Universal Basic Everything
Creating essential infrastructure for post Covid 19 neighbourhoods
Universal Basic Everything is the idea that there are systems, tangible and intangible, that we need to survive and thrive. These relationships and friendships, products and services need to be co-created, accessible to everyone, open source, simple in their design, circular in their production.
We already have an incredible set of universal services in the UK, most notably our National Health Service and public schooling. We have the important concept of Universal Basic Income that is being tested in places across the world, and a version of which is being currently enacted by the current UK government through the Covid 19 furlough schemes.
We have universal services at local authority level, such as libraries, rubbish collection and road maintenance. What these all have in common is that they are top down services, provided by government for citizens, paid for by taxes.
What we have been building in Barking and Dagenham are universal basic infrastructures for peer-to-peer participation. We believe that there are many things that only people working side-by-side can co-create — things such as trust, cohesion, learning and of course, their everyday lives together in the neighbourhoods in which they live. Citizens have a unique role to play, that no services will ever be able to create, no matter how plentiful or well funded. The inclusive participation platform gives citizens the tools to act, participating on their own terms, with their available time (and this isn’t always a lot) and with their individual skills and energies.
Exchanges of friendship and learning create the networks of co-operation that are the building blocks of a sustainable future in regenerative neighbourhoods. No amount of money or professional servicing can replace what people can create by working together as a force for good in their own neighbourhoods.
For these widespread networks of solidarity to grow at sufficient scale we need to redesign our structures for participation. As noted by the Guardian — Urban commons have radical potential — it’s not just about community gardens:
The system of commoning needs to be sustainable otherwise its idealistic potential falls foul of a romantic underestimation of what it takes. And recent political discourse has routinely, even cynically, made that mistake.
For commons-style thinking to take hold, we would need to move beyond quaint notions of the gift economy and engage in systemic re-structuring.
An economy of layers, not segments
Much of our economic structures are based upon how economists over time have analysed, categorised and segmented people into groups. For more detail on the history of how these categories and ways of thinking about value developed please see the brilliant work of Mariana Mazzucato’s Value of Everything — Makers and Takers in the Global Economy.
But we don’t have to live by these more established ways of economic theory. We can go back to the drawing board — this time with everything we have learned about the outcomes, limitations and side effects of our current economic system.
One such alternative, and brilliant, way of thinking about the economy is Doughnut Economics. Kate Raworth is an English economist working for the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. She works on the concept of ‘doughnut economics’, in which she describes an economic model that balances essential human needs and planetary boundaries. This framework highlights how our economies operate right now, not meeting basic human needs, while at the same time overshooting the nine ecological ceilings.
We need to reshape our economies to fit within the constraints of this defined doughnut while reinforcing the social foundations.
Creating resilient systems involves changing a lot: how we think, what we design and the way we live.
Thinking about how the creation of essentials might fit into the doughnut framework — creating more layers to include co-created, open source, simple, circular products and services — Universal Basic Everything ‘could potentially’ look something like the diagram below.
Creating a new layer of universal basic essentials
This layer includes tangibles and intangibles.
1 | Intangible Essentials include the human interconnectivity to sustain life > friendship, trust, creativity, learning, health. Intangible Essentials are vital and are dependent on human relationships.
2 | Tangible Essentials include stuff to sustain life > clothing, food, housing, medicine, homeware, energy, transport, money, nature. Tangible Essentials are basic, affordable, circular production, accessible, regenerative.
We have for the last 4 years been working on how we can design the means to grow a new system, within a single geography, in Barking and Dagenham. A platform of support has been created across the borough to begin the process of building this new system with the people who live there. This support platform includes a team of people, coupled with processes and infrastructures working together cohesively and strategically to build ecosystems of activity with people’s ideas, energies, skills and dreams are at the epicentre.
Chris Naylor, Chief Executive of London Borough of Barking and Dagenham (currently on secondment to Birmingham City Council), describes this as the “core architecture for a functioning place”.
The platform (human, physical, digital) is the central architecture and design capacity for co-creating new systems with citizens, alongside existing systems. Everyone, (not selected or segmented groups of people), is invited, welcomed and supported to be part of the co-creation process.
Increasingly we are also identifying that the model development is leading to sets of neighbourhood projects which we can label as ‘universal basic infrastructure’ — different at street, neighbourhood and borough scale.
An inclusive participation ecosystem — full of amazing people
Changing the way we think about ideas
Much of our economies in the west have been built on the idea of unique ideas, or inventions, which are then protected and monetised. It’s a centuries old way of looking at ideas, but today we also recognise that this method of creating and growing markets around IP protected products has created an unsustainable use of the world’s natural resources and generated too much carbon emission and waste.
