Eco-social justice requires a redistribution of resources and capabilities. For many years, my work has considered the design of new economies and looked at initiatives that seek to make innovations in means of resource distribution, not least to see how digital networks are impacting and what can be learnt to share more broadly. I am curious about how these new relations survive and sometimes prosper, resist appropriation by dominant systems of exploitation and offer alternatives to business as usual. I didn’t have a name for what attracted me till now, but Transformative Economies seems to work to capture this spirit of changing resource distribution as a deliberate intervention.
This theme is not, then, the diverse economies that Gibson-Graham document (the many non-financial systems of work and resource management) or the alternative economies that spring up with a new system of payment is introduced, such as LETS (https://www.slowmovement.com/lets.php) or the Brixton Pound (https://brixtonpound.org/), barter and sharing. It responds to the initiatives, some of which do involve sharing or new exchange mechanisms, which are specifically designed with the purpose to change relations. So a LETS system may be a transformative economy if it intends and begins to redistribute power, wealth, access or agency in such a way that more people and/or ecologies benefit. Many alternative economic systems have been created seeking to make transformation, so there is clearly an overlap.
But the more I look back on the projects that attract me, the more I am able to identify that Transformative Economies are a class of project which knowingly works to create new economic relations between different life-forms and materials. This is not employing the disruption of networked economics: scaling software to reduce overheads and staff while working to create an unscrupulous venture-funded monopoly. That disrupts business models, but not the exploitative relations that underpin them. Transformative Economies act to change resourcing and how resources are understood (care) or apportioned (justice) – they are process-oriented in their outputs: designed to bring about eco-social change and holding the means of change within them. They are not brute acts to make more profit for shareholders. Many are gentle, what Cooper calls ‘everyday utopias’ (2013) – an indication of what worlding is possible, offering inspiration as much as practical change.
Some transformative economies are so smart that they have a viral quality: in existing, they spread. Two examples of this designed by creative practitioners are Zöops (https://research-development.hetnieuweinstituut.nl/en/research-projects/zoop) and the Hologram (https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745343327/the-hologram/), which have written into their structures the means of their own propagation. Both resist capitalism by gently imposing a different priority from financial profit. Zoops are constituted by regulations that consider life before profit and require that organizations that go into business with them are also constituted to consider life before profit. In this way, they are doubly radical – not merely working to change relations in one area or place, but offering a means of proliferation that is, in and of itself, a form of transformative economy. They are fractal. The Hologram creates new structures of care: for every person that assembles three other people to be their support and supply different facets of their care, three more structures are born as those three corners go on to form holograms of their own. In doing so, the Hologram structure resists straightforward mutual care by breaking the ties of reciprocation and extending care outwards rather than into a small group. In this way, it seeks to be anti-capitalist and challenge even the basis of domestic economies. It is a direct subversion of transactional relations and launches more care into the world, creating a demand for care.
To return to Gibson-Graham, they well articulated why we need to see diversity in our economic endeavours: ‘The more-than-human world is an active participant in diverse economies. Consider the diverse exchanges, labour and surplus appropriations that involve rivers, soil profiles, animals, biota, minerals and atmospheres that contribute to economic wellbeing. Our task now is to open ourselves up to the contributions of the environment and other species and to recognise the transactions we make with this more-than-human world.’ (Gibson-Graham and Roelvink 2011). But where they have sought to show the diversity, others have sought to increase it and that is what I have been drawing attention to. There are utopian efforts in this space that are not merely modeling a happier way to live but seeking to introduce a transformative model of resource management that can be copied (or self-replicates).
If I go back through my concern with this phenomenon, I realise I can trace it to my early observations of activist uses for digital technology. This first appears in analysis of the work of practitioners during a pair of projects, Technology and Social Action (TSA, 2005-7) and Practical Design for Social Action (PRADSA, 2007-9) (see Dearden and Light 2008; Light and Miskelly 2008; Light, Miskelly and Thompson 2008 and Light 2019a on PRADSA values). Implicit is the restructuring of resources, but this does not take centre stage.
