Some time in 2018 I got admin rights at the European Permaculture Network (EuPN) website. One year later, in July 2019, Leo handed me over the domain and the Wordpress installation. I then first transferred the domain to a new owner and then transferred the entire site to another hoster. Together with the EuPN website I also inherited the Permateachers website which is also running on Wordpress. The Permateachers website got hacked years back and later got resurrected by Leo because some of the leading EuPN members asked him to do so. The task to maintain both is now with me.
I'm not a real friend of Wordpress. I tested it back in 2002 and then 2006 for some time but after both tests preferred other systems. Wordpress always lacked what I needed and simply couldn't fulfil simple needs. For example has Wordpress no proper fine grain permission management when it comes to a multi user system. It is also not able to pre-define content types like for example a content type only for images or a calendar. Both is only possible with additional plug-ins. I also don't like the database structure. Everything is cramped up in some few tables. And besides the structure, there is stuff in the database that is inappropriate to store there. When I for example tried to move a Wordpress installation from one domain to another for testing reasons I had to change the base URL within the database. Otherwise it wouldn't work on the new domain. This is pretty outdated behaviour and shouldn't be really part of a 2020 CMS. But there is the problem, Wordpress is not a CMS, it is a blogging software. Oh, and then there is the front-end. They still use standard PHP to create templates. This list of negatives could go on for longer, but now enough rant and rave about Wordpress.
Leo had a lot of huge plug-ins integrated into the EuPN Wordpress installation. First of all there was CiviCRM. CiviCRM is a decent CRM but comes with some problems. For example it locks database tables. Those tables then can't then be deleted at once but only one after another. One day I got an e-Mail