Tag Archives: unMonastery

Spawning The Reef: re-inventing communal working and living (again)

Reposted from Edgeryders

A few years ago we started paying close attention to care. Ready-to-go, affordable health and social care was – and still is – unavailable. Not for some unknown person in some distant land, either. For friends and family members, people in our communities, right here. Something had to be done.

We see people coming together, stepping into the breach. Communities are taking up the role of care providers, making it work where neither the state nor private business could. They are doing amazing things. Hackers make open sourced, internet-enabled glucose monitors for children with diabetes. Belgian trauma therapists set up mobile studios and drive them to refugee camps in Greece, to help bereaved refugees. Bipolar 1 patients find and help each other fight back suicidal tendencies. Biologists and biohackers are trying to invent a cheap, open source process to make insulin. Activists in America encourage each other to eat healthy food and exercise by doing it together.

We started a research projects to take a good look inside these and many other stories. We wanted to learn what these initiatives have in common, and how we could make more. That project is called OpenCare; it is now in its second year. Results are still coming through, but one thing is already clear:

It’s all about humans.

Community provision of care services needs humans:  more, better prepared, volunteers. People prepared to teach each other skills.  Therapists to help volunteers in need of trauma support. So, the highest-impact technologies are those that help bring people together. Share knowledge. Distribute human resources across different care contexts. These technologies are connectors: they help string together and coordinate human efforts.

This intuition is fundamental. It goes even beyond care. And it makes sense: we are, after all, the 99%. We have little money and power. We have no large companies, fancy foundations, prestigious universities. But we do have each other. We will thrive, if we can collaborate. Collaboration is expensive, and hard to monetise. Any technology that makes it more efficient is going to make a difference.

At Edgeryders, we have resolved to put this lesson into practice. We are doing it by hacking the most fundamental connecting technology of all: the home.

We dream of a new kind of space, that can be the hearth for our families but still be open to the broader world. Where the door is not a gate to keep the wolves out, but a bridge to a global network. Where we can live, and work, and sometimes work with the people we live with, and live with our co-workers. Where people are welcome to stay for one day, or a lifetime. Where spending even just an hour in good heart ensures you will never be a stranger again. Where we can develop our talent, learn new skills, get better at what we do. Where we can create for each other a healthy, friendly, cosmopolitan environment and, yes, take care of each other.

We have dreamt this dream before. In its previous iteration, we called it the unMonastery. We prototyped in 2014, in the Italian city of Matera. That experience taught us much. The most important lesson was this: a life/work space can not be too close to the needs of a single client. Neither can it be dependent on the grant cycle. It needs to be financially self-sustaining, and benefit several projects and lines of business. We also learnt how important it is to be diverse, open and outward-looking for fresh air and fresh ideas to circulate at all times.

But the unMonastery also got many things right. The one I am proudest of is this: we went ahead and tried it. Planning and due diligence are necessary, but trying things out makes for richer learning.

So, we are not going to keep dreaming about a new space. We are trying a second iteration. Right now.

We are calling it The Reef. Coral reefs are structures built by tiny animals, corals. They serve as the home, anchoring point, hiding place, hunting ground to thousands of species. Algae, seaweeds, fish, molluscs all cooperate with, compete with, eat, feed each other. As they do so, they benefit the corals, who gain access to nutrients (reefs exist in nutrient-poor tropical waters).

Like coral reefs, our new space will draw strength in diversity and symbiosis. Different people will bring in different skills, access to different networks, different personalities. And Edgeryders (a social enterprise, so a creature of a different species) will live in symbiosis with the space and the individuals that live in it. It will pay rent, subsidising those who live there; in return, it will be able to use the space for its own purposes: office, coworking space, venue for small events.

And like coral reefs, our new space is going to be an ecology – a network. There are many ways to take part in it. Some people will want to live there full time, others will show up once or twice a month, or a year. Some will use it on building projects with us, and with each other. Others will work on shared learning and professional development. Of course, we already have a network: the Edgeryders online community itself. This will not go away, in fact it will become ever more important. But now The Reef will give it a permanent offline presence. Reef members will be the kernel of the Edgeryders community. Everyone is free to join the kernel or not; everyone is free to play the role she feels most at home with.