By the time of Design for Sharing (2012-14; Light and Miskelly 2014), I am explicitly looking at resource distribution with an ecological eye on the economics of it. Ecology stresses relations, economics considers distribution and design makes transformation. These came together in analysis with Yoko Akama on Structuring Future Social Relations (Light and Akama 2014). It was also the first time that she and I explicitly talked together about care as a basis for relations. The ingredients for considering transformative economies were assembled.
In 2017, my paper with Jo Briggs on paying publics began a run of reporting on projects that had gone beyond the experiments of my research to be real-world examples of reorganizing for more environmentally sound outcomes (Light and Briggs 2017). I document the progress of two crowdfunding initiatives I had been watching over years. The first was a platform designed to move money into renewable energy; the second was a platform designed to aggregate money for presents and reduce consumption through small wasteful gestures. Both were businesses. Neither was particularly successful, but both showed interesting attempts to rethink resource distribution and benefit from it.
Then, in 2019, work on 10 years of observing neighbourhood initiatives appeared and collected much of my thinking at that time (Light and Miskelly 2019). It revisits the cross-section of collective sharing activities to be found in a small part of South London and compares them with another voluntary initiative nearby – to promote more local and thoughtful purchasing – for which I had a decade of information and observation on its adaptation to changing ambitions and events. Both show that beyond the immediate act of redistribution and exchange, an extra supply of care is generated. Clodagh and I first observed this relational asset in looking at the cumulative effect of multiple sharing initiatives (Light and Miskelly 2015). If we are to talk about this economically, it is just extra benefit. It doesn’t cost. It isn’t a zero sum game. The more that people did nice things for each other, the more possible it became to do them within that area. As I’ve tried to describe it over the years:
‘Not only are there many communal assets; there is the local relational asset of having a rich culture to draw on and to use for support. …This relational asset is hard to measure, but its presence makes risk-taking safer. It points to the value of social engagement at a structural as well as inter-personal level.’ (Light and Miskelly 2015)
‘Relational assets are the social benefits that emerge over time from local sharing initiatives, making further initiatives more likely to succeed.’ (Light and Miskelly 2019)
‘Relational assets are …part of a virtuous spiral that promotes agency and pro-social values. They are place-based rather than individual; beneficial to everyone within a neighborhood to some degree .., developed through local collaborations and the exercise of goodwill.’ (Bardzell, Bardzell and Light 2021)
What emerges is the degree to which social and environmental ambitions are interwoven and cannot be unwoven. Social justice and fair (and more generous) access to virtuous resources for fellow humans and is a prerequisite for motivating the degree of change in practice that is necessary to move to sustainable futures and better care of all lifeforms. In other words, sustainable futures can be sustained not merely because they use fewer resources of the kind that need more care and preservation, but they are sustainable because people are motivated to keep going with them. This requires a pull towards joy, care, connection and hope, not just the fear of a heating world in which access to fossil fuels is restricted.
What transformative economies do, especially as they collect and multiply in particular places or clusters, is provide relational assets by building an extra layer of care… and joy, connection and hope. This layer belongs to the place or community, not any particular agent. So, by aiming for environmental good through resource distribution in a local context, even if there is no long-term resource transformation, the initiative may be the humus into which a later more successful initiative can take root. Transformative economies beget transformed economies in a range of ways, not all in the ways intended. Merely to try is to contribute.
This certainty comes from watching years of the appearance and disappearance of initiatives, many of which may seemed too small to merit formal study (see also Light 2019b), particularly to funders. What emerges is a story of emergence, where most hopeful activities are unaware of how they might change the landscape and can only be understood to do so as a form of socio-economic ecology and in a historical reckoning. Sufficient documentation to make this visible is also unusual. Most work in my field continues while there is funding for it, is project-based, tends to seek its own transformations and be relatively short-lived. Even when longitudinal, it rarely seeks intersections between actions, rather focusing on particular institutions. I watched these initiatives influence each other past TSA and PRADSA and successor projects, such as Design for Sharing, almost accidentally, growing a preoccupation with this kind of intervention and tracking the fate of these initiatives as they emerge and evolve.
