A few years back I used to do a lot of work with my local Transition Town initiative. It was a really great way to get involved in tangible action and I learned a heck of a lot. One of the concepts that came up during my time with the organization was decentralized structures, both those that provide resources and also systems of power. Decentralizing is important for a number of reasons, particularly because it increases natural resilience.

What is decentralizing? In a nutshell, it’s about redistributing power to the participants of a system, ideally without a central governing body. Why is decentralizing important? Well, it takes that power away from one central authority and gives it back to the people.

When I was learning about decentralized systems, it was in the context of local resource providers like water or electricity. The city in which I lived in at the time was one of the last larger cities in southern Ontario to have an independent electricity provider (it has since sold to a larger conglomerate). Being independent was a really cool feature because it allowed organizations like a Transition Town group to work together to offer programming and specialized services. Cool, right?

When I started learning more about anarchism, decentralizing came up again in the form of power structures and mutual aid networks. I was also introduced to the idea of distributed systems as another, better alternative to decentralized systems. Here’s a great image that helps illustrated the differences between decentralized and distributed systems.

Original source unknown. Linked from https://www.reddit.com/r/Anarchy101/comments/qkcxz1/the_meaning_of_decentralization/

Smaller, local, distributed groups are better able to meet the needs of people for a few reasons:

  1. The needs of people are specific to each location and time. Large governing bodies are unable to be flexible enough to meet these unique needs.
  2. In times of crisis, large governing bodies are not able to pivot quickly to adapt to specific situations, usually because of bureaucracy from the top down.
  3. Distributed systems are able to quickly substitute for one another if there’s a break in the network. This means that the entire system is still able to operate and remains resilient even if part of it collapses or is disconnected.
  4. Localized systems are able to interact with the people that they serve and, as such, can better understand and respond to the actual needs rather than the prescribed needs from a centralized authority.
  5. Distributed systems can be run anonymously as in the case of solidarity networks where the entire structure is safer not knowing the details of the other nodes.

You can start to see really quickly why decentralized and distributed systems are inherently more resilient but it’s almost obscene how many of our every day networks are still centralized. You know why? Of course you do. Capitalism.

The ideal aim for any business or organization under a capitalism is monopoly, and you can only have monopoly if you have control over access to a product. You can only have that type of control in a centralized system. Mutual aid and solidarity networks are naturally distributed because they don’t aim to control the outcomes but provide reliable access to as many people as possible.

Food systems, education, government, social media, utilities – these are all currently organized as centralized networks with a single authority controlling (or attempting to control) access to a commodity.

In the case of food systems, we are disconnected from producers and forced to buy what’s available from the grocery store – no longer family owned and operated but run by giant international conglomerates that are as far removed from the producers as possible. Imagine: easy access to local producers in your area from backyard gardeners, home bakers and brewers, eating food that is locally made and putting money back into your local economy. Shipping or import issues? No problem, local food is still available.

In our current system, education is reduced to a single curriculum, uniform by state or even country, and regulated by standardized testing enforced by large governing bodies, usually government run. Imagine: networks of local mentors or facilitators providing access to localized skills and hobbies, local histories and ecology where kids are engaged based on their interests and passions. Teacher sick or …you know… global pandemic? No worries because learning is everywhere, all the time.

I used to believe that social media was an alternative to traditional media (owned and operated as businesses that need to be profitable) but now even social media is being structured as a centralized system: user submitted content being controlled by algorithms and shadow banned based on level of controversy. And if all our social media is being fed by mega corporations that still have the need to be profitable, is it really any better than traditional partisan media companies?

The good news is that distributed and decentralized systems and networks can be developed and ARE being developed while these main centralized systems are still the prevailing method of delivering goods and services. They are sometimes harder to find and sometimes take a bit more time and effort, but the rewards are innumerable. And the more that we use these alternative systems, the more prevalent they will become.

I’m excited to keep exploring local options for myself and my family in the new year and also looking for digital distributed platforms to connect with online community. I’ll continue to share thoughts and resources as I discover them.

Further reading/resources