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WeCommune: Tech Support for Communes
Julia Levitt, 16 Jun 09

Post-ownership living may be closer than we think. We see the evidence all around us, in the form of innovations from community kitchens to emerging mobility solutions. So, if people are recognizing the practical potential in social solutions, why aren't even more models for collaboration, sharing and product-service systems thriving? According to architect Stephanie Smith, spurring the movement may be a simple matter of providing the tech support.

This week Smith, who heads WeCommune, plans to launch the first software platform designed specifically for, well, communing (if you visit, you may get a splash page while they transition). The platform's services will allow groups of three or more people to self-organize a "commune" defined by a shared interest or shared zip code, and will provide tools for communicating, organizing and managing projects, and sharing resources.

What is commune-support software?

WeCommune is a networking platform, outfitted with commune-specific project management applications that make it much different from a social networking tool. The software enables common and practical actions – for example, a group of members can organize a buying club, set up a rideshare system, or barter goods and services. And like everything on the web, WeCommune gives users the option to extend their reach: by networking to other communes, groups can make certain assets like bartering and goods-sharing pools more robust.

wecommune_logo.jpgWeCommune offers the basic platform free to anyone who wants to use it, and even the more complex services are available for a monthly subscription under $2. Smith hopes that by making it affordable she'll enable communes of all sorts – from those who are already sharing, like condo associations and college dorms, to neighborhoods and interest groups.

"We couldn't find anything out there like this," says Smith. "We feel like if we hit a home run, we're going to be the ultimate community application."

Why communes need the boost

In her L.A.-based studio, Ecoshack, Smith designs small-scale, modular projects like ecovillages, yurts and tipis that "invent new ways to live lightly on the Earth." But her real vision for sustainability acknowledges that the way people interact with one another, use resources and build community are the most important components of any environment, from eco-enclave to suburban cul-de-sac. As it turns out, a lot of people were willing to help her test her theory. When she launched a site called Wanna Start a Commune? as an Ecoshack spinoff, she quickly connected with three cul-de-sac neighborhoods in Southern California that invited her to help them start their own communes. Since then, she's become a self-titled "meta-starter of communes."

Almost from the first meetings of her three "Beta test" cul-de-sac communes, however, she noticed that even where there was intention, there weren't effective tools available for completing projects in a group. Nascent communes would have ideas, for example, to create a disaster preparedness plan for their neighborhood, or to turn a neglected space into a community garden. But coordinating schedules, resources, skill sets and other components of the plan among neighbors -- many of whom had never been in the same room before -- was more trouble than Smith had anticipated. Software seemed like an intuitive solution.

"The group members said, 'isn't there an iPhone app for that?'," she remembers. "And these aren't 21-year-olds; these are older people, too. I had to solve a technology problem."

Smith tested out versions of existing social networking software, including Ning and Yahoo! Groups, but didn’t find the functionality that she was looking for. So she sat down and designed her own, with the help of collaborator Matt French and programmer Josh Cain.

An unlikely champion

Smith doesn't live in a commune herself, and defines herself -- somewhat ironically -- as a loner. But her comfortable distance from the subject has given her a more objective lens for understanding community – how it works, and what gets in its way. She's been studying community since the mid-90s, when she explored it in her master's thesis at Harvard, under the tutelage of master architect Rem Koolhas. Smith found herself in China in 1996, a turbulent time characterized by extreme real estate speculation and the burst of a housing bubble. She focused her research on one intriguing social pattern: as groups of rural villagers moved to the cities in droves, they would often move collectively into one concrete apartment building, and re-create the community structure. Smith found the process fascinating. In her words, "They would take these global pieces of architecture as their own, and make them very local again." (Her thesis, To Get Rich is Glorious, is published in the collection Great Leap Forward.)

The community solution, Smith says, "allowed these people not only to be housed, but to be housed in these tight communities where they could flourish…it gave me hope that, in fact, local cultures would be able to fight globalization and stay intact." Now, she says, in the face of the global economic meltdown, she still sees hope for community-based solutions. Ultimately, she thinks, a worldwide trend toward resource-sharing could be just the medicine the economy needs.

