Would you like to live in a science experiment? Or a supercommunity?

Global geo-engineering misses the point - think global, act local 2.0 is all about resilient communities. Here are some new ideas on how they can work...

So, we have too much “greenhouse gas” in our atmosphere. Why not just sort it out with tech? Seems simple enough. We could reflect sunlight back into space, rather than letting it reach us down here in the greenhouse, as in the SPICE project shown below. Or pump all the greenhouse gases out into space. Build a carbon dioxide filter and point it outwards. Then do the same for methane and nitrous oxide. Some might argue for keeping the nitrous oxide, perhaps.

Figure 1: Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering, aka SPICE

Unfortunately, despite living on a planet full of tech geniuses, we seem to be a long way from such fixes being any kind of reality. The super nerds who made the Web usable by inventing surveillance capitalism are now doing the same thing to make the planet usable – i.e., building technology that claims to be for social benefit but is in fact a get rich quick plan with terrifyingly unknowable consequences. Geo-engineering projects to reshape the atmosphere of the planet we all live on are attracting huge investment while being unlikely to succeed and having risks that are not at all understood.

Meanwhile, climate accounting as a way of keeping industry in check is so broken that energy companies can claim credits for logging old growth forests, replacing them with fast-growing monocultures disastrous for biodiversity, and burning the logged timber – all based on an unwarranted assumption that increasing our carbon burden now will be fully sorted out by future tech that does not yet exist and which would require more energy than the total resources of the planet.

By contrast, the over 350 scientists who signed the Non-Use Coalition suggest that reducing emissions is the most important response to climate change, and call for social innovation as an important way forward. One way that such social innovation could work is via the creation of Smart Cities. Another, which could be applied both with and without the massive tech investment required for a Smart City (whatever that really means – so far, they have not been a success story) is for communities to take collaborative action at local level.

The idea that "Think global, act local" could underpin positive social change has been around for over a century now. However, while by the 1970s it had become a counter-culture mantra, since then it has descended into a technique for business globalisation. Could the term be retrieved from the hellhole of relentless corporate expansion, and turned back into a call to action that might actually save the planet?

Part of the reason why the mantra lost lustre among activists may be that efforts to act locally tend to be disjointed, lacking a methodology that brings many different organisations together in a unified, purposeful way. My work on a Supercommunities model for antifragile communities, shown below, is leading to just such a methodology, organisation-as-a-platform. At the heart of the Supercommunities model is the 5 Cs model of collaboration, which lets you strip away costly, time-consuming, and ultimately ineffective administration to work in a collaborative, iterative way that delivers the best possible outcomes for the resources available. Key organisations in the community are encouraged to enable others by becoming platforms for community services – a bit like adopting the route to success used by tech platform providers, but geared towards creating stakeholder value rather than shareholder value.

I'll unpack this by giving a cut-down example. Let's start with the Supercommunities model that an organisation-as-a-platform supports. This model has nine aspects, shown below.

Figure 2: The Supercommunities model (

For the purposes of this article, we need only look at the first four:

  • Who are we? The first step is to identify the communities that infrastructure investment is intended to support. Some communities may be geographical - a city, specific neighbourhoods, a region, or other ways of defining areas. Other communities may be cultural or defined by common issues such as disability.
  • Our challenges. The next step is to define the ways in which new infrastructure should benefit the communities above - for example, by making livelihoods sustainable, food available, or enabling access to services.
  • Our capital. Community capitals are natural, industrial, and human resources.
    • Natural capitals could include sources of water such as rivers or rainfall, or plentiful light and heat from the sun.
    • Industrial capitals could include workforce skills such as local trades or existing infrastructure such as warehouses and factories.
    • Human capitals could include local organisations such as civic societies or religious institutions that are able to bring people together in a purposeful way.
  • Our assets. Community assets are means of delivering services that improve the wellness of community members. Such services may belong to the public, private, or third sectors. Assets draw on capitals, and typically also help to sustain them, for example by encouraging and enabling volunteering.