We ran the numbers and we are sure we can make it work. We are going to start with a small-scale prototype: a Brussels loft, with four bedrooms, common living area, office, courtyard. Noemi , Nadia and I are going to be full-time residents; one more room will host temporary residents. We are going live on May 1st 2017, and try it out for one year. We are already looking for a (much) larger space to move into in spring 2018 if the experiment goes well.

Are you considering being part of the experiment, or just curious about it? There are three things you can do.

  1. We are planning a side event to OpenVillage Festival dedicated to The Reef. There, we will design the physical space, its financing model, and the activities therein – from business to physical fitness and personal development. It is restricted to members, because this is our future home we are talking about. It’s up to people with skin in the game to make decisions about it. Info here.
  2. We are running our first personal development event in The Reef itself on 26-27 May. We will learn to be better public speakers in the Power Pitch weekend. Info here.
  3. Get in touch! Write, or join our community calls, or come over for coffee.

So: a place-based symbiosis of some inhabitants of the edge, a mutant company, and no book to do it by. It’s not going to be easy. But it has the vibe I was looking for: the excitement of building, and the pleasure of doing it with good, solid people. It is in the sweet spot between ambition and achievability. And I, for one, am going to give it all I’ve got.

Fear and loathing in Matera: the “unMonastery affair” on local media

A few weeks ago, the collaborator of a local TV station discovered some junk in a room of the Casale complex, in Matera. Among them, desks and office chairs; construction materials; empty bottles and cans; and conference materials, like flyers and posters. The complex hosted, for most of 2014, the world’s first unMonastery, a hacker residency project tied to the city’s victorious bid for the title of European capital of culture in 2019. The reporter decided this was an “affair”: the unMonastery affair. Foreigners come to Matera to dump their garbage! Shame on them!

I am a partner and co-director of Edgeryders, the social enterprise that helped mount the Matera unMonastery iteration. I know the project well, and I know the unMonasterians who were its life and soul. None would dream of just abandoning waste in an unappropriate place, and some are extreme recyclers and upcyclers. So I asked around, and, sure enough, it turned out that the room in question had been used as cellar since before we first inspected the complex in 2013 (see these pictures – the Dropbox timestamps show they have not been edited in over a year). It is likely that the derelict office furniture has been abandoned by the former occupant of the complex, a company called DataContact. With appropriate irony, DataContact’s owner also owns the local TV that mounted the “affair”.

During our tenure of the small part of the complex used for the unMonastery, the same room kept being used as a sort of cellar: a storage space for objects unMonasterians could not or would not recycle, generally with a view to later upcycling them. Like many cellars, it looks untidy, but that is hardly newsworthy. It is also worth noting that the unMonastery project devoted over 50% of its budget  (about 40K EUR) to renovating that part of the Casale complex, owned by the City of Matera and hence public property. This meant installing a kitchen; repairing the heating system; renovating the floors, damaged by humidity in the bottom floors; whitewashing the walls; reclaiming the space from some people who were occupying it illegally. The space was returned in way better conditions than we found it. What probably happened: somebody broke the door’s lock before the reporter wandered in, and that allowed him his “scoop”. Case closed.

Or is it? There is a lesson to learn here. Why did  the obvious scenario (“a windowless room at the bottom floor with junk in it? Must be the cellar”) escaped the local reporter? Why did he not check? Talking with some Materan friends, we made (partly for a laugh), three hypotheses.

  • The absent-minded journalist. Local media need local news, and “foreign hackers pollute Matera” is way sexier than “a cellar containing nothing of value is broken into”. Especially if you are selling ads to make a living, and therefore counting your page views is important.
  • The political conspiracy: Matera has local elections in the spring. The incumbent mayor is heavily associated with the European capital of culture candidacy  the “unMonastery affair” is an attempt to erode the consensus enjoyed by the current administration in the aftermath of the ECOC victory.
  • The nil-nil syndrome: Italians, according to my wise friend Annibale D’Elia, do not really care about winning, as long as your adversaries do not win either. In this culture, nil-nil is not a bad result; in fact it is desirable, because it allows the people in question to stage a fight without really fighting, to “change things so that things can stay as they are”, as in the supremely Italian novel The Leopard.

