Our Decentralized Neo-Rural Future
By William E Bodell III
What is the Neo-Rural Movement?
We at Stratum are founded on a body of experience working with rural communities, a population not commonly considered by design professionals, academics, or entrepreneurs. Our experience has revealed a wealth of untapped potential in the small towns in which we work, both in terms of skills and resources. The potential for growth in rural communities is enormous, yet all of the attention remains fixed on urban areas. We believe this is about to change.
Advances in mobility and connectivity, the two most limiting factors of the rural lifestyle, are expected to open up a new cultural frontier in the country. Video conferencing and file sharing have already made it possible for people to work from practically anywhere. The emergence of autonomous vehicles has many speculating that a new wave of migration from the cities will lead to a resurgence of suburban sprawl, as 2-3 hour commutes into the city suddenly become quite feasible.
With such dramatic change on the rural horizon, the decisions we make now have the potential to significantly affect the lives of our friends and neighbors. What exactly is the difference between the Neo-Rurals and creative colonists or rural gentrifiers? It is critical that we establish the ethos of the Neo-Rural upfront, so that we don’t end up turning Callicoon into the next Brooklyn. Stratum is a research and rural development studio, so we must be clear from the outset that our projects are always in the service of the rural communities in which we live and work. We are not bringing the city to the country. We are building the infrastructure for the next generation of rural dwellers to discover another way of living.
It is no longer necessary for society to be centrally located in dense urban environments. Our generation demands an alternative to the established geopolitical hierarchies of power. The Neo-Rural seeks the establishment of a decentralized rural society, an antifragile network of self-sufficient towns and villages with closer ties to both natural and social ecologies. This is not a manipulation of the rural lifestyle to fit the requirements of an urban population, but rather a return to the fundamental values of the first settlers, using new technology to enable a way of living that was simply not practical before.
The Neo-Rural movement is coming.
Come raise a barn with us.
Distributed Collective Housing
Distributed Collective Housing is a research project by Stratum, in partnership with Consensys and Columbia University GSAPP. The core innovation behind the project is new decentralized peer-to-peer software called Blockchain. It will allow people to participate in many forms of property transaction without a third-party intermediary. Property ownership can be distributed through a network of users who’s stake is represented by token system that quantifies real value. DCH hopes to fundamentally change how groups of people collective design, produce and inhabit property.
Why is Co-Housing Important?
Co-Housing is a form of social housing where people share spatial and financial resources to make their livelihoods more affordable and community-oriented. By promoting density and shared property ownership, co-housing can also be more environmentally sustainable than other forms of commodity housing
What Forces Restrict Co-Housing?
Co-housing relies on substantial group commitment and decision making by consensus. Cultural identity and like-mindedness have a very large influence on the success of these collective design communities. Therefore, in certain contexts, co-housing could become an exclusionary form of housing for privileged groups of people who can access the time, tools and resources.
What is the Blockchain?
The blockchain is a decentralized ledger, originally introduced as the core technological innovation behind Bitcoin, that distributes information through a network of users with no central authority. It does this by using the computational power of thousands of individual computers, instead of a single source. In this sense, some have likened the blockchain to a ‘world computer’.
What Can the Blockchain Offer Co-Housing?
The blockchain can help manage financial, legal, and creative processes that in many contexts would make co-housing impossible. By limiting interference, corruption, mismanagement, and human error, the blockchain can execute major tasks that could increase large scale adoption of co-housing through unique crowdfunding systems, collaborative design voting systems, quantifying reputation value, managing shared property transactions
One particularly interesting development related to the blockchain is the notion of ‘smart contracts’ – uniquely encrypted protocols that execute agreements made between people and property. In essence, it’s an infrastructure that offers a new form of digital contract that is ‘trustless’ – meaning it does not rely on pre-established trust between people who have a mutual understanding of one another. In contrast to conventional forms of contractual agreement, trustless smart contracts do not need a third party (like a lawyer, clearinghouse or centralized data center) to facilitate the transaction. No single entity owns the data transferred on the blockchain, thus creating a decentralization of authority and new opportunities for privacy and transparency.
The blockchain can execute a wide variety of smart contracts associated with internet-connected property, often referred to as the Internet of Things. This means that blockchain integration with co-housing can go far beyond collaborative design of the building floor plans, structural components, and comfort amenities. Smart property transactions can mitigate the shared use of appliances, tools and transportation.
