August 11, 2023

Notes From a Proto-LifeHouse

Adam has been musing (mostly on Mastodon) over how we might repurpose empty/underused churches into secular places for community space and resource. He calls these possibles lifehouses and has published The Lifehouse: Distributed community support centers for the Long Emergency as a summary of his thinking so far.

Here’s the crux of it: local communities should assume control over underutilized churches, and convert them to “Lifehouses,” facilities designed to help people ride out not merely the depredations of neoliberal austerity, but the still-harsher circumstances they face in what I call the Long Emergency, the extended period of climatic chaos we’ve now entered. This means fitting them out as decentralized shelters for the unhoused, storehouses for emergency food stocks (rotated through an attached food bank), heating and cooling centers for the physically vulnerable, and distributed water-purification, power-generation and urban-agriculture sites capable of supporting the neighborhood around them when the ordinary sources of supply are unreliable.

What are the buildings we'd use? Churches make lots of sense. Libraries are another one that comes to mind, though they're—so far at least—just about managing to continue with their initial purpose. Thinking of the village where I grew up, there's also a village hall, and spaces like the Guide and Scout huts.

Adam's framing seems to pitch us a step or two further into the abyss. To bastardize Gibson, I can agree that we're likely already there, it just not evenly distributed yet. However, how might we prepare the ground for Lifehouses to sprout when they're needed? With a precipitating moment, like we had with the pandemic, it's easier to imagine such spaces being pressed into service. How do we move towards that solution when, as is equally likely with the ongoing climate emergency, it's a more gradual evolving crisis?

In part this is the sort of space I've been working towards for the past fifteen years. It's far from my only reason for my contributions to DoES Liverpool, but it is an element in my intentions for the space. The emphasis on the my there is also important; as one of the co-founders and one of the more active of the many volunteers, I'm acutely aware of the power/influence I hold in the community (and try my best to give it away in a productive manner). My opinions do not fully reflect those of my community.

That said, my intentions overlap a lot with other members of the community, as you'd imagine. Not to everyone though; the DoES Liverpool community contains multitudes, and DoES Liverpool looks like lots of different things when viewed from differing perspectives.

In a talk I gave at FACT in the early days of DoES I enumerated some of them: to arts organisations we resemble a collective; to the Council we're maybe an incubator or accelerator; to remote-workers we're a co-working space; to the tech-curious we're a hackspace...

Really we're (elements of) all of those things. Yet, as we say, despite its name, DoES doesn't do anything itself. It provides support for the community to do things. In my talk I likened us to the mission control room at NASA, providing infrastructure and behind-the-scenes support for moonshots. The difference here being that as a community member sometimes you're the support staff and sometimes you're the astronaut.

These varied, overlapping, and distinct uses are just what Adam is talking about. The fact that DoES Liverpool welcomes non-radicals and folk happy with the status quo as well as radicals is important. This is evolution, not revolution. The way forwards is for more and more people to encounter it already working and financially sustainable, and to experience that first-hand.

One, to my mind important, difference between DoES Liverpool and lifehouses—at least as they're sketched out—is that we also welcome commercial endeavours. It's a fine-grained acceptance, of freelancers and businesses using and contributing to the facilities, rather than the "giving back" corporate sponsorship approach. It reinforces the mutual aid; the businesses are peers within the community. Their contributions aren't solely financial, but they do provide the majority of the income for the space, and the surplus generated supports the community rather than real estate investors.

I think the separation of "business" and the third or social sector is a bad idea. It acts as an enabler for the sociopathic tendencies of business (because they're obviously just about return for shareholders, and maximising their externalities); and hobbles charities and social enterprises as they're left competing in a zero-sum game for funding, dismissed by politicians and commentators because they're not contributing to GDP.

DoES Liverpool has twelve years of operating in that self-funded mode, paying market rates. We've more than quadrupled our space in that time, and are trying to work out how to expand further. Our biggest outgoing is rent, so finding a way to owning our own property (or renting from the community, via a CLT or similar) is something we're investigating and would like to achieve. There is an empty church not too far from us, which would make a great home, and that we've been trying to enquire after; however the Catholic church didn't get to be as wealthy as it is by giving its land away cheaply.

