Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 76, march 2009

Designing self-organization, designing transactions

Self-organization is a term that has been very hyped over the last decades, not the least within the art world and critical design. Yet it has been shown little interest from the world of popular design, a context where it would naturally belong, as self-organization is a feature very common in everyday lives, yet seldom recognized. Self-organization is a form of complexity arising emergent from basic interactions without a centralized system of control. Examples can be found in anthills, which, even though they have a queen, have no leader. These self-organized and flat systems of interactions are called “bazaars” while their counterparts, the central administered and top-down systems, are called “cathedrals”. The bazaars do not use linear lines of command or hierarchical organization models but instead rely on small, locally regulated interactions following simple rules or protocols.

The building of “cathedral” systems, like nation states, armies, schools, industries and economic corporations, requires a lot of planning and engineering. During the last centuries the tools for their construction have been studied thoroughly. Also in design we have produced many tools to create and manage linear or hierarchical processes but we have little understanding of how to create bazaars or promote self-organization.
To design self-organization one must look at the mutual interaction between parts and search for “multipliers”, rather than focus on products or objects per se. A multiplier is in this sense like a chemical catalyst, or intercalary element that provokes a meeting, inserting itself in-between to promote transaction. Drawing on a metaphor from chemistry a catalyst is aiding growth from in between two chemical substances to facilitate interaction and trigger an autocatalytic loop. It is a loop not only self-stimulating but also self-maintaining, creating mutually stimulating connections which form a structure that reproduces as a new self-organized whole.

An everyday multiplier and protocol could be money, so natural to us that few think of it as designed at all. To understand its workings we can approach it from a design perspective and thus reveal an opportunity for promoting multiplication and self-organization through design practice.

For most of us money is the daily tool that facilitates transactions. Money can transfer, collect and multiply value and it speaks a “language” understood by most. Yet, many forms of objects can be used as a currency, they should just be simple to use for trade; like salt, ebony, gold or cowry shells. Also unintentionally designed currencies are common, such as cigarettes which have a tradition of being used as units of transaction.
Nearly all our everyday encounters with money is through centralized monetary systems, like the dollar, euro or lira. But these systems were not only invented to ease transactions. As proposed by economic historian Fernand Braudel, monetary systems do not originate from commercial needs but from political ones; the central governments desire to extract taxes from agricultural and commercial surplus. This means monetary systems are designed to collect, centralize and redistribute economic surplus. To work properly these systems are strictly connected to standardized and institutionalized protocols such as weights and measures, laws and legal principles, codes of conduct and bills of exchange, protocols that also make way for the establishment of hierarchical banking systems.

Yet, in all its grace, money within centralized monetary systems is a multiplier that seems to lack where and when it is most needed. Without money, or with a worthless currency, there's no business, and without business there are no jobs, meaning there is no economy as no money exists to work as “public transport” for exchanges. But even at normal times, and in states with elaborate welfare systems, unemployed and elderly lack the access to exchange and monetize their time and skills as no paid jobs are available.


Even so, in the depression of the 30s there were many responses to create complementary forms of “transport” when the established currencies collapsed. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland new local currencies emerged to facilitate transactions beyond immediate peer-to-peer barter. These types of parallel and semi-institutionalized protocols are generally called “complementary currencies” and came in to fill the gap where the national currencies inflated, and they were sometimes even coordinated by local or regional governments.

A complementary currency is a tool for rebuilding communities, increasing self-reliance, forging social networks and triggering self-organizing capacities and it exists as a supplement to the established monetary systems. This type of currency is usually used to deliver informal employment opportunities to people on the margins of the formal economy. Its primary purpose is to act as a tool to enhance and integrate a spectrum of activities within a community as participants start to exchange their time, ideas and interests in semi-formal ways. With a currency these exchanges can be triggered, amplified and multiplied, creating wider recognition of skills and empowerment throughout the community.

Unlike peer-to-peer barter, complementary currency members can earn credits from any member and spend them with anyone else in the network. Often a parallel system of bills represents the new currency, but other systems keeps logs or computerized coordination.

There are many different versions of community-based complementary currencies, designed for various purposes, but most are interest-free local credit systems to enable indirect swaps of services. One of the most basic ones is the TimeDollar in the US where participants simply exchange hours of work on a one-to-one basis but keeping a common logbook of credits and debts. The oldest system that is still in function is the WIR in Zurich, which has been running since 1934, yet the most widely discussed currencies has perhaps been elaborations of the LETS, the Local Exchange Trading System. Other examples are the Ithaca Hours or the newly established Lewes Pound in England.


In 1971, the municipality of Curitiba in Brazil used a form of currency to solve two major social problems in the city by issuing bus tokens in the form of currency. People could earn tokens by picking and sorting litter, thus cleaning the streets while simultaneously acquiring the means to commute – money and transport as one multiplier.

Other forms of multiplying exchange protocols are community currencies such as local loyalty cards. These are similar to the point earning systems on the established credit cards or airlines, but with the aim of encouraging local spending and thus a vitalization of local markets.

All these systems aim to promote local bazaar-like micro economies and act as complementary exchange tools while preserving exchange values within the community. If we as designers are serious in discussing and rethinking social relations we will need to address the settings into which we proposed our products, services and ideas. We need to devote ourselves to issues of coordination, organization and multiplication, as these are key elements of empowerment and self-control.

This would mean to also reconsider and experiment with the ways economies work, even the most basic components like monetary systems. Complementary banking systems, such as the micro-credits famously developed by the Grameen Bank, will also be vital to these questions. The models of complementary currencies are still in their infancy but will most likely be essential tools when we approach issues of sustainable social change and development for the future.


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