Articles

unMonastery: Futures of Living Together

by German Gullon

Each year the number of abandoned villages grows in Spain, Greece and Portugal. Eleven million empty homes in Europe could house the homeless twice over. Drastically falling fertility rates threaten the economic near-future of most European countries. Meanwhile, Europe may soon awake to an ever-increasing influx of refugees risking their lives to escape impossible living conditions in their fragile and battered home countries. Rental prices in the cities have left them playgrounds for the rich; more and more young, motivated and highly skilled individuals are unable or unwilling to put up with an inhuman life-work balance in order to remain in the centre, where the sexy jobs are. 

What we—unMonastery—see is a radical paralysis blocking the connection of needs and resources of people and places. While models for mobility, sharing and co-operation in the work sphere are becoming ubiquitous, the model for domestic life is still based on the family or the single person. This is wasteful both quantitatively and qualitatively. Refugees, migrant workers, digital nomads, wandering academics, flown-in executives and space travellers all share the need for new, sustainable, adaptive strategies for living together.

Interweaving the history of monasticism and design patterns of a hackerspace, the unMonastery is in the process of building a network of outward facing, long-term, and harmonious co-living communities. Extrapolating from the framework of genuine monastic practice, the unMonastery enterprise seeks to channel the efforts of a generation that is over-educated and underemployed into meaningful hard work. We do this by rekindling service-oriented co-operative living as a way of both personal and species survival. 

In February 2014 the first unMonastery opened its doors in the historically poignant city of Matera, Italy. Established by a small and committed group, in collaboration with the City of Matera and EdgeRyders (an online activist bank spawned by the Office for Social Cohesion research at the Council of Europe), it proved pivotal in the city’s winning bid to become the European Capital of Culture of 2019 by re-imagining the city and its history of resilience within the context of an open future. The Matera prototype hosted projects including CoderDojo Matera, a branch of the international initiative to teach children coding, Mapping the Commons, a methodology placing the city’s cultural assets on OpenStreetMap, and unTransit, a mobile app to follow the city’s transport system in real time. Funding was stretched through a commitment to frugality, which allowed us to extend our field presence and to collect valuable experience while amassing a huge amount of documentation covering every aspect of our work and life. (The habit to document our every move has followed us as we have developed our network in Berlin and Athens). This regurgitating of our process has been used in two major ways: to produce an unMonastery in a box toolkit (Basic Input/Output System or BIOS), and to script our own history—in varying forms of reflection, analysis or diatribe—as the project seeks to develop a blueprint for a open source 21st-century monastic order to support our development of new models for communal living.

Elements of the unMonastery Model

Vision

We accept at this point in history that retreat is as legitimate as growth; that models of collective effort indicate a path of low-consumption human living; that a synthesis of urban and regional survival strategies might provide a platform for future life; that ‘frugal abundance’ can be an attractive strategic goal that provides significant emotional satisfaction, too.

The unMonastery proposal is to amplify this emotional satisfaction through evolving cultural life forms that promote valuable social spin-offs. The key question is ‘how’? We are working to develop an open source model for the potential futures of living together.

Routine and Daily Practice

We search for a model of life, governed by inspired routine and daily practice in which both rule and life lose their familiar meaning. Our goal is to bring to light a viable community model. The group is strengthened by a shared daily rhythm: Cooking, cleaning and cultivating a garden ensure a healthy, clean and organised living and working environment, while others— shared meals, circles—safeguard the ensemble.

Wake-up Bell, Day Closing Bell

There may be a physical bell rung at the beginning of the day to wake everyone up and reverberating at the end of the day as a sign for any guests to join us in collective contemplation.

Shared Meals

A functional hearth is the physical foundation of a home; in a Test Lab the kitchen occupies this vital space. The culture of shared meals, cooking and eating together are nutritious beyond body chemistry; simple tools like the kitchen rota facilitate fine-tuned co-operation. Into this environment, guests are more than welcome.

Circles

Groups meet. Borrowing from open space technology, the circle is the basic form underlining all forms of participatory process. The use of seated circles, morning and evening, serve as check-in moments for the group to share their current state and understanding.

Morning Practice

Group communication comes at different tempos. An active collective morning practice, whether it is meditation, stretching or yelling jubilantly into the caverns below, can help tweak the community and dismantle the ethos of individualism.

