Saturday, August 1, 2009

Where to with small-scale technology and localisation?

John Robb's feverish mind is spinning out ideas furiously. He sees self-reliant communities as the future (so do I) but he also has a take on sophisticated small-scale manufacture connected with it that is more difficult to nut out. Here's the essence of his thinking…
Here's some blue sky thinking I'm running through my head at the moment, it may be of use (or not):
Based on the explanation above, we may see a rapid exponential doubling in the performance of society/economics as well. However, to see this improvement, we will need to shift to resilient communities. Here's what it will require:
A technological imperative. In short, a suite of technologies that can increasingly replicate the functions of the global economy at the hyper-local level (the equivalent of the very small or nano level of the global economy) -- with headroom for advancement/improvement as far as the eye can see. There are signs that this is potentially true: think 3D printing ("fab labs"), computing, bio, communications, etc. Is it true for agriculture and energy too? The jury is still out but super-empowerment is in the air...
New beliefs and well funded processes drive improved productivity at the local level. The beliefs and process improvements required are already being developed at the organic level, but it's not getting much help from commercial sources. A good example of this is the Transition towns effort. However, new access to vast cash flows (like my proposal on using IRAs/401ks for investments in local resilience) would radically increase the velocity of money involved. This money would likely speed up the rate of doubling, dropping it from decades to years, by supercharging commercial and open source competition.
No hard constraints. An ability to avoid or work/route around "hard" constraints on any of items on the STEMI list. The best way to avoid these limits is to obliterate thinking related to the current legacy economic system. For example: exploiting rapid advances in virtual presence and collaborative software to achieve an order of magnitude improvement in worker productivity. This obliterates the need (which we would be unable to achieve) for exponential improvements in cars, transportation infrastructure, etc. for commuting/travel. Another example: exploiting communications systems to share or purchase virtual product designs that can be locally fabricated. This is in contrast to manufacturing products in remote global locales, packaging them, storing them, marketing them, shipping them, putting them on shelves, etc. in the hope that you will purchase them.
Ran Prieur, another thinker I'm fond of following has some pertinent comments on John Robb's visions. A quote from Ran…
Why fly when we could get there on horses or sailing ships? Why even travel when we could be happy staying in the same village for our whole lives? Why use clothing when we could just live in tropical areas? Why use fire when so many foods are good raw?

I take these questions seriously. To answer them, you either have to be an extreme primitivist, and say that we shouldn't use any tools at all that we don't need for comfortable basic survival, or you have to find some justification for technologies that go beyond that. And whatever justification you choose, whether you're aware of it or not, is at the root of your whole value system on tech issues.
What shall continue on — what technologies are going to have lasting value and which will disappear? I've been bitten lots of times with bad guesses as to future trends in business, and it's made me wary of trying to pick winners, but my thoughts are that anything that's critically dependent on a resource that you can't make locally and is fairly hi-tech will fade away. So small-scaled local manufacture may go through a transitional stage of growing sophistication, but will be wiped out if it's difficult to get these critical bits sometime in the future. And by that I mean specialised electronics, specifically computer CPUs.

Much more likely to continue are techniques which make clever use of easily obtainable resources and fairly simple technologies which reduce bad pain, for example modern dentistry.

These days we've become used to the idea that thinking and research is resource intensive: big labs, lots of funky hardware. My hunch is that we have that now because we can. If the money goes away, the thinkers will still be there, spinning out ideas. Ran Prieur is a great example — a solitary guy with hardly any money, but with a sharp mind and a passion for thought who cuts through to the centre of things intuitively. He's often wrong, but hey, so are these guys with the bucks behind them. How about the economics profession for instance?

Both Ran Prieur and John Robb are bouncing off an essay by Kevin Kelly on Moore's Law which lots of people are looking at and wondering how long the seeming endless rapid increase in computer power will continue to play out. My feeling is that all this kind of progress can only take place in a big, rich society and that when the money goes the project will halt. There's nothing God-given about it. When we come back to a more locally based production system we'll stop thinking about all this kind of stuff.

What will we think about and what will we do when the dust settles from our current shakeout (I mean say twenty years from now)? When we've gotten over the pain of change, and if we put aside those activities which are involved with the avoidance of pain, we will do what people always do when they're young, energetic and bored. We'll set tasks for ourselves within the context of our situation. We'll play games, take on challenges, overcome obstacles. The new culture will rise from that. But it wont be the kind of mass technocratic culture we now have. It will be based on human thought and physical abilities.

This makes it hard to plan for that future now. Our immediate task is to survive the next couple of tumultuous decades and that will take a lot of energy. We can't afford to waste resources at this time of projects which have a high risk factor. The task we have is to try and work out where the risks lie now that the rules of the game we've all been playing are changing. More on that soon!

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