In this interview, The P2P Foundation’s Michel Bauwens and Shareable’s Neal Gorenflo chatted with Alan Moore, founder of the innovation consultancy firm SMLXL and co-author of Communities Dominate Brands, about his new book No Straight Lines: Making Sense of a Non-Linear World. You can read the open access version of No Straight Lines on Alan’s site here, or purchase a copy on Amazon here.
MB: Why did you write this book? How is it rooted in your earlier work and personal evolution?
I wrote this book, because the last book I co-wrote, Communities Dominate Brands, was like taking a peek through closed curtains into a world where there were many connections, like faint signals that were suggesting a new shape of the world.
I have spent a lifetime working in a creative capacity, in design, communications, business, always creating. But, for me the most important question a creative person must ask is; why do I create, and is what I create useful to the world? I could see we faced a design challenge, and it’s the designer that is prepared, to creatively explore, synthesise, reflect, develop, perfect new techniques and ultimately execute.
The systems that were supposed to support us, socially, organisationally and economically, were in fact failing us – the stark reality deep damage was being done to humanity, spiritually, morally and materially. So I felt compelled to try and understand what ‘next’ might look like, and why it could or should be better.
MB: Why did you self publish?
Publishing like many industries is struggling, I wanted to take charge of my own destiny and build a self-authoring publishing platform and eco-system that would give me autonomy. Especially after the frustrating conversations with publishers and agents that had been ongoing for longer than I care to think about.
There is an open access participatory version of the book in an epub format that can be read on any browser throughout the world that links to a web-platform. Part of that platform is a living bibliography which contains videos of authors speaking and descriptions of the 200 odd books that formed part of the research. They’re all available with open access. So if someone is reading and wants to know more about Creative Commons, or mobile technologies, data, participatory cultures etc., the reader can go to the source material.
I think it was Douglas Rushkoff that said in this world you either ‘program or be programmed’. I chose the former.
MB: Why the title?
I argue we are in transition from a linear, industrial, mass media world with its own organising principles and logic to a networked world where we have the ability to organise, create, manufacture, distribute, and share in a very different type of way. It is non-linear because it is also inherently disruptive.
NG: You argue that we’ve entered a phase of history where the trilemma of social, organisational and economic complexity have obsoleted the rules that previously organised our lives. This trilemma will not go away quickly, so what is an individual to do in the short term to cope?
Cope is an interesting word…
Individuals can join the growing number of organisations that are part of creating this non-linear world in finance, education, the law, clean tech, fashion etc.,
They can become co-workers, co-creators, entrepreneurs, evangelists, or all four.
If you feel that for whatever reason life does not add up, go and find what does.
We have to explore this non-linear world not exploit it.
MB: Your book refers to three paradigmatic examples of new business and social models. I cite: “A car company built around a global community as an organisation, enabled by combining flex manufacturing techniques, open source platforms, open legal frameworks and social communication technologies premised upon cooperation, fuelled by the desire to be a great company and green; that can build cars 5 times faster at 100 times less the capital costs. Or, the largest organic diary farm in Britain, that has evolved a methodology that allows it to remain autonomous, profitable and sustainable in a market that is acutely volatile … “
MB: Can you tell us more about the two I have selected, and why they are important?
Local Motors is important because it represents a new model of manufacturing. If you take the key words that define this new design and manufacturing capability it is a very different set of terms than the one that surrounds conventional mass scale manufacturing. It reveals a new literacy.
The company is built around community, it is in a constant process of dialogue and learning, it wants to be green, lean, agile, sustainable, and deliver great products.
Yeo Valley Farms, the largest organic dairy farm in the UK, is a great example of how to deal with ambiguity and how to design for transformation.
The farm was faced with an uncertain future for two simple reasons: first, the volatility of running the farm on a oil-based economy (cost of fertilisers, pesticides, and fuel), and secondly, being too small to compete in the industrial supermarket economy. These two volatile variables pointed to an unsustainable future.
The need was to create a resilient sustainable business that could endure, but how to do it?
Tim Mead owner of Yeo Valley embraced this ambiguous situation, and explored the problem as a systems challenge. If the farm currently exists in a system that is economically hurting us, how do we deal with that? The answer was to go organic, to remove and reduce the impact of the external volatile forces over which they had no control.
Importantly Tim did this for hard headed rational economic reasons, And 25 years ago when Tim made this decision it was considered highly unorthodox. Organic large-scale farms? Culturally it was a bold move, it takes a strong presence of mind and deep conviction to not be swayed by fashionable thinking.
Tim had looked ahead, identifing a pattern that made sense even though the current thinking was to run farms like industrial machines. He sought the best possible long-term future of the farm.
Running a large farm organically requires some head scratching from time to time, but it is sustainable and Yeo Valley produces the best milk in the UK. He reduced the cost of his inputs, and increased the quality and quantity of his outputs. He created a greater demand for a superior quality product. Yeo Valley makes eight out of every 10 organic yogurts in the UK.
The lessons for any organisation faced with disruptive forces is to, as they say, be realistic and imagine the impossible. Look for new meaningful ways to evolve and transition, even if that means what is quaintly called cannibalisation in business terms.
NG: What neighborhood or local community-scale innovations excite you the most?
Fair Finance for Business based in Dalston London demonstrates the true potential of designing around community-scale at a local level.
In the UK, 10 percent of the population – that’s six million plus people – exist without access to a bank account. Their only access to credit is via loan sharks and pay-day lenders which lock these people into a cycle of poverty and increasing desperation. The question that needs to be asked and answered is this: How do we get the UK population without access to credit or a bank account access to a bank or some form of lending mechanism designed for them?