My latest focus takes in the excellent projects of CreaTures, where many initiatives are seeking to help a movement towards transformation. These initiatives (projects and producers) were drawn together under the banner of creative practice for transformative futures. Even in that title, there is a sleight of hand. We know that these futures cannot be static, since there is transformation invoked, but not much more. We do not know what futures we are inviting in and we do not speculate; by setting broad parameters, we leave the definitional work to the creative producers.
In doing so, I recognize that the huge world-making/changing ambitions of the practitioners involved are only to be understood as a general direction of travel. The projects think big, but run with limited funding and a small team. They, better than anyone, understand that their contribution is not an end in itself but is providing the material for aggregation and agenda-setting; for trusting and taking action together without precise coordinates (because action is needed but we do not know exactly what); for providing joy, care, connection and hope for the journey. They exist in the ecology of game-changers, whose contribution cannot be known singly, because what they cause in their successes and failures, questioning and hoping, is an abundance that enables a culture of changing. Their ambitions for change make the conditions for change in/through aggregation.
As the CreaTures team has noticed, this makes problems for evaluating. Ontological change cannot be evaluated within the paradigm in which it occurs because the paradigm explicitly changes. We saw this as a problem of individual ambitions – where organisations state global goals that are not measurable in terms of impact or tractable to KPIs. However, further, this relation to each other reveals another challenge: just as we do not point to a single crumb of forest floor as the source of new life, we cannot point to a single initiative within the optimism of a collective vibrant cultural scene bent on transformation as the source of it. No one organization or project creates the added transformative potential that emerges to bring resources and capabilities into new balance when projects are aware of each other, take strength from each other and benefit from relational assets to enable change to become change. This additional resource is the output of an ecology.
Transformative Economies are both project initiatives with goals to remake relations through redistribution of resources and capabilities and part of what allows transformative economies to be born.
Bardzell, J., Bardzell, S. and Light, A. (2021) Wanting To Live Here: Design After Anthropocentric Functionalism. In In Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’21). ACM, New York, NY, USA
Dearden, A. and Light, A. (2008) Designing for e-Social Action: An Application Taxonomy, in Proc. Design Research Society 2008, Sheffield July 2008
Gibson-Graham, J.K. and Roelvink, G. (2011) The nitty gritty of creating alternative economies, Social Alternatives, 30(1) pp. 29-33
Light, A. (2019a) The Détente Model of Managing Divergent Values in the Maker Sphere, book chapter in (eds) Jeremy Hunzinger and Andrew Schrock Making Our World: the Hacker and Maker Movements in Context, New York: Peter Lang
Light, Ann (2019b) Designing the Economics of the Sharing Economy: Towards Sustainable Management. Handbook of the Sharing Economy, edited by Russell Belk, Giana Eckhardt and Fleura Bardhi, Edward Elgar.
Light, A. and Akama, Y. (2014) Structuring Future Social Relations: The Politics of Care in Participatory Practice, Proc. ACM PDC 2014, pp151-160
Light, A. and Briggs, J. (2017) Crowdfunding Platforms and the Design of Paying Publics, Proc. CHI’17
Light, A. and Miskelly, C. (2008) Brokering between Heads and Hearts: an analysis of designing for social change in Proc. DRS 2008, Sheffield, July 2008
Light, A. and Miskelly, C. (2014) Design for Sharing, Sustainable Society Network+: https://designforsharingdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/design-for-sharing-webversion.pdf
Light, A. and Miskelly, C. (2015) Sharing Economy vs Sharing Cultures? Designing for social, economic and environmental good, IxD&A, 24, p49-62
Light, A. and Miskelly, C. (2019) Platforms, Scales and Networks: Meshing a Local Sustainable Sharing Economy. JCSCW, Summer 2019
Light, A., Miskelly, C. and Thompson, S. (2008) An Analysis of Building Habitat with Networked Tools, Proc. OzCHI 2008, Cairns, Dec 2008