reRoute’s tagline was “Building Youth and Student Power for a New Economy,” and it brought practitioners, organizers and students together for panels like “Financing a New Economy,” “Possibilities for Participatory Budgeting,” “Food Justice and the New Economy,” and “Timebanks: From New York to California,” to share their work and make connections that would last beyond the conference. Attendees were smart and filled with ambition toward building an economy that cultivates saner and more sustainable regions, campuses, businesses and markets. They’re already getting the foundational pieces in place in their own communities: starting cooperative institutions, mapping the solidarity economy where it already exists, exploring community land trusts, and much more.
My panel was called “Free Culture: Advocacy and Action”, and I was privileged to share the space with Lane Rasberry, Wikipedian in Residence at Consumer Reports; Jill Cirasella, Associate Librarian at the CUNY Graduate Center and open access advocate extraordinaire; Sumana Harihareswara, Engineering Community Manager at the Wikimedia Foundation; and Jennifer Baek, Wikimedia NYC and Free Culture Foundation Board Member, who graciously put the panel together.
Given the scope of the conference, I was really happy to be holding space for free/libre/open culture and software — which don’t always get the airtime that they should in “new economy” or “solidarity economy” conversations. The “solidarity economy” tends to focus on alternative ownership models, mostly cooperatives, and re-imagining finance, supply chains and the role of the commons — all of which go hand-in-hand with FLO. But many people haven’t yet made the connection between FLO and the solidarity economy.
Culturally, the two can be extremely different — the explicit social justice bent of solidarity economy work is often invisible in mainstream FLO projects: as a case in point, fewer than 1% of participants in FLO software projects are women. Meanwhile, the focus on technology in FLO communities can be alienating to solidarity economy participants whose experience with the digital world has been primarily through corporate-owned and untrustworthy proprietary systems that take away their power.
I believe FLO is integral to any reimagining or reconfiguring of the economy, so I see the challenge of integrating the FLO framework with the solidarity economy one to be of paramount importance.
To this end, I talked about how “free,” “libre” and “open” relate to new economy concepts: free of cost documentation and source code makes projects and tools accessible; liberty allows for self-determination; openness means that whatever exists belongs to all of us to examine, use and modify. In short, FLO solutions and practices build the commons.
To illustrate this, I talked briefly about the work of Occupy Sandy, with which Sarapis has worked since the fall. I explained how this work exemplified FLO ideals by being non-hierarchical, open to contributions, ad-hoc, voluntary, and, of course, supported by FLO software. Because of these aspects of our work, we were adaptive and able to scale quickly — not to mention, we created a much more satisfying environment for volunteers to join than traditional hierarchical institutions. More importantly, we documented and templated our work, making it easy to replicate. And replicated it was: when the tornado hit Oklahoma in May, “OpOK” — the grassroots analog to Occupy Sandy in Oklahoma — was able to hit the ground running and get operational much more quickly than we were in New York because they were able to build on the work we had done. When we practice openlocalism, we build capacity for others facing the same challenges as us.
I didn’t have as much time as I’d have liked, but I’d planned to then have an exploratory conversation with the audience about what a FLO approach to challenges in, for example, food coops might look like. I hinted at some ideas, with the hopes of getting as concrete as possible: groups could come together to fund a plugin to an ERP system to deal with the specific inventory challenges of managing food. Or they could share best practices for developing supply chain efficiencies with regional farms. My main point was this: we should use the fact that we are collaborative rather than competitive to our advantage by pooling resources to achieve open and accessible economies of scale and sector-wide gains.
I urged the audience to use FLO software and tools whenever practically possible in their work, while also encouraging them to be realistic and not to burn out by being absolutist about it. Our individual consumption choices matter, no doubt, but when we set up organizational systems, they can have greater long-term impact than our individual choices alone — so we need to be especially conscious about developing institutional practices that reflect the vision of the world we’re trying to create.
Just as new economy adherents advocate for worker-owners, when we use FLO solutions, we become user-owners. We can collaboratively tailor them to our needs, and in doing so, we create opportunities for ourselves and for others.
FLO tools aren’t perfect. They can be clunky, hard-to-use, even downright ugly. But they’re ours. And we can make them what we want them to be. I encourage cooperatives and other new economy groups to view FLO projects the same way that they view other cooperatives: as allies on the path to building a better economy and better world.