Fair Finance for Business is not a bank, but it does have a licence to lend to these people and has a 95 percent track record of full repayment. Fair Finance for Business has rescued rent associations in the Dalston by ensuring some £12.5m over the last few years was repaid in over due rent due to loan sharkers ensuring their debts were paid first. In the same time period, they have helped over 150 entrepreneurs start local businesses.
In the UK, the government is making big noises about regulating the pay-day-loans and gold for cash organisations, yet they overlook Faisels’s company that actually has a proven track record of helping people get out of crippling debt and move on with their lives. They are more than just a micro-loan company they are in fact contributing to fairer society at a grassroots level.
If Fair Finance operated in every poor borough throughout the country, it would be providing a valuable and important service to this country. It would help communities that struggle step forward, it would help these communities to help themselves. This is a service it seems to me that neither the government nor the banks are willing to provide.
MB: Your book essentially argues that our world and social system faces a design challenge, and therefore requires ‘design solutions’. Can you explain?
This design challenge is about creating for the collective good. Fair Finance for Business, Local Motors, Yeo Valley Farms, in fact all the examples in No Straight Lines represent this ability to design for the collective good, and in doing so contribute to creating a better society. They have designed and brought into existence better functioning, more relevant organisations that are also vibrant economically.
They are all transformational, illuminating new possibilities that we can all learn from. Some are large-scale and global while some are small and local, but they all demonstrate a way of saying ‘this is not good enough’, and we are going to not only fix the problem but, make it much better.
MB: Does sharing, collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer, the commons, have any resonance in your work. Are we moving to a new kind of capitalism, or something else?
All of those phrases resonate. Though I would like to say it is both collaborative co-creation and collaborative consumption.
These are words that represent the some of the descriptive literacy frame-working what makes up our non-linear world. They signal a desire to operate in a manner that acknowledges the need to design and create around the needs of people. These phrases in part represent new organisational and economic capabilities based on mutuality or what is popularly described as ‘people power’, which fascinatingly accommodates both the individual and the collective.
Are we moving towards a new form of capitalism or is it more than just capitalism? What I see is that we want to reprogram our world based upon what I call the Human-OS, the human operating system. Faced with organisational and institutional failure we are connecting up to and across each other online and off, to create a new human operating system that will challenge existing sources of power and control. In the classrooms of our schools, in the waiting rooms of our hospitals, on the floors of our factories, and, in our villages, towns and cities we are no longer content with the current status quo and we are asking not what if – but… How do we design for better societies, organizations, and be commercially vibrant – all at the same time?
Is it as defining a moment as Martin Luther using Gutenberg’s 42 Line Bible as a political tool to challenge the authority of the Catholic Church? Or, even the Kings James Bible bringing revolutionary ideas into the everyday vernacular? We shall have to see if these simple words suggest a social revolution that speaks truth to power, and changes the base and distribution of that power.
What I see is that people – everyday people, not elites – have worked out they often live in an unfair world. If they have the tools to change that status quo, they will.
MB: Some people say our society is facing serious dislocation, because it can no longer afford its level of complexity, as earlier empires and civilisations did in the past. This could mean that we should ‘simplify’. Yet, you are saying, that in a world of no straight line thinking, embracing complexity is the answer. Are you not afraid that this is precisely a stress-inducing call that may induce paralysis?
Our society is facing severe dislocation because it is today inherently unfair. The idea that free markets represent freedom I think has proven to be untrue.
Over millennia, people have always faced dislocation, normally from external forces, but our recent society has faced massive internal societal dislocation from the 19th Century onwards. Raymond Williams explained this well in his essay about the crisis of the 19th Century novel and it becoming impossible for novelists to write about what he termed ‘knowable communities’ as communities, and ultimately human identity were dismantled in favor of towns and cities. Societal development up to that point had not moved at such an industrial pace. And this was universal in the West. We have just finessed and perfected that dislocation in the last 30 years.
We witness the dislocation every day on the levels of personal, community, regional and even national identity.
Yet rather than look at the problem from a more holistic perspective, from a systems perspective, we demand more efficiency from a failed system. I think its called flogging a dead horse.
Practically by embracing complexity we distribute power through all the players and actors that makes up an active community – online or off. That results in the individual ability to simplify. Humans are part of nature, nature is highly complex, yet it works. It seems very inefficient but it is in fact highly effective.
The industrial world seeks to objectify everything, yet it fails to look closely at complexity and networks, or to learn how designing for complexity or eco-systems can in fact deliver extraordinary results. Or that ultimately specialisation can be deadly.
As our research shows, people are in all walks of life are exploring what ‘next’ looks like and through a blend of human, digital and analog technologies. They’re finding better ways to thrive in this world.
NG: How would you describe the situation that Gen Y finds itself in this transition?
Young people are the future, as all generations are, but few stand at a real moment of transition. This generation is all about possibility and that is exciting. Young people have the real opportunity to meld the world, shape, craft, and program it.
I say design it for your needs, your vision, your beliefs. Design for a collective vision. Become the craftsmen and craftswomen that we so desperately need.
NG: And what advice would you give to young adults?
You are the future, be curious, do not accept the status quo, be a volunteer not a conscript. You are better than we are.
You can make a difference, whether that is via online communication technologies or becoming part of something local, and face-to-face.
NG: What are the promising, world-saving frontiers where they can add value and create careers (if that term applies any longer)?
In every walk of life there is an opportunity to design for humanity and what we as a species want. We don’t need to ask anyone’s permission, we just need to get on and do it. If we want to be part of the future we have to create it.