Network the world for social good

August 28, 2009

If you read the title and thought this was a blog post about broadband speeds you’ll be disappointed. Equally if you thought this was about social media you may want to move along. This is purely a musing about something that hit me the other day while watching a show on TV (and perhaps what some would call a pipe dream).

I was watching a BBC programme called Future of Food, a decent enough look at the current (and growing) global food crisis and how it could affect us all in coming years. Part of the program discussed the current trend for food being grown abroad (the example was Kenya), in developing countries often facing a food crisis themselves, specifically to feed the needs of another market (in this case the UK). The vegetables being grown year round in Kenya all grow perfectly well in the UK but only seasonally, so the argument here is that consumers want a supply throughout the year and the only option is to grow abroad. So that made me think; if we had a global policy for growing seasonal produce and an open borders import/export/trade process could the food crisis be lessened or even halted in its tracks?

Bear with me, I didn’t jump straight to that conclusion. Rather the way the programme portrayed the inequality of food growing and distribution made me think of Buckminster Fuller and one of his ideas which has (unfortunately) never come to fruition. If you don’t know who Buckminster Fuller is I suggest you read up on him, but essentially he was an inventor, architect, engineer, mathematician, poet and cosmologist (there are more categories you could put him in), one of the greatest thinkers in history. He had many ideas and inventions, a lot of which never came to fruition. One of those was the Global Energy Grid.

Buckminster Fuller came up with the following question as part of his World Game simulation; ‘How do we make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone?‘ From this question Bucky came up with the idea of interconnecting the worlds power grid, nation to nation. This would enable sharing of this most precious resource (energy was in his eyes one of the things that decided the rich from the poor and the developed from the developing). The grid of energy networks would allow energy to be produced in one nation for their daytime use and passed on to the next as a surplus. Benefits of such a network included reduced demand on fossil fuels, reduced capital investment in individual nations energy generation networks, new markets for electricity sales, brings income to developing nations, saves transporting fossil fuels as they could be processed at source amongst others (many detailed here).

So, a good idea (probably not explained so well by me), but it made me question whether networking our resources is actually the way to go in areas other than energy. Networked food distribution, the example I was thinking about, would allow food to be produced where it grew best (in the right seasons) and to be shared/sold across borders in both directions (key, as this is very much one way right now). If people (and governments) could step outside their localised view of the world we live in and work towards holistic, globally inclusive approaches to every day problems would we be in a better state as a world of nations than we are now? The food crisis is a good example as some nations have surplus and others don’t have enough, a socially co-operated network of food distribution where developed nations pay developing ones for growing their favourite exotic fruit and veg in return for selling them our surplus of other staples they require could benefit people greatly. It could also give some dignity back to nations tired of living on agency delivered charity relief and stimulate economic growth.

At the moment everything is very one-way and unequal, which doesn’t encourage growth and can for example cause nations to become dependent on sales to foreign supermarkets. Given a system of equality and a network of distribution and sharing of resources both the developed and the developing nations of the world would benefit (we get what we as consumers desire and they get to be more self sufficient and to be able to trade equally with us).

Can I see the global level of cooperation required to instigate any of these ideas in the future? Right now no; not without a major change of mindset in government and industry. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities for some entrepreneurial types to set up micro-networks which provide opportunities to smallholders in an equal and fair trade way.

Networks create good relationships; we all know that from social media, cooperative initiatives and co-working spaces, why can’t similar models be utilised to increase social goodness across the globe?

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