This article is part of the Futures in Long-termism series. You can read all other related blogs by following the links at the bottom of the text.
There’s an exuberance of energy on the surface of the Earth. As Georges Bataille suggested “[…]there is generally no growth but a luxurious squandering of energy in every form!” This excess of energy is stored in things. However, our production systems dissipate this energy willingly and catastrophically through institutional infrastructures, activities and organisations that fail to reinvest things within recuperative regimes or frameworks. We have failed to notice that matter can be designed to persevere. Persistent Things interrogates how we can change our relationship to materials to ensure they persist over time.
Manufactured matter (tables, cars, buildings…) is characterised by its raw materials, its various components, design details, assembly processes, dates of manufacture, transportation routes, price tags, certifications, copyrights, licenses, warranties… The collection of these attributes dictates how we govern and use objects. By now, it’s accepted that the legal and economic drivers behind the production of objects favours wasteful consumption (e.g. manufactured obsolescence). We now have such an abundance of things that it’s impossible to contain them, with waste accumulating in the oceans, reaching far corners of the world and entering food chains.
What if manufactured matter, from phones to roads, was designed to be repairable and to have an inherent disposition to persevere, encouraging restrictions on wasteful products and establishing a new aesthetics and economics of repair?
In her book Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth argues that productive systems should fulfill human needs without violating external boundaries, pointing to the fact that one of the main weaknesses of the current political economy is its inability to recognise and deal with ‘externalities’ (e.g. environmental costs caused by economic actors that are not accounted for). We have no structural solutions to fund regenerative activities except mostly ‘after the fact’ or through regulations that are imposed from outside the production system by governments. As a result, the production system with its logics of scarcity—leading to deliberate destruction—and accumulation—driven by metrics that is destroying our planet—remains profitable and companies keep ‘covering their tracks,’ providing meaningless solutions characterised as greenwashing. We have to develop solutions at the heart of the production system itself.
We need to recognise that objects are society’s co-producers. If we accept that manufactured matter literally builds our societies alongside politics, economics, sciences, and other fields, why don’t we design objects that inherently have a disposition towards the society we want to build!
How can we redesign our production system to ensure it does not squander the inherent energy of matter?
Experimental probe : Self-sovereign matter
Self-sovereign Matter proposes the design of objects that have an inherent disposition to persevere, encouraging the creation of repair economies. To achieve this, objects could be self-executing—using smart contracts and IoT technologies, objects could self-monitor their performance and send notifications when in need of repair, creating a demand and incentivising hacking and repairing. At a second level, products could be self-owning; that is, the decision to be hacked, repaired, adapted or reused belongs to the object and cannot be overwritten by the economic interests of other actors in the production system.
Initiatives to design objects or infrastructures that are self-executing already exist. In Africa, Mobilized Construction, gathers data from sensors located on private cars and analyses street conditions (e.g. topography and bumpiness) to identify which roads are in need of repair. If a problem is identified, the system issues autonomous micro-contracts to employ incentivised individuals to repair the road. Similarly, startups such as TWO IoT and Ecube Labs, are using IoT and blockchain technologies to transform waste management. Small and cost-effective sensors in bins measure fill levels and communicate data providing real-time monitoring. Implemented in Dublin’s airport, the amount of bin changes was reduced from 1200 to just 93 per day.
Another project that creates a self-regulating system for street maintenance, initiated by ARGO, develops further the idea of self-executing objects, by enabling streets to have agency in terms of their transactional capabilities. A street owns a wallet which provides it with the ability to spend money on its behalf. The result is a network of streets capable of independently surveying street conditions before and after repair, and paying for maintenance—removing the need for a centralised verifying authority.
Other initiatives include the expanding Open Hardware movement that has been fuelled by 3D printing, computer-controlled tools and community-based making. Most importantly, open making and distributed manufacturing has developed a series of protocols that re-structure and democratise supply chains to establish practices that are less wasteful. These protocols include real-time data that represent open-making supply chains and allow for hackable warranty models. Such an Open Production System could enforce the idea of Self-sovereign Matter since IP will no longer be tied to a specific legal entity.
Another important step towards self-owning matter, would be to create awareness in objects of their effects. For example, Provenance creates a digital log of the supply chain of products and MuSIASEM detects and analyses patterns in the societal use of resources to calculate environmental impacts and create restrictions on the use of depleting materials for production processes.
Creating interoperable objects that are self-executing and self-owning, would be the first step in building a democratised and distributed maintenance economy. To truly create participative repair economies we would need to address the cultural barriers that can lead to actual behavior change towards our relationships with objects and material energies.
This is one of another six experimental zones and probes we’re investigating as part of our work on Futures in Long-termism.
This is one of another six interdependent experimental zones and probes we’re investigating as part of our work on Futures in Long-termism.
You can read more here:
1. Perishable Selves to Persistent Selves
2. Obsolete Objects to Persistent Things
3. Abstracted to Entangled Organisations
4. Shrinking State Care to Long Welfare
5. Short-term Investments to Long Financing in a volatile world
6. Limited Representative Democracies to Long Democracies
This portfolio of experimental probes is part of broader system of interventions being prototyped by the Long Term Alliance.
The Long Term Alliance is co-founded by EIT Climate KIC, Dark Matter and a cohort of partners focused on five Areas of Action, which when combined seek to leverage systemic impact—changing behaviour, mindsets and action towards a long-term oriented society.
Our five Areas of Action are: Resetting the Rules of the Game for Regulation and Governance; Rethinking Notions of Value to Reform the Financial System; Empowering Individuals through Information Transparency, Capability Building & Behaviour Change; Enabling Collective Action & Creating New Democratic Spaces to Create the Ground Swell Pressure for Change; and Shifting Culture & Narratives to Promote Long-Term Mindsets.
In parallel and in recognition of the scale of change necessary, EIT Climate KIC together with Dark Matter and our partners are also experimenting with new instruments, mechanisms and vehicles that can invest over longer time frames, invest in the institutional deep code experimentation necessary, invest vertically in portfolios spanning deep culture change to new institutional infrastructures to accelerate the transition of Europe towards a long-term society.