Open source and creative commons moves us significantly in the right direction. From open sharing of ideas we can start to think of ideas, services, systems, products and activities which might be essential or basic for sustaining life within the ecological ceiling, whilst also re-inforcing social foundations.
Many agree that it it impossible to move towards a circular economy without incorporating open source products that can be made locally — and its a massive shift from the dominant mindset right now.
This shift isn’t just about products and services either, its about ideas for how we live every day too.
That is not to suggest that everything needs to be open source, or essential, but we need to make sure that these basic and universal ideas are accessible to all.
Shifting how we think about ideas at Every One Every Day
We work on the principle that ideas for neighbourhood projects or for collaborative business can come from anywhere. They can come from people living in the borough, or from across the world. The idea itself will always look and feel different depending who is doing it. Additionally all ideas that get developed through the Every One Every Day initiative are automatically open source, meaning that they can be replicated and adapted by anyone in the borough or anyone across the world. This is very different to what we are used to seeing even at neighbourhood project level, where funders and local governments are frequently still looking for ‘social innovations’ or original ideas.
There are of course new models, the citizen-created ‘participation culture’ model that all our work is based on is an innovation in itself, but for the most part ideas we support are diverse, practical, useful, that generate many benefits — often comprising of many smaller ideas contributed by many people. They can often appear ordinary, but when you add people, bringing their personality, creativity and energy to them, they are anything but ordinary!
It’s a fantastic way to work!
It has taken people a little time to adjust to this way of thinking, more so in the first 3–6 months we introduced this way of thinking about ideas. Less so since people have become accustomed to the model. Associating ideas with intellectual property and ownership is culturally hard wired and it does take a learning process to work in a different way.
Sharing ideas for neighbourhood projects, inviting more people to contribute means that the ideas often get better, personal risk goes down, the responsibility is shared and is not dependant on one person who might get tired, sick, distracted by life’s other responsibilities like work or family. It means also that people aren’t tied to one idea or project and work across several ideas at the same time, often in different roles or with different frequency or intensity. This means that people can benefit from participating in many different projects. This happens on the Collaborative Business Programmes as well as the neighbourhood projects!
Thinking this flexibly and creatively about ideas has directly enabled the creation of the ecosystem of projects that enable people to work across many projects, contributing and benefitting as they participate. And I think it is also key to living within the ecological contraints.
Our new Tomorrow Today Streets initiative invites residents to replicate any of 24 different street level projects that people find universally helpful in improve their own, their families and their neighbours every day lives. These projects all have social and community benefits, but many also have planet friendly impacts too, including micro food and (in the future) micro-renewable energy systems.
These projects represent micro-infrastructures and we think they are essential.
Everyday Essentials Platform Co-operative
We are currently working on building a platform co-operative for making simple circular products. Over the last 18 months we have worked with local residents to develop a set of ‘collaborative brands’. Several of these have been moving towards this idea of circular, simple, universal. Below are some of the brands we have been co-designing and testing.
We started with a set of principles designed to make the programmes as inclusive as possible and to reduce risk as much as possible.
These early tests for Collaborative Brands have created a high intensity learning environment for many people who have been out of education systems for a long time. It has also enabled people to explore different ideas and talents of their own, learning, making some additional income through test trading, without the need to throw all their energies into one business idea. It’s enabled around 500 people so far to test ideas for developing new livelihoods on their own terms. Many have part time jobs while they work through their discovery journeys — often low paid occupations. Many are juggling work with raising families. The majority who have participated have been women.
All the experiments and thinking means we are still working on around 7 different development models, many of them with different emphasis on the design process, how long things take, market testing and scale of investments needed to build resilient single co-operatives.
But the strongest emerging idea, re-inforced by the Covid19 experience, is around making essential stuff. We want to create and launch a Platform Co-operative in the coming months.
- If we start with a platform co-operative as a core business model and principle that is resilient to changes in peoples lives, and is also co-designed with residents to fit with the demands of their existing lives.
- Then add in circular economy principles, paying attention to material sourcing, energy use, distribution and waste cycles.
- Throw away the idea of unique ideas and individual wealth creation — adding in shared ideas and making sustainable livelihoods.
- Add in doughnut economics with a social foundation foundation and an ecological ceiling.
We are going to need a lot of help creating this — if you or anyone you know can give us advice or help that will make things quicker, better or bigger please get in touch!
In Canada, we’re working with the McConnell Foundation and other potential partners, including government, about adapting the Universal Basic Everything model at community level.