Bernard Stielger and the Plaine Commune experiment

I’ve been following up some links concerning the experiment that the philosopher Bernard Stiegler has been instrumental in setting up in the Greater Paris borough of Seine-Saint-Denis as part of a sort of ‘special trade/economic’ area that has government funding called Plaine Commune.

I’ve (roughly) translated two pieces, below, which offer a little more detail on how the territoire contributif model might work and the sorts of things going on in Plaine Commune. First is short piece from Le Parisien talking about what the project is and a bit of the ‘how’ and ‘when’. Second is an interview with Bernard Stiegler by a staff writer for The Conversation – France specifically about Plaine Commune.

As I have written elsewhere, Stiegler has proposed Plaine Commune as a ‘territoire contributif‘ – a sort of region of contribution [a territory or zone delineated as an area in which the economy of contribution might take precedence, along the same lines as ‘free trade zones‘ perhaps, but with a very different ethics/politics]. The principle role in this enterprise is the role of the (academic professorial) ‘Chair of economies of contribution’, who is charged with  overseeing the pilot of a kind of basic or citizens’ income (broadly akin to a universal basic income, though see the discussion below) that Stiegler suggest will be implemented through a formal agreement of ‘contribution’ – whereby the income is granted on the premise that the people given it will use it to subside their own personal development, in turn making them greater contributors to society.

Anyone who has been around or studied or even simply read about political projects that are led by well-meaning academics may well be fairly suspicious or cynical about such a scheme. It seems the project has not been without issues either, with (as far as I can tell) some of the governmental funding falling short of expectations and thus cuts to planned activities had to be made (there were PhD studentships planned but these it seems may have been cut).

If we are to be charitable we might applaud Stiegler for attempting to put into place his ideas about contributory – economies, incomes, territories and so on.  I am also sympathetic to the issues of funding and so on that they’re having to wrangle with – doing this kind of work is hard. The project is still in train so it remains to be seen how it plays out. Nevertheless, I have a few questions.

First, the project is positioned as a means of helping local residents of a given area and yet a lot of the funding seems to be directed towards academic work that must be, in part, institutionally based – I wonder how this works out? Where does the ‘Professor of Contribution’ actually sit – where’s their office?

Second, I’m curious about the relationship between the processes and practices labelled as ‘contributory’ and the techniques and technologies from long-standing engaged/ participatory democracy activities, e.g. GovLab, MySociety and others. How is ‘participatory’ employment/economics different?

Third, towards the end of the interview, below, Stiegler claims that the aim is not to build a specific local economy but to ultimately transform the macro-economy, but we don’t really get any detail about how you get from Plaine Commune to the whole of France. It would be good to see more on that.

Finally, the tools that are suggested, and have been created through the Institute for Research and Innovation at the Pompidou Centre are very pedagogical – concerned with shared or collaborative learning, in the vein of educational technology – and so it would be good to understand if that is the sole focus or whether the toolset will broaden and if so how?

Anyway… please find below the two (rough) translations. As usual I have included in square brackets original French, where I’m unsure of the translation, or clarifications. I have also maintained, in the Conversation piece, all of the original francophone hyperlinks unless there is a clear anglophone alternative.

I welcome comments or corrections!


Plaine Commune wants to test a “contributive income”

The borough [territoire] of Plaine Commune* wants to trial a “contributory income”. The project is still in the hands of researchers and, if it takes place, it will not begin in the near future. The concept is supposed to respond to the massive loss of salaried jobs, due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. “According to a study, three million jobs will disappear by 2025,” notes the philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who works on the project for the borough [territoire]. This Wednesday, he presented the outline, in Saint-Denis, alongside Patrick Braouezec, president (Front de gauche) of Plaine Commune. The latter was commissioned in May 2015 by the Ministers of Economy and Higher Education to discuss the issue.

