Tag Archives: unMonastery

God’s network

For a few months now I have been thinking about the Benedictine movement in terms of complex adaptive systems, and to Saint Benedict’s Rule as a protocol. The more I think about it, the more sense it makes.

So, when prominent innovation journalist Riccardo Luna asked me to tell the story of the unMonastery at Next (it’s a sort of televised innovation festival run by Repubblica, Italy’s top daily newspaper), I ended up rambling about that. Focusing on monasticism in sixth century Europe might seem at odds in such a temple of innovative technology and startups, but then innovation has been with humanity well before Silicon Valley. And if you look at Benedict from Nursia through the lens of social innovation, what you see is… surprising. My presentation is below. It’s in Italian: if you don’t speak the language, you can still check out this beautiful videoclip (largely wordless) that makes up its middle part. 

What modern-day social innovators can learn from the life and times of St. Benedict

About a year ago a group of people close to Edgeryders and to me dreamed up something called the unMonastery. The dream snowballed into the prototype of a radical, uncompromising project: more or less, build an institution to embed global expert knowledge aimed at the common good into a local community, and do it so that it lasts a couple of centuries at least. Don’t try to build sustainability via a business models (business models are flimsy, they just don’t last over that time scale), build it through a kind of symbiosis between the unMonastery and the host city. Against all odds, this idea has come true, and you can apply to be an unMonasterian right now.

Anyway, this journey prompted me to look into the history of early (Western) monasticism in search for good stories and inspiration – therefore proving that you don’t need to be religious to be inspired by the lives of the saints! I zeroed in on St. Benedict, regarded by many as the founder of Western Monasticism. And sure enough, Benedict’s life and times provide plenty of good advice to anybody wishing to start or join an unMonastery. Even a cursory glance will tell you that:

  1. Benedict was evidence-oriented. He did experiments and trusted their results. Far from being entrenched in his belief, he appears to be worlds away from a bureaucratic style of management: his leadership style is nothing if not adaptive. According to St. Gregory, he first tries to live in a cave as a hermit; later accepts to become the abbot of a monastery in the neighborhood, but does not do such a great job (“the experiment failed: the monks tried to poison him” – source); he then proceeds to establish his own first monastery at Subiaco, fragmenting the community of monks into 12 independent mini-monasteries of 12 monks each; later yet, he organizes the Monte Cassino monastery on completely different principles, with all monks under the same roof. Modern-day unMonasterians can do worse than copy his try-fail-mutate-iterate heuristics.
  2. Benedict valued and prioritized action over idle disputes. Ora et labora, pray and work, was his precept. Working is, for Benedict, the only possible path to a good, meaningful life; anything else has too much temptation and restlessness in it. When in doubt, his followers are given tools, shown a lawn to trim or a tree to fell and told to get on with it. Good, solid people don’t set out to Change The World: that would be an arrogant stance, surely inspired by the devil (I’m looking at you, Silicon Valley). God can flatten any work of man at any moment by crashing a comet onto planet Earth or something, so Benedict’s crew works for the inherent pleasure and meaning of making good, clever, beautiful things. This strategy ended up giving them (and the Western world) monasteries as centers of production, healing, learning and hospitality; monks came to be regarded as the Christian ideal. Nowadays, unMonasterians toil away to build hacks not because they really think they can defeat the apocalypse, but because it’s the right thing to do and it’s fun.
  3. Benedict protocolized. While at Monte Cassino, he writes the Rule as a guide to people wishing to live together in a monastery. The Rule is really a remarkable document, that unMonasterians (especially those leading new settlements) would do well to spend some time brooding over. If you have any experience with online community management, you will find the Rule eerily familiar: it has roles with different levels of access and authorization (abbott, cellarer, brethren); a moderation policy to prevent flame wars from distracting monks for doing God’s work (and their own); a very modern idea of the higher echelons as a service to the rank-and-file monks, rather than as their lords. Most importantly, the Rule does not specify a set of goals and activities to reach them: it never says “build a library and a scriptorium and start copying manuscripts to preserve knowledge as the Roman Empire goes down in flames”, or “build extra space to lodge travelers, since the Early Middle Ages are low on inns”. Yet, benedictine monasteries did end up doing those things and others: following the Rule can result in many outcomes, all beneficial from the point of view of Benedict and his crew. Most of them could not possibly have been foreseen by Benedict himself. Since it is a document of instructions, the Rule is software; since it does not carry out a specific task but enables a variety of mutually consistent outcomes, it is not an app. The Rule is a protocol. And what a protocol! It spread all over the world; arguably transformed (mostly for the better) Middle Ages Europe; is still in use after a millennium and a half; and has spread beyond the Catholic church (it is used in some Orthodox and even Lutheran contexts). I can’t think of many other protocols with that kind of track record. Benedict may have been the Supreme Ninja Mage Lord Protocol Hacker of all time.
  4. Benedict decentralized. Consistently with the protocol nature of the Rule (and, one suspects, with his own mindset as a protocol hacker), Benedict never actually founded an order. Benedictines are not an order in a strict sense; each monastery is a sovereign institution, with no hierarchy among them. The Rule acts as a communication protocol across monasteries. As a result, many flavors of benedictine abbeys were “forked” over the centuries (for example the Camaldolese) by mutation and natural selection – this was explicitely enabled by the Rule, which declares itself as “only a beginning” in its final chapter, much in the fashion of TCP/IP being “only a beginning” for, say, video streaming. Mutation, however, did not always result in outright speciation. Most benedictine houses federated loosely into national or supra-national congregations starting in the early 14th century; and in fact Pope Leo XIII was able to establish a Benedictine Confederation chaired by an Abbott General without the whole thing blowing over. This happened in 1893 – 1300+ years after the writing of the Rule!
  5. Benedict avoided sterile conflict – and so went viral. My research has been very amateurish – literally a day’s project, but I could not find evidence of power struggles between the early monastic movement of the 6th century and the Church’s hierarchy. Instead of going for Vatican politics, Benedict appears to have focused on running things at home in Monte Cassino and distributing copies of the Rule to whoever wanted one. As a result, more and more people adopted the Rule for their own monastery projects. This way, no one had to waste time negotiating who would be in whose order, who would be the Abbot General and who a second-echelon abbott and stuff like that. The Rule was (still is) good, solid, open source software. People obtained a copy and went about their way. People who used it were more likely to run a successful monastery than people who did not; and so, by the time of Charlemagne, all Europe was infrastructured with successful monasteries running on the Rule. Unlike what happened, say, to the Franciscans, there was no need to do politics to get the church to accept the new movement. Indeed, Pope Gregory I the Great (got the top job in 590, a mere 50 years after Benedict’s death) was himself a monk and endorsed liberally monasticism (he is often called the co-founder of Western Monasticism). This adoption pattern will be familiar to the likes of (Linux’s) Linus Torvalds and (Wikipedia’s) Jimmy Wales.

There is something in studying the lives of saints, after all. UnMonasterians could do worse than devote some serious time in studying the benedictine ways as a protocol for societal impact in social innovation. This consists of the Rule (software), the physical arrangement of the monasteries and abbeys (for example, single cells for monks to sleep in are a part of the protocol governing monastic life that is encoded in stone walls rather than in the Rule), and the history of how it all played out. The church has had hagiography (literature on the lives of saints) for a long time as a path to inspiration, and it might be unMonasterians could use their own unHagiography. I look forward to further exploring this path.

The open map of unused public buildings, the unMonastery call for residencies, the wi-fi hotspots app: score three for bottom-up smart cities

Here’s three stories from my native country, Italy.

As with all cities, in Bologna the downsizing of the City’s staff and other, more contingent factors, have left a legacy of buildings that the city owns, but does not know how to use – nor, knowing it, would it have the manpower and money to do so). Recently the city produced a georeferenced list of such properties and released it in open format on the city’s open data website. This allows and encourages anyone to download the data, visualize them on a city map and dream up ways to use them better. The city has also activated a dedicate email address to collect suggestions that might come from citizens, business or other entities.

