By Dr Benjamin Matthews, School of Creative Industries at the University of Newcastle, Australia.
“We always said that our mission is to create a new generation of change-makers, not be change-makers ourselves.“
— Adam Jorlen
Enkel Collective was established in late 2014 in the small post-industrial port city of Fremantle, near Perth in Western Australia, during the tail-end of a decade long ‘mining boom’ in a region that relies heavily on primary industries for its economic survival. Not long afterward, my conversations with co-founder Adam Jorlen began, and during an interview in late December 2018, we discussed the journey to date. Here, I reflect on our conversation, sharing portions from a unique socio-technical experiment that responded to growing precarity by building and sustaining an organized network.
We first met in July 2015, and Adam took me on a tour of a dusty, ancient Navy warehouse by the Fremantle harbor that Enkel had temporary use of. It was cavernous and empty, save for piles of rusting bicycles that were part of a discontinued social enterprise. As we wandered about, he energetically described in his lilting, Swedish accent plans to win permission from local government to keep the huge space. In mid-2019 his patience will pay off and Enkel Naval Store will open.
Enkel plans to deploy ‘post-blockchain’ Holochain-based cryptocurrency to facilitate a decentralized approach to governance and exchange within the micro-economy of the Naval Store. They hope this system can become a larger experiment in the surrounding community, fostering a transparent, ethically grounded marketplace. As Adam explained, employing emerging technology to facilitate change-making in the long term is a key strategy for Enkel:
“We have been working on the Naval Store for 4 years, and the lease is for twenty years because we are thinking cross-generational time scales: that space is for our kids. My hope is that this means my daughter will have a space in which to prototype the future in ten years. This is a living lab, as we always call it, and that’s our mission. Many of us have kids, and having that mission keeps us going.”
There is a certain patient determination at play here, a drive to move outside the short-cycle tactics that undermine the impact of much activism. To this end, the collective is formally divided into three arms: Enkel U (a ‘School for Change-makers’), the Enkel Naval Store, and Enkel Consultancy. From this base, participants engage in social entrepreneurship, run workshops and events, and work with business, government and non-profits as facilitators and consultants. They conduct social innovation experiments, like establishing temporary makerspaces, MOOC study groups and living labs in a range of settings, including co-working hubs and facilities owned by local government.
This long view, together with the mission to attain a sustainable approach to decentralized forms of organization, has seen Enkel make hard short-term decisions and show a willingness to trial (and fail with) various structures. Following a review in 2017, the collective was pared from 60 people down to 20 core members. This process aimed to create a stable core of trusted individuals, who steward the culture, while an extended, global network of participants numbering in the hundreds provides additional support and resources. Similarly, Adam explained, they enable entrepreneurship, but clip its wings when it falters:
“We had three arms: Enkel Pro, Enkel U, and the Naval Store. The consulting arm Enkel Pro didn’t work out, so separated out in a new venture, FloEdge. I think that was because some people wanted to be full-on consultants working all the time, while others like me wanted to come in and work only sometimes or just as facilitators. So now we’re back to Enkel Consultancy. We have regular meetings and we are still trying to sort out how we are going to work together as independent consultants who still have a relation to Enkel.“
Market pragmatism filters this mode of post-industrial social entrepreneurship, where decisions about who to work with are always determined by the constant determination to facilitate change-making from the bottom up:
“We work with local and state government enabling creative innovation, highlighting the importance of spaces like makerspaces — we take a bottom up rather than top down approach. We’ve worked with the Departments of Transport and Water on public consultation workshops for local government around envisioning the future. We focus on a mix between innovation and design thinking and now have 10 consultants on the roster. We also work with the Perth City Farm, a non-profit that needs a new strategy. We work with organizations that have similar values to us. We decided we agree on not going to work with the mining industry or oil and gas.”
This values-driven approach is realized in sociotechnical experiments that seek to amplify the potentials in the network by defining the minimal conditions required to permit action. This means decentralizing governance and generating flow as needs dictate — moving back and forth between hierarchy and anarchism, loose bonds and tight, consensus and disarray, inclusion and exclusion. To put it in Adam’s words, to achieve these goals, ‘we have to create an organization that is an effective container, that can hold those paradoxes’.
