John Thackara | Interviews

Ecuador, Open Knowledge, and ‘Buen Vivir’: Interview With Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens

“The global economy treats nature and material resources as if they were infinite, and knowledge as if it was scarce. We have to swap those two around”. (Michel Bauwens)

Having enshrined the rights of nature in its constitution, Ecuador is now exploring how this principle, and the principle of open knowledge, might reshape its economic development.

The contribution of Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation, is to lead a strategic policy project for Ecuador’s government called Free/Libre Open Knowledge (FLOK), also known as the social knowledge economy project.

In Genk last weekend, at the opening of the Flanders Design Triennial, I asked Bauwens, in this 30 minute interview, to tell me more about this remarkable project. Our conversation spans commons owned infrastructure, open source cars, peer producing communities, and more.


To recap on the interview, the practical steps in the Ecuador project are as follows:

In January, a team of international and Ecuadorian scholars will begin the policy preparation process that will “remake the roots of Ecuador’s  economy and thereby begin the transition into a society of free and open knowledge.” The Flok team will prepare a set of ‘framing proposals’ during discussions with officials, grassroots groups, and indigenous communities. The subject headings of these framing proposals are:

1 human capacity building
2 changing the productive matrix
3 institutional innovation
4 open technical infrastructures
5 design for collective life

Using these framing documents as base, a group of experts will then draft ten formal policy documents. These will be finalised at a week long conference, in April 2014, that will involve the President, government officials, civic participants, and global experts on the Commons. Following that event, proposals will be submitted to Ecuador’s legislature.


The idea for the FLOK Society – a “Free, Libre, Open Knowledge” society – originated in Ecuador’s five-year strategic plan, called the Plan of Good Living, or Buen Vivir, which was first published in 2009. The plan describes the path by which Ecuador’s economy will transition from the extractive, oil-reliant model it has now, to one based on open and widely shared knowledge.

The concept of Buen Vivir has roots in the concept sumak kawsay of the Quechua peoples of Ecuador and other Andean countries. Their term describes a way of life that does not just nurture cultural and environmental diversity but, remarkably, gives forests, lakes, rivers — and the species that inhabit them — the same rights to prosper as humans.

As Arturo Escobar, an Ecuadorian anthropologist and ecologist, told Rob Hopkins recently, sumak kawsay and Buen Vivir are big ideas whose time has come: ’This is just the moment to change our development model from the growth-oriented extraction of natural resources, to something that is more holistic…the collective well-being of both humans and non-humans.’

The Uruguayan ecologist Eduardo Gudynas, concurs. He describes Buen Vivir as ‘a new principle of hope’ that, being grounded in the ancestral practices of indigenous communities, is community-centric, ecologically-balanced, and culturally-sensitive.

Buen Vivir is obviously a far cry from the ecocidal model of global capitalism — but it’s also ahead of western notions of wellbeing. What sets Buen Vivir apart, as Gudynas explains, is that “the subject of wellbeing is not the individual, but the individual in the social context of their community and in a unique environmental context“.

This social and ecological conception of community a is linked to the Andes’ concept of the ayllu in which the concept of citizenship is widened to include these other actors than just human ones. The classical Western dualism that separates society from Nature vanishes under this perspective.

Critics charge that Buen Vivir is a mystical return to an imagined indigenous past, and that it lacks any practical strategy. Gudynas counters with a long list of practical proposals and strategies from Buen Vivir; these include include legal and tax reform, environmental accounting, dematerialization of economies, and alternative regional integration within South America. He cites, too, the example of bridges: ”Buen Vivir does not mean we will stop building bridges, and will not reject the use of Western physics and engineering to build them”, he explains.“But the bridges we propose may well have different sizes and materials, and be placed in other locations. They will certainly serve local and regional needs and not the needs of global commodity markets”

Political Perplexities

The thinking behind Buen Vivir and Flok are an explicit alternative to the neo-liberal model with its self-destructive focus on infinite economic growth.

That said, the political context for the Flok project is perplexing.

On the one hand, Ecuador leads the world for its inclusion of Buen Vivir in its its constitution. It has also — famously — provided a safe haven for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at its embassy in London.

At the same time, President Correa has reacted angrily to domestic criticism of mining mega-projects, which continue. Environmentalists were especially shocked when he closed down an international NGO, the Pachamama Foundation, which supports the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon.

In our interview, Bauwens explains that the Correa government has been using revenues from resource extraction to reduce poverty in Ecuador’s cities where the material benefits for poor people have been real.

It sounds as if Ecuador is not yet a Christmas fairy story. The rights of nature, the principle of Buen Vivir - and the commitment to open knowledge — are indeed signs of hope. But they must co-exist for now with a diversity of actors with different agendas and approaches.

Posted in: Business, Ecology, Infrastructure, Social Good

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