One of the masterminds behind this person-to-person, or P2P revolution is Flemish cyber-philosopher Michel Bauwens.
Last year, the international Post Growth Institute ranked Bauwens among the 100 most inspiring people on their (En)Rich List – in the close company of historical figures, such as writer Henry David Thoreau, and Nobel Prize laureates, like economist Amartya Sen. For around a decade, from his headquarters in Thailand, this visionary has been spreading the message of his P2P Foundation from the favelas of Brazil to the Vatican to New York City.
But before he started to change our world, Bauwens (pictured) was born in Brussels as a zinneke– a Brusselaar with a French- and a Dutch-speaking parent. He went through a varied career, all revolving around ICT. Bauwens founded two internet companies, worked for the United States Information Agency, oil and gas company BP and telecommunication enterprise Belgacom, and was editor of computer magazine Wave.
In 2004, however, Bauwens felt he could no longer function in the current economic system and took a sabbatical to collect his thoughts. He realised that the internet provided the tools to make the transition to a more sustainable world. He founded the non-profit P2P Foundation, striving towards an open-source economy in which actors worldwide develop goods and services via open collaboration and without copyrights.
P2P is originally an ICT term, referring to a computer network where files are shared freely and equally. Bauwens’ P2P Foundation is funded by donations and sponsorships by companies and organisations.
Bauwens’ goal with the foundation is to communicate what we are capable of when we work together online. Of course he is active on Facebook and Twitter, but he also gives lectures and workshops to, among others, inhabitants of Brazilian favelas, Occupy members in New York and the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Examples of pioneering peer-to-peer initiatives are the free computer operating systems of Linux and encyclopaedia Wikipedia, a huge success. “But the movement has since then expanded beyond the borders of the internet to the actual, daily lives of people,” says Bauwens, 54. “There is now a community consuming, producing and innovating together in large, digitally connected networks.”
A typical person-to-person platform involves bringing together complementary knowledge, collecting funds for the infrastructure and sharing the profits after selling them. One example is Arduino, which designs electronics via common expertise and crowd-funding. Its activity even led to the development of the ArduSat, a satellite that will be accessible to all citizens.
In a similar project, Wikispeed, a team designs economical cars. More and more, existing companies are warming to the potential of this dynamic. Recently, P2P assembled a report with telecommunications enterprise Orange. “This alternative economy already accounts for one-sixth of the Gross Domestic Product of the United States,” says Bauwens. “Its influence will grow even more quickly as fabrication equipment, like 3D printers, becomes cheaper.”
The collaboration offers answers to the needs of the economic crisis, especially in southern Europe. “In Greece and Spain, there are a lot of networks distributing basic necessities such as food,” says Bauwens. But he also points to the ecological necessity: “In general, we have to do more with the available resources, not constantly look for new opportunities to scale up production.”
However, the political world is reluctant to implement these ideas, according to Bauwens. “I notice a lot of support among ‘digital’ young people, but not among the majority of decision-makers.” History, he says, shows that transformations of societies usually take a century, for example the democratisation of knowledge after the invention of printing. “Hopefully, the world wide web can accelerate that process because we don’t have much time left before we reach new economic and ecological lows.”
Via the peer-to-peer technology of Skype, I ask Bauwens if he visits his home country often. He sighs. “Unfortunately, I have been back only a few days in the past decade. But this spring, I am returning for a lecture in Flanders.”
Would he consider moving back permanently? “Yes, if I could establish a P2P research group at a knowledge institution; that’s one of my personal dreams for the future.”
Share a car @ Cambio.be: Cambio started up in Flanders nine years ago and now has around 15,000 users across the country sharing cars. Users can choose from more than 500 cars in 27 cities. The initiative is supported by the public transport authorities and the Flemish job training agency VDAB.
Share a working space @ Bardoffice.com: For around two years now, self-employed people have been able to work together and chat with “colleagues” at Flemish co-working cafe Bar d’Office. Located in eight cities across the region, Bar d’Office is supported by partners such as entrepreneurial support organisation Flanders DC and Design Centre Winkelhaak, a hub for creative talent.
Share a second-hand object @ 2dehands.be: Every day, an average of 600,000 people visit this online marketplace with more than 2.8 million listings. The auction and shopping website finished second (after Facebook) in the last “Site of the Year” competition by computer magazine Clickx. Users on 2dehands (Second Hand) offer a lot of free products; gratis (free) is the most popular search term.