, but had the solidarity of thousands of citizen innovators, engineers, organizers and technology developers from around the world? What if an open source platform were created where all contributions were available to every citizen around the world to draw upon and produce/manufacture in their own locale? The citizens of Cape Town would be able to draw upon an unprecedented resource array to solve the city’s water crisis. Enter Hack the Water Crisis.     

The hackathon follows a strategy called cosmo localization, understood through the expression “Design Global, Manufacture Local. Leveraging the world wide web to mobilize designers to create a planetary design commons, we can create a resource accessible to local peer producers everywhere, empowered by old and new production technologies. Local South African journalist Daniel Silke writes: “…National government too, needs to move from its recent suspicion of the outside world to a new embrace. It’s not just about gaining foreign investment, it should be an embrace to harness global expertise – and Cape Town does need it urgently.” The hackathon event is part of phase 1, a global collaboration to gather ideas. In the following months, some of those ideas will be turned into prototypes and professional products then lead to a later phase 2 stage – the global distribution of the finalized designs to a network of local manufacturers and maker spaces to produce locally everywhere.

The critical question is can we establish such a planetary design commons that can help solve this crisis? Imagine a global open source alliance of cities drawing upon their citizens and resources to solve each other’s crisis. On a large scale this is what is being called “protocol cooperativism”, the development of protocols for sharing of knowledge and resources on a large-scale and systemic basis to mutualise our capacity to address the major challenges that we face.  Inspired by the terminology of MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), we introduce the term MOOCC (Massive Open Online Commons Collaboration). Although the term may be new, MOOCC is not. The software world has leveraged MOOCC for decades to develop some of the most important open source software powering the internet, such as Linux,Ubuntu,GNU, MySQL, and Apache   Cosmo localization recognizes that we live in a brick and mortar world, and extends MOOCC methodology into production in general.

In traditional capitalism,  innovators seek financial investment capital to bring their ideas to market. Securing funds allows innovators to exchange it to obtain the resources they need to turn their idea into reality. A large portion of that investment capital is spent on human capital. For instance, labor costs make up half the R+D budget in OECD countries. MOOCC provides a way to bypass a significant portion of the traditional financial capital by going directly to the human capital. With money, it’s easy to buy the expertise we need, but without itl, we need a compelling vision of an end product that all the collaborators desire. And because, relatively speaking, so few innovators meet all the criteria of having the right skills, open source ethos and being able to work pro-bono, this requires casting the net for innovators far and wide. Appealing to the local community is not sufficient, we need to cast the net around the globe. The “massive” in MOOCC is therefore critical.

Traditional capitalism is based on competition but the emergence of the sharing economy has pointed the way to a collaborative economy. To distinguish between these two types of economy, it is convenient to introduce the terminology of the MEconomy as an economy based upon competition, and the WEconomy as one based upon collaboration. The distinction is subtle because even in the MEconomy, collaboration is still a fundamental requirement. The distinction is one more based on a shift in narratives, that drives a shift in behavior. In reality, we all live in a schitzophrenic world. When we are inside our homes, we practice the WEconomy, where social capital is high and the need for money is almost nonexistent. But as soon as we open the door and enter the larger world, we are forced into the MEconomy, and to use money to negotiate all our social transactions. Pyschologically, we feel much more comfortable when we are sharing and have a sense of community, but we forfeit that each time we leave our homes and communities. The MEconomy and WEconomy dualism does not follow the traditional dualism of capitalism vs socialism, a polarizing and false dichotomy. Human beings are both physiologically distinct individuals and yet, require social groups to live and maintain our emotional wellbeing.  Homo Sapien is an altricial species. We are born helpless and immobile – our very survival is dependent on the social support of our parents. Hence the WEconomy is not so much the opposite of MEconomy as it is a balance between taking care both of ourselves and others.

Intersecting with contemporary circular economy theory, the concept of a circular WEconomy is a further refinement of the WEconomy concept, one which recognizes and attempts to correct a politically incomplete definition of the circular economy. For in the current definition of a circular economy, there is no inclusion for democratization of production. The means of production within an idealized circular economy can still support large wealth inequality. Wealth equality is not separate from industrialization and production. It is no accident of history that exploitation of indigenous people around the globe, slavery and industrialization are all intertwined. The current global geographical and corporate polarization of wealth is part and parcel of the means of production that evolved out of the Industrial Revolution.  It is only by defining a circular WEconomy that we introduce the important dimension of wealth democratization into the ecologically necessary circular economy, and redress generational inequality propagated by mainstream economy theory which has traditionally ignored it.  

This project is an example of emerging projects which take a nontraditional approach to addressing development challenges. In addition to the open source and cosmo localization strategies, the project also takes an “urban planetary boundary approach”, to investigate the reasonable limits that should exist in a city’s ecological footprint if we are to create sustainable cities that do not overstep our planetary carrying capacity. Thus, while this project will leverage planetary solidarity to solve Cape Town’s water crisis, the city itself can be working toward making a contribution to solving our global ecological challenges.  

For those interested in supporting or participating in the hackathon, please find out more at  

1 Comment Hack the Cape: crisis or opportunity?

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