To see how this might apply to local green initiatives, here is an imaginary community:

  • Who are we? We'll consider inhabitants of a rural area containing a major river, on which farmers depend for fish cultivation and for field irrigation.
  • Our challenges. The major challenge faced by people in this community is flooding of the river due to climate change. This impacts food availability, both locally and in other regions to which food is sold. It also causes economic hardship, due to loss of output and to repair costs.
  • Our capitals.
    • **Natural capitals. **The community has high temperatures for most of the year. At certain times of year, it has heavy rainfall.
    • Industrial capitals. Local people are skilled at making and using boats. There are many wharves and boatsheds in towns along the river. Solar-powered drones are often used to monitor and treat farmland.
    • Human capitals. A long tradition of cooperative farming has led to associations bring established between farmers in different areas along the banks of the river.
  • Our assets. Local transport services along the river by boat are run on a commercial basis. There are government-funded health clinics in towns - for ease of access, these often operate from disused boatsheds near to wharves. Schools vary greatly in size and resources, so young people often travel long distances for education.

As a way of dealing with flooding, an organisation (we won't worry what type) seeks funding to introduce autonomous solar-powered boats into the river. Several purposes are suggested:

  • Identify river banks, irrigation channels, and flood defences that need repair
  • Carry out minor repairs
  • Monitor fish stocks
  • Detect theft from fish farms
  • Track silt levels and other forms of runoff that impact water quality

All of this is highly speculative. The technology will be developed as the work progresses. Flood levels vary dramatically every year. What's more, it is not well understood how the needs and views of people in areas along the river may differ.

A conventional approach to this would use sophisticated metrics to seek investment funding. These metrics would inevitably be based on goals that may turn out to be inappropriate, or appropriate only in some places and not others. So, if funding is gained, a huge amount of it would go to data gathering and analysis that is likely to be largely futile. This would leave little time to develop the real opportunity - to create a large number of micro-initiatives, driven by local skills, experience, and understanding, that explore new ways to use advanced technology in a wide range of settings and with a wide range of purposes.

To develop the real opportunity, the organisation should instead seek funding to become an organisation-as-a-platform for this community. The platform in question is autonomous solar-powered boats. The organisation could use their investment funding to offer a range of services to local people for making use of these boats. Funding to local individuals or organisations for specific uses could be via a combination of grant aid for early-stage proof-of-concept plus a Stakeitback model of community investment to support further development.

The organisation providing this platform may well gather and analyse data on usage, and share the results with its own investment sponsors. But this is not how investors should judge whether to continue the funding. Rather, they should seek evidence that their funding is being used to provide the community in question with a platform for making use of autonomous solar-powered boats, and that the evolution of this platform is genuinely driven by local input into needs and priorities - in other words, evidence that an organisation-as-a-platform operating model has been adopted. The approach is uniquely effective, since outputs are Agile-targeted to community needs, not invalid formulas.

The simplest and lowest cost way for investment sponsors to obtain such evidence is to join some of the associated meetings - for example, quarterly steering groups that summarise the progress of more frequent working groups, and that include representatives of local organisations. The overhead of this is so minimal as to be almost non-existent, since it is doing little more than allowing investors to participate in the work itself. The approach is uniquely efficient, since each community evaluates proposals for, and steers development of, its own new services – so once each platform is established, the cost to investment sponsor of the services it enables is mainly coaching / mentoring via monthly review meetings.

This approach delivers a win-win-win for investors, community organisations, and community members. The only people who lose out are the technocrats whose lunatic schemes currently soak up a huge proportion of climate investment while delivering existential risk to us all. Perhaps society could live with that trade-off.


Out now - my new book Supercommunities

"Read this book!" Vint Cerf, Co-Inventor of the Internet

"Ranging from ancient history to economics to psychology to public policy ‘Supercommunities’ is both authoritative and highly readable. It puts our current challenges in context, shows why change is necessary and provides a trove of practical ideas for change makers." Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, The RSA

"Our politics and economics of 'me' must return to being about 'we', and this book shows us how." Professor Martin Parker, Lead, Bristol Inclusive Economy Initiative

Further reading

Superorganisations (explains social investment model, giving illustrative example)

Plenary keynote to Enterprise Architecture Conference Europe 2021 (explains organisation-as-a-platform)

Community-based Services (explains platform model, showing prototype Web platform)

Community-based Service Development (explains finance model, showing prototype Web platform) (lectures, interviews, keynotes, blogs, books, and more)