Julia Levitt, 16 Jun 09
Post-ownership living may be closer than we think. We see the evidence all around us, in the form of innovations from community kitchens to emerging mobility solutions. So, if people are recognizing the practical potential in social solutions, why aren't even more models for collaboration, sharing and product-service systems thriving? According to architect Stephanie Smith, spurring the movement may be a simple matter of providing the tech support.
This week Smith, who heads WeCommune, plans to launch the first software platform designed specifically for, well, communing (if you visit, you may get a splash page while they transition). The platform's services will allow groups of three or more people to self-organize a "commune" defined by a shared interest or shared zip code, and will provide tools for communicating, organizing and managing projects, and sharing resources.
What is commune-support software?
WeCommune is a networking platform, outfitted with commune-specific project management applications that make it much different from a social networking tool. The software enables common and practical actions – for example, a group of members can organize a buying club, set up a rideshare system, or barter goods and services. And like everything on the web, WeCommune gives users the option to extend their reach: by networking to other communes, groups can make certain assets like bartering and goods-sharing pools more robust.
wecommune_logo.jpgWeCommune offers the basic platform free to anyone who wants to use it, and even the more complex services are available for a monthly subscription under $2. Smith hopes that by making it affordable she'll enable communes of all sorts – from those who are already sharing, like condo associations and college dorms, to neighborhoods and interest groups.
"We couldn't find anything out there like this," says Smith. "We feel like if we hit a home run, we're going to be the ultimate community application."
Why communes need the boost
In her L.A.-based studio, Ecoshack, Smith designs small-scale, modular projects like ecovillages, yurts and tipis that "invent new ways to live lightly on the Earth." But her real vision for sustainability acknowledges that the way people interact with one another, use resources and build community are the most important components of any environment, from eco-enclave to suburban cul-de-sac. As it turns out, a lot of people were willing to help her test her theory. When she launched a site called Wanna Start a Commune? as an Ecoshack spinoff, she quickly connected with three cul-de-sac neighborhoods in Southern California that invited her to help them start their own communes. Since then, she's become a self-titled "meta-starter of communes."
Almost from the first meetings of her three "Beta test" cul-de-sac communes, however, she noticed that even where there was intention, there weren't effective tools available for completing projects in a group. Nascent communes would have ideas, for example, to create a disaster preparedness plan for their neighborhood, or to turn a neglected space into a community garden. But coordinating schedules, resources, skill sets and other components of the plan among neighbors -- many of whom had never been in the same room before -- was more trouble than Smith had anticipated. Software seemed like an intuitive solution.
"The group members said, 'isn't there an iPhone app for that?'," she remembers. "And these aren't 21-year-olds; these are older people, too. I had to solve a technology problem."
Smith tested out versions of existing social networking software, including Ning and Yahoo! Groups, but didn’t find the functionality that she was looking for. So she sat down and designed her own, with the help of collaborator Matt French and programmer Josh Cain.
An unlikely champion
Smith doesn't live in a commune herself, and defines herself -- somewhat ironically -- as a loner. But her comfortable distance from the subject has given her a more objective lens for understanding community – how it works, and what gets in its way. She's been studying community since the mid-90s, when she explored it in her master's thesis at Harvard, under the tutelage of master architect Rem Koolhas. Smith found herself in China in 1996, a turbulent time characterized by extreme real estate speculation and the burst of a housing bubble. She focused her research on one intriguing social pattern: as groups of rural villagers moved to the cities in droves, they would often move collectively into one concrete apartment building, and re-create the community structure. Smith found the process fascinating. In her words, "They would take these global pieces of architecture as their own, and make them very local again." (Her thesis, To Get Rich is Glorious, is published in the collection Great Leap Forward.)
The community solution, Smith says, "allowed these people not only to be housed, but to be housed in these tight communities where they could flourish…it gave me hope that, in fact, local cultures would be able to fight globalization and stay intact." Now, she says, in the face of the global economic meltdown, she still sees hope for community-based solutions. Ultimately, she thinks, a worldwide trend toward resource-sharing could be just the medicine the economy needs.
It certainly seems like the right platform could touch off a communing revolution. But here's a thought: while we're in the kickoff phases, it might also be time for a new term that defines this particular brand of resourcefulness. Smith chose "commune" because it's actually pretty versatile (she cites Wikipedia's definition, "a community in which resources are shared"). But even though great, innovative ideas, practices and cultures emerged from communes in the 60s, the word itself remains pretty loaded with counter-cultural connotations that don't seems as universally sticky in 2009.
Is the 21st Century commune a strategic collaboration? Or does the stretchiness of communal resources make for elastic living? We'll work on some new language from our end, but in the meantime, call out your best ideas for the new communal meme in the comments.
Finding community (by any name) isn't that difficult, Smith says, but it can involve looking for things that aren't obvious to most people.
"You need to understand that your community isn't necessarily your group of best friends. You need to ask yourself, 'do we have a shared value set so that we feel comfortable planning projects and sharing resources over time? Do we have people of various ages who feel comfortable sharing their skills? Do we have a social infrastructure for getting things done?"
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