With the increase in remote work, and the growing interest in ideas like 15 minute cities, a future where there's a DoES in every neighbourhood feels eminently possible.

We've looked at financials. What other tips do I have?

Find fun, exciting projects and events which will draw people into the community. Things that are time-limited let people better gauge how much energy they'll take, and the loop of do epic shit; tell people about it; go to step 1 is a great way to spread the word about what you're doing.

Artificial scarcity can be useful, as can a regular, organised event/time-slot you can point newcomers to. Maker Night is our weekly open evening—limiting it to one evening makes it easier to build a critical mass of attendees, so that new folk are more likely to find something useful when they attend; it being every Thursday, from 7-9pm makes it easy for anyone to tell interested outsiders when to rock up. When you factor in community-members' time and energy, it's not such artificial scarcity.

You'll need a core of more committed folk who'll provide the thread of continuity and continue developing the processes and techniques. Around that there'll be a less committed community who'll wax and wane in and out of the group, but who'll understand the processes and be able to adopt them when necessary—sometimes that's so they can achieve their own aims, but it can also kick in if they need to help out in a crisis.

Provide space for others' projects and ideas to mix in and enlarge the possibility space.

Rules are hard to police. Resist adding new ones (usually proposed for good reasons, because something has happened). Thinking about how to rework things to avoid the issue arising is better; the "elders" of the community (or "influencers" if you'd rather) setting the good example is often more effective; and living with the occasional bit of repair or maintenance rather than restricting everyone sets a better culture. Then when you must have a rule, it's more effective.

In a similar vein, optimise for systems that run themselves or that can be (suitably) automated. Community time for admin is limited, so avoid adding to it; and a bit of ambiguity and potential loss of revenue is better than replicating the computer-says-no systems of corporations.

Find excuses or ways to meet and build informal links with other groups. You won't be, nor should you be, able to address all of the needs of society. We can better respond to any given crisis if there is trust between different groups; building that takes time and is best done before it's needed.

A lot of that comes down to being present in the space and in the community, and a billion tiny interventions and contributions to help encourage the sort of culture that you want to inhabit.

We're not building DoES Liverpool as a response to the many overlapping crises that are looming. We're building it to provide the more equitable, inspiring place we'll want in a bright future. That it will also be of use in the dark times is a beneficial hedge.

There are two main challenges.

Firstly, finding the people who'll make it happen. We're always happy to share our experiences and advice, but we're more often approached by council- or policy-types, who aren't going to run a space themselves. It needs people with the right outlook and enough personal surplus to devote to making it happen. (The vast majority of the work done in building and running DoES Liverpool has been voluntary. That's one of the ways we've managed to self-fund, but does add barriers to some of the folk we'd rather be removing barriers from. We try to mitigate that with our free open evenings and days, and more recently with our Boost Memberships, but it's an ongoing issue.)

Plenty of others are running co-working spaces, or setting up little-more-than artists' studios and calling them makerspaces. They appear similar to DoES Liverpool, but miss the alchemy that makes the latter transformative.

Which brings me to the second challenge. It's difficult to explain exactly how, or what, needs to be done to create that scenius. We haven't documented enough of the culture. This blog post is at least another step along that process. This is the downside of being do epic shit rather than talk about epic shit. Still, writing down more of how DoES works will help us onboard new members as well as providing some hints for others looking to copy us. We did at least manage, after a decade, to write down our values.

Culture is a chimeric beast. It needs to be continually formed and re-formed. Particularly on the fringes, where it is easily swamped with the status quo.

However, the pandemic gave us a glimpse of something similar to the DoES Liverpool culture, in the plethora of mutual-aid and collective responses as the crisis hit.

I think that showed the true Dunkirk Spirit and we should reclaim that from the jingoistic right-wing.

The "Dunkirk spirit" isn't about making do and surviving through a shit situation; it's about everyone coming together and mobilising the imperfect resources to hand, in an act of mutual aid.

I'd like to round out this post with the example of how we responded in a crisis. Many, many more people helped out than I will list here. I'm picking out names to highlight points in what is an illustrative vignette, in service of the narrative; my apologies to those I miss.

We could see the pandemic approaching, but it wasn't clear how we'd be able to help. Assorted other makerspaces round the world in places where the pandemic arrived before us were sharing their experiences. We were keeping a watchful eye on things.