The contributory income, unlike a universal income, could be paid to a part of the population, on the condition that they perform, in one way or another, a service to society. Bernard Stiegler distinguishes here (salaried) “employment” from “work” (accomplished outside of any contract). And he cites the example of the ‘intermittents du spectacle’ [see: https://www.redpepper.org.uk/intermittent-support-how-cuts-are-hitting-artists-in-france/] “who continue to work when they are not employed by a director, by improving their abilities”.

Who could be involved in this contributory income, in a territory where poverty affects nearly one in three households? Nothing is stopped but Bernard Stiegler and Patrick Braouezec cite areas such as sport, music, street food, mobile mechanics [mécaniques sauvages] … There needs to be a way “to allow the entire population to feel their work is recognised, while also enabling young people who have skills without qualifications to contribute to society” says Patrick Braouezec.

With the support of the Ministry of Higher Education, last Autumn a Chair of Contributive Research was created at the Maison des sciences de l’homme in Saint-Denis. Orange and Dassault Systems are participating in the research, alongside the Institute of Research and Innovation headed by Bernard Stiegler. A report is delivered to the ministers concerned today. The implementation of the experiment cannot be decided upon before the elections: “In June, we will take up where we left off [reprendrons notre bâton de pèlerin],” insists Patrick Braouezec.

* Plaine Commune is something like a borough within the suburban department (a governmental and legislative geographical authority within France) of Seine-Saint-Denis, which is a part of what gets referred to as “Greater Paris“.


A conversation with Bernard Stiegler: “Making Plaine Commune in Seine-Saint-Denis the first territory for contribution [territoire contributif] in France”

Jennifer Gallé

A [demographically] young and economically dynamic territory facing mass unemployment and the challenges of social and cultural diversity is the location where, at the request of Patrick Braouezec, the president of Plaine Commune, the philosopher Bernard Stiegler is initiating an unprecedented and ambitious experiment: to make this community – which brings together nine cities of Seine-Saint-Denis – a “Contributory Learning Territory”. It will carry out contributory “research-action” projects, including the inhabitants; in the long term, it will be a question of setting up a contributory income to differently distribute wealth at a time when automation makes work precarious. In November 2016, a new Chair of Contributory Research joined the principle researchers, created within the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (MSH-North Paris). The Conversation France met the philosopher [Bernard Stiegler] to learn more about this initiative, where new ways of doing research and reflections upon the nature of the work of tomorrow interact.

What is the purpose of this project?
It is a question of inventing a “French disruption” and to make the Plaine Commune borough, which is not privileged but shows a striking dynamism, into a laboratory, a school, a avant-garde location, including appropriating so-called smart cities [originally in English with “villes intelligentes” appended] – but not to become a smart city as it is defined today, and to us seems unbearable, unacceptable and probably bankrupt. It is about installing a true urban intelligence.

We are launching a process of borough-wide experimentation with a view to generating and supporting real social innovation opening the way to a new macro-economy where industrialists, financiers, universities, artists, governments and local politicians work in concert, and with the inhabitants, in this indispensable political and economic reinvention. The objective is ultimately to set up an economy based on a “contributory income”, which is based in particular on the principle of a gradual extension of the system for intermittents du spectacle into other activities.

When did this project take shape?
In December 2013, following the “The new age of automation” colloquium held at the Pompidou Centre, which focused on the effects of digital technology in the development of the data economy. I had discussions with industrialists and the president of Plaine Commune, Patrick Braouezec: we take very seriously the Oxford and MIT analyses which predict a job collapse because 47% of jobs current in the United States would be automatable, 50% in France, etc. – the Roland Berger corporation anticipate three million jobs will be lost in ten years. Something has to be done.

A minimum wage is not a solution on its own. If the issue of automation and job loss is taken seriously, new production processes and criteria for redistributing wealth must be developed.

