Two years ago, when attending a 4 day course on the divided brain, organised by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist, there was an informal discussion amongst a group of participants who were suggesting that one way of addressing the problems of our planet would be a return to living in small communities. If I remember correctly, 250 was suggested as a good size for these communities; why 250 I don’t know, but there was reference to Dunbar’s number which is 150, the number of relationships the average person can retain.
At the time I thought surely it will never be possible to return to living in small communities, when so many people now live in huge cities. Tokyo has a population of more than 38 million, and many people have claimed to love living in cities, with their hustle and bustle. I have lived in a village for 35 years, now with a population of around 1600, which is significantly more than when we moved in, but it has never, in this time, had a population as small as 250 or 150 people.
A couple of weeks ago I attended the World Localization Day conference and realised that it not so much a question of size of communities as of localization. It’s not that we try and go backwards, but that we try and hold globalisation and localisation in balance. This has become so evident during this COVID-19 pandemic. For some things we definitely need globalisation; for example, for the development of vaccines, and test and trace systems. But what we have seen is that it is in local communities and neighbourhoods that people have found the most support during this pandemic.
In my village, a group of volunteers was established within 72 hours of the lockdown. This group of about 35 people, take care of the vulnerable and isolated, doing their shopping, collecting their prescriptions and generally offering any help that is needed, even down to walking dogs. And whilst the local supermarkets (of which there are at least 10 within a 20 mile radius) have upped the number of online deliveries they offer, it is the local village shop, and the local farm shop, which have provided the individual service that anxious customers have needed.
The World Localisation Day conference was organised by Local Futures, which has been ‘working for four decades to raise awareness about the need to shift direction – away from dependence on global monopolies, and towards decentralized, regional economies’ in order to ‘renew ecological, social, and spiritual well-being’. The conference highlighted the work of small groups all over the world who are working to strengthen their local communities, supporting the work of local businesses, and in particular promoting local growth of food.
I found the conference a very positive experience, full of hope and the real belief that localisation is a way forward. Interestingly, now that I have heard this message, I have realised that many people think in a similar way, but express their ideas in different contexts.
So, for example, I recently heard David Lammy (Labour MP for Tottenham and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice), an invited speaker for the Being Human in Conversation series, say that some challenges can only be addressed globally, but that cultures that don’t allow local powers are struggling. We have to attend to the local. We have to address the day to day concerns in our own neighbourhoods. (For the full talk see – https://youtu.be/xSBe-p5QrxM)
Similarly in an event organised by the London School of Economics and Political Science – Brexit and the Post-COVID-19 Options for the Economy – it was said that the UK should get serious about decentralised governance.
The need for decentralisation has been discussed for years. I first became very aware of it in 2008 when participating in Stephen Downes’ and George Siemens’ massive open online MOOC on Connectivism and Connected Knowledge, when they made it plain (when discussing how the internet functions) that distributing power, knowledge and control across decentralised systems will always be better than relying on the lynch pin in a centralised system. On his OLDaily newsletter Stephen Downes has listed a number of articles that discuss decentralisation (enter ‘decentralisation’ in Search).
And yesterday in a talk given to the Oxford Internet Institute – What Big Tech does to discourse, and the forgotten tech tool that can make tech less big, Cory Doctorow said that we must be in control of our own technology and be able to adapt our own tools to the circumstances we find ourselves in, rather than relying on the ‘big players’. Our resilience to future crises depends on this, he said.
The need for greater decentralisation and more localisation has been understood for years, but it seems that people have to see it in action to believe that it is possible. There have been signs during this pandemic that more people are beginning to think about and understand these ideas, but it remains to be seen whether enough people will support the movements to effect change over the long-term.