If you haven’t read part 1 yet, please go there first.
A thought experiment for collectives
Spatial practices frequently break the golden rule of cybernetics – namely that the practice should be as malleable and nuanced as the social, economic and technological environment that it deems to design for.
- Given the extraordinary degree of variables, it suggests that a spatial design practice should resemble the community that it is making decisions for
- This can, of course, be achieved by sincerely inviting community input, but we want to take it a little further
- What if the resemblance between practice and community becomes so profound that the essence of the practice and that of the community are interchangeable … ?
- … to the extent that the practice becomes a simulation of the community
- Partnering with and empowering a representative subset of the community lends itself to achieving this objective
- So, a team may consist of collaborating professionals, community members, or ideally a combination of the two
- This partnership and/or subset is our collective - a deliberate creative vehicle for employing meaningful collaboration
From this vantage point, many of our assumptions about the professions fall apart. First, a title such Architect. If the practice is a genuine collective, then class-based role-play is out of place.
From building to worldbuilding
With the simulation genie out of the bottle, it can now cast its spell over the creation and manipulation of space itself.
The purpose of worldbuilding is to establish a foundational context upon which narrative and interactive media can be built - books, films, games and in our realm, spatial experiences. An oft-cited example is the meticulous worldbuilding around J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth sagas - from maps to cultures and languages, credited with laying the groundwork for a decades-long legacy of narrative interpretations and offshoots. This kind of worldbuilding is one (author)-to-many.
Game designer Monte Cook also highlights a many-to-many concept of collaborative worldbuilding, in which player characters have agency to define and expand the world of the game themselves. If you have ever played Dungeons and Dragons and many other role playing games, you have experienced collaborative worldbuilding. This encourages a greater investment in the exercise.
As Cook points out …
“The most important part of worldbuilding, no matter who does the work … (is) to create a place that feels real enough to develop an emotional connection to it.”
This is where we circle back to the idea of simulation.
While collectives can simulate members of a community, wordbuilding can simulate the community itself. Writer Trent Hergenrader sets out four major categories (governance, economics, social relations and cultural influences) and 14 sub-categories as primers to establish the parameters of a fictional world.
Given that these structural categories need to be pursued with enough sincerity to stimulate suspension of disbelief, we have the opportunity, at the same time, to examine the potential for alternative real worlds, with real details.
These are the contingencies that architects so famously like to side-step. The so-called contingencies actually provide the foundation for simulating alternative possibilities for our real world.
Among their many fascinating potentials, hybrid spatial experiences such as alternate reality games highlight player/character agency within an alternative vision of the world around them, that can survive the ending of the game. In this way, spatial storytelling and gameplay can be deployed as a development environment to ideate, interface with real locations and catalyse change-making.
In short, worldbuilding can be used to deliver a form of emergent collective action into the realm of the spatial.
The open source movement
In the landmark text The Cathedral and the Bazaar, author Eric S. Raymond’s principal contention is that the hacker culture of the 1970s, which eventually gave us a more formalised open source movement in the 1990s are examples of a gift culture. Here, reputation is currency and earned through acts of giving away (sharing) your knowledge and the fruits of your labour among your peers. He contrasts it with an exchange culture, which is typical of closed source projects and organisations.
“Perhaps … the reputation-game gift culture is the globally optimal way to cooperate for generating (and checking!) high-quality creative work”.
Looking back, over twenty years on, he was correct to foresee that open source would come to dominate the infrastructure of the Internet, but he also realised or at least acknowledged its limitations.
This culture has been taken up in some corners of built environment industries, with efforts mainly targeted towards sharing building designs and workflows for their creation.
One of the most celebrated examples of these efforts came about during Alejandro Aravena’s press conference just after he had been awarded architecture’s ’Nobel’, The Pritzker Prize. Aravena announced the release of the designs of one of his key housing projects, for use by others, for free. This was an appropriate project choice since the buildings were conceived to be modified incrementally with user input and could in theory be employed in many local contexts.
Nevertheless, the main challenge of open sourcing a physical building is being able to adapt to the broad parameters of site specifics - in response to the physical, social, economic and regulatory contexts. Perhaps physical, incremental flexibility is not enough if the shell, and its embodied socio-cultural assumptions, are already prescribed. Six years later, I am not aware of anyone who has taken up the free design offer to build Aravena’s project.
While we still wholeheartedly support open sourcing of physical designs, we intend to open source organisational design.
Front-of-house / back-of-house
In the architectural and indeed design industries, we are overweight front-of-house promotion - look at my beautiful building!, and underweight back-of-house analysis - what really is involved in starting a practice? How do you run that practice? How do you grow it?
A London architectural duo running a “research-based practice” recently gave a talk which included an interesting project in Australia, where they flew out to work on it for months, and a bold, self-funded development in the UK. If we put design questions aside for the moment, we are left with quite fundamental ones. While they were away for months on end, how did they pay the rent or mortgage? How did they eat? Was this one long-distance project enough to sustain them? Clearly, there was a very significant part of the story that was not being told.
Or a celebrated collective, building award-winning projects straight out of architecture school. How did they pull that off? If it is broadly achievable in the society at large, then surely gold is to be found in their story, regardless of the creative awards. We assume they weren’t hungry or living on the street as they started up. Have they been able to sustain that early idealism, or must practices like this eventually revert to more traditional models? Can their youthful idealism survive the social and financial demands of a house purchase, a pregnancy, or a marriage - in short, real life?