The Weird Stuff

The unMoaners may yet reveal themselves as devout animists. They believe in talking stones and memory laden walls, they consider our ancestors as ‘invisible stakeholders’. We train to download our thoughts from their immediate source, not from a memory bank of rehearsed patterns or a personal library of certified theories. This skill has value (we seem to think) for the health of the collective, although not everyone can provide a convincing reason why... 

Documentation and Design Patterns

We aim to collect, try and share best practices in as many fields of research and aspects of life as possible. Our goal is to develop a comprehensive how-to library, a contemporary survival guide, without building on commonly held assumptions about infrastructure, resources and entitlements.

Zero Waste (Vision)

A Zero Waste System is cyclical, like in nature, and does two fundamental things: it redesigns our systems and resource use—from product design to disposal—to prevent wasteful and polluting practices. 

Budget (Practice)

The Budget is a monetary organisational plan to manage group finances over a fixed period of time, supporting frugality and financial stability.

Decision Making (Tools)

Decision Making is one of the most basic tools for the group to function as a community. It ensures transparent problem solving, and generally becomes more granulated over time, to balance efficiency and participation.

unMon Publications

Since the early stages of the unMonastery experiment, its inhabitants have been meticulous in their drive to document, archive and explore. It has become commonplace to re-live our slow-dawning reflections, recounting stupidities indulged in and understandings finally illuminated. This is manifest perhaps most clearly in the official record of the 2014 Matera prototype known as the The Book of Greater and Lesser Omissions

Code/unCode is the first volume of The Chronicles of the unRuly, the history and analysis of unMonastery’s activity since the exodus from Matera and the establishment of our new hub in Athens. The composition of this book follows a double stream: interviews conducted by unMonasterians with genuine monastic superiors constitute the left-hand column—each question, and the response it generates, given its own microcosmos. In the right-hand column, a mosaic of clippings from various unMonastery communication channels mirror the presumptions, conceptual scaffolding, and the patina of history of the left-hand monastic testimonials; exposing them to the harsh practical problems of communal living, service, and discipline in the age of exalted individualism.

The unMonastery BIOS toolkit

The unMonastery BIOS is currently in Beta development phase and includes works of historical fiction, manuals, a board game, and an online development protocol. Designed with a community of social innovation agencies and civic engagement initiatives in mind, the toolkit will advise best practice in community development and ensure documentation generated by unMonastery is valuable to others and contributes to a broader ecosystem of knowledge sharing. 

The unMonastery BIOS is a toolkit for starting new unMonasteries and evaluating projects throughout their development. Designed on the principle that the knowledge generated by the unMonastery should be open to all, easily accessible and applicable to other initiatives, the BIOS encompasses the knowledge base generated as a result of the six month prototype in Matera during 2014 and project development work done since.

Core Elements of the BIOS

unMonastery Roadmap: An interactive online and printable process map in two parts, which reveals the pathways to realising an unMonastery, designed to ensure that all stakeholders and participants can develop an overview.

unMonastery Cards: Designed in collaboration with MethodKit, this card set acts as a checklist and series of design patterns to help unMonasterians work together, nurture ideas, and get an overview of common questions—depending on methodology the kit can be deployed in a variety of ways.

The Protocol: A rule set for collective living and co-working that draws on 10th-century monastic social codes and hackerspace design patterns.

The Book of Mistakes: A collaborative critical history of the project’s ongoing development and a retelling of its narrative to date. We strive to avoid reinventing the wheel and reliving our mistakes, so we document them. The initial unMonastery prototype in Matera has provided abundant raw material. unMoaners are not at all documentation-shy: chat sessions, post-its, a web presence, project proposals and urgent emails have left behind a maze of commentary. The Book of Mistakes recycles this maze from fragments of argument and trampled shards of vision into reassembled vessels of wisdom. 

The Stakeholders Handbook: The core information for contemplating an unMonastery, it functions both as an introduction manual to the unMonastery concept, including its embeddedness within places and people. unMonastery is not an clandestine operation, it aspires to involve as many in the process as is organisationally possible. As a result of this aspiration negotiation between individuals and groups can feel like a minefield. The Stakeholder Handbook is designed to help orientate and coach future unMonasterians in managing these relationships. 

The Scriptorium: An open-use repository for documents essential in managing organisational logistics. Like monasteries of a bygone era, or those still standing today, unMonastery generates a lot of documentation and knowledge products—the scriptorium is an online repository that builds up and improves over time that houses everything; budgeting spreadsheets, legal documents, workshop methodologies, source code and individual project documentation. 

