Intervention – “Small and local are not only beautiful; they can be powerful”

Vasilis Kostakis and Chris Giotitsas, Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance, Tallinn University of Technology

Introduction

E.F. Schumacher’s seminal work Small Is Beautiful (1973) champions the idea of smallness and localism as the way for meaningful interactions amongst humans and the technology they use. Technology is very important after all. As Ursula Le Guin (2004) puts it, “[t]echnology is the active human interface with the material world”. With this essay we wish to briefly tell a story, inspired by this creed, of an emerging phenomenon that goes beyond the limitations of time and space and may produce a more socially viable and radically democratic life.

We want to cast a radical geographer’s eye over “cosmolocalism”. Antipode has previously published an article by Hannes Gerhardt (2019) and an interview with Michel Bauwens (Gerhardt 2020) that have touched upon “cosmolocalism”. Cosmolocalism emerges from technology initiatives that are small-scale and oriented towards addressing local problems, but simultaneously engage with globally asynchronous collaborative production through digital commoning. We thus connect such a discussion with two ongoing grassroots developments: first, a cosmolocal response to the coronavirus pandemic; and, second, an ongoing effort of French and Greek communities of small-scale farmers, activists and researchers to address their local needs.

Cosmolocalism in a Nutshell

Τhe most important means of information production – i.e. computation, communications, electronic storage and sensors – have been distributed in the population of most advanced economies as well as in parts of the emerging ones (Benkler 2006). People with access to networked computers self-organise, collaborate, and produce digital commons of knowledge, software, and design. Initiatives such as the free encyclopedia Wikipedia and myriad free and open-source software projects have exemplified digital commoning (Benkler 2006; Gerhardt 2019, 2020; Kostakis 2018).

While the first wave of digital commoning included open knowledge projects, the second wave has been moving towards open design and manufacturing (Kostakis et al. 2018). Contrary to the conventional industrial paradigm and its economies of scale, the convergence of digital commons with local manufacturing machinery (from 3D printing and CNC milling machines to low-tech tools and crafts) has been developing commons-based economies of scope (Kostakis et al. 2018). Cosmolocalism describes the processes where the design is developed and improved as a global digital commons, while the manufacturing takes place locally, often through shared infrastructures and with local biophysical conditions in check (Bauwens et al. 2019). The physical manufacturing arrangement for cosmolocalism includes makerspaces, which are small-scale community manufacturing facilities providing access to local manufacturing technologies.

Unlike large-scale industrial manufacturing, cosmolocalism emphasizes applications that are small-scale, decentralised, resilient and locally controlled. Cosmolocal production cases such as L’Atelier Paysan (agricultural tools), Open Bionics (robotic and bionic hands), WikiHouse (buildings) or RepRap (3D printers) demonstrate how a technology project can leverage the digital commons to engage the global community in its development.

Two Cases of Cosmolocalism

While this essay was being written in March 2020, a multitude of small distributed initiatives were being mobilised to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Individuals across the globe are coming together digitally to pool resources, design open source technological solutions for health problems, and fabricate them in local makerspaces and workshops. For example, people are experimenting with new ventilator designs and hacking existing ones, creating valves for ventilators which are out of stock, and designing and making face shields and respirators.

There are so many initiatives, in fact, that there are now attempts to aggregate and systematise the knowledge produced to avoid wasting resources on problems that have already been tackled and brainstorm new solutions collectively.[1] This unobstructed access to collaboration and co-creation allows thousands of engineers, makers, scientists and medical experts to offer their diverse insights and deliver a heretofore unseen volume of creative output. The necessary information and communication technologies were already available, but capitalism as a system did not facilitate the organisational structure required for such mass mobilisation. In response to the current crisis, an increasing number of people are working against and beyond the system.

Such initiatives can be considered as grassroots cosmolocal attempts to tackle the inability of the globalised capitalist arrangements for production and logistics to address any glitch in the system. We have been researching similar activity in various productive fields for a decade, from other medical applications, like 3D-printed prosthetic hands, to wind turbines and agricultural machines and tools (Giotitsas 2019; Kostakis et al. 2018).

