A Manifesto for Progress in the Twenty-First Century

This short manifesto explores a set of ideas that can be of use for those trying to improve the world today. These ideas are already in the air and their time has come.

This is very much a work in progress and future versions of it will be published. Your questions and feedback are extremely welcome. Please see the bottom of this document for more details.

Three purposes

“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.” — Viktor Frankl

As I write this manifesto, I’m guided by three purposes. All three represent what I mean by progress. Your definition of progress or your purposes might be similar, compatible or perhaps different. Before we continue, however, I feel its best that you understand why I’m writing this.

The first purpose is to eliminate poverty. I believe we have the possibility to provide each and every human with health, food, shelter, clothes, education, communication and transportation. Poverty is a cause of great suffering to those who struggle with it; for the rest of us who are not afflicted by it, few causes are more worthy of our efforts than helping our fellow humans to transcend the struggle for survival.

The second purpose is to restore nature to a thriving state. Industralization has shown us that the Earth is not unlimited; we humans need to make the transition from exploiters to stewards of the planet. I believe we have the duty and possibility to preserve existing species and ecosystems, for their sake and our own. We can and should live on a thriving Earth.

The third purpose is to bring about meaningful work for all. Most of us work simply to make a living, enduring jobs that are neither socially constructive nor develop our potential. There are vast and meaningful works to be done in our time, and there is equally vast untapped potential in billions of humans that are eager to work in something that matters, as long as they can pay the bills too. By and through unlocking this potential, we can fulfill the first two purposes; after that, the next generation can calmly and confidently pursue further aims we can still not fathom.

Three ideas

“But out of limitations comes creativity.” — Debbie Allen

The ideas presented in this section have been articulated in the last two or three decades, although they are grounded in concepts evolved through millenia. I believe that these three ideas, combined, can enable us to work towards these purposes in a revolutionary way.

The first idea, articulated by Muhammad Yunus, is that of a social business. A social business is a normal business, except that the owners cannot keep the profits.

The second idea, first clearly expressed by Richard Stallman, is that of open source. Open source is applied knowledge that, while of economic value, can be freely shared, used and improved upon.

The third idea, the most subtle of all three and best described by Christopher Alexander, is that of wholeness. Wholeness is a property of systems and structures that are beautiful, resilient and perhaps even alive.

The first idea gives us an amazing vehicle for bringing change into the world. By creating a business, we create a self-sufficient mechanism for creating value for customers that can grow and adapt in a real, capitalistic world. But because its owners cannot possibly make any profits from it, this limitation frees them to fulfill the business’ potential to improve the world for better.

The second idea allows us to create not just a single, isolated social business; rather, it brings the possibility of creating an ecosystem of businesses that share and take ideas from each other. Openness stimulates cooperation and competition, while reducing the obstacles inherent to any activity.

The third idea directs us towards creating products and systems that emulate nature’s amazing versatility, efficiency and resilience. Perhaps as importantly, it will make the world a place where we feel more at home. Herein lies the likely antidote to the dehumanization brought by the massive housing projects, suburban neighborhoods and skyscrapers of the Twentieth Century. Nature is the only thing that scales.

A social business represents the possibility of discovering an economic instution that embodies Aristotle’s Golden Mean towards profits. A business has to be profitable in order to survive; it doesn’t require charity or centralized planning. But as soon as it is profitable, profits stop mattering; the focus always stays in being of use to others (customers, employees, and everyone else too).

Open source takes the revolution brought by the internet onto the actual practices of building a business. Miniaturization and automation underlie the current tendency of products and institutions becoming more like software; by liberating the software that regulates our daily life, we can remove barriers to its use and improvement.

Wholeness demands of us that we create systems that are natural and humanizing. Good intentions and planning are not enough. We need to develop and apply exacting taste in the design of our products, services and rules, and we must build everything as if we would use it forever, every day. Wholeness may give us a middle path where we acknowledge our technology and rationality, while blending it with the deep teachings of nature.

In the end, these three ideas represent four limitations. What I’m suggesting here is the possibility that you improve the world through action within the following limitations:

  1. Through a profitable business;
  2. which cannot distribute any earnings;
  3. while sharing all your know-how and intellectual property;
  4. and only building beautiful, integrated and robust products and systems.

In other words, you are creating a self-sufficient economic entity, from which you cannot draw anything except for a salary, where you give away your most valuable insights to possible competitors, and you subject your work to an exacting artistic and scientific standard.

This approach is novel and untested. It attempts to complement other approaches for improving the world, such as government, business or NGOs.

Applying the ideas

“In making my design I had also worked out the methods of making.” — Henry Ford

These sections contain a few general concepts for applying these ideas in the real world. The concepts are divided by the broad economic areas in which they can be applied.

Virtual utilities

By virtual utilities, I refer to services that can be distributed through a network connection. This includes most web services (email, data backup), banking and even online retail (if we consider the postal system as a kind of network :).

For redesigning these systems, here are two guiding concepts:

  • As zero knowledge as possible (AZKAP): the system should attempt to know as little as possible about its users. There are tradeoffs between the quality of a service and the amount of information it knows about a user, and hence these decisions are not trivial. However, by solely attempting to be of service to the users (instead of trying to monetize their information), services can collect less information and use it for better purposes. Providing different levels of service for different levels of information received by the user can also enhance the user’s decision making power in this regard.