[a video about the ‘top 10 roles that may be replaced by robots’ was originally embedded here]

Why is the distinction between work and employment essential?
If automatable work disappears, we can celebrate: this type of job consists of applying prescribed procedures by systems that mechanically control employees. The work is done more and more outside of employment. The pianist practices his scales in the same way that the mathematician practices his maths: outside of employment … Thus, to work is to first increase one’s abilities – and these abilities are what can bring a wealth to the world that is not yet present.

We borrow the concept of capacity to the Indian economist Amartya Sen. He has highlighted something significant that is the basis of our reflection: he showed that in Bangladesh, even during a period of famine, development indicators and life expectancy were higher than those of Harlem. Amartya Sen, who is interested in communities, not just individuals, has shown how these communities maintain what they call “capabilities“.

A capability is knowledge – a life-skill as well as know-how or intellectual knowledge. Many people in Harlem have lost this because they are caught in a process of proletarianization by patterns of production or consumption. In the twentieth century, the know-how of the worker disappears then it is the turn of the life-skills of the consumer, who begins to adopt prefabricated behaviours by marketing firms. Ultimately, Alan Greenspan himself declares before the Congressional Budget Committee that he has “>lost his economic knowledge!

Why Seine-Saint-Denis?
Principally, there is, the president of Plaine Commune, Patrick Braouezec’s keen interest, for over ten years, in the work we are doing as part of the Institute for Research and Innovation and the Ars Industrialis Association which I chair. There is also the extraordinary economic dynamism of this borough, especially in the south of the department with this very strong urban dynamic around the Stade de France, a development begun twenty years ago.

In the northern suburbs are also two universities, Paris 8 and Paris 13, with several excellent groups, the Condorcet campus in whicha number of researchers and graduate schools in the social sciences, such as the EHESS [School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences], will be concentrated, and it is also an urban space where many artists settle. Ultimately it is a territory that must find solutions to deal with mass unemployment. Extrapolating figures from Roland Berger’s study [Roland Berger is a business consultancy firm], unemployment for the under-25s, which was 38% two years ago, is set to increase catastrophically in the next ten years. The consequences for Plaine Commune are likely to be unbearable.

There is therefore an imperative need to open up new perspectives on making an economically viable means of developing that might otherwise become apocalyptic. The nation has the duty to support such a development. We believe that the potential of this transformation must serve as an exemplar, the aim is not to develop a “local” economy here.

A picture of Saint-Denis
The regeneration area in Saint-Denis

How will the research component of the project be organized?
We identified a series of objectives with the elected officials and administrative staff of Plaine Commune. We have started a survey of a number of major stakeholders who validated the process and we are currently launching a Chair of Contributory Research whose first mission will be to produce a dossier to define the experimental scope of the project, in close collaboration with Plaine Commune.

In this context, we launched a call for applications for PhD studentships around a dozen themes, which closed on September 30, 2016. We initially had to select between 10 and 20 PhD students. The budgets allocated to us in 2016 by the Ministry of Research and Higher Education has not ultimately allowed us to hire doctoral students this year. We therefore recruited five researchers – in economics, political science, sociology, philosophy and education studies – into a one-year contract to start the work and put in place the methods of contributory research, which represents a whole series of constraints. Another researcher in psychoanalysis has been retained, who is self-financing.

In the first place, they will have to be able to explain the subject of their work to the inhabitants of Plaine Commune, whether they are fluent in French or not. We will of course help them by mobilizing actors, videographers, artists, media outlets … But they will have to make an effort to explain, even if their subject is theoretical. They will follow two seminars a week: one that I will lead and another that they will lead themselves, by presenting their work to one another and inviting [external] researchers or contributors. They will work together, share their notes and results, first with each other and then with the local residents.

Can you give a concrete example?
In the renovation of social housing, for example, a contribution economy for a building could be set up to create a “negentropic” – as opposed to entropic – environment which is also a site for building the skills of the inhabitants, in the style of the architect Patrick Bouchain [more information on Bouchain]. These are residents who innovate and produce sustainable value for themselves, as much as for the city.

