The importance of today’s ‘community challenge’

Old fashioned barn raising
Old fashioned barn raising

Over the last year I have been lucky enough to be part of the WikiHouse Foundation’s core team. It has been a fascinating year. After moving from New Zealand on the 7th of April 2015 I essentially turned up to WikiHouse’s front door and asked how I could help. After 2–3 months that role turned into a part time job as their ‘Community Host’ and as of more recently has developed into the ‘Consortium/Community Host’ and more generally just a people role.

Legroom on the plane

I managed to get legroom on both flights to London.

This was a role for a generalist, and unlike some larger companies, the beauty of a smaller size ‘startup’ (well in this case) is that you kind of just help where help is needed. You can end up with quite the mix of people. WikiHouse is special in this way, it attracts a whole load of different people: Architects, engineers, open source lovers, economists, politicians, community groups, housing associations, retired people, people that are studying, activists, post-capitalists, capitalists, weird european funding bodies, ex-hippies, current hippies. Basically just anyone interested in housing.

What is WikiHouse? It’s taking the way we used to do housing and re-inventing it for the 21st century. Since ages ago we’ve relied on big developers, funded by big banks to build our homes using large construction companies. Ewww. The result is that we end up with a lot of one size fits all housing that sucks. These houses are built as speculative assets and not places to live. With the introduction of the car and the rapidly increasing urban sprawl cities and neighbourhoods are becoming more and more unsustainable. Not just economically but socially too. Recently i’ve been reading Charles Montgomery’s book ‘Happy City’. Not that you need to read to know about this fact. Go for a drive in suburbia or walk around your neighbourhood.

Centralised factory

Classic centralised factory in some shitty town from ages ago

WikiHouse is empowering communities and individuals to build their own homes and neighbourhoods. Doesn’t sound that big of a deal, we’ve always built our own homes right? Sure, in fact during the 18th and 19th century, a barn raising was common practice and now-a-days self-build or ‘custom build’ has become an option either for the rich and wealthy or people who enjoy life hacks, unusual bespoke design, have too much spare time or a part of a Mennonite or Amish who still continue these traditions. It’s always been considered too difficult for citizens to be considered as a force for mass production. However, with the introduction of the internet the way we work and distribute/share knowledge has fundamentally changed.

Old fashioned barn raising

Old fashioned barn raising

The same thing is happening in the world of physical things. Digital fabrication and technology allows us to see digital files come to life. This makes a couple of things possible. Firstly, the cost of this technology is getting cheaper and cheaper meaning the 21st century factory costs a fraction of what it cost to set up something pre the digital age. It also means the factory is now everywhere (look at the fab lab movement and schools with 3D printers). Since the internet, the world has slowly began to embrace decentralised systems more and more. We no longer have to rely on top down development (however for some reason we still do).

Modern WikiHouse barn-raising

I’m not going to lie. Housing isn’t something i’m overly excited about. I like having the opportunity to move things around in my room every now and then, or help someone decorate, maybe just look through a real-estate magazine or walk down a street and point at houses i’d dream to live in (you know, the standard middle-class kind of thing). No, stop. This isn’t interesting to me. People are interesting and that is primarily why I am involved with WikiHouse. Because they are campaigning for a fundamental shift in the way people procure housing.

In September 2010 I was in New Zealand, woken up at some ungodly hour by a large Earthquake. 2010 was also the first year of my Bachelor of Musical Arts as well as the year I saved for a trip to South America with my sister Ruby. We went over NZ’s summer while I was on break from Jazz School. We arrived back early February just in time for the February 2011 earthquake. Both of these earthquakes were disruptive in so many ways. Our physical environment had changed, our social environment, and the way we interacted with each other changed, our schedules changed and the way people moved around the city changed. In fact as much as I hate the word, the ‘vibe’ changed.

A number of fascinating project started to happen (Gap Filler, Life in Vacant Space, Greening the Rubble, XCHC) but I don’t want to talk about them because enough people already do. Check out Making Christchurch It’s a really great insight into the development of the city. As 3 or 4 years passed the conversation was around moving from the transitional/temporary and heading back to a more ‘permanent’ state. The 100 day blueprint, the anchor projects, the precincts, investment, future! It all shouted ‘permanence’ but to me (and i think some others?) that didn’t make sense. Clearly the only thing that remained in place straight after the earthquake was a sense of community. Sure there were some buildings, but in questionable states. Now, 6 years on since the quakes the conversation has, and continues to evolve into a more complex discussion. One that I have been on the peripherals of for the last year.

Which brings me back to WikiHouse and my role as the Community Host, or just general ‘Host’. So it really made me realise the importance and the stake people have in their local cities and communities, it also made me realise the importance that people have in influencing their built environment. This gives us agency and ownership over our cities and the places where we spend time. It’s also kind of the ‘IKEA effect’ which is reflected in the concept of a barn raising that WikiHouse adopts; giving people a stronger connection with something if they were involved making it. Maybe that’s why people love their kids so much but hate other annoying brats?

So now, I’m going to switch into this world of technology and software as we know it. Well, to be honest, i don’t know it that well. In fact I don’t really care much about software — in the same way i don’t care about housing. The exception being that I think it should be of a certain quality and it should serve the end users. My role has been varied at WH, the Hosting side of it has been interesting. Why? Well because I went from one extreme — connecting with a geographical community brought together by a shared experience, to an interest based community brought together by common purpose and shared values. Not to say the geographical community doesn’t hold common purpose. The main difference between these groups is that one is considerably more localised and the other more dispersed.

It’s opened me to a world of digital movements and communities. Some of this comes under the ‘shared economy’ umbrella and others would align themselves more with an ‘open source’ community perhaps. The problem I have found with some communities is that they seem to be misusing the word. Do they just mean ‘glorified customer service’? This has led us to realise we have a community challenge ahead of us. Digital communities vary, some really do include their members, not just giving customer support but also allowing them to influence decision making. Others just want to retain their customers and keep their pockets full. Which sounds evil but it’s also good that they’re user centric. Either way, what we seem to have ended up with (paired with our physical communities being stunted by poorly designed processes and planning) is a weird idea of what it means to belong and be a part of a community.

So without jumping to conclusions, in my view communities have been somewhat tainted by capitalism, even more so in the digital age perhaps. We have to ask ourselves, are these organisations really serving us or are we serving the organisations? I’m not saying there is a blanket answer for all organisations but I think there is a fair argument to say we are in fact serving a growing majority of them. It’s at a stage where businesses monetise something that should not be monetised. Now people get their sense of belonging, significance and security from the services and products provided to them by Mr. $. For example, I can imagine that WikiHouse, with it’s already large following, would easily create a cult following and then build an iconic HQ with lots of plants in and around it.

 Grossly O.T.T render for new Apple HQ, ewww yuck, but I do use Apple products, they’re great.

Grossly O.T.T render for new Apple HQ, ewww yuck, but I do use Apple products, they’re great.

The more I try to do my best at this role of ‘Host’ the more I am put off by the idea of people spending all their time gawking over ‘our platform’ and ‘our thriving community’. Luckily that’s not the aim of WikiHouse. We are a platform, the only difference being that I hope we act as an enabler, the focus should be on the people around you. Yes to some degree everyone should enjoy the ‘communities’ that exist online but they are not religions, diverse groups of people, or family. They’re just businesses trying to keep business running by selling to a targeted market of people exactly the same as you and your friends.

I propose that as digital organisations with a social purpose we should encourage people to engage more with their immediate community, growing a stronger social fabric and stronger more reliable support networks. I think the role of the digital organisations we work with is not to sell belonging and significance but to promote that people find a more meaningful sense of these things in their local communities.