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First World Rural

May 3 · Issue #7 · View online

First World (Rural) Problems - Bringing the 21st century past city limits.

Classic small town barn-raising doesn’t really happen anymore… but it could.

This is Ohio, not Alberta...
This is Ohio, not Alberta...
The images of rural life in popular culture are drawn, I think, from New England and the American Midwest, where the population density is much higher and the climate much more friendly than Alberta. The picture above is from a Google Search, and it seems like an intriguing site: The Enlivening Edge. Take a look - I’ll be here when you get back.
In Alberta, life is fairly industrial out in the fields. Most farm buildings are made of metal or fabric, they go up quickly, and the majority of the work goes into the foundation, the roof, and bringing the utilities in. That’s certainly the way it was for our log house, even if the logs themselves are much more poetic than steel girders.
Alberta spruce and pine logs, with poplar in the background
Alberta spruce and pine logs, with poplar in the background
We used a picker truck that had retired from the oilpatch to put our logs up. It wasn’t usually a community event, and it certainly didn’t happen over a weekend.
My wife and her father made a formidable team that worked extremely well together. I was often the facilitator, and there were some jobs where a (relatively) young male was the best choice (pounding 20 inch spikes of 15 mm rebar into logs 25-40 feet in the air, using an 8 pound sledgehammer - that was usually me).
We had family and friends come by to help out - some of you reading this will remember peeling logs or helping with the roof - but the vast majority of the work happened after we got the kids on the school bus, and it was just Dad, Deb and me.
There are good fractions of a mile between most neighbours out here, and often more than a mile if we are talking farms and not the acreages scattered through this area on marginal farmland. We enjoy the quiet and the privacy. We don’t worry if our music is loud or even if our dog barks too much. Not many people in earshot.
But when you live in a city, you are surrounded by other people. Those other people end up being potential friends, customers, suppliers, fellow volunteers, people who need help. You are usually aware that you live in a network of humans who work together to create the society you are a part of.
I can forget about that society for days at a time, and think of a city as a shopping area full of goods and services, not a milieu of creativity and collaboration. If I don’t have something in the house, it goes on a list for the next trip ‘to town,’ and each trip has multiple tasks added on to whatever primary purpose inspired the use of time, gasoline, and our human energy.
So the myth of the tight-knit rural community finds expression in local sports teams, dance moms, some churches, and a few cultural groups. But it takes extra effort out here, where people aim for self-sufficiency.
The internet, as a place without place, removes some of that self-reliance, or at least removes some of the friction that encourages it. We have mostly figured things out, or we wouldn’t be living out here. Social media can give us just enough human connection that we can deal with the unexpected, the unplanned, or the frightening. It also, somewhat awkwardly, allows for the give and take of the informal economy that saves us from having to buy everything new.
We forget, living out here, that those who are embracing the internet economy in population centres are starting to live in a world where things and services are available as needed, without costing much money, and then they go away when not needed, so that there isn’t the constant accumulation of tools and ‘stuff’ just in case it will be needed again. It’s available via app, on demand, delivered by hustling young people trying to pay their student debt down, one gig at a time.
This newsletter is trying to imagine a coarser web than that - not thousands of strands of spider-silk, but a few ropes that can be relied on, that give us some of the functionality of the Uber/Fiverr/Postmates/AirBnB world even as the reality of geography constrains us.
There is a theory that constraints are part of what makes great art. In our case, the constraint of physical distance means that some app ideas simply don’t work where the population density per square kilometer is in the single digits. But the constraint may just end up producing a product that has advantages over its city cousins.
Up there we were drilling and pounding, and I was trying not to look down.
Up there we were drilling and pounding, and I was trying not to look down.
A couple of years ago I read a funding announcement for a company that seemed like a license to print money: Makespace. It is growing and spreading across North America, with its simple premise of managed storage on demand, with delivery trucks, a central warehouse, photos of your stuff in a database available with a tap on your phone. We could do that in Edmonton - real estate is relatively cheap, truck drivers who can carry heavy things are plentiful when the oil price is low, and the app can’t be that hard to build (at least the first generation, up until the money starts coming in and we can rebuild it for real). If I lived in the city, I might have done it there and then, worked my network for some available storage space, borrowed or bought a cube van, hired some college kids (maybe my own!) and bootstrapped a Canadian Makespace clone.
It didn’t happen then - I just didn’t run into enough potential partners, customers, employees, or cheerleaders to push me into action.
It could happen now, in an online community, but one of the features of the world I’m imagining is a hybrid where the online community and the local, physical community are merged naturally, and so there is an obvious place to go with the Makespace idea. That would be much more valuable to my neighbours over the long haul than a better ‘stuff’ storage strategy.
So here’s my request of you. If you’ve read this far, you have some interest in this vision. I am envisioning several roles for people as this co-op or whatever it’s going to be takes shape. Please reply to this email and tell me if you fit into one of these roles:
1) Local Champion: someone who will share this newsletter with their neighbours and try to recruit 5 or so people in their area to join together to cooperate, possibly using whatever platform we develop.
2) Skilled Help: if you are a lawyer, a labour organizer, a leader at a non-profit, an accountant or bookkeeper, a programmer, a designer, or a marketer, or if you see that the growth of this platform could use your skillset even if I don’t know it yet, please let me know what you can do.
3) Advisor: If you’ve walked some of these paths before, in a senior position, nominate yourself and I’ll look into assembling an Advisor Council and eventually a Board of Directors that will hopefully steer me away from the dangers I would otherwise run into.
4) Funder: If you believe that something like this should be built, and you have access to capital, or the skillset of raising capital, let me know and we can talk about how an angel investor can get in on something that is going to aim to grow organically, without much of a profit motive, but with the potential for massive scale if it is built in the right way.
If you just want to get in on the local Makespace clone, reply to me about that too. I’d love to be able to keep all the local college kids (my own!) employed, and Makespace hasn’t got to Edmonton yet.
Talk to you next week, and hopefully sooner!
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David Block RR 1 Site 1 Comp 271, Onoway, Alberta, Canada T0E 1V0