The Atlas: A growing repository of experience that includes infographics and network graphs, which are captured from development of individual unMonasteries and play-testing of the BIOS.

The Talking Piece: The core technology of the unMonastery sometimes takes the form of a stone or small rock. In meetings, circles and gatherings it is decreed that only the holder of the stone is permitted to speak, ensuring the speaker addresses the group with intention and those not possessing the stone attentively listen.

Berlin/Athens

After closing the unMonastery in Matera in July 2014, we gathered again in January 2015 to set up a short-term (two weeks) unMonastery for Transmediale in Berlin. We used the occasion to reconnect with and expand our networks, and make some crucial decisions for the work’s future path. Most importantly, we decided to establish unMonastery as its own autonomous organisation. 

From Berlin, a small group of unMonasterians moved on to Athens to scout the city and explore the potential for a new unMonastery. Our most difficult challenge yet, arriving without resources or a clear agenda, the Athens experiment is just entering a new phase. Its most important outcome is the decision to downsize expectations in the face of the current reality of human and material resources, to allow the formation of small unMonastery testing laboratories. 

unMonastery Test Labs

A combined experimental place for studying new ways of living together and new ways of balancing meaningful work with working for a living, unMonastery Test Labs offer home to distributed research and development of ground-breaking projects that address deep future needs: DIY bio-hacking labs, IoT technology that optimises consumption of water, energy and tracks well-being; circular economy, zero waste, open source ecology, and commons research. Currently in a phase of expansion, we are opening unMonastery Test Labs in Europe (Athens and Berlin) to test specific aspects of the monastic model and contribute to the multi-layered and complex ideas neatly tucked under the imagination-igniting name, unMonastery. 

Based on the unMonastery library and design patterns, the intentions and goals of a Test Lab are focused on concrete research proposals. These can be a desire to build something with the surrounding community or with an aim to improve and adapt existing collective living spaces.

Test Labs address the core unMonastery practice, seeking to facilitate daily rhythms, visceral added value and to sharpen citizen initiatives. Grouped loosely into routine, documentation and vision, we offer tools that we have found useful and aided our strategic alignment of obtainable objectives within the contemporary political climate.

Minimal requirements for a test lab include: 

4-5 people

Communal living space

Group agreement of a defined area of research and applied practice

Define an external community and focus on collaboration with that community on at least one project

Daily Routine

Shared Meals

Shared Budgeting and Collective purchase of goods

Agreed upon decision making process

The latest addition to our library is the first unMonastery Test Lab Manual, a practical guide to setting up an experimental co-operative living space based on our collected ideas and most promising practices. One Test Lab is up and running in Athens, and one is in its development stages in Berlin. Our immediate future is clear: we need to fine tune and test our tools. 

The unMonastery is allied to a larger consortium of social initiatives granted funding from the European Union program for Collective Awareness Platforms for Sustainability and Social Innovation. Our immediate strategy is to convert impetus generated through our Test Lab network: as we develop specialisms, recruitment and sustainability models, we plan to open a full unMonastery, together with the Matera School, providing a platform for our methods as well as other initiatives to be distributed.

unMonasterians alone cannot solve the problems of youth unemployment, the housing crisis, or find replacement for disappearing state services. But communities can. We envision unMonastery as a commons catalyst, a distributed clinic for social cohesion, a 21st century monastic order enabling global individuals as well as local communities, and integrating local work with global vision. Like medieval monasteries, unMonasteries will enable skilled and dedicated individuals to work on local or global solutions in situ, in a wholesome, ecologically sustainable, economically stable environment, as part of an outward facing, technologically savvy, reality-conscious, culture-oriented hybrid community, in attempt to bridging the divide between the two cultures.

Katalin Hausel is a Hungarian visual artist, currently living and working in the new Athens test lab, focusing on moving unMonastery forward. Working on the unMonastery project since the opening of the Matera prototype, her role as chief editor for The Book of Greater and Lesser Omissions and Code/unCode has been decisive in the development of the unMonastery BIOS Toolkit. 

More and more young, motivated and highly skilled individuals are unable or unwilling to put up with an inhuman life-work balance in order to remain in the centre.

Links

Info & Credits

Published in STIR magazine no.11, Autumn 2015

by Katalin Hausel

Illustration by German Gullon