More generally, what place is there for residents in this system [dispositif]?
For this project, which takes ten years to [attempt to] deeply change things, we hope to be able to involve the 400,000 inhabitants of Plaine Commune with this contributory research approach; it will start on a small scale to extend to what could be called a contributory democracy. The program is transdisciplinary, as all fields must be explored, such as sports for example. Here, the Stade de France is crucial and sport has been profoundly transformed by the digital in recent years. If we speak to the young people of Seine-Saint-Denis without being able to say anything about football, we will not get very far – especially as there is the prospect of the Olympic Games in 2024.

Why put digital at the heart of the project?
Because digital technology is changing all knowledge, and because knowledge is the key to the future. In 2008, Vincent Peillon, at the time Minister of Education, asked me to lead a group on the introduction of digital [technology] into school; I had then a little disappointed his cabinet by stating: “The digital is dangerous for schools”. I resigned pretty quickly. I’m working on these issues with Maryanne Wolf, an American neuropsychologist. She conducts accurate analyzes, based on medical imaging, and some of her findings are rather troubling.

I’m not saying that we do not need the digital in school, but I do say that it must be introduced deliberately. I continued to support this point of view, particularly at the National Research Agency where I sat for a few years; I had thus proposed to develop doctoral research in all fields to see what the digital “does” within disciplines. For it is not simply a new way of teaching or transmitting knowledge; it is first of all a means of producing knowledge, scientific objects; take nano-objects, for example, which are today entirely produced by the digital; biology and astrophysics also go through the digital, and in mathematics the conditions of proof are modified.

Digital technology is a scientific revolution on which no one works, because all the credits are put on innovation to develop the software and the interfaces of tomorrow … In 2008, I also told a consultant of Vincent Peillon that it was necessary to adopt a rational attitude towards the digital world and to study it. He told me that I reasoned like an “intellectual” and that he needed quick results. I suggested that we could move forward through contributory research. That is to say, to bring digital into school by introducing, at the same time, research. I always cite Finland where all teachers in are obliged to do research – and this is clearly not insignificant in the quality of the results of this country. That’s what I call contributive research, it goes beyond the teaching profession and concerns the whole population.

What is the digital doing in research?
Digital technology is transforming all scientific activities, as the instruments of observation have been doing since the sixteenth century, passing through what Bachelard called phenomenotechnics [for further discussion]. Yet unlike previous scientific technologies, digital technology also modifies life-skills and know-how, that is to say, everyday life and social relations as well as linguistic skills, for example: these are the scientific objects that are changed.

We are also in a period where technology is evolving extremely fast; if we follow the normal circuits of scientific deliberation, we always arrive too late. This is “disruption“.

Faced with disruption, the social systems and the people who constitute them must also grasp technological development to become prescribers and practitioners, and not only consumers – and sometimes victims. The social system is being short-circuited, and so destroyed, by the technical system. To this end, we must do “concurrent engineering” [l’ingéniérie simultanée]; Thirty years ago, Renault and Volvo introduced such methods to accelerate the transfer of technology by working in parallel and not sequentially; it has become today what we call “agile development”. I have been practicing this for a long time, especially with engineers. For Plaine Commune, the idea is to elaborate – simultaneously with all the different stakeholders in the territory, including the industrialists – a debate, theoretical hypotheses, a required scientific oversight, and using action research methods.

What do you mean by action research?
This is a method developed in the United States in the 1940s by Kurt Lewin who used it in psychosociology; for him, when working with “subjects”, to use the vocabulary of psychologists, it is necessary that people themselves become researchers, because they are precisely subjects and not objects.

This method was then used in management, it is also why it is much criticized by the left and Marxists who see a method of integration and ultimately manipulation. Norway, in particular, has been advanced in transforming its industrial production tools. Action research has also been used in the field of psychiatry, such as at the Tavistock Institute in London.

