Buckminster Fuller and Mahatma Gandhi showed that single individuals could transform the world. When I really got started in this game, in 2002, with the invention of the hexayurt, I searched hard for some model of how to be effective.
Here’s roughly what I came to.
- Institutions which own humanitarian problems have been ineffective for generations.
- Government is exquisitely slow, but the Pentagon has developed some good tech.
- Leaders are turned into managers by building funded organizations.
- Right times for doing things come, but when cannot be predicted reliably.
All roads lead to Richard Stallman. He believes in a very bold vision: freedom and peace for all humanity. He was a single talented individual. He changed the philosophy which we use to develop software, and his values have percolated from software to other fields like music, movies and hardware. By all reasonable reckoning Stallman, for all that his ideas have become diluted as they spread, is winning.
I wanted to achieve a Stallman-like victory in housing. I wanted to start with the very poorest and most desperate, because the existing systems were failing them so badly. Also disaster brings capital into otherwise permanently deprived areas. Billions were raised for Haiti, more money than had gone into the country in decades. Because there is no reasonable strategy like copyleft in housing I gave away the technology for Free, with no copyright or patent. I did not found an organization because I wanted to change how all NGOs doing sheltering operate, rather than becoming one more competing NGO at the disaster scene. I took one principle from Buckminster Fuller: let the tech do the talking. As far as possibly I’ve tried not to preach about why, but focused on what and how. If you don’t know that we all deserve a place to live, I ain’t gonna teach ya.
I’d read Structure of Scientific Revolutions as a teenager. I knew that real change takes time. I expected the hexayurt to take a generational turnover, roughly 15 years, before it was adopted on a large scale. I was prepared to wait because I knew of no other effective alternative. So I split my life into two parts: pushing the hexayurt forwards, and building the rest of the infrastructure (political and social) that I would need to make it effective when the day finally came. That, plus absurd coincidences, took me into government and dealing with the military-intellectual complex, to my surprise, and their frank astonishment.
The hexayurt reached Haiti this year. Transitional sheltering (more permanent than a tent) is very stuck in Haiti as of August 2010. They need about 200,000 homes and the Shelter Cluster has built less than 10,000. The issues appear to be land access, which is to say bureaucracy. As a result, the class of shelters in which the hexayurt belongs are just not being built in quantity. We may yet see a few hundred units built.
Now we have Pakistan. Unlike Haiti the information coming out of the country is scattered and disjointed and the ongoing, wet and complex nature of the disaster are making it hard to figure out where to pull. But millions are displaced, and there is slack charitable giving because it follows so hard on Haiti. So there is much to do, and little money. Perhaps those conditions will be helped by the design: I do not know.
This year there will be several hundred of hexayurts on the playa at Burning Man. Lots and lots of Americans will get to live inside of a shelter they built with their own hands for a few hundred dollars which will keep them warm at night, cool in the day, and safe from the awesome desert dust storms. The line between this activity, and what I would like to see in Pakistan and Haiti and everywhere else that people need shelter is very simple.
- Rather than learning from the internet, people come and teach how to make hexayurts.
- Rather than individuals buying from Home Depot, charities buy the materials and deliver them.
Burning Man is a rehearsal ground for taking care of people after a large scale natural disaster – the Bay Quake. Burners do shelter and infrastructure in very harsh conditions for 50,000 people. As I recall, the Red Cross estimate for a Bay Quake is only 300,000 displaced – six times the size of Burning Man. That the shelter is successful under those conditions is encouraging.
Food and housing for everybody in the world was my original goal. Food I largely ignored because there are tens of thousands of people better than me at fixing farming. Housing I had a talent for, so that is where I have worked. I have consistently sacrificed short term demonstrations in favor of building long term institutional understanding, which is a tactic I am reconsidering. But now I must ask myself the hard question: is it working? Am I making progress towards this goal, or am I wasting my time?
The oncoming freight train of a global recession increasingly draws my attention: it’s a crisis which is going to require all of us to change how we do things, and some of the skills and tools I have built wrestling with housing may directly apply. Getting the essentials right.
No, I am not wasting my time. The problems that I’ve devoted my life to working on are spreading and becoming more complex. I’m not working on the wrong problem. Cheap housing and a way to feed yourself is the most urgent need of the very poorest. But as our situation becomes more complicated globally, the need for the radical economy which designing systems for the very poorest trains becomes more generally applicable.
I look at Britain and I see land, people, calories and weather. It’s the same equations. I do need to tack, to modify course a little. I’ve become too spread out, too diluted. I’m covering so many bases, trying to make positive change in a portfolio manner to handle the long latencies which go along with trying to make fundamental changes in hard-problem areas.
The rich countries are going to be less willing to help the poor as the recession unfolds. NGOs are poorly suited to handle the likely drop in charitable giving. This may well be the spur needed to start the transformation of the sector by Free Culture.
I’ve always known the future of my project was to be taken over by the people close to the problem – the field agencies and work crews building hexayurts in the disaster zones. The most important part of being a figurehead is letting other people be in charge, and recognizing that starting a thing is not the same as owning it.
And this is the key lesson from Stallman: a limited man, with limited capacities, who has changed the world and yet commands nothing. This is true 21st century leadership, and when we’re all enjoying the peace and freedom afforded to us by computers which we control, rather than our governments or the corporations, we have him to thank for the seed of the idea, and hundreds of thousands of people cooperating to write the software to thank for its realization.
I believe in Free Housing. Simple designs for easy-to-afford, easy-to-build housing for a variety of basic needs. The hexayurt already has two major variants – the Burning Man hexayurt and the plywood hexayurt (pdf). There are lots of other designs for shelter and housing out there – even free machinery for making houses. To get there, for all of us, is going to require as many approaches are there are different needs. Short term, long term, individuals, families, climates, cultures and everything else. No hierarchical organization can manage the diversity. It must be a movement, a collective, shared awareness of possibilities and responsibilities, so we can act together to solve the global housing problem. Cooperation gave us free software. Slowly it is giving us free hardware. Now the rest.
The hexayurt is like the tent: it is a shelter who’s form is defined by the materials it is constructed in, rather than by the deep needs of its users. It’s always going to be temporary, stopgap, interim and awaiting the four bedroom gabled room wonder which is the dream of its residents. My hope is that this year we will begin to replace tents not just at Burning Man, but in Haiti and Pakistan.