“The future will be ecosystemic”: An interview with Simone Cicero

After a brimming Open Hardware Summit, full of projects and ideas, we had the chance of talking with Simone Cicero, co-chair of the event and a sort of polymath of the New Economy: Blogger, Speaker, Digital Strategist, Event Designer, Facilitator, Dot Connector… Through his multiple activities and his blog Meedabyte, he analyzes the changes in society, economy and production in this new era of collaborative blossoming and disruptive technologies. This, together with his front-row activities as Connector at Ouishare, gives him a broad view of the advances that Open Culture and Sharing Economy, among other issues, are experiencing.

Simone Cicero at Innovation Week Rome 2014
Simone Cicero at Innovation Week Rome 2014

P.N. After Open Hardware Summit 2014, which are your conclusions of the event ?

S.C. My impression of the Summit is that it was a good start, but it is quite far from where I would like to be in terms of awareness and groundwork… That kind of event should be much more a community trying to lay out the world. I really think that we need to start to do more in terms of actionable knowledge and decisions, like a wiki, discussion groups, etc. –a real community, because there is no a real community engagement right now. And we are a big community, so we have to spread wider to discuss about real issues. What I see is companies flocking to this collaborating economy and open source, increasing blogging interest and so on, and it’s like the tipping point is finally arriving. This is reflecting that our community is growing exponentially. Finally, we are getting to the point that this must be changing as soon as possible, now the question is will it be possible to change everything in such a small amount of time …

P.N. But it is going really fast …

S.C. Yes, it is going fast, but also unfortunately that disaster where we are living is going pretty fast, probably faster, so when I think that we need to change everything in 15 years…

P.N. 15 years?

S.C. Yes, kind of. Maybe even it’s too late for someone, so we need to scale our awareness, our impact in the decision making processes… Now we need to get more organized, more productive, even if the feeling is that we are going too late.

P.N. A term that is constantly heard here is community, and you also mentioned that big companies are getting involved in that movement. Do you really think that these big companies really share this community spirit or it is just a way of using a term?

S.C. Well, there are several trends in the market right now. Everyone is experiencing the digital transformation, and all these trends are interrelated: there is a technology trend, there is an urbanization trend, there is a changing demographics trend, and there is an environmental  threat which is becoming huge and huge everyday. We are growing an interrelated dharma, so at some point companies must change because dynamics in the market are transforming the market, so you have two opportunities. In one side, you can do rapid innovation, agile for a super fragmented market with products for small niches of 1,000 people, and this is already part of the economy which is not accesible for big companies because in that parts of economy small is winning: all the makers you see here, people doing 3D printers, making things and putting them into Etsy, they are creating their inventions for small community of fans. This is sustainable but it is super fragmented. In the other side, you have, the concentrated part of the economy, essentially based on ecosystems of platforms, like Google, Amazon, this kind of players. And what they need is to understand what the ecosystem wants, they need to talk with the ecosystem. To engage with the community is a “de facto” requirement for a company, because it’s functional to their business. And we are also in a moment where environmental, social issues are so powerful forces that the companies need to rethink themselves in this new world. It’s something we are discovering day by day. So, again is for survival. Someone said capitalism will change, will transform in spite of its success, not its problems, so the winning companies in the market are those adopting this community approach, this ecosystem approach –like Google, for example. But the problem, as mentioned here by Cory Doctorow or Massimo Banzi, is that these players are using openness, are using engagement and community but they are constituting “open monopolies” at the end. So the point is that we need to think about how to make these monopolies less harmful. And I’m not sure that open monopolies are a bad thing because with the dynamics we are living right now, challengers are coming up pretty soon.

P.N. Will the Open Economy destroy Capitalism?

S.C. It is transforming capitalism, probably. Everything is changing. Nowadays it is more a cognitive capitalism than a financial capitalism –the one at Silicon Valley, for instance. It is about being agile, fast, delivering solutions to the market, creating networks. In cognitive capitalism there is a central authority (like Facebook, Google), and they just extract value from the networks. But there are several other forms. For example there’s distributed capitalism, like the one from Bitcoin. And there are resilient communities which are smaller scale economies able to provide wellness, shelter, food and wealth to smaller communities. Then there are the global commons, which are globally available, collaborative development tools and practices which give you some much value but there is no money involved, like Wikipedia. So already we don’t have only capitalism at play, we have at least three different forces. The future will be ecosystemic, it will be much more diverse on the market. We won’t be dominated by capitalism, because we have increasing alternatives. We are also starting to build companies which are cooperatives, which share their value with their users. Reddit last week raised 50 million in funding and said they will share a part of it with the community. So new models are emerging, but it takes time.