It certainly seems like the right platform could touch off a communing revolution. But here's a thought: while we're in the kickoff phases, it might also be time for a new term that defines this particular brand of resourcefulness. Smith chose "commune" because it's actually pretty versatile (she cites Wikipedia's definition, "a community in which resources are shared"). But even though great, innovative ideas, practices and cultures emerged from communes in the 60s, the word itself remains pretty loaded with counter-cultural connotations that don't seems as universally sticky in 2009.

Is the 21st Century commune a strategic collaboration? Or does the stretchiness of communal resources make for elastic living? We'll work on some new language from our end, but in the meantime, call out your best ideas for the new communal meme in the comments.

Finding community (by any name) isn't that difficult, Smith says, but it can involve looking for things that aren't obvious to most people.

"You need to understand that your community isn't necessarily your group of best friends. You need to ask yourself, 'do we have a shared value set so that we feel comfortable planning projects and sharing resources over time? Do we have people of various ages who feel comfortable sharing their skills? Do we have a social infrastructure for getting things done?"

Front page article photo: flickr/yuankuei, Creative Commons license.

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Comments

Hmm, IS a community of like minded people necessary for the definition? Is having a "shared value" set necessary? I guess if "value set" she means agreed upon method of enhancing the local community and township, maybe. However, it is interesting that Claude Lewenz, the "How to build a Village" guy, speaks so publically against his villages being "eco-villages" precisely BECAUSE he doesn't want to be seen as gathering a group of "like minded" people.

He doesn't want just "greenies" or "Eco-activists" living in his villages of 500 people co-ordinated into local economic townships of 10 thousand (the "Village-Town"). He wants his local living Village Town solution to become as mainstream as possible, appealing to everyone, and yet still having the side-effect of drastically reducing car use, saving materials, creating local food ecosystems and farming, all in the name of "good real estate".

See his talk presented to the University of NSW.

http://villageforum.com/

I asked him why he didn't spend at least 60 seconds of his TEDx Sydney talk on how his concept would solve peak oil and help solve global warming (at least for the local residents) and he replied that he'd rather not try and appeal to just eco-activists and focus on the monster "Pogwec" (Peak Oil, Global warming and Economic collapse". Pogwec does not sell real estate, positive and exciting dreams of a lifestyle does.

And I have to say, building this "hard" infrastructure the right way the first time will do more to enhance the natural "commune" feeling than any piece of software. Having "like minded" people co-operate is a great thing, but it can also be very fragile. Having people pool their whole lives into the local village infrastructure and beauty and culture around hard systems that are designed right the first time round, now that seems more enduring.


Posted by: Eclipse Now on 16 Jun 09

The competition to save ourselves is heating up!

Bright Neighbor assists corporations, organizations, governments and communities with the mission of supporting commune-mindedness.

So far, a large electric utility, a leading green builder, a municipality, and private groups have licensed the system... Portland has a free version at www.portland.brightneighbor.com.

Capitalism CAN save itself if it changes rapidly from within.


Posted by: Randy White on 20 Jun 09

Every so often I do a google sweep to see who is saying what in relation to my work. It’s a great way to get feedback. Tonight I came across "Eclipse Now’s comment after my TEDxSYD talk in May 09.

I recall the conversation.

To clarify my answer to him...

I have no problem with the principles of eco-villages. Treading lightly on Earth, not asking Nature to deal with our detritus is important... indeed it may prove essential to life as we know it.

I do have difficulty seeing eco-villages as an effective, real-world solution, however. For example, in 1997-2000 on an island near Auckland NZ, I built an earth-brick home that has a very light eco-footprint as well as being a beautiful place to live. But while I built it, on the mainland developers put up 20,000 suburban sprawl homes on what used to be fertile fields growing food. 1 eco to 20,000 sprawl is ineffective. Until we can change the 19,999:20,000, we are fooling ourselves.