Experiments in decentralized decision-making are the best example, particularly the use of the open-source cloud-based software Loomio. Loomio provides every participant with an equal opportunity to contribute, support, vote on, or block decisions from a smartphone application, securely recording this process for later review. After a slow beginning, Adam explains, Loomio has proven increasingly effective at facilitating transparent, inclusive, and egalitarian decision-making processes:
“Loomio is really good but it has taken a long time in the same way as other stuff. In the beginning people didn’t use it. Now people use it all the time and start to understand, ‘AHA! This is nothing I can just decide, this is something that is going to affect more people, I better put it on Loomio’. The person who was here running Enkel U has just moved to Melbourne, and she wants to set up something similar there under our auspices, and she will have to go through that process on Loomio. We are co-hosting a New Economy Network Australia (NENA) conference next month here in Perth, and they will have to put that up on Loomio to ask the group if they are OK to take that risk — which it is, to organize a big conference. People only have to put up the big stuff, and they have to learn the difference. The interesting thing about Loomio is that people care about the possibility to have their say, not about having their say. Normally they don’t vote, and the main vote is ‘abstain’, which means I trust you; I trust the group. But they get pissed off if decisions get made without being put up on Loomio. It’s almost like an automatic liquid democracy, and if you’re passionate about something you will jump in. In general persistence is the main thing.
It is inclusive transparency that mediates consensus through this rather simple technical solution. While the technology is a capable facilitator, its affordances are entangled with the cultural practices of the network and persistence has been the marker of its success, particularly in ensuring consensus is maintained. As Adam observes, they have discovered that decentralizing governance allows consensus to facilitate highly independent endeavors:
For example, one member wanted to start a co-working space and he just went off and did it and made it happen independently, and the one thing he put on Loomio was the question: Can I say this was supported by Enkel on the website? And the group said: ‘Yes’. That’s the one rule we have: it has to be supported by the group.
The quality of gradual adoption, and the importance of transparency and trust, are persistent themes in this cooperative structure. As a technical culture emerged within Enkel over time, collective activity that operates on a decentralized basis became more feasible. That is, the effective use of decision-making software did not require technical literacy so much as a culture of recognition for its effectiveness and relevance. On top of this, the participants demonstrate their cultural knowledge by understanding the difference between decisions that require collective participation, and those that do not.
This engagement with software is in part due to a general orientation toward transformation that is led by technology — particularly where a scalable, radical alteration might be prototyped to disrupt and reconfigure current paradigms of exchange in economic, cultural, and political settings. For example, Adam explains their interest in blockchain as follows:
“We did a lot of work with the ‘post-blockchain’ tech Holochain this year, and we want to go seriously into not only collaborating with government, but we want to start our own local economy within the Naval Store with a coin you can use to buy things in there, and see if that can move out to more people, like cafes, restaurants and business in Freo [Fremantle]. Holochain is more aligned with our values than older blockchain-based cryptocurrencies. You can’t use it to speculate and it’s based on a system called ‘mutual credit’ and it’s way more interesting for us.”
The network culture that Enkel participants are entangled with is characterized by a specific ethos where knowledge acquisition is both aspirational and values driven. It is not enough to take up bleeding-edge technology like blockchain, for instance, merely for the sake of its newness. Instead, it is the capacity for change-making toward particular goals that determines its use.
Again, sustainability, resilience, and long-term impact mark the way the collective engages with technology and is shaped by it. But this pattern is inspired by network interactions, and the general orientation toward tapping the potentials in agency created by fluid interactions and open structures. As Adam noted, the original move towards blockchain technologies was directly inspired by this ethos:
“We had one member who was a really good Ethereum developer, so we were pulled into his world. He was the CTO [Chief Technology Officer] for an early blockchain ICO [Initial Coin Offering] called Powerledger, and we were hanging out with them. We are really curious people at Enkel, so we go into everything. We are all over the place, some of us are going to things to do with IoT [Internet of Things], others blockchain, some Theory U, then we share that and cross post and go to each other’s events. It’s a really interesting thing, how it works.”
Dialogue is the generative force that drives this process, both within the collective, and with the world, and sudden change is often based on this conversation. The members critically engage and experiment with both traditional and avant-garde ways to hack existing organizational structures and practices for their own purposes in a range of public and internal fora.
