16 February 2011

Living Lab

I wrote this about two years ago. Some of you will be familiar with it. If reading this you have interest, ideas, suggestions, corrections, etc. please let me know. The basic way of working described below is based on a process used by Gurdjieff. The ideas are as usual an amalgam. The illustration is of course Banksy.

Context & Summary
The overall context of this work is the question of a harmonized, resilient way for all of humanity to live. This can be considered as a question of harmonization of the biosphere and anthroposphere (the whole of human acting, living and relating on the planet), locally expressed in each of our lives. It can also be considered as Gregory Bateson's question, “Is consciousness a sufficient feedback system for evolution?” Much of our work and work with others over the past decades has been inside of the question of self aware human systems. This idea for a Living Laboratory is an expression of that question, now considering what is needed for participation in the anthroposphere itself as a self aware system. This sort of experiment serves as the basis for fundamental change, having to do with both cessation of habits and patterns of the current global enactment and creating a meaningful context for emergence.

We live in a time of increasing volatility and uncertainty. Climate change, economic crisis and volatility, energy descent, social volatility, resources and wealth inequity and environmental degradation are all just symptoms of the totality of the human system (anthroposphere) ‘functioning’ on the planet. Efforts are being made in the areas of free market and technological innovation, entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship, sustainability, poverty alleviation, alternative energies, building, health care, education and all the elements that make up the social fabric of our living together on the planet. Much of this attention can be divided into two main categories: 1- efforts to maintain something about the social fabric of developed and emergent economies, while mitigating the negative consequences of traditional growth models; 2- efforts to 'raise the standard of living' of some specific population or community consistent with the espoused values of developed and emerging economies. A third area might be considered where people are engaged in an active negotiation concerning who will profit and bear the costs of desired changes, whatever they may hold those to be. A great deal is being done and learned in these areas.

What is less clear is how we deal with the social fabric, institutions and personal self-identification associated with the consolidation of profit in the developed and emerging economies themselves. People in various conditions throughout the world are self identified with life styles and way of being that is itself stimulating the current volatility and collapse. Unless this is worked with, most other efforts, no matter how successful are of limited utility. If this same system of growth is replicated in the developing and emerging economies, no amount of 'good work' will be of any use. The attempts to ‘raise the standard of living’ of any population when done in a way that is modeled on or even affected by these traditional growth models has the potential to do increased damage. About 70% of such ‘sustainability’ efforts fail. As with mergers and acquisitions (about 70% of which also fail) this failure is not an absolute failure. It is the impression of failure created by an incongruence between the espoused and lived aims of such efforts at a fundamental level. For instance, if all merger/acquisition proposals simply said 'we are going to consolidate this wealth in these hands,' they would then almost all be successful. We face the dilemma that most of the ways we have of thinking about change are themselves embedded in the historical paradigm that is creating the conditions we are trying to address, coping with or denying. While there are many access points to these questions, we are interested in working with the question of self-identification in daily life in developed and developing economies. As this project was conceived we were particularly interested in working with people born after 1980. It is our experience that people experience several immediate types of dilemma.

Many such people clearly experience this moment of crisis and even feel it directly. They experience it as the question of whether to affiliate with the historical for profit institutions and paradigm of the industrial era, or whether there is a meaningful alternative. Much of their activity is based on 'campaigns' to raise awareness, which after several years becomes increasingly frustrating to them. They are unclear about how to “get into action”, exploring alternative and emergent models for how to live. In their efforts to do so they often experience the same obstacles in a microcosm of their campus or community that we are all now facing globally. They are left with the very limited sort of question about whether to attempt ‘change from within’ or a rebellion ‘against’ the existing system. There are not good or socialized transition models to consider these questions or even to build the capability to consider these questions in most of our communal and educational settings. There are not good transition models for how to move from the educational setting to a professional and civic setting in an exploration of alternatives.

We are proposing a 'curriculum' to explore and build capability in exactly these areas. Our point of entry is the assumption that there is a deep level of self-identification with the growth models of the industrial era and no clear alternatives. Even the case of successful 'rebellion' or 'revolution' as a change model, can be based on the negation of the current, and so defined by it. This often leads to a reinforcement of the underlying structure and dynamics of the current condition, though the form may change. The generation that is coming of age now must explore, enact, and lead, the discovery of real alternatives. This must be done in the developed and emergent economies, not just as the honorable intent to aid those elsewhere. This must be done inter-generationally. The 'curriculum' we are proposing is a living lab that will build capability in the areas of self-reflection, critical thinking, collaboration and emergent design for a sustainable way of life. It is not a proposed 'solution.' It is the endeavor to build a kind of capability together.