In the end, it is of no consequence why some local reporter decided to go for the “unMonastery affair”. What does matter, for this and the future iterations of the unMonastery, is this: the unMonastery wields considerable moral and intellectual authority. We might not want them, but we do not really get a vote in the matter. The smaller and more provincial the host city, the more the unMonastery and individual unMonasterians will be in the public eye. There will be awe; there will be jealousy; whatever its sign, there will be exaggeration. These things will simply happen; it would be wise to be ready for them. From a stewardship point of view, it would be good practice to take time-stamped photo- and video documentation of any public resource the unMonastery is entrusted with.

Monastery vs. unMonastery: reflecting on a deep conversation with Father Cassian Folsom

A few months ago I gave a public talk on the unMonastery. I made the point that Saint Benedict can rightfully be considered a social innovator of titanic stature, and that modern-day open source hackers and activists could do worse than letting themselves inspire from monastic life in their quest to improve our world and live in harmony with it and each other.  Someone showed a video recording of the talk to Nicola Alemanno, mayor of Nursia – the birthplace of Benedict himself. He was intrigued, and offered me and an unMonasterian delegation to meet with Father Cassian Folsom OSB, the superior of Saint Benedict’s monastery in town.

No way I was going to pass on the opportunity. The six-months unMonastery prototype in Matera has shown just how complex setting up and stewarding a healthy community is. Benedictine monks have been around for fifteen centuries, and have accumulated a lot of insight that it is not so accessible for us saeculars. So, Ben Vickers, Maria Byck and I traveled to Umbria, in the heart of Italy’s Appennines; accepted Father Cassian’s invitation to assist to the monks’ Mass (celebrated in Latin, and chanted – no spoken word at all, like this); and then sat with him and Nicola in an office in the city hall for a solid two hours.

We learned a lot. What was perhaps most interesting was exploring the common ground between monks and unMonasterians. This is neither as narrow nor as superficial as you might think.

Where we converge

Work is the forge of better, happier people

Benedictines hold work to be a good thing in and of itself. By doing work, monks can dedicate their lives to a superior ideal while remaining psychologically balanced. Progress in their work is both figuratively and literally progress in their faith; and the concrete nature of work helps monks keep their eyes on the ball. Notice that what’s good is not so much the result of doing work as its act. The ultimate purpose of work is to produce cheerful, peaceful, happy monks. So, it does not matter what the work actually does; what matters is how it is done.

Most hackers, activists and social innovators and unMonasterians take solace in their work too. Like monks, unMonasterians believe their work is important, but only very few think it will single-handedly “change the world”. Almost all projects within our reach are quite small. And yet, they feel important. Even the smallest and least influential open source project encodes a better world: the sharing of knowledge, generosity with one’s time, the attempt to make the world ever so slightly better and more free. Like monks, unMonasterians don’t do work because they think it is all-important and world-changing: they do it because they like to, because it makes them into the people they want to be.

Communities are the natural dimension of human life and work

Benedictine monks live together in semi-secluded communities. The reason for the detachment part is simple: they want to remove partially themselves from society at large, because society continuously bombards its members with stimuli that lead us away from God’s work. But why a community? In principle you could be a monk alone, an anchorite or hermit. But that turns out to be very hard, in fact impossible to most people (“Your thoughts become your enemy. You could go mad”, said gravely Father Cassian).

The solution offered by the Rule is, as so many things when Benedict is involved, peer-to-peer. Monks come together in communities, and each helps the other stay on track. Each monk is like a beacon for every other monk, broadcasting a continuous stream of information encoded in example: “this is the right path, you are on track”, or “here is how you could get even closer to our ultimate goal”. With appropriate seclusion, the monastic community can guide each individual monk along the commonly chosen path, drowning out the faulty signal of saecular society. Notice the architectural beauty of the solution: the community is not “a thing”. It is an emergent property of monks living together according to the rule, a well-structured ghost. And yet it works, as any monk will tell you.

unMonasterians share with monks a yearning to belong to a community that has different values and a different logic from those of society at large. In the calm of the unMonastery in Matera, overworked hackers and highly strung activists found themselves surrounded by like-minded people and felt like they could finally breathe. Suddenly no one was asking why would you not take a corporate job, or what’s so terribly wrong about proprietary software or data. Suddenly questioning fiat money or the right of government or corporations to implant backdoors on your computer or crunch your data through Big Data algorithms was normal. The ever-present risk of burnout seemed to subside; work acquired more clarity. The doors of the house were always open, and many people came to visit (no seclusion in that sense), but some unMonasterians did not like to leave the premises and tended to stay in a lot.