For example, Adam explained that Enkel members connected with participants in NENA based in Brisbane, Queensland, on the far side of Australia. This originated a further process of discovery and relationship building that uncovered a local network of people already attempting to prototype new modes of exchange:
“I know a lot of people in this scene, like you, across the world. I am always scanning. Four Enkel people went to meet the NENA people in Brisbane and go to their conference to see what is going on in 2017, and we really liked it. So we thought: why don’t we do one here in Perth? The cool thing with bringing together all these new economy-related things — like permaculture, cooperatives, blockchain, renegade education, so many different things — is it all fits in, like makerspaces, tool libraries, and we are like ‘cool, this is all the stuff we have been doing for the past few years’. A person who is not a systems thinker, trying to see how these things are related, might think it’s just a fucking mess! What is this conference about? [laughs] You know? But for us, this is just exactly what we are about. So, we held one here in August , we had 140 people there or more, and we were like, HOLY SHIT! Who are all these people? But you see there are people like us, hiding in various rooms and corners of every city, but there haven’t been many forums to bring them out and Enkel is one of those forums and this conference is a good example and we will do another one next year in October. The 20 people in Enkel have a big reach, we had blockchain, permaculture, game designers using games for good, cooperatives (the new kind, not the old like farmers etc.), Theory U, steady state economics, currency designers, new possibilities for Western Australia.”
The dynamics of the collective are reflected in fora like this, where the network is suddenly scaled into a larger, more diverse group of mutually supporting change-makers. This is how Adam has frequently characterized Enkel: as a power base that amplifies patterns of resistance.
Within this cultural scene, the role of scalability is central, and in important ways located in the sociality of network interactions. If scaling up is to be achieved, it is not at the expense of the ideal of decentralized governance. After all, scaling always holds the danger of collapsing into older social paradigms of hierarchy and control. If scaling holds a certain ambivalence, this is partly because it is the sociality of the org-net that defines trust. For Adam, trust emerges from the rhythm of direct relations, and it is these interpersonal interactions that creates the continuity he considers vital to their resilience:
“Sometimes you have to centralize, so we have our regular weekend retreats with the whole group. That’s the most important thing in the collective, and it’s where we don’t talk that much about Enkel; it’s about building relationships with each other. Then we go out and do our own thing. We have four co-op meetings a year, which are an update on projects, two retreats a year, and we meet up every Thursday night, which can be anything. A dinner, a workshop, a presentation. Tomorrow we are doing a skills inventory workshop where we help each other get our skills out, sometimes we go to another organization’s event as a more social thing. You gotta have a rhythm. Even if we don’t wanna meet or don’t have anything to talk about, we have to keep the rhythm of meeting. It’s one of the key things.”
So it is interpersonal relationships, not more formal network interactions, that forge the basis of trust. However, consistent dialogue with a larger network of interactants remains important in that these interactions can be parlayed into activism. The dynamics of this activism are charged by potentials that the members are aware of and seek, but can sometimes be surprised by. In the end, the resilient quality of the collective defines its capacity to resist the larger forces that surround it, where the balance between action and destruction is always poised to shift. Enkel use technology to manage these dynamics, but where they succeed it is due to persistence and critical engagement, not the sudden appearance of a deus ex machina. The decision-making software Loomio, for instance, was not an initial success, and their interest in Holochain is driven by the goal of a transparent model of exchange in the long term, rather than bloody minded entrepreneurship or speculation.
And here we arrive at the paradox of Enkel: a collective that fosters change-makers by allowing contradictory patterns to co-exist with unchanging continuity. Meaningful change requires uniting disruption and stability. A sustainable organization of this kind has proven to be generative of resilience in the face of growing precarity, and as relationships mature, so too does the network culture. But Adam deserves the final word, and he explains it like this:
“We all talk about entrepreneurship, and that can be cutthroat like Silicon Valley — it’s not like that here. But creativity is always destruction, if someone starts something new it fragments the group and creates tensions. But now, people have been here so long, that they tend not to leave even if they’re pissed off. Now people are annoyed for a while, and then they come back. It’s like a family, I suppose. It’s a very diverse weird collective that would never hang out if it wasn’t for Enkel — some of us are friends of course. Its Muslims, hardcore Christians, you know, but it works.”
This article first appeared in The Critical Makers Reader: (Un)learning Technology published by Institute of Network Cultures.
Benjamin Matthews is a Lecturer in the School of Creative Industries at the University of Newcastle, Australia, who investigates post-industrial media work, emergent network cultures, and media art. His media industry career included agency roles and research consultancy in design planning and strategy, brand management, experience design, and creative facilitation.