Cohorts of students will work together to explore and de-construct the current nature of their identity as a 'consumer' and begin to design and enact small, situated experiments to explore lived alternatives. This is a deconstruction of our participation in the of living that is creating and contributing to the current volatility and collapse. There is not a prescriptive result insisted upon, though clearly we have our own biases. The intended result has to do with the capacity for reflection that leads to an informed action individually and collectively. We are not insisting on what action such a capability will reveal, though of course we have theories about that. All work is team based, situated not only in the academic community, but in the broader community where the academy and students are situated. The work is situated in our lives and the social fabric of our communities. We imagine participants using open source learning and action research to provide rigor where such rigor is required. The learning model is multidisciplinary. Such a Living Lab would itself be a process of collaboration and emergence, expressed by the participants in the process itself as a living, changing design, employing the methodologies of open space, systems thinking, dialog, critical thinking, self observation, action learning and other core disciplines. This requires capability building and practice among all participants.

The following is an illustrative look at the form.

Living Lab
Week 1
  • Self observation in some specific area of consumer identity (e.g. media consumption, energy, food, water, social, etc.)
  • Team generated database of materials situating this area in the larger social, economic, environmental, scientific, and human systems.
Week 2
  • “Fasting” with respect to that particular area. Safe self-interruption of the habitual and 'unconscious' behaviors and assumptions of consumption (Media fast, 100 mile diet, fossil fuel curtailment, etc.)
  • Team teaching of one another with respect to Week 1 research (e.g. Calculation of supply chain, environmental impact, institutional and economic structure, historic and emergent models of my consumption patterns and behaviors in that particular area, or clarity about why such actions are currently impossible and strategic consideration of that).
  • Situating the implications locally in my own life and the life of the community.
Week 3
  • Reflection and dialog on the assumptions, values, and models that underpin our habitual consumption in this area
  • Consideration of alternative values or value expression and strategies
  • Consideration of strategies for conserving what is important to us
  • Strategic consideration of consequences and ecology associated with experiment
  • Design individual change experiment in our own life
  • Carry out simple experiment
Week 4
  • Conclude experiment
  • Rest and reflect
  • What have we learned?
  • Share findings across global network
  • Deal with any unintended consequences of our experiment
Group or individual work should take about one day a week. The 'experiments' should be an integrated part of life. Every four weeks we will consider and work on a different area of our patterns, institutions and systems of consumption. It is important to recognize that we are not attempting to proselytize some specific set of values in a process like this. Rather our intent is to equip ourselves to individually and collectively make informed choices and have a safe and meaningful environment in which to test and refine those choices. Over the course of a year participants would cover the key areas of community and living:
  • Energy(local and alternative energy, baseline energy efficiency, feedback systems, etc.)
  • Food (sustainable agriculture, permaculture design, etc.)
  • Water (water conservation, hydrology, desertification, etc.)
  • Waste (emissions, circular economy and growth, etc.)
  • Building/Dwelling (localized and LEEDs design, community 'transition', etc.)
  • Economy (classical and alternative economic models)
  • Media (media consumption and communication)
  • Transportation
  • etc.
We would expect people to be involved in a portfolio of personal and local projects to ground learning in all these areas and combinations of these areas. This lab is divided into 3 ‘semesters’ each of about 3 months duration. The first semester is focused on the student’s own life and situated experience, dealing with many of the basics of systems thinking, critical thinking, dialog and self-reflection. The second semester would begin to focus more explicitly on collaboration and design. The third semester would involve the design and delivery of a small community based project. Though this is described as a set of linear ‘phases’ there is a great deal of overlap between the apparent phases. We are considering the nature of collaborative efforts and design even as we build capacity for dialog, self reflection, etc. In addition to self-observation and design considerations in each of these areas participants will create a research 'database' for each area, reflecting the inter-dependencies. For example, during the energy month, each cohort of students will gain basic knowledge of the modern history of energy, the science behind energy use and consumption, the science of our current condition, the science of our emerging future, alternatives, etc. The historical and scientific represents a particular frame. We will explore alternative interpretations as well as the framing activity itself. This is not accomplished by some lecture based format, but is created by the participants themselves using open source resources and action learning. In this process, with energy for example, it will be necessary to begin to touch on inter-dependencies in all the other areas; understanding the economic and societal dynamics, the water and waste profiles, etc. Participants might distinguish underlying models, e.g. extraction or cyclic notions of energy and energy usage. Participants will engage in baseline and inventory activities, such as calculating their carbon footprint individually and collectively, carrying out analysis of their own energy usage, extrapolation to a systems view, etc. This research activity will become a repository shared globally between the local Living Labs. We will use guided open source, participatory research to engage in this. In the process we will also be creating an integrated database and resource that will reside on the web as an open source resource itself. Results from working in this way over the year include:
  • an integrated view of our own enacted models,
  • an inventory of our current condition and action,
  • a working clarity about the 'gap' between our espoused and lived models
  • development of a strategic and aspirational view with regard to specific areas and on the whole
  • situated experience with change process,
  • specific, enacted, changes or conservation in the 'areas' explored,
  • specific plans for current and future action,
  • specific change and learning in all 'areas' explored,
  • developed capacity for working in the 'areas' individually and collaboratively
  • developed capacity for working with reflective change methodologies
It is important to recognize that working in this way may involve the felt experience of 'crisis' in several ways. In particular we are intentionally interrupting deeply held habits and assumptions related to our own lived identity. This can naturally produce a kind of 'identity' crisis. People may go through many of the phases of a grieving process with more or less intensity (Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance). It is possible to do the work as an individual. It is our feeling that much of the value comes from navigating the process together with others. We would recommend a local group of 10-20 and we feel the most benefit would be produced by several of these sorts of groups going through such a process together at different locations on the planet.