Autonomous Social Housing
Perhaps the most radical concept to evolve from the blockchain and smart contracts is the Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO). DAO’s are organizations which do not require any direct human involvement and run according to a set of incorruptible business rules written as smart contracts. In the case of co-housing, the DAO would take the place of traditional landlords by managing the maintenance of building facilities and coordinating rental agreements. By distributing the decision-making process across a network of shareholders (i.e. tenants), a blockchain co-housing organization amplifies community engagement while avoiding certain managerial pitfalls of typical co-housing.
FarmShare: Blockchain Community-Supported Agriculture
FarmShare is an evolution of the community-supported agriculture model, which takes advantage of the blockchain’s potential for distributed consensus, token-based equity shares and automated governance in order to foster greater community engagement while removing some of the managerial burdens and financial risks from farmers involved in a CSA. The goal is to return to the fundamental goals of the original CSAs: to create new forms of property ownership, community cooperation, and locally self-sufficient economies. FarmShare also incorporates IoT technology in the form of biodegradable soil quality sensors, weather monitoring devices and automated irrigation systems, providing a feedback mechanism for farmers and community members to make better decisions about land management and crop production.
Community-supported agriculture is an alternative economic model for the production and distribution of locally grown food. CSAs operate on a shared risk-reward model, in which a community of shareholders funds the operation of a local farm at the beginning of the growing season in exchange for weekly deliveries of fresh produce and other food products (such as eggs, dairy, meats, etc) over the course of the harvesting period.
Such an arrangement is beneficial for both the farmers, who are effectively insured against risks such as potential environmental factors leading to low crop yield, and consumers, who gain the ability to influence decisions such as crop production ratios to better suit the needs of the community.
Common Issues with CSAs
Although community supported agriculture sounds like the perfect arrangement for both farmers and consumers, there are drawbacks to the model. Over-expansion is a common issue, since large farming operations require significantly more work to manage both the crops and the community. Farmers are not typically accustomed to running consumer-facing businesses, so managing a community of concerned shareholders can be a distraction from the maintenance of the farm. It is often difficult to maintain active community engagement, and perhaps even more difficult to achieve consensus within an engaged community. Shared risk can cause frustration if the harvest is small, especially if communication is inconsistent.
Agriculture and the Internet of Things
One industry that has not been significantly affected by the proliferation of information technology is agriculture. According to a 2014 report by IBM, “Today, the sector of the economy with the lowest IT intensity is farming, where IT accounts for just 1 percent of all capital spending. Here the potential impact of the IoT is enormous. Farming is capital- and technology-intensive, but it is not yet information-intensive.” By integrating technology such as sensor arrays for monitoring soil and weather conditions, planting and harvesting processes can be optimized for maximum crop yield.
FarmShare tokens are the currency on which the blockchain CSA model relies. At their most basic level, tokens represent shares of the harvested crop. Each participating CSA organization creates and distributes its own tokens, with FarmShare operating as the platform for hosting a blockchain CSA. Thus, the tokens serve as the equivalent of the subscription fee paid upfront by the members of a traditional CSA.
FarmCoin aims to reestablish community engagement as one of the primary goals of the CSA organization, and the blockchain provides an effective model for distributed consensus-driven decision-making. However, having the technology alone is not enough to stimulate the level of engagement necessary for such a project to succeed. FarmCoin is a peer-to-peer network, and so its value is directly related to the number of active users, and the types of activities they perform for the community.
Tasks, Rewards, and Community Governance
Decision-making can be handled democratically, using an application such as BoardRoom. Any shareholder may table a proposal on the FarmShare platform to be voted on by the rest of the community, with the ability to automatically enact proposals via smart contract once a predefined number of community members have approved it. The CSA may have an electable chair, add or remove members based on community consensus, allocate funds according to smart contract proposals, and revise its structure or bylaws as deemed necessary by the community.
For example, the community may vote to elect the farmer as chair of the CSA, with special permissions assigned to him on account of his experience. The CSA may then table a number of proposals to assign tasks for managing the farm, such as sorting weekly deliveries or producing marketing materials. If the community agrees upon the proposed bounties (i.e. 5 FarmShare tokens per box sorted, 25 tokens for an advertisement, provided that the community approves of the submission, etc.), then any member can enact the smart contract and define their mode of participation in the organization.
Food Provenance Data
By incorporating agricultural IoT and blockchain technology throughout the supply chain, FarmCoin can allow users to keep track of a wide array of data about their food. Agricultural sensors can monitor the environmental conditions and nutrient levels of crops over the course of a season, and the data can be stored in the blockchain to be reviewed at any time. Additional data, such as labor or transportation information, can also be tracked on the blockchain, allowing conscientious consumers to make decisions about their food based on ethical concerns about energy sustainability or fair labor practices.
A Vision of Our Neo-Rural Future
Presented by Stratum
More to come in the near future