DECENTRALIZED COMMUNITY A NEW APPROACH TO SOCIAL PROBLEM SOLVING (abridged version) For decades, the wasteland of pain and

desperation that is Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has borne witness to immeasurable tragedy and suffering. A seemingly intractable conundrum, any and all attempts to “improve” or “fix” the area have met with failure after failure; homelessness and addiction rates “exploding” rather than abating. Frustrated by this, and inspired by several emergent technological movements, I recently began developing a new approach to the issue. After much research and revision, I now present to you an approach which may just hold some promise… The only solution to Vancouver’s homeless/addiction epidemic will lie in an extensive understanding of the situation at hand. The only way to achieve this will be to get involved, engaging directly with those who live on the streets and learning from them. This is only half of the equation, however, with extensive public education and community involvement the necessary complement. With the aid of an innovative new web-based approach, both goals can be realized simultaneously. The proposed website will centre around a revised version of this letter- an article that encourages all Vancouverites to, when approached by a homeless person or observing a homeless person who seems approachable, offer to buy that person a meal and ask them to share their story- to explain how they ended up on the streets. While dining together, they would ask the homeless person questions from a short, printable list provided on the website. Afterwards, they would enter this information into the same site. The homeless themselves would also be encouraged to visit this website and partake, answering the questions directly (Programs like Homelessnation.org facilitate internet access for the homeless). However, to have the homed and homeless interact in such an intimate setting would be extremely beneficial in cultivating fraternity, empathy, and understanding between those who rarely interact and in getting both sides actively engaged in the project. Once a suitable number of such conversations had taken place, everyone wishing to partake (homeless or not) would help to collaboratively organize and study this information on the website in order to determine: · · · -Exactly why people end up homeless and/or addicted on the streets of Vancouver. -Exactly why they remain there or escape and recover. -Exactly what should be done to help these people get clean and/or off the streets permanently and prevent future occurrences.

The website will also be fully open-source, allowing the public to work together to make refinements and upgrades, evolving and expanding the site in whatever direction was deemed useful.

Although the data already collected by local outreach organizations will be an invaluable resource to build upon, direct involvement from a diverse array of individuals (including former and current homeless) will solicit valuable new insights and have the potential to generate many fresh and innovative approaches to the problem. I really do believe that a great number of Vancouverites would like to help our homeless/addicted, but simply feel powerless and overwhelmed by the nature and magnitude of the problem. But with effective online organization and even a small group of dedicated, organized volunteers, we can tackle this problem. And with a potential pool of millions to draw upon, I’m confident that a sufficient number of people could be inspired to participate. However, before this project can be seriously implemented, it is essential that we, the healthy and the homed, be divested of some serious misconceptions... We need to stop expecting the homeless to "get a job" or get back on their feet alone; the majority suffer from debilitating mental illnesses (addiction included) and are incapable of helping themselves. Though difficult to comprehend and accordingly stigmatized, it must be understood that addiction is a disease. It is a complex, chronic brain condition compelling those it afflicts to self-medicate in attempts to evade feelings of severe distress. To vilify or punish those suffering from addiction or any other disease is both cruel and counterproductive. (The proposed website will also provide detailed information on all aspects of addiction, its demystification being absolutely vital to its resolution.) We must also stop expecting our governments to solve this problem. In the face of any social epidemic, governments are –by design- uncreative and ineffective. The election process compels politicians to address such issues with hollow rhetoric and impracticable promises. Handouts and enforcement schemes ensue, delivering short-term “results” and wasteful manoeuvring that can only perpetuate the problems. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) is a prime example: Billions of tax dollars and countless government initiatives later, little, if any, progress has been made. And while their incredible efforts must be applauded, even those outreach organizations who are directly involved have been unable to implement a feasible long-term solution to this problem or convince our governments to apply their recommendations on a scale necessary to have any serious impact on homelessness or drug policy. This dissociation inherent within our current system bears direct responsibility for its dismal results. As Dr. Gabor Maté, a prominent local physician with over a decade of experience working in Vancouver’s DTES writes in his recent novel In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts: “It’s not the particulars of a social policy that matter most, but the relationship between those who influence policy and those affected by it.”

