The definition of cities often swirls around the complex overlay of systems that together form the urban fabric. In this logic transport networks, utilities, buildings, people, open spaces and ultimately every tree form part of that system. The operation system – in a way the system of systems – is out capitalist economic model. Everything is quantified in monetary terms, provided it is causing costs or it is scarce. Nature was never considered of limited availability and therefore they didn’t find its way into that model.
We could make our life easy and just add it. Problem solved. While it might sound like a quick fix, I think it will only increase the problem we are facing. It is not the fact that nature in itself does not seem to bear an economic value beyond tourism potential, it is the capitalist model itself that is the issue. That becomes clearly visible in all places where capitalism is largely unbounded. The countries that have the purest free market economy tend to be the highest polluters and the places with the lowest environmental standards and that does not come as a surprise. In classical capitalism everything is left to free play of the different market forces. As long as there is a level playing field this model can lead to remarkable results. But when players do not have an equal voice, all developments happen at their expense. In that sense the urban poor are not much different than nature. We need to transform our operating system to enforce a better balance. We need to set much stricter limits to the exploitation of both, people and nature. And, we need to rethink if we cannot come up with an alternative to the ‘higher, faster, more’ attitude that seemingly has become so enshrined in our way of life.
Scandinavia has developed a social market economy. Maybe we can take this as a starting point and add the environment to that: social-environmental market economy. That concept already exists since hundreds of years under a different name: the commons. They belong to everyone – common goods that everybody is allowed to use. But usage here is limited in such a way that it must not destroy the usability for others. At the same time, commons can be used to make profit. Rather than labelling it a market economy, one could call it a commons’ economy. Not possible? It already exists. Take open source software or Wikipedia. Similar approaches could be taken in physical space as well. To generate sustainable energy with current technologies, we need a lot more space. Photovoltaics need a large surface exposed to the sun. Turning all roofs into commons could greatly help to make a leap in increasing capacity. Why not turning every roof into a space that everyone can use to produce energy. Some homeowners don’t want to invest into PV cells, some are not interested at all and some only use a fraction of the roof surface because they themselves do not need more.
Changing our legal framework could make it possible that every property owner has to allow for energy production on his roof – turning our cities and villages into giant power plants. Not only would we limit the amount of ground we use for energy generation, leaving it for nature, we also could profoundly change the way our power grids work. As Rosalea Monacella, a researcher from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design shows us, the electric grid in the US currently they are an expression of economic might of few. Few big companies own and operate these grids. They tend to favour centralized power generation since that is a lot easier to manage and operate. Why having to bother about hundreds or thousands of households generating energy on their or other people’s roofs when the same capacity can easily be provided by a single coal or atomic power plant. The roof as commons has the potential to profoundly change that unbalance of power. Not the hierarchical power grid of the past but the peer to peer network is the system of that new electric power generation age.
This is one example of many more that one could develop when turning commodities into commons – ultimately leading to a new operating system that moves beyond the capitalist model.
by Markus Appenzeller