As an added benefit, living together in a community turns (some) drudgery into a source of pleasure. Just like in monasteries, at the unMonastery people took turns in cooking, washing up, and cleaning the space for the benefit of all. This turns out to be a great solution: when you are not on kitchen duty, life is good: you can move directly from your workspace to the dinner table, and a warm meal will be waiting. But when you are, life is also good: you have to set aside 2-3 hours (which is good, because it prevents you obsessing too much about work and burning out); typically you cook with another person, so you socialise and may even talk shop; and then you get an extra kick from giving your unBrethren a good meal. People will smile and thank you, and you will have made someone’s life better. Giving away some control over your day results in your day being better; having a non-negotiable commitment to accepting structure in your life helps people stay balanced. This discovery would be a lot more impressive if Benedict had not encoded it in his Rule fifteen centuries ago. D’oh, I guess – though Father Cassian, charitably, did not actually say it .

The Rule (or Protocol) as the basis of community life

Benedictine monasteries run on the Benedict’s Rule, which we interpret as a software protocol. The unMonastery has something performing the same function: we are calling it Protocol. We are not quite ready to write Protocol 1.0 yet: people are experimenting with simple rules (small R) you could write in few lines of code at a time (example: who does the work gts to make the related decisions). But we know it’s coming. By the way, I have a hunch you could design tests for candidate rules using methods from computational biology – a weekend project I’ll have to leave to less busy times.

Radicalize or die

Like all great open source projects, the Rule has been forked countless times. Even now the order is running different versions in different monasteries, and abbotts compare notes as to which variants produce which changes. The monastery in Nursia has elected to go back to the original version, and enforce it in a particularly strict way. Father Cassian thinks that the modernization of the Church’s ways introduced with the Second Vatican Council does not work well for the monastic movement. There seems to be a minimal threshold of radicalization below which a monastic community is simply not sustainable: societal pressure to conform overcomes the monks’ will. The Nursia community, with its long days (starting at 3.45 or 4.00 am), its rigorously chanted nine prayers a day, its fasting practices (one meal a day for a great part of the year, and never more than two), is prospering: the monks are “reasonably at peace”, and novices flock in.

The unMonastery has had no variants yet, and its sense of identity is frail at best. And yet, many of us would resonate with Father Cassian’s plan  – certainly Ben, Maria and I did. The unMonastery can do social innovation, perhaps, but it should probably not get elbow deep into grant finance, or be saddled with too many deliverables. It should definitely not attempt to follow the flavour of the day (“smart city”, “startups”, “big data”, “scaling up”, and the dreaded “innovation”). It should probably take pride in its decentralist ideology, 200-years time horizon, geek culture and weird ways. No point being another vanilla co-working space. Certainly, the radical choice to look to monasticism rather than startup capitalism for inspiration has brought us in touch with unlikely, and interesting, travelling companions.

Engage in economic exchange (but don’t disrupt your hosts)

Benedictine monasteries have always engaged in economic exchange with their host local communities, and there are provisions for such activities in the Rule. It works like this:

  1. Monks must price a little lower than saeculars – doing otherwise would be avarice, a sin.
  2. Everything monks do must be high quality. It is work, and work is dedicated to God and leads to Him.
  3. Any profit you can make within these constraints is good, and you can use it to fund work that does not generate revenue.

Father Cassian is refreshingly unapologetic about the entrepreneurial activity of the monastery he leads. “We make a profit, and that is good.” The Nursia monks brew beer (do yourself a favour and check out their commercial and their blog) and run a gift shop. The beer is good. The gift shop refuses to sell cheap souvenirs, though it would be profitable.

Selling high quality stuff for below market price might not seem a promising business strategy, but historically monasteries have been economically successful. “We tend to get prosperous – shrugs Father Cassian – Because monks work hard.” And according to Nicola, the monks chose to brew beer because no one else in Norcia is making it. This means they are not in direct competition with anyone in the local community.

The unMonastery prototype was nowhere near as successful. But it did strive to engage the local community in Matera in a number of ways. Self-sufficiency remains a goal. And yet, the most obvious source of revenue for the unMonasterians in Matera – teaching English – was discarded in order to not disrupt the business of Materans who earn their living by doing just that.