Tom Darlow, who co-founded one of the startups that's come through DoES Liverpool, provided the catalyzing conversation. His partner was a doctor and could see the need for PPE and provide us information on the reality in hospitals, compared with the Government's assurances that all was okay.

We started trying out a variety of 3D-printed designs for visors, as the maker community was learning and sharing in the open as it always does. However, we also knew that we had other equipment available which might be faster and started design work on a laser-cut equivalent.

Alongside that, I contacted Andrew Rose at the Walton Centre. We knew each other because he works to bring innovation into the NHS and has long been curious about ways to bring the skills and expertise of the DoES Liverpool community to bear on that. Through him I got to meet with some of the clinical staff, including one of the doctors dealing with the Covid patients (at a time when they were few enough to be on one ward in one hospital on Merseyside) to get feedback on my designs and some first-hand knowledge of the scale of what we were facing.

Although we couldn't meet up in person, years of organising workshops and projects (and the running of the space itself) with online tools meant that the geographically-isolated community had processes and tools already to hand which they could bring to bear on the problem.

Zarino could help spin up a website despite seeing out the pandemic from hundreds of miles away; Martin used the CAD software he works on at Autodesk to optimize 3D print designs at home for Jackie to print in the space; Tom repurposed Trello and kanban boards from his startup work to manage incoming requests and orders; Hannah used her skills in helping businesses to crowdfund to run the fund-raising campaign to pay for materials; as well as laser-cutting visors, artist Snoof designed the assembly diagrams that shipped with the visors...

Through the projects we've done over the years we also had established links to other manufacturing capability and suppliers. As soon as design work started, the Little Sandbox makerspace and Plastic Tactics plastics recycling organisation—both overlapping lots with the DoES Liverpool community—were in touch to offer to help with their laser-cutters. As we scaled up we also drafted in Simon Armstrong, who's worked with assorted folk in the community on large outdoor art installations over the years and has a couple of laser-cutters.

As the world locked down and clamoured for PPE, supply chains were in disarray. While Matt Hancock thought the answer was throwing cash at his mates down the pub, we were talking to plastic factories in Portugal and weighing up lead-times and minimum order quantities of half-a-ton. In the end local connections came through for us: our knowledge that neighbouring manufacturers Try and Lilly use the same polypropylene when making police helmets led to a pallet of it arriving from their suppliers.

A person wearing a surgical mask sits at a desk in the DoES Liverpool workshop, making visors for our pandemic response

Then we could ramp up production. A simple online spreadsheet, overseen by Jackie, let the many volunteers manage their shifts to avoid too many folk being on-site at once; and they were trained up in running the laser-cutters and the other cleaning, cutting and sorting tasks. Stacks of completed visors piled up in the co-working room before being dispatched to hospitals, pharmacies and care homes across the North-West.

With the impromptu semi-distributed factory built, we could look to our collective knowledge of manufacturing techniques and devote some time to work out the next step up in production scale. We didn't have visibility of the size and length of the problem—maybe nobody did—and so didn't see it through to completion; however, we had quotes from a die manufacturer in St. Helens and conversations with local die-cut packaging manufacturers. They'd have gone through the pallet of plastic that lasted us weeks in a day. All from knowledge that could be traced back to an art project Ross Dalziel had done where he needed to get 500 one-foot-cubed cardboard Minecraft blocks made.

All told we shipped 30,000+ visors with a team of fewer than 50 folk.

We can compare that with 3D Crowd, who had to spin up a new culture and organisation and tooling during the pandemic. They shipped 200,000+ visors but that was from 8000+ volunteers. Obviously all of the efforts were valuable, and we hosted the local hub for 3D Crowd; it wasn't a competition. However, it shows the power that the existing links and breadth of skills can bring to bear. That was replicated across the country with similar existing groups: in North Wales; Nottingham; and Cambridge—all of whom we were communicating with and sharing designs and knowledge. None of those were official federations, but reflected existing relationships and connections.

Posted by Adrian at August 11, 2023 01:18 PM | TrackBack

This blog post is on the personal blog of Adrian McEwen. If you want to explore the site a bit further, it might be worth having a look at the most recent entries or look through the archives or categories over on the left.

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