We must mention here the works of François Tosquelles [this paper provides some context about Tosquelles], a refugee from the Spanish war who transformed a neglected psychiatric hospital in Lozère into a place that became experimental, somewhat by accident. Totally abandoned by the Vichy government in the 1940s, this hospital, like many others, had to face an extreme situation with patients dying of hunger. Tosquelles then completely reversed the situation by urging his patients to take hold of the state of affairs to make the hospital the object of care. The institution became the sick person to be cared for. This was the beginning of a revolution, which included Georges Canguilhem. At the Borde clinic Félix Guattari pursued this direction with Jean Oury.

[A francophone video about Francois Tosquelles was embedded here in the original]

Is there a place for industrialists in Plaine Commune?
Orange and Dassault Systèmes actively support us. Orange is seeking to develop local platforms and related local services, and together with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) we argue that we need to bring forward a new kind of web that cannot be transformed into a data economy. A contributory tool for people, not people serving the platform!

From Dassault Systèmes, whose engineering communities are already working on the contributory mode, there is a very strong interest for the research and experimentation that we carry out around the sharing of notes. They are also very sensitive to the problems of the contributory economy.

What will these new contributory tools consist of?
Tools [see the IRI website] for note-taking, for example, there is a system capable of making a contributory recommendations – allowing, through the algorithmic analysis of annotations, to recommend the work of other researchers, on various criteria, in order to emphasize convergences and divergences and thus activate the kinds of critical dynamics that make science. It is a kind of computer-assisted Socratic dialogue. When you have 24 students, it’s the teacher who does that; but it’s impossible with thousands of people.

The goal is also to develop new types of social networks that are built around a controversy or a common goal. This would connect not individuals but groups, restoring the social link. Today, social networks are antisocial; But this is not inevitable.

Mostly, then, it is about recreating links …
There is currently a big debate in California on big data and correlationist mathematics, the advances in which lead some to say that we will soon be able to do without theory: some, including Chris Anderson, claim that thanks to correlations theoretical elaboration becomes incidental. I am fiercely opposed to this delusional discourse, which is part of the basis of the data economy, and I criticise this in The Automatic Society.

Digital contributory technologies must be used not to bypass the decision of individuals and groups but to debate and consolidate decisions. The first time I thought about what could be a “truly smart city” , it was in the very small town of Loos-en-Gohelle with its mayor, Jean-François Caron, who ten years ago set up a system of sensors – for recording circulation, temperature, consumption – which does not trigger automated regulations managed by algorithms … rather they convene meetings of residents and associations.

How do you differentiate between contributory and collaborative?
[There is] a big difference. Collaborative is what enables working for free; it is the logic of the Uber, Amazon or Airbnb -type platforms where, progressively, under the pretext of sharing data, we create short circuits, we perform disintermediation, we completely deregulate and we become predatory because we have captured all of everyone’s data and we control all this in an occult way. It is a negative contribution; these platforms which redistribute nothing – neither money nor symbols [symbole] – proletarianise and de-symbolise [désymbolisent]. This is also a criticism that can be addressed to Google. I am thinking here of Frédéric Kaplan’s work which showed that the algorithmic exploitation of language by Google leads tendentially to a standardization of language, producing entropy.

A negative contributory economy is an economy that further aggravates the entropy of consumerism. Many people who work in the collaborative field and the sharing economy are doing very nice things but the collaborative economy is not yet qualified at the macro-economic level: it is only thought at the level of the firm, the small enterprise, and the problem is that it does not take all account for the issue of positive and negative externalities. As a result, it leads to the contrary of how it has been imagined.

It is to bring these issues to the macro-economic level that we have the ambition, in Plaine Commune, to contribute to the invention of a new national accounting plan [nouveau plan comptable national], obviously with other territories. The goal is not to remake the local economy, but an economy that is localized, externalisable and deterritorializable. In short, it is not a question of creating boundaries – but, rather, of creating limits: limits to the Entropocene that is the Anthropocene, and for a negentropic economy with a view to a Neganthropocene.

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