We asked Chiara Agamennone, italian Researcher and Service Designer, to share with the fairbnb.coop community a reflection on the positive platforms. The result is “A complex approach towards sustainability”
From December 2016 to May 2017 my colleagues Valeria Loreti and Daniele Bucci and I have had the chance to participate to the Positive Platform Design Jam by organizing one of the satellite jams in Milan (Italy). Afterwards, we contributed to the discussion around the theme “Building Workable Futures: Prototyping Positive Platforms” through our research focused on providing a taxonomy of platforms.
Positive platforms, are defined by Marina Gorbis as “platforms that not only maximize profits for their owners but also provide dignified and sustainable livelihoods for those who work on them, plus enrich society as a whole”. (1)
“Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.”Alan Wilson Watts about Indra’s network
Our research has matured in the context of the debate about the future of work, within which the echo of cooperative platforms (2) as positive ones resounded predominantly. While recognizing the value of cooperative platforms, we believe that we could not define a platform as positive simply for belonging to a certain category. Instead, we are convinced that the positivity of a platform is defined by the effects it produces and generates in the real world.
Therefore, we set out to explore and better understand the nature of platforms in order to evaluate their positivity regardless of the category they belong to.
Which world? Within which boundaries?
The platform is a model that can be applied to diverse areas such as organizations, processes, and cities. Each ecosystem can be developed as a platform so that asset exchanges can easily happen through the most appropriate channels and contexts.
See the case of social streets that use Facebook groups as a digital communication channel in order to meet, share, and exchange value in real life.” (3)
Ecosystems can be considered in terms of the living and dynamic relations among living organisms and between them and the abiotic factors.
If we refer to platforms as infrastructures, we can consider them as agents acting within an ecosystem, influencing it and being influenced by it. But the ecosystem itself can be read through the platform lenses (platform model).
We immediately understand that our understanding of platforms depends on where we are, what we observe and through which lenses. It follows that, in other to be able to understand and evaluate platforms, an approach through complexity is needed.
Is it possible to define a platform as positive on the basis of the impact it generates?
In order to answer this question, it is necessary to establish to whom or what we refer to when we talk about impact. Because we can choose what to focus on, doing this means to draw imaginary boundaries, that we can also choose to cross. Today as then, I find myself questioning the idea of positive platforms, this time shifting my gaze in another direction, namely moving from a positive vs. negative axis to a sustainable vs. unsustainable axis.
Sustainable… just another buzzword?
What would a sustainable platform involve?
First of all we need to understand what we mean by sustainable and what this word refers to, and only after we would be able to apply (and measure) this concept to the platform world.
The word sustainable has taken on a very important role particularly in association with the theme of development. We have probably all heard about sustainable development. Historically contextualizing this concept will allow us to understand the meaning of the term that I propose to associate with platforms.
In 1970, an international team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began a study, commissioned by the Club of Rome, on the implications of continued worldwide growth.
In 1972 The limits to growth was published, as a nontechnical report of the research findings, predicting the nefarious consequences of continued population and economic growth on terrestrial ecosystems. The report is still very relevant and its objectives are still to be met:
“[…] searching for a model output that represents a world system that is sustainable without sudden and uncontrollable collapse; and capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people”. (4)
Later in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development in the Brundtland report states that “humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (5)
For many decades, development has been understood in mainly terms of growth (e.g. economic growth measured by an increase in GDP), however, as we can see, it’s been a while since the term also took on new meanings.
After more than thirty years, the word sustainability appears again at the forefront and associated with the term development in “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, the outcome document of the United Nations summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda defining 17 new goals for sustainable development.
“The challenges and commitments identified at these major conferences and summits are interrelated and call for integrated solutions. To address them effectively, a new approach is needed. Sustainable development recognizes that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, combating inequality within and among countries, preserving the planet, creating sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and fostering social inclusion are linked to each other and are interdependent.” (6)
From progress as economic growth to progress as sustainable development
Taking a step backwards, let us clarify how the term development has evolved over the last few decades.