  • All in the protocol (AITP): the user’s data belongs to the user. Not only it should be readily available for download, it should be codified in a standard, documented way that encourages the possibility of migrating it to another (perhaps competing) service. An efficient and useful protocol should emerge, so that service providers become more like commodities, rather than unique snowflake silos.

Physical utilities

By physical systems, I refer to services that use tangible things to achieve their result. I’m mostly thinking here of energy, transport and physical services that can be performed by machines (appliances).

For redesigning these systems, here are two guiding concepts:

  • Service & flow economy: the focus should be in the service, not in the product that provides the service. We don’t need to own a car; we rather need to go from A to B, whenever we want. We don’t want washing machines; we want clean clothes. These services naturally have to be provided by cars (or other modes of transportation) or washers, but the companies offering them should offer us the service, not the product. Concretely, this means that the companies should lease the products, and make them as efficient, durable and reusable as possible.

  • Nutrient flows: since companies offer services and own the products to provide them, there are great economic incentives to reuse the materials that can be reused.

Land systems

By land systems, I refer to agriculture and construction (residential & commercial).

For redesigning these systems, here are two guiding concepts:

  • Deep structure: deep structure, as expressed by Christopher Alexander, is a subtle yet empirical property of anything that exists in space and that determines how well that structure will be suited in its interaction with humans and nature. There are major lessons to be learned from traditional architecture and natural systems when we design the patterns of houses, cities and farms.
  • Natural agriculture: the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, which spawned Natural Agriculture and inspired Permaculture, can be of great use. It’s main idea, perhaps, is Do nothing farming, which aims to perform as little work as possible, and gently prod one’s farm towards its natural and fertile state. The challenge here is to see how these principles can be applied to our massive and industrialized farming systems, without compromising food prices or food security.

Idea systems

By idea systems, I refer to artistic and scientific creation.

For redesigning these systems, here are two guiding concepts:

  • Crowdsourcing new ideas: there are already artistic and scientific works funded by thousands or millions of individual donors. The idea here is to stimulate this tendency, particularly for developing technology that can be life changing and is normally patented, such as pharmaceuticals.
  • Crowdsourcing existing ideas: many works are protected by copyright; because of the ongoing tendency to extend copyright terms, this problem is getting worse. It would be interesting to create crowdsourcing campaigns to raise a lump sum by which the holders of intellectual or artistic property can release it into the public domain. This could work both for retrovirals and Beatles’ albums.

Two principles to avoid madness

“My religion is to have nothing to be ashamed of when I die.” — Milarepa

This manifesto attempts to encourage a novel way of bringing about social and environmental change. If it ends up being ineffective, probably no significant harm will come out of it. But if these ideas bring about radical change, there exists the distinct possibility that it will bring about more harm than good.

The Twentiety Century was arguably the most terrible one in recorded history. At perhaps no other time in history did madness become so marked in the human race. Or perhaps we were as mad as usual, but this time around we amplified the destruction with our scientific and industrial knowledge. Our collective insanity was expressed in the form of wars, genocide and forced relocation.

Most of the terrible deeds were done by people who genuinely believed they were bringing about a better world, through a sweepingly effective movement for the common good.

Let me state my fear: this manifesto explores novel and perhaps radical ways of bringing about change in the Twenty-First Century. The risk is end up being like most radical movements of the Twentieth Century, who ended up killing millons with self-proclaimed good intentions.

It is no good to consider ourselves better or more enlightened than people in the past. The Twentieth Century has taught us the value of nonviolence, democracy and pluralism, but I feel we can define clearer rules to avoid past mistakes.

Looking back at the worst excesses, they have been perpetrated when there’s an extreme division between “us” and “others”, and where’s an extreme division between “the present” and “the future”. Often these divisions go together: “We are doing this terrible thing to them, because they are not like us, and because after that, we will have a new world where this will never happen again”.

In other words, the worse excesses were commonly justified (both externally and internally) by treating some people as enemies, and some actions as necessary evils.

Let’s try to prevent the madness of creating suffering for others, and the madness to think that making others suffer has a purpose. I propose that in everything we do, we bear in mind two fundamental, time-tested principles:

First principle: the means are as important as the ends.

Second principle: the others are just like us.

These principles could be also stated as don’t distinguish people and don’t distinguish actions in time, or as have no enemies and commit no necessary evils.

I hope that, by applying these principles, we can avoid repeating the atrocities of the Twentiety Century and still commit to a path of radical and profound change. If we applied them, we would at least attempting to heed Einstein’s admonition: doing something different while expecting different results.

Of course, for practical purposes, you need to distinguish actors and timings. You can strategize and you can choose sides. But in your core, you must remember that every action is foremost an action, and every person is foremost a person.

No principle can be the antidote for stopping madness in ourselves – but a principle can help us become aware of our own madness, when it arises.

To state the principles one last time:

The means are the ends.

The others are us.

Version & license

This manifesto is written by Federico Pereiro and released into the public domain.

Current version of the manifesto: v0.1.1, dated 2017/10/16. Markdown version available here.

Older versions and more information available here.