Subtitle: Imagination taking power

A quick chat with Michel Bauwens about P2P, the commons and the imagination

Last week, close to my home, was the Transition Design Symposium. It brought together people from around the world interested in what design can bring to the need for an urgent societal Transition, and for 2 days its attendees basked in glorious sunshine and fascinating interactions.  I managed to catch up with Michel Bauwens who was attending and speaking at the conference, and we took some time for a short chat sitting under a tree in sunshine.

Michel spends half his time in Belgium and half in Thailand, and is the founder of the P2P Foundation, a global organisation of researchers working in collaboration to explore peer production, governance and property.  He is a writer, researcher and speaker on the subjects of technology, culture and business innovation.  “It’s about Open Source communities”, he told me. “A lot of it is like what you are doing with Transition, perhaps a bit of a difference would be that I try to look more at the trans-local, trans-national levels, and how we can build counter-power to trans-national capital”.  I started by asking him when he uses those terms, ‘trans-local’ and ‘trans-national’, what does he mean?

“You’re probably familiar with Ezio Manzini?  He talks about “small, local, open and connected”.  For example, permaculture, in one way it’s very local.  You’re thinking, “I’m doing something here, right now”.  At the same time, the learning of permaculture is really global.  People are connecting globally around permaculture.

One permaculture may not be significant, but 5,000 in the world, you’re actually doing something about the global structure.  But a difference I think is you can use the global to support the local and I see the global as its own arena.  We need something like the guilds in the Middle Ages.  We need leagues of cities.  We need leagues of co-ops.  In Fukushima you can’t just say, “I’m going to have a fishing co-op in my village”.  Sometimes you need scale to answer certain issues that can’t be solved at any local level.

In terms of the imagination, how do you see the work that you do impacting imagination and the invitation to imagination, and what’s your sense of the state of health of the imagination in the world that you’re trying to bring these ideas to?  What are the challenges that you see around that?

One of the things where we’re stuck in our imagination is that we see the private and public as a dichotomy, and we see civil society as some kind of left-over, you know, when you come home tired.  Once you bring in the commons, you go already from two to three.  Any problem becomes solvable with civil society, with autonomous creativity, with local imagination.  Then you can still think about how market and state solutions and forms come into play, but you’ve already broadened it.

The second shift that is very important is where do we think value comes from?  As long as you think value comes from the market, you’re very limited in what you can do.  Because you can only imagine what’s existing and live on the crumbs.  Once you start saying, “No, value is what we value”, you claim value sovereignty.  Then you can say, “Well these people are creating value, and these people are creating value.”  The realm of possibilities opens up.

That hopefully stimulates the imagination.  The biggest challenge now is the reactivity that is induced by social media.  I have it in my own life.  I really have to be careful because you can spend so much time reacting to input.  How do you make the space where you can just think?  I see that as a big challenge for our society.

Huge.  And can you tell a little bit about the work you’re doing in Ghent?

I was asked by the city itself, by the Mayor and the Director of Strategy of the city, first of all to map urban commons.  These are commons-orientated civic initiatives.  In order to be in my map, if you like, you would have to have a commons, a shared resource, and we noticed that it went from 50 to 500 in ten years.

Then we worked on, “What do they want?” What do the commoners want so that the city can react and support these initiatives?  Then we looked at institutional design.  How can public commons co-operation occur?  We came up with a few things, like commons accords, which is inspired by the Italian experience where they have this regulation in Bologna.

It allows recognition of the commons, which is very important, because otherwise they can just send the police.  The second thing is the notion of contributory democracy, which requires some explanation.  It’s basically about you have a democratic mandate, as a city.  You’re elected and you say, “We want an ecological transition”.  Then you want to be participatory so you create full transition council.  But you have to invite in the big players, which actually maybe don’t want a transition.  So you get what is called ‘predatory delay’.

The third step is that there are actually citizens carrying out a mandate.  They are doing what we say we want.  Therefore they have legitimacy and have a voice because they’re showing us the way.  This is for me then a way to integrate the commoners and the pioneering initiatives.  The ones that are really bringing down thermodynamic costs: lowering the footprint; producing good food with a lot less waste and energy.  But also social outcomes.

The people actually doing it in the context of market and state failure get their place in the institution.  Then their example can become inspiration for a generalisation of these solutions.

And you’ve seen the process since you started it as something that unlocks imagination, or invites imagination? 

Most of these people think that they’re just doing marginal things against the stream.  That way it also limits their imagination.  They think, “Oh, we’re just doing it for ourselves”.  Once you see you’re part of a broader movement, and you’re recognised by society, it gives you a lot more moral strength to continue and to increase your level of ambition.  We’re doing this for the world.  We’re doing this to change our city.  It’s not just one little thing…

There’s a bigger narrative…

Yeah, yeah.

One of the questions I’ve asked everybody that I’ve interviewed for this book is that if you had been elected as the Prime Minister of Belgium, and you had ran on a platform of ‘Make Belgium Imaginative Again’, and you felt that actually you needed the imagination to be back…  Rather than having a National Innovation Strategy, we need a National Imagination Strategy in terms of education, and policy making, and so on and so on, what might you do in your first few weeks in office?

One of the things I really like, and something today, is the Maker movement, because one of the problems in the West has been this split between thinking and doing, Descartes and everything.  The fact that we now have people who are thinking about what they want to do, and how to do it, and are then doing it and reflecting on their action –it’s an anthropological revolution.  I would make this a new model.  Just open up universities to making maker spaces.

And I know this is not a direct answer but I want to make sure you have this.  It’s the notion of circular finance.  If you can prove to me that your activity lowers the human footprint, lowers thermodynamic and social costs, then I’m going to share the benefits with you and finance your transition.

So if you have a Community Land Trust like in France which demonstrably diminishes the pollution costs and health costs in the Department, then that money that is saved in negative externalities can be used to finance positive transition.  Just look at it systematically, for mobility, housing.

The next thing I would do is job creation.  We have the Brahminic left, educated people with cultural capital but not necessarily money, then we have the Merchant right, but there are people without both.  They are the ones suffering, and they are the ones voting for parties that are destroying our democracy.  I know people don’t like the word ‘jobs’.  I don’t want a job myself, personally, but I think a lot of people do.

It’s a good word, I think.

So create jobs to regenerate the planet…  If you want 100% organic food in a city like Ghent for 5 million meals a year, you can hire 15 farmers.  You can have a zero carbon transport system, and you can have cooks.  Just to have 100% organic food we need 12% of people in the countryside.  Six times more people.  This is the kind of thing we need to be doing, you know.

So given the world that we have in front of us at the moment, and what the world could be, there’s a lot of imagination –

Yes, I think I have too much imagination!  That’s what my wife says…

Where do you think that has come from?  Do you think you had an imaginative education?  How have you cultivated that?

I was a very lonely child.  I was an only child.  My biggest enemy was boredom.  If you’re bored, you have time to imagine.  That emptiness paradoxically became the richness.

I was going to say it was your greatest enemy, but it sounds like it was also your greatest friend in some ways as well?

Yeah.  It’s the oyster thing, right?  So you have the grain of sand in the oyster which creates the pearl.

Yeah, yeah.

It’s how you transform your suffering into some positive that makes your life successful I think.  So the other thing was I was very weak physically as a child.  So my intellectuality became the only thing I could do to actually have a sense of self-worth.  So that’s, I guess, the two together.


  1. Simon Grant
    June 26, 2018

    Thanks for this, Rob — great to meet and talk with you and with Michel!

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