Isolated, unresponsive and forceful rather than inspirational, our social policy apparatus is fundamentally flawed, requiring a complete overhaul. In its place must emerge a revolutionary new framework that unites and inspires; a system that promotes understanding and compassion while delivering dynamic, effective and lasting results. And so, the onus is on us to create a Decentralized digital Community (based on the model described above) that will inspire people on all sides of this problem to come together and put their heads together in collective action for the common good. We must empower ourselves and begin collaborating immediately to find dynamic, innovative solutions to our problems. Those wishing to help must be enabled to directly assist those in need. This is what the internet is really for. The Decentralized Community concept was inspired a great deal by the book The Wisdom Of Crowds. The following review outlines the basic premise: "While our culture generally trusts experts and distrusts the wisdom of the masses, New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki argues that 'under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them...’ If four basic conditions are met, a crowd's "collective intelligence" will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, Surowiecki says, even if members of the crowd don't know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally. "Wise Crowds" need: (1) diversity of opinion (2) independence of members from one another (3) decentralization (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; decentralization allows people to specialize and draw on local knowledge; people's errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are "smarter" than if a single expert had been in charge." The proposed Decentralized Community approach will satisfy all of the above requirements and offer several other distinct advantages as well. Whereas our governments are continually hamstrung by political correctness and obsessed with headlines and re-election (compelling them to implement shortterm, stopgap initiatives), a Decentralized Community's sole agenda would be to develop practical and effective long-term solutions. They would be free to ask controversial questions and explore unconventional approaches, including those which are politically sensitive. And as they would comprise a very visible component of society, Decentralized Communities would have real political clout, and with it, the ability to actually get their ideas funded and implemented.

The DTES would be an ideal small-scale proving ground for this concept. The homeless conundrum is highly visible and highly debated and plenty of people are passionate about the issue and dedicated to its resolution. The DTES is a central, relatively contained area and this will simplify data collection and the implementation of whatever solutions the Decentralized Community may devise. And at street level, the Decentralized Community could deliver renewed hope and purpose to those homeless and addicts who desire to help not only themselves, but other members of their community as well. The potential impact that allowing these people to become involved in crafting and implementing the policy decisions that affect them directly (rather than having them dictated by various authorities who claim to know what’s best) should not be underestimated. Local newspapers, television stations, photographers, filmmakers and bloggers could also get involved: working together to profile a different homeless person’s story every day (with a photo and their answers to some or all of the interview questions) in order to attract more people to the project and promote awareness and understanding within the public. The Decentralized Community could also help to arrange for addicts and the homeless to speak publicly, sharing their stories at local schools and other public venues. Such an approach could prove invaluable in efforts to dispel the stigmas and myths surrounding homelessness and addiction. Although approaching a homeless person may seem intimidating at first, the author has approached quite a few now in order to assess this proposal and so far they’ve been extremely receptive and happy to answer the questions; just glad to know that someone cares and wants to help... and the hot meal makes a great icebreaker! And once the homeless themselves become involved in the data collection, the issue begins to resolve itself. These questions could also be easily posed by volunteers already working with the homeless and addicted at the many outreach centres in the DTES. Though many logistical hurdles will need to be overcome, in the opinion of the author, Decentralized Communities do seem the most logical approach to homelessness and social problem solving in general. At the time of its launch, the Wikipedia seemed outlandish, even ridiculous. But its success proves beyond a doubt that millions of people can be compelled to volunteer together within an open-source framework in hopes of bettering the world. The author does not see any reason why the Decentralized Community concept couldn’t also tap into this incredible wellspring of goodwill and meet with similar success. Anyone wishing to provide feedback, view this proposal in its entirety or help to bring the Decentralized Community to life, (especially web designers!) can please visit www.decentralizedcommunity.org Yours, Garrick Lachance

ENDNOTE: Ultimately, it is essential to recognize that addiction is not merely a disease unto itself, but also, a symptom indicative of a far greater malady. Acting as barometers of societal health, addictions expose -with chilling precision and in grisly detail- the fundamental weaknesses and flaws within our culture. Dr. Maté writes: “It is no coincidence that addictions arise mostly in cultures that subjugate communal goals, time-honoured tradition and individual creativity to massproduction and the accumulation of wealth. Addiction is one of the outcomes of the "existential vacuum", the feeling of emptiness engendered when we place supreme value on selfish attainments... To fill the unendurable void, we become attached to things of the world that cannot possibly compensate us for the lack of who we are.” The inconvenient truth that must be acknowledged is that our very culture is a culture of rampant addiction, breeding not only drug dependence and alcoholism but also compulsive eating, shopping, working, gambling and sex. As such, any proactive approach to the addiction phenomenon will require some major societal soul searching- an acknowledgement of our shortcomings and a valiant, concerted effort to address them. Compassion and community, rather than consumption and selfish isolation must become our new societal imperatives. Hopefully the Decentralized Community model can aid in realizing these lofty ambitions.