In his book “Il progetto locale”, Alberto Magnaghi (7) defines the contemporary western metropolis as an expression of the capitalist-industrial and post-industrial society, today considered fragile in terms of the idea of development linked to economic growth, which is proving increasingly non exportable, unsustainable and eco-catastrophic.
This condition would be the result of a long process of deterritorialization, a form of “liberation from the territory” which, however, would prove over time to be a failure for the reasons mentioned above (i.e. not being durable and sustainable). It is therefore proposed to adopt the term development associated with the word sustainability and in a perspective of reterritorialization (according to Magnaghi, the territory does not exist in nature, it is not the geographical space nor the soil but a living subject of high complexity, the result of co-evolutionary processes between human settlement and environment).
In the dimension of territorialized sustainability described by Magnaghi, metropolitan and rural ecosystems are not described as closed and protected by rigid barriers but as interconnected at a global level. However, these ecosystems still adopt strongly territorialized policies and processes in order to pursue local sustainability from an economic, environmental and social point of view, and in an inter-generational dimension.
In 1974, atmospheric chemist James E. Lovelock and his collaborator microbiologist Lynn Margulis, formulated the Gaia hypothesis (from the Greek goddess Gaia, the ancestral mother of all life) which proposes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet (8).
The planet Earth can be thought of as a living organisms where the global ecosystem as a whole is characterised by properties similar to those of a living system.
Ecosystems are not isolated. Their boundaries are not always clear, or better even: each boundary is arbitrary. Even when we refer to a restricted geographical area, a small action in that territory can have impacts at different scales.
A good example to explain the concept of scale and the connection of local and global context can be found among policies for the environment and sustainability: policies to reduce the forests consumption in a specific country may lead to a local reduction in forest exploitation. However, if not accompanied by global efforts to reduce paper demand and consumption, these policies may be ineffective, as major deforestation could occur on another site on the Earth (9).
Another example refers to cities, urbanism and innovation. Urban regeneration policies and processes can result in a more liveable environment and therefore increase the attractiveness of certain areas, but at the same time this can lead to a raise in rental prices. This means that some people may be unable to afford life in certain neighborhoods. Urban innovation processes may have created a nice living environment, but only for a narrow population band. The impact of these interventions would traditionally be considered positive, at least in the short term, but can we really consider it be sustainable for all the parties in the long term?
These examples show how ecosystem boundaries can expand at both spatial as well as temporal scales. Indeed, sustainability must be considered in a long-term perspective, including taking responsibility for the future consequences of our current actions and choices.
Furthermore, sustainability is to be intended in a multidimensional way, considering its economic, environmental, demographic, social, geographical, cultural, and institutional aspects (9).
From positive platforms to sustainable platforms
Can we define a priori a sustainable platform?
In order to define a sustainable platform, it is necessary to evaluate it in relation to the above dimensions or, at least, to locate oneself in one of them and evaluate its sustainability in the awareness of the arbitrariness of the boundaries placed.
When designing sustainable platforms, it is also important to define metrics of evaluation to be applied along the process, from the design phase, through development and application, to the final impact at multiple levels and on the different actors involved.
Another question we might want to explore is: sustainable for who?
A platform should be sustainable for the people who develop and maintain it, for those who nurture the ecosystem, for people producing value for the platform, for those benefiting from this value, for the local communities and for those further away, and for future generations. A platform should be sustainable for stakeholders (people having an interest in the success or failure of a platform), but also for the people who are less visible, who may not have a clear voice, but who are also directly or indirectly, affected by it.
Probably, the necessary approach is not only critical and analytical, but also participatory, in which all parties are involved, as well as iterative, allowing us to readjust and re-evaluate situations over time and from different perspectives.
Finally, evaluation is extremely important and should not be missing. Evaluation should not be exclusively applied at the end of a process, to verify its results and to assess its impact (social, environmental, other); instead it should be considered a measure to assess the method and the process itself, in a participatory and shared way, but itself generating positive impact through sharing of information, knowledge and practices.