PN. Coming back to the Open Hardware Summit, how are makers changing the scenario?

SC. By now everything is scattered. We have big corporations doing amazing projects, and we have community projects made by simple makers, and then we have also something like OpenDesk –a super-advanced corporation with collaborative processes. The Open Hardware is scattered across all these models. An other interesting thing is that Open Hardware is increasingly getting linked to the environmental issue and specially with circular economy. I think that Open Hardware is really the community which can take all these challenges, because we have this vision… That’s why we called the summit this year “From Open Hardware to Open Manufacturing”, because Open Manufacturing is the real way forward, to move from a large scale product cycles to a more cooperative ecosystem of makers and fabricators who can cooperate, meaning not only a smaller impact in the environment, but also related to a more equitable value chains, money going to more players. That’s for example what we are trying to do with Open Source Vehicle project, which is a project I advice for.

P.N. You have talked about cities retaking their role as manufacturing places. But there are not many cities yet prepared for that, do you think they will?

S.C. I think  the clearer vision on this is the one given by Tomas (Diez) about Barcelona. He has this vision of the city getting the production back, and it is backed by several obvious facts. We need to have production nearer to the utilization of the goods for many reasons: environmental problems, logistic issues, smaller footprint, users want more personalized stuff… So you can’t produce in China and send it into a big ship to the US, because it takes one month, therefore the customer who wants a customized product in one week can’t be served with this old style model. Urbanization is growing fast, urbanized population is growing exponentially and this is not going to stop. Cities are still attractors of people, and so if you sum up everything (environmental threat, need of personalization, need of community and sharing) cities are regaining this opportunity. And those who will not regain production back, those cities will fail, because people will go to other cities where the living is better. If in 40 years Barcelona is a self-sustained city, I see Barcelona as a thriving city. There is no choice: if you want the city to thrive, you need these new models of sustainable production and community base interaction. To get this back is a challenge for cities that want to thrive in the future.

PN. Talking about Ouishare and your role there as a connector, you say you “hack societies”… how can a society be hacked?

SC. Ouishare is just one of the thousands social innovation organizations in the World, and the communities which are trying to change stuff: we are part of a wider ecosystem, it’s not that we are leading anything, we are just connecting. We are trying to do take over this role, the role of connector of the transformation. The particularly interesting thing of Ouishare is the attitude, it is really organic, and it is becoming an enabling platform for people who wants to transform their cities, their companies, their neighborhoods, and their lives. Doing this has been very hard in the past, because like three years ago you were facing cultural gaps, we weren’t really understood. Sometimes you are in a situation that is not ready to accept what you want to do. In that way we have never been ideological, we have never been attached to processes: we encourage people to do and then look for consensus, but first do and then we’ll see. So in this way have a “hacking” approach, the approach of experimenting and finding the solution whatever it is. This is really working: now we have for the third year this amazing conference (Ouishare Fest) and we are signing partnership agreements with brands that want to engage with us in this journey through a transition. So it is paying off, this is the personality of Ouishare. But for the rest, we are a part of a wider ecosystem of people.

P.N. Which one of the projects where you have participated was the more impressive for you?

SC. The case of Ouishare Fest was pretty impressive, because we started investing an incredible amount of social capital in putting something together, a group that never actually worked together and grew from 10 or 20 the first year to something like 60 the second year, and they are 60 people now: working organically, committing to a budget, sharing the budget equally and without any big discussions. To me it is really impressive, when you work in something that you believe is right and you are with many people really working together, trying to give their best… this was pretty impressive.

PN. Because in a way Openness is an ideology… A political ideology?

SC. Yes, it is a political ideology! If we don’t understand that it is political, we won’t understand what it is happening. Because it is totally political, what we are doing. But we are just switching from the old way of politics that means, specially in some countries, producing representatives which don’t actually really protect the common good, and we are regaining the act of protecting the common good to a lower level. We are getting this back from politics into society, and this is a strongly political act. Basically we are reclaiming transformation, we are reclaiming vision, we are reclaiming everything from politics and we are getting it back to communities and to several social players.

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