Designing Our Future — Distributed Living

This video of around 27 minutes gave me a great insight about how we would be living in the future and what type of design would shape it.

The video talk offers two central concepts, which are the emergence of ‘distributed energy’ and ‘distributed information’.

This two when coupled forms a new emerging social pattern. That means that we are slowly and steadly drifting towards a new state.

How is that?

So long large electricity companies held the monopoly over energy. They produced it and then distributed it to thousands and millions of people. So we had a small group of producers and a large base of consumers. And consumers paid for their consumption whatever the producers demanded from time to time.

Similarly, schools, universities, publishers, newspapers, television companies and large organizations produced information and then distributed it to the public for consumption. The schools, universities and other organizations that held exclusive rights to the information decided on how such information would be distributed, when it would be distributed, how would it be distributed and how would people pay for consumption of such privilaged information.

All this is about to change. Changes are taking place in the way we are now creating and distributing information. Now individuals create information and share them with others who return the favor through their own contribution to the general pool of available information resources for the consumption of others. It is needless to mention that internet and social media brought about such dramatic changes in our modern lives. And it is has worked wonders. It has virtually wiped out all traditional newspapers in the US and elsewhere. We no longer look up an Encyclopedia for information. We click on Wikipedia for information. And most of the information is free, easily available and mostly accurate. I have virtually stopped visiting my favorite library for quite some time. I get what I want to know on the net. And if needed, buy books through online portals just with the same effort and ease I take to book my air, train and movie tickets. 

Post offices are no longer important source of distribution of information. We exchange information at the click of a button and email them all over the world in seconds. We are slowly making landline phones redundant. Mobile phones are now being used more for data usage & transfer rather than as a phone devices. We can now do all that talking for free through Skype and other similar platforms. 

The power of individual leadership is now unleashed. One can choose whom to follow, whom to have a discussion with, whom to turn to for advice in case of need and whose articles are worth the wait, time and effort. In short we can choose our teachers and choose what to learn. We are no longer dependent on old archaic structures that try to shove down our throats information which we care least about.

The power to do something now rests on the consumer not the producer.

If we choose to look carefully the same thing is happening in the energy sector. Centralized energy production and distribution are giving way to consumer driven energy production and distribution. First in the line were the industries. They went off the grid to have their own source of power. And they had a good reason to do that. It costs them lot cheaper than taking power from the grid. They did not stop at that. If they were left with any excess power they wheeled it back into the grid and sold the units they contributed. This further lowered the energy cost of manufacturing. Just to give an idea most were producing and consuming electricity at half the cost. With such an arrangement the consumer now becomes the producer and the consumer at the same time.

Others have been quick to follow. Individual homes are setting up their own power back up sources. At the lower end they store power in batteries and use it during power cuts. At the higher end consumers are producing their own electricity from alternative sources of energy — wind, sun, tides and wastes. It covers almost the entire requirement.

We see similar changes taking place in the water supply systems. Earlier it was the Government’s responsibility to provide its citizens with fresh, clean potable water. In many countries like India the system is broken. The onus or responsibility can no longer be taken care of by Government authorities. Hence people are now having their own water supply systems that provide them with clean potable water. The consumer has taken up the responsibility. And it is no longer centralized.

Where is all this leading to?

We are moving away from centralized systems to decentralized or distributed systems. The inherent contradiction between the producer and the consumer has automatically paved the way for people to assume the role of being both a producer and consumer at the same time. And there is something more. After consuming whatever is needed the excess is shared with other consumers in exchange for things others are willing to contribute and potential consumer are willing to accept.

Now we have a formidable combination of three important emergences, which are a) distributed energy b) distributed information c) contribution economy.

As we combine these three emergent properties new design possibilities open up that would have the potential to change the way we choose to live in the near future.

I would like to draw a potential scenario as follows:

1. Individual houses would give way to high-rise landscaped building complexes almost resembling a ‘village’ of yesteryears but far better and more complex.

2. Such complexes would produce their own energy from alternative sources — solar, wind, waste, hydrogen cells, tidal and geothermal depending on the location and the circumstances.

3. And they would produce their own information — for building or supporting education systems, training and developing others and offer services to others. 

4. They would create and maintain their own water sources and harvest whatever is available to make their system self sustaining.

5. They might choose to produce their own food sources and means of entertainment.

6. They would take support of effective alternative health systems that are way cheaper than traditional systems.

7. They would create their own local economies to make their ‘villages’ sustainable.

8. The occupants would produce and consume their own energy, information, water, food etc and combine them in novel ways to sustain their economies.

9. They would share the excess of what they consume with other neighboring ‘villages’ and also borrow from them what they need.

10. The possibilities are endless… a whole new world would open up.

The possibility of such new design is emerging. And the advantages of such designs are many, some of which would be the following;

a. Carbon free. It is estimated that 60% of the energy a nation consumes goes in housing and transportation.

b. Sustainable and more natural living under more natural habitats.

c. Save the bother and expenses to commute to work.

d. Moving away from monopolistic economies

e. The common man decides the way they live, produce, consume and work.

f. Act local and think global — drawing on resources all over the world to meet specific local needs of the economy.

g. Contribution economy — something quite different to both capitalistic and socialist forms of production and consumption.

h. Other advantages would be evident as we go along.

The best thing such designs offer would be to create self-sustaining societies that would primarily be sustained through social contribution of distributed energy and distributed information and sharing of resources. That is probably the beginning of a viable ‘Contribution Economy’. An appropriate term for all these put together might be ‘distributed living’.

However it is also evident that all societies would not progress towards this concept of ‘distributed living’ simultaneously. It definitely depends on the present conditions and the collective consciousness of our existing societies that grossly differ in terms of their social behavior that arises from their individual social context.

The first baby steps towards such design for a new way of distributed living is underway in some European societies (I just shy away from using the word ‘nations’ since this concept is becoming redundant in the modern context of distributed living). Such baby steps would set the trend for others to follow suit.

This is truly the century that throws up the distinct possibility of architects, designers, engineers, design thinkers, system thinkers and leaders to join hands to create a Brave New World.

It remains to be seen how we grab this upcoming opportunity and go forward to save us from natural extinction as human species towards which we are now headed for.

But I am sure of one thing. We now need more leaders at small group levels than ever before.

Where are they hiding?



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