DECENTRALIZED COMMUNITY A NEW APPROACH TO SOCIAL PROBLEM SOLVING (unabridged 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) (3)

independence of members from one another 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. 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. The Decentralized Community model could even be applied on a global scale, enabling the average Canadian to become directly involved in resolving the situation in Afghanistan, the African AIDS epidemic or any of the other myriad problems currently facing humanity. The antiquated approach to global issues: Decontextualized news reports keep us abreast of selected global tragedies, catastrophes and hardships. Assistance options for the vast majority of us are then limited to either donating money to a relief organization or pressing our governments to “act”. If deemed politically advantageous, our governments may well respond, sending over some money or some troops, but how often is real progress ever made? Why are billions spent every year band-aiding or even further exacerbating problems that nobody even fully understands? There is a serious, ridiculous disconnect here and in the internet age there is a better way! The proposed progressive approach to global (and local) issues: We enable those on the ground who are directly affected to share their stories and insights via the internet within an open-source framework and work with them (both online and in person) to devise legitimate solutions. A few spare hours a week from enough people could have an unimaginable impact. And with a clever digital framework in place, these humanitarian efforts could be just as

engaging as traditional forms of entertainment! Governments and traditional aid organizations cannot be relied upon to solve these issues alone. In order to find legitimate, lasting solutions to humanity’s problems we must become directly involved, creating a massive, coordinated collective of Decentralized Communities that isolate the roots of our problems and act in concert to address them. It’s time we truly become the change we want to see in the world. Some far-out idealism perhaps, but in the author’s eyes, nothing short of fullscale, revolutionary tactics will ever gain us any ground in the battles against addiction, poverty, violence and every other social ailment plaguing our societies. The sooner we can get everyone on the planet online and enabled to participate in a progressive and empowering global community, the sooner we can get serious about solving these problems once and for all. We can do this. We have the technology. In line with these high-flown ideals, for the past four years the author has been developing a decentralized, collaborative video project entitled “Humanity”, a film which examines the human race from an outsider’s anthropological perspective and proposes that: “modern human societies are backwards, cruel and ignorant... but they don't have to be anymore because of the internet.” Accordingly, a large portion of the film is devoted to promoting the yet-unrealized potential of decentralized, open-source social problem solving, including the Decentralized Community model. Although the Decentralized Community model was conceived only recently, in anticipation of the development of such a movement (alongside the Humanity project), several years ago the author registered wikimanity.com (wiki + humanity) and would gladly donate it to the cause if the right people were willing to help launch this idea (decentralizedcommunity.com/org have been obtained as well). 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 Wikimanity/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 both the Decentralized Community and Humanity projects 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.

Appendix/Clarifications: A basic, preliminary list of questions that could be revised and expanded upon as the website is developed (effective approach and delivery techniques will be developed and refined on the website as well). 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. How did you become homeless? How long have you been homeless? Would you like to get off the streets? Why or why not?

Do you use drugs? Are you addicted? Why did you start using drugs? Would you like to get clean? Why or why not? Would you commit yourself to a rehab center for a period of time in order to get clean? How else do you think you could get clean? Were you born in Vancouver or did you move here? Were you homeless in another city previously? Why did you move to Vancouver? Would you like to leave? Would you consider leaving the DTES or are all of your friends here? What do you think of the programs currently offered to help homeless people and addicts in Vancouver recover and get off the streets? Have you tried any of them? Do you think they are effective? Why or why not? Are you on welfare or disability? How much money do you receive per month? Does that not cover rent and food? Would you be willing to share a living space with others? Do you have family you could stay with? If you could live anywhere, where would it be? If you could have the job of your choice, what would it be? If you had food and shelter covered, what would you do with your time? If you were given a place to live, would you be willing to work to pay rent or the mortgage? How often are you forced to actually sleep on the streets? What do you think is the solution to homelessness and addiction in Vancouver? Would you like to share some success stories of people you know who got clean or found homes? What do you think about the “politically incorrect” questions below?

Some “politically incorrect” questions that will likely have to be addressed if this problem is to ever be resolved: -Why are the vast majority of Vancouver’s homeless White or Aboriginal and not Asian or South Asian? What can be learned from this? -Aboriginal Canadians receive more welfare dollars and subsidized “opportunities” than anyone in this country and still comprise a staggering percentage of the homeless. Why is this and what can be learned from this? (Another allied Decentralized Community should be devoted to solving the riddle of Canada’s Aboriginal poverty issue as well). -Since the “War On Drugs” has proven an inarguably dismal failure, is the legalization and prescription dispensation of these drugs not a viable alternative to the harm wrought by the drug trade (gang violence, lost tax revenue, enforcement costs) and the harm wrought by drug addicts forced to use expensive, tainted street drugs (AIDS, hepatitis, healthcare costs) and support their addictions via unscrupulous means (crime, violence, prostitution)? - Since addiction is a disease and its effects are communicable (via other addictions, crime, violence, massive healthcare costs, etc.), shouldn’t those who are severely afflicted and refuse treatment be quarantined until they are no longer a threat to themselves or others in the community? (unless support for full-scale legalization is enacted, this approach may unfortunately warrant consideration). - Expecting a drug addict to get clean while living in or around the Downtown Eastside seems a lot like expecting an alcoholic to get sober while living in a bar… Is the DTES drug colony not a self-perpetuating community that must be at least partially disbanded in order to recover? The last two measures are harsh, and human rights organizations would likely be up in arms over any such proposal, but the reality is that some human rights “violations" are probably going to have to be risked in order to successfully resolve this problem. If a Decentralized Community were to publicly research and endorse such resolutions and develop a way to have them implemented as humanely and judiciously as possible, well, I think that’s just about the best we can do. And finally, one possible human rights-friendly approach that could be discussed/explored by the Decentralized Community: Divide addicts who are committed to getting clean into support teams (if possible, including friends and family) and move them far away from the DTES to remote locations where they cannot obtain drugs and will remain until they have supported each other through recovery.