The technology produced is unlike the equivalent market options or is entirely non-existent in the market. It is typically modular in design, versatile in materials, and as low-cost as possible to make reproduction easier (Kostakis 2019). Through our work we have identified a set of values present in the “technical codes” of such technology which can be distilled into the following themes: openness, sustainability and autonomy (Giotitsas 2019). It is these values that we believe lead to an alternative trajectory of technological development that assists the rise of a commons-based mode of production opposite the capitalist one. This “antipode” is made possible through the great capacity for collaboration and networking that its configuration offers.

Allow us to elaborate via an example. In the context of our research we have helped mobilise a pilot initiative in Greece that has been creating a community of farmers, designers and fabricators that helps address issues faced by the local farmers. This pilot, named Tzoumakers, has been greatly inspired by similar initiatives elsewhere, primarily by L’Atelier Paysan in France. The local community benefits from the technological prowess that the French community has achieved, which offers not only certain technological tools but also through them the commitment for regenerative agricultural practices, the communal utilisation of the tools, and an enhanced capacity to maintain and repair. At the same time, these tools are adapted to local needs and potential modifications along with local insights may be sent back to those that initially conceived them. This creates flows of knowledge and know-how but also ideas and values, whilst cultivating a sense of solidarity and conviviality.

Instead of Conclusions, a Call to Arms

We are not geographers. However, the implications of cosmolocalism for geography studies are evident. The spatial and cultural specificities of cosmolocalism need to be studied in depth. This type of study would go beyond critique and suggest a potentially unifying element for the various kindred visions that lack a structural element. The contributors (and readership) are ideally suited to the task of critically examining the cosmolocalism phenomenon and contributing to the idea of scaling-wide, in the context of an open and diverse network, instead of scaling-up.

Cosmolocal initiatives may form a global counter-power through commoning. Considering the current situation we find ourselves in as a species, where we have to haphazardly re-organise entire social structures to accommodate the appearance of a “mere” virus, not to mention climate change, it is blatantly obvious that radical change is required to tackle the massive hurdles to come. Cosmolocalism may point a way forward towards that change.

Acknowledgements

The authors acknowledge funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant no. 802512). The photos were captured by Nicolas Garnier in the Tzoumakers makerspace.

Endnote

[1] Volunteers created the following editable webpage where, at the time of writing, more than 1,500 commons-based initiatives against the ongoing pandemic have been documented: https://airtable.com/shrPm5L5I76Djdu9B/tbl6pY6HtSZvSE6rJ/viwbIjyehBIoKYYt1?blocks=bipjdZOhKwkQnH1tV (last accessed 27 March 2020)

References

Bauwens M, Kostakis V and Pazaitis A (2019) Peer to Peer: The Commons Manifesto. London: University of Westminster Press

Benkler Y (2006) The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press

Gerhardt H (2019) Engaging the non-flat world: Anarchism and the promise of a post-capitalist collaborative commons. Antipode DOI:10.1111/anti.12554

Gerhardt H (2020) A commons-based peer to peer path to post-capitalism: An interview with Michel Bauwens. AntipodeOnline.org 19 February https://antipodeonline.org/2020/02/19/interview-with-michel-bauwens/ (last accessed 27 March 2020)

Giotitsas C (2019) Open Source Agriculture: Grassroots Technology in the Digital Era. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Kostakis V (2018) In defense of digital commoning. Organization 25(6):812-818

Kostakis V (2019) How to reap the benefits of the “digital revolution”? Modularity and the commons. Halduskultuur: The Estonian Journal of Administrative Culture and Digital Governance 20(1):4-19

Kostakis V, Latoufis K, Liarokapis M and Bauwens M (2018) The convergence of digital commons with local manufacturing from a degrowth perspective: Two illustrative cases. Journal of Cleaner Production 197(2):1684-1693

Le Guin U K (2004) A rant about “technology”. http://www.ursulakleguinarchive.com/Note-Technology.html (last accessed 27 March 2020)

Schumacher E F (1973) Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. New York: Harper & Row