We are developing new ways to organise ourselves without requiring an organisation to do all the organising for us. This capacity for collaborative self-organisation echoes the do-it-yourself philosophy of the Barefoot College in India.
They used to have to close when the sun went down, the shops in the little village of Bahurva in the Indian state of Bihar. When darkness fell virtually everything had to come to a halt – work, reading, cooking – because the village had no electricity. Ritma Bharti has changed all that. Largely thanks to Ritma more than 750 solar powered lanterns have been installed in shops, schools, irrigation facilities and medical centres. Now thanks to the lanterns that Ritma built and maintains children learn to read at night, nurses can see patients and shops, like the one run by Ritma’s husband, can stay open late into the evening. Ritma does not have a degree in solar power engineering. She has no paper qualifications. Indeed, she can barely read, write and count. Ritma is an alumni of a remarkable educational institution in a village called Tilonia, in Rajasthan, called the Barefoot College, which was set up in 1971 by Sanjit Bunker Roy after a famine in Bihar that killed thousands of people. Roy turned his back on his life as the son of a wealthy Delhi family to set up an institution that would give India’s illiterate villagers greater control over their lives by helping them to learn how to provide heat, light, clean water and food for themselves.
Roy could not afford to employ professionals to teach the villagers. Anyway the city-based experts were not equipped for the task. They could only teach in classrooms and they did not want to work in villages with the poor. So Roy trained a small group of villagers - barefoot teachers and engineers – who in turn went on to teach others, who in turn became barefoot engineers, teachers and doctors in their villages. Two generations of families have now become barefoot professionals of one kind or another thanks to the college. Thousands of poor villagers have acquired the skills to use simple technologies to improve their lives. Each night more than 4,000 children who tend cattle by day attend night classes with barefoot teachers in education centres lit by solar powered lanterns built and installed by barefoot engineers. They drink clean water from one of the more than 1,737 hand operated water pumps which have been installed since 1979, providing water for more than 325,000 people. Those pumps are maintained by 1,200 barefoot mechanics. More than 1,000 education centres and schools have been electrified by barefoot engineers.
The 30,000 sq ft Barefoot College campus was designed by Bhanwar Jat, an illiterate farmer, working with 12 other barefoot architects. Using Buckminster Fuller’s designs, Rafiq, a local blacksmith fabricated more than 150 geodesic domes to be used as schools, dispensaries, telephone booths and community centres.
Out of a mixture of instinct and necessity Roy had hit upon an ingenious self-help solution to rural poverty. But he did much more than that: he devised a new, low cost, way of organising ourselves which could have revolutionary consequences far beyond rural India. His barefoot philosophy scrambles up the cast-iron categories of top heavy, industrial era organisations. In the barefoot world demand generates its own supply, because the consumers can become producers, the learners can become teachers, when they are equipped with skills and tools and motivated to help themselves. The professionals and experts do not have all the answers; committed amateurs – like – Tilonia’s barefoot engineers - can devise their own effective solutions so long as they can get access to the knowledge and resources they need. Roy’s lack of formal resources – no money, buildings, nor professionals to work with – meant he had to become an organisational revolutionary.
When Roy started the Barefoot College in 1971 he was a maverick. But the same philosophy is at the heart of mass, participatory approaches to collaborative working that are being fed by the rise of the Internet and low cost technology, the spread of knowledge and education, the ethic of participation and self-help. High tech versions of barefoot thinking are at work in eBay, the trading system, and Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, Linux, the open source software community and computer games, such as the Sims, blogging, podcasting, Youtube and many forms of citizen activism. Running through them are some common threads: the spectators want to take part, not just sit on the sidelines; the consumers are becoming contributors; the audience wants to take to the stage. Many new organisations, utilising new technology, will thrive on this spirit of mass participation. If the 20th century was the age of industrial work, mass production for mass consumption, then mass participation will be one of the defining features of the century to come.
The way we organise ourselves in future will not just be an extension of the industrial era, corporate organisations we have become used to – Ford and Toyota, WalMart and Microsoft - with their hierarchy, targets, divisions, civil wars and myriad humiliations for workers and consumers alike. A growing band of organisations in the future will resurrect ancient ideas and meld them with new technology. One such resurrection is the idea of the “commons”, a feature of village life for centuries: a common resource, like a wood or grazing land, held in loose, self-regulated shared ownership for villagers to graze their flocks on. The likes of Wikipedia and Linux organise their activities around a digital version of the commons. At least one part of our complicated future could be a peculiar mixture of the peasant and the geek, the pre-industrial and the post-industrial combined. That recipe, blending the interactive technologies of the Internet with the habits of the village, may be particularly potent in Asia, where over the next few decades hundreds of millions of people will leave villages to live in cities and connect with one another using mobile phones and computers. They will carry with them village habits and social networks that will combine with the latest wireless and mobile technologies. Out of that new kinds of organisation will be born quite unlike those that grew up around railways, cars and steel, from Detroit to the English Midlands and the Rhineland.
One of the best ways to navigate your way through this world of mass participation and creativity is to adopt the vantage point that Bunker Roy took in India more than thirty years ago. That means flipping the world on its head. Thanks to low cost technology many more consumers can become producers at least some of the time. Good ideas will come from amateurs as well as professionals. Innovation will not just flow down a pipeline, from experts working in their labs and studios, to passive consumers waiting in the line. Innovation is a social, cumulative and collaborative activity; ideas will flow back up the pipeline from consumers and they will share them amongst themselves. That is why the next big thing will be us: our power to share and develop ideas, without having to rely on formal organisations to do it all for us.
But to go barefoot as Roy did you first have to think barefoot. Industrial era organisations have enslaved our imaginations. We cannot image being organised without having an organisation. We cannot imagine work getting done without someone being in charge of a division of labour. We have grown up in an era of standardisation: mass production for mass consumption. But we are moving into a time when with the help of cheap, distributed technology there will be more production by the masses, for their own ends. As a consequence, innovation which has long been seen as an elite activity, undertaken only by special people, in special places will become more like a mass activity, often involving large collaborations of professionals and amateurs, designers and consumers, sharing their ideas. Increasingly we will think together.
We-think will change the way we work and consume; it will change the way leadership is exercised and where new ideas will come from. More leaders will have to be like Bunker Roy, inspirational and visionary, but humble and self-effacing. More work will be self-organised and self-motivated to tap into people’s ideas and imagination. Industrial era organisations like to broadcast at people, issuing instructions to their workers and regarding their consumers as targets for their marketing and wallets to be emptied. Barefoot organisations are more convivial. They work through dialogue and interaction, co-creating value with and among their users. Industrial era organisations see themselves mechanistically: they are value chains or pipelines. Barefoot organisations are more like rolling creative conversations. They are organised without that requiring top-heavy organisation. The claim that we can successfully self-organise ourselves will strike many people as utopian and fanciful, especially in light of the myriad failures of cooperatives and communes. Yet in many areas of our lives we rely on old forms of volunteer self-organisation such as clubs. Scientific inquiry has long relied on the sharing of ideas among peers. In many rural communities mutuals and cooperatives still organise the marketing of agricultural products. Those old forms of mutual endeavour take on a new life when they are combined with the power of the Internet, which allows mass participation to be taken to scale. One of the best models for how this kind of collective self-organisation is another barefoot activity: a day on the beach.