Another Italian city, Matera, has launched an international call for hackers and social innovators. The call makes a radical proposition: become “innovators-in-residence” for a period ranging from one to four months, living in town and interacting with the local community to cook up low- and no-cost hacks for a better city. Anyone can apply, with no limitations on qualifications, nationality or age. The resident hackers will live and work in the unMonastery, a new kind of living and working space that takes inspiration from 10th century monastic life. According to its founder Ben Vickers, the unMonastery’s goal is to “embed expert knowledge into a local community”.

In the very same week, online magazine CheFuturo launched a free map that gives its users access to 24,000 open hotspots scattered across the country. Thousands of citizen helped to build its dataset, simply by using a dedicated hashtag on Twitter and Facebook; validation, dataset cleanup and app development were contributed by the Chefuturo group, at no cost to the taxpayer. The dataset will be maintained by Wikitalia, a NGO for open government (disclaimer: I am a member of its board).

These three Italian stories developed indipendently one from the other. They happened in different places; are trying to solve different problems; their initiators (Bologna’s digital agenda alderman, Matteo Lepore; the director of the Matera 2019 committee, Paolo Verri; and CheFuturo’s editor-in-chief Riccardo Luna) did not coordinate. Yet, they share a common approach, a similar idea of how you get things done. More than that: they share a vision of how to live together in our cities. This: when faced with the most difficult challenges, the best card to play is the citizenry’s collective intelligence. Consequently, it is essential to give citizens information and power of initiative, so that such collective intelligence can be mobilized.

These are small-scale initiatives that – wisely – seek to squeeze tangible results from few or no resources. And yet, they contain a seed for the reversal of a thousands of years old idea of what it means “to govern”. From the hereditary bureaucracy of ancient Egypt’s scribes to the top-down “scientific” collectivization of farming in Stalin’s Soviet Union; and through Plato’s philosopher-kings ruled Republic and Imperial China’s invention of a meritocratica civil service, the art of governing has almost always been rooted in the idea that the governed are unable to make wise decisions. This tradition imagines good government as a far-sighted decision, made in the common interest by a carefully selected élite. Instead, Lepore and Verri decentralize: they don’t try to find solutions to their respective problems; they don’t even try to identify a priori people or organizations that could suggest such solutions (“let’s open up a forum with local business and the university”). They simply inform and enable citizens. Not just their own, either, but those of the whole planet. Why not? The Internet makes this last choice obvious and free. It is very possible for a Materan to come up with a good idea for one of the unused spaces in Bologna, or for a Ghanaian to suggest a useful and realistic project for Matera. It would be senseless to exclude potentially valuable input from the get go. On the other side of this game, you find citizens like Luna, who are able to turn generic aspirations (“we need channels to stay connected while mobile”) into specific actions (“let’s map open wi-fi hotspots! Once we aggregate them, we’ll have made visible a nationwide network that’s already there, only no one knows it”) – and to do so without waiting for anyone’s permission.

A few months ago, I asked myself what we mean by “smart” in smart cities. My answer was that there are two alternative answers. One considers that the smarts of a city is concentrated in its universities and in the R&D labs of its large, hi-tech companies, and gives citizens the role of consumers of the various gadgets that these invent. The other, on the contrary, maintains that the smarts of a city is distributed among all citizens, and works to create spaces for everyone’s creativity to find outlets. The first approach to smart cities produces electric cars, in response to questions like “how can we reduce emissions from cars in the city?”; the second one produces bicycle cooperatives and urban farming, in response to questions like “do we really need cars to get around?”. It seems clear to me that the initiatives of Bologna, Matera and CheFuturo subscribe to this second approach.

From what I have heard, Lepore, Verri and Luna have all read and thought through my post. But whether they did or not is irrelevant: the spirit of radical decentralization in the choices they made is great news for those that, like me, believe that any city’s best tool is promoting the creativity of its citizens. Just as countless smart cities-themed conferences discuss sensors, the Internet of things and large-scale investments to program, thousands of smart citizens get together, experiment, fail, make progress, often collaborating with their institutions. The ones have money and large organizations; the others have many people, and networks to connect them. It will be interesting, in the end, to see which side will have been the smarter.