I have already done some small versions of this with people (high school classes, independent interested groups, individuals, etc.) with interesting results. It is the kind of thing that you could just take and modify to work for you or the community in which you live or practice. If you do this, I would recommend taking great care with the immediate ecology, as I have discussed elsewhere in the blog, and being gentle with yourselves and others in the process. In work like this, although we can distinguish 'ends' and 'means', the means themselves are an end. There is a very interesting Venezuelan organization (Cesacasola) about which I may post later. One of their primary insights was a shift from the artificial duality of 'teaching someone to fish' or 'giving someone a fish' to a consistent focus on 'fishing together.' This sort of work is not proposing an idealized solution to a perceived problem in any way, and I would not recommend approaching it in that spirit. If you are interested in exploring or furthering this kind of reflective work, and you want o consider how to get started, supporting materials (reading lists, processes internal to the overall process, etc.), please let me know.


  1. I am in.
    i have studied permaculture.
    am going through the grieving process about so many things
    am having identity crisis
    am interested in reflecting, creating with others
    it is unknown to me quite what
    my next thing was to study/look into dwellings (?)
    how people are arranging to live
    create homes and communities modeled toward efficiency, beauty, community private space--and how to live together
    i am in

  2. Hi- what I feel might be most interesting is if you had a group of people where you are, to go through something like this together, though we could certainly do this in a distributed or even individual manner. I sort of took a run at doing it in a kind of 'centralized' model, but I no longer feel that really serves. I think there is still an interesting group in Boston that might do it in parallel with another group. Serena, in Hong Kong has wanting to do this for almost a year now. There were people in Qatar and Brazil who were interested and if something seems to be emerging about this I can contact them. I confess, that I am now much more interested in this being self-organized by the people doing it to the greatest extent possible, since I think this is how it will be meaningful, inclusive and actionable over time.

    Based on my current thinking, I feel the 'emergency preparedness' in the spirit of resilience thresholds, might actually be a place to start, though that might prove too difficult. I remember reading a piece of research that talked about the difference between $2/day and $15,000/year. After $15,000 a year (in a localized context) there seem to be diminishing returns, but the difference between $2/day and $15k/year is immense, as you can imagine. This is what I mean by 'threshold'. It seems to me that some of that can be considered in the absence of 'deconstruction' and that a kind of creative, resilient preparedness might be one of those. I am exploring models for this. What imagine is a kind of 'zero' month starting with this and getting organized about the larger endeavor. We could talk about how to structure such a thing if it seems of interest. Might be better just to jump in and work out these sorts of things as 'experiements' along the way.

    Thank you again for your willingness to share your thoughts and feelings in such an immediate and evocative way. I may post something about this and will track interest as it emerges. -roger