Architecture also depends on these contingencies, it's just that they are of the back-of-house variety. They also should not be ignored.
Architecture is the most elite profession in the UK, with 73% of its members coming from privileged backgrounds. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining so many of the practice stories that do not get fully fleshed out.
So let us begin
Society as a whole is not privileged. With rising inequality, are the spatial design professions just to leave an expanding demographic by the wayside?
This is why it is important to be honest about how we get from A to P (portfolio), or how we fail, if we genuinely want to inspire a new generation. Without this honesty, young Turk-type publicity is socially useless.
That is why we are committing to complete transparency in our startup period.
There are similar precedents for this, just not that many in the built environment industries, e.g. …
- Architect turned online entrepreneur Pat Flynn, with his monthly earnings reports
- Management consultant August’s public Google Drive
- And especially, as a broader source of inspiration, Open Collective, with the financial transparency of the many groups on its platform
We’re not kidding with the heading, let us begin. We start at £0.
Ever the elephant in the room, if we pursue self-initialised projects then the very next question will likely involve money - specifically, where we expect it to come from.
Keeping in mind that we have ‘north stars’ and ‘ideal’ scenarios, we are grounded enough to appreciate that client/consultancy work will still have to be pursued, at least initially, as a funding strategy.
Beyond that, for the more vertically integrated projects, we will need to think like a production house.
This might include, for example:
- Membership dues
If we go down this road, we will have a special offer for founding members - join us !
- Debt financing
- Other private contributions
- Online or offline courses
- Content / inbound / affiliate marketing
- Advertising / product placement
… and more
We aspire to a role for collectives and units within the guild to make value systems tangible, through experiences and with form, in real locations. The core challenge in this effort will involve aligning identified values with economic realities of initial funding, as well as residual financial benefit for those involved – cooperatively organised.
The answer to the economic question is essential. Our goal is that money should be made collectively and sustainably, if not someone else will make the money that you should have made and use it to steal your agenda.
This is a key creative economy challenge that we set out to solve with hu.bb.
As we noted in Part 1, we intend to use Units on the platform to facilitate the discharge of legal/regulatory demands.
Unit 1 is unique, however.
It plays these additional roles …
- To serve as a superset of all members
i.e. All members of future units will come from our general membership, all of whom are members of Unit 1
- To provide infrastructure, to connect and to facilitate the creation of further units and projects …
- … by providing a safe space to imagine, tinker and build with support, which might otherwise have been challenging given potential barriers of finances, social standing or age
- To make friends, teams, proposals & mistakes
- To provide a tech platform for these activities, while acknowledging that tech on its own is not enough
- Through the membership and activities, to continually ask what kind of entity Unit 1 wants to be
The first project is the guild itself
As we intend to use worldbuilding as a device, our first task is to build the world of the guild. This will come to life in our Handbook - the consensus narrative about the organisation.
As the project evolves, we will share regular updates about the status of the changes, and how these have been reflected in the Handbook.
To keep exploring and to test our strategies in practice, we have three strategies in mind:
- Our aforementioned Journal, to regularly interrogate relevant external thinking and to keep everyone up to date
- Inviting prospective members to ‘date’ our guild during the exploratory period, for individuals and the guild to understand more about each other's needs and what it takes to make a good fit
- Play-testing collaborative projects of varying complexity to establish, out of real experience, what elements are essential towards achieving success, failure, growth, and transformation
You mean it’s like …
In this pursuit, we draw inspiration from others and aspire to a continued dialogue as we progress:
A key conceptual precedent, this organisation provides …
“… a legal and financial toolbox for grassroots groups … a fundraising & legal status & money management platform for your community”
Open Collective Handbook here
“You can do work you love, with people you love, on the biggest issues of our time and get paid well for it. At Enspiral we encourage and support each other to do just that … We’re a collective of individuals who not only believe in, but practice a new way of organising.”
Enspiral Handbook here
“A team of technologists, designers, and community organisers who value working with mission-oriented partners. Together, we have years of experience building open source technologies and sustainable communities.”
Hypha Organisational Handbook here
“We’re an open creative platform, where anybody and everybody can collaborate together.”
“At Dm, we’re working to create institutions, instruments and infrastructures for a more equitable, caring and sustainable future.”
“We're an intrepid band of architects now working in the tech industry and helping others do the same.”
“Anything & everything related to DAOs & helping people build the future they want to live in.”
“Noisebridge is a fun space for sharing, creation, collaboration, research, development, mentoring, and of course, learning.”
How we got here
We have covered many points, so a brief recap below of our guiding beliefs.
- Want to democratise spatial design to empower people to modify the spaces they use
- Embrace the learning process that this will require, and we will share the experience publicly with our readers and members
- Intend to keep our proposals location based / site specific
- Treat space as a medium of communication
- Believe that meaningful collaboration is best achieved through shared ownership and decision-making
- Believe that a design practice should resemble the community that it is making decisions for
- Believe that our back-of-house portfolio (how we make it happen) is as important as a front-of-house portfolio (glossy images of a finished product or experience)
Although we began in architecture, like any good story arc, we don’t expect to end there. We’re looking forward to being surprised at the destinations we arrive at.
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