Strive for self-sufficiency

No brainer. The Rule recommends for monks to eat what they grow with their own hands. It is not just a metaphor either: the monks in Nursia are building a farm. UnMonasterians have been looking out for scraps of land to turn into vegetable gardens and orchards; they try to upcycle and recycle and be as frugal as possible. The best path to sustainability is not revenue generation, but cost reduction.

Be a network

Benedictine monasteries are autonomous entities, but they do federate and coordinate into congregations. These supply certain important services: abbotts visit each other to check that the work being done stays on track (“you can think of it as quality control” ), and make themselves available to give counsel to their peers that are having a hard time and feel lonely. The unMonastery, too, was conceived to be a network of spaces; only the one in Matera has seen the light so far, but the founding group is trying hard to make it into many.

Where we don’t converge (yet?)

Underwriting the model: God vs. humanism

To monks, the lynchpin of this architecture is the belief in, and love of, God. All they do is to praise and serve Him. Monastic life may seem like a desirable model to us saeculars, but Father Cassian does not think we could achieve it and maintain it in the long run. Life in the monastery, the closeness to the community, the pleasure taken in doing good work contribute towards stabilizing the monk’s life and helping him stay his course; but that life is still hard, and requires iron discipline. Religion underwrites all that extra effort with heavenly rewards. Take them away and individuals will waver and fail the Rule; without the Rule, the whole community will come undone.

unMonasterians don’t enjoy this advantage. Individual unMonasterians can be religious, but that is no lynchpin to the community. The unMonastery has no metaphysical heat sink to absorb frustration, conflict, precarity. “If you have no God, what would you work for?” asked Father Cassian. Each other, maybe; or the pleasure of stewardship, of leaving Planet Earth a better place than you have found it. Father Cassian does not think those answer will be enough in the long run. Ben candidly acknowledged it: “Not having God is a problem”.

It’s not like unMonasterians have a choice. I doubt they can simply decide to believe in God. They will have to try, keeping their eyes on some higher goal that they think is worth dedicating their lives to, or simply go home. I think they will decide to try.

Long-term thinking vs. very long-term thinking

unMonasterians are proud of their long-term outlook on things (“we are building an institution for the next 200 years”). But Father Cassian and his brethren are standing on an intimidating 1500 years-long organizational memory. We simply cannot process the time scale at which monks think. Father Cassian regards the changes introduced in monastic life by the Second Vatican Council as an ongoing experiment, a sort of prototype, and going back to celebrating Mass in Latin in a mere 60 years is probably a Benedictine’s idea of failing fast. Should someone come up with 200 years of solid data suggesting that a simple move would be extremely beneficial to the Order, the Abbott Primate would probably say something like “Nice analysis, Brother, let’s give it another couple of centuries just to be sure it’s not a temporary fluctuation.” We are completely outmatched here!

Documentation vs. no documentation

This was a surprise: for all the open source logic of Benedict’s Rule and the whole Benedictine movement, monks appear not to keep documentation of what they do. When the Nursia crew decided to start their brewery, they simply dispatched Brother Francis to a monastery in Belgium that makes good beer, and told him to come back a master brewer. I am not saying a wiki would have been a good substitute for that, but I am saying that shared up-to-date online documentation would be a good resource for brethren trying to get the CO2 content or the fermentation speed just right.

After the meeting, Ben mused that monks would be perfect contributors to open source projects: patient, dedicated, generous. Teaching the use of wikis and issue trackers is one of the few areas in which unMonasterians could give something back to Benedictines.

What’s next?

The Rnext video has made an impact. Several people have independently shown it to nuns and monks around the country. We have received several invitations besides the one in Nursia. At least one oblate has visited the unMonastery – he, too, left with a standing invitation. The Nursia meeting has been enlightening. Could we build a relationship with the monastic movement? We clearly have much to learn from such a relationship. But why would the Benedictines talk to us? What do we have to teach in exchange?

For now, I am committing these words to this platform’s database together with our deepest gratitude to Father Cassian for taking time to answer our questions, and to Nicola for his wonderful hospitality. Monastery vs. UnMonastery felt a bit like going for a morning jog with Usain Bolt. We are not going to forget it any time soon.