In the article “8 strategies to not have positive social impact”, systemic designer and researcher Daniele Bucci writes:
Within the “strategies to not have positive social impact” described in the text, the theme of communication resonates among the many. There is an urgent need to practice, experiment, increase accessibility, communicate and readjust strategies for the promotion and evaluation of social impact. Social impact can be the intention of a designer who can, up to a certain point, with his own research and practice and following a code of professional conduct, design for an inclusive, accessible, and sustainable society (or product, service, other) but the consequences of an action can never be fully predicted and will always need to be considered at different scales.
We have established that sustainability can be seen in an intragenerational and intergenerational sense, as well as at different geographical scales. Similarly, the impact that a process generates can be evaluated at multiple levels and we should ensure that we involve all parties in its evaluation.
How can we make studies on complex systems accessible to all?
How can we get out of the world of mental speculation to return to the “real” world, in touch with the changes taking place in real time?
Perhaps the discipline of design, jointly and supported by other disciplines, may bring some practical solutions to these questions. Just like rapid prototyping and testing, which allow us to verify user needs before products or services are launched, participatory design methods (and actions) can help achieve sustainability by actively involving all people affected by the change. Although we cannot predict ex ante all possible impacts, positive or negative, we can make sure that the process itself would take place in an environment where knowledge and responsibilities can be shared.
I leave the reflections and questions that emerged in this brief article to the communities of practice of the fairbnb project, as well as to the whole community of practice of different project contexts, so that they can be a source of reflection but also give rise to practices that prove to be useful towards a dimension of sustainability.
Would you like to know more?
To learn more and keep up to date with the world of platforms, the Platform Design Toolkit team edits a bi-weekly newsletter that offers a curated list of the best reads, videos and podcasts on Platforms (& more) on the topic. You can subscribe to their newsletter here.
- Gorbis, M. (2016) “Design It Like Our Livelihoods Depend on It: 8 Principles for creating on-demand platforms for better work futures” (link) Available online: https://wtfeconomy.com/design-it-like-our-livelihoods-depend-on-it-e1b6388eb752 Last accessed: 04/03/2019
- Scholz, T. (2016). Platform Cooperativism. Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New York Office. Available online http://www.rosalux-nyc.org/platform-cooperativism-2/ Last accessed: 04/03/2019
- Agamennone, C., Bucci, D., Loreti, V. (2017). Positive platforms identity. Map and analysis of the Italian ecosystem. Published by Institute For The Future. Available online: http://www.iftf.org/fileadmin/user_upload/downloads/ppj/PositivePlatformsIdentity_MapAnalysis_ItalianEcosystem_for_IFTF.pdf Last accessed: 03/03/2019
- Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J., Behrens, W. W. (1972). The limits to growth. Universe Books. Available online: https://www.clubofrome.org/report/the-limits-to-growth/ Last accessed: 03/03/2019
- Our common future: report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987) Available online: http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf Last accessed: 05/03/2019
- Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. (2015) Available online: http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/1&Lang=E Last accessed: 04/03/2019
- Magnaghi, A. (2010). Il progetto locale. Verso la coscienza di luogo. Nuova edizione accresciuta. Bollati Boringhieri, Torino
- Lovelock, J., Margulis, L. (1974). Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the gaia hypothesis. Tellus, 26(1-2), 2-10.
- Bagliani, M., Dansero, E. (2011). Politiche per l’ambiente, dalla natura al territorio. Utet Università, Torino.
- Bucci, D. (2017). 8 strategie per non avere impatto sociale positivo. Che Fare. Available online: https://www.che-fare.com/8-strategie-per-non-avere-impatto-sociale-positivo/ Last accessed: 04/03/2019
Thanks to Valeria Agamennone for content review and text proofreading and Tommaso Megale for the selection of images.
Thanks to Daniele Bucci, Valeria Loreti, Tommaso Megale for the participant confrontation on the topic and for the constructive criticism and feedback.