Eco communities appeal to a small number of people - probably the same percentage that vote Green Party in New Zealand. This suggests that if we built a 10,000 person VillageTown made of twenty 500 person villages, one of the villages might be for eco-village-minded people. So how do we attract the other 9,500 non-eco people?

I’m not opposed to eco-villages. Indeed I expect in VillageTowns we will probably see one of the villages designed and built by a group that wants to live in an eco-village. But the other 19 villages that make up the VillageTown will probably cluster people around some completely different motivator. How do we attract them?

I don't believe we can build communities based on negatives, and responding to Peak Oil, Global Warming and Economic Collapse (Pogwec) are essentially fear-based motivators. Yes, we do need to address these issues, but not as the basis for creating communities.

The last time we decided to redesign how people live in response to a negative was at the end of World War II. Then the issue was fear of a second Economic Collapse (the Great Depression 2.0). All the government contracts were drying up just as millions of soldiers were returning home. So the government voted laws and funding to redesign how people live by building highways, enacting zoning laws, closing neighbourhood schools and separating everything so you needed a car to get things done. It succeeded, the US economy boomed as a result. Only suburban sprawl produced a whole new set of challenges, like Pogwec, alienation of old people, bored young people, new health challenges, etc.

Instead of responding to Pogwec, I propose we need to go back to basics and ask why we build communities. Do we build them for transport, for consumption, to stimulate the economy? I suggest these are very bad reasons to build communities, producing all the problems we face today.

In the TED talk, I quoted Victor Papanek quoting Aristotle, who said once we have provided for the basics, people build communities for the Good Life, which he defined as conviviality, artistic and intellectual growth, religion and politics. Now, 2,300 years later, we may define the Good Life slightly differently (noting that religion and politics meant something different to Aristotle than it does today), but overall, if we build communities for the Good Life, where a robust economy is the means, not an end in itself, I propose we will have a better community... and as an intended side-effect, our little patch of 10,000 people will not need to use petroleum or need to add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.

Of course, the other reason I did not use 60 seconds to talk about Pogwec is numeric. The shortest speech I usually give is 30 minutes, and to adequately cover it so people get it is more like 60 or 90, especially since I usually use a lot of photographs. 18 minutes is short.

Everyone knows about real estate development, right? We all live in homes, most of us live near other people's homes. We go to work in workplaces. We shop in stores. So, when I propose to turn that upside down, a lot of "givens" come unstuck.

I think it was Charles Handy who first told the story of the frog being slowly boiled to death... happens so slowly it does not notice, does not hop out of the pan to save itself. Well, in my talks I face a similar challenge; telling people it's getting mighty hot in here, and we are slowing cooking ourselves. Not cooking as in global warming - but as in destroying the very meaning of community. For example, we seem to have redefined people… once we called them citizens, now we call them consumers.

Fundamentally, humans are social beings. Yet in the past half century or so we have established a different measure... one driven by exceedingly well researched pecuniary interest. We no longer build for the good life, thus our social needs become secondary. Unlike the boiling frog example, however, in examining why we build communities, it is not one single issue, like heating water, but a massive combination of threads that got us in this mess. We have built a system, a very complicated, interdependent infrastructure – for too many wrong reasons.

It’s easy to explain this in a 256 page book that took 18 months to write. It is a greater challenge to explain this in 18 minutes. First, I must get people to even see the primary threads tying them down, to acknowledge they exist. Then I must show how they are attached, how they are interrelated. Finally, I then can propose how to create a community that is not based on those threads, yet can exist within a global infrastructure made of those threads. In that complex process condensed into 18 minutes, I try to bring them to ask a single question that I hope will lead them to new, better answers:

Why do we build communities?


Posted by: Claude Lewenz on 16 Jul 09

I am curious because my friend is interested in letting others build on his land. He was in an accident and broke his back and needs help. I am trying to find out for him if there is a religious exemption, that is, using your land for a "religious cult", to curb intrusive building codes and give more power to use alternate waste management systems and such. I think I've heard of this but am having a hard time finding it. could you give me some information? thanks. june.


Posted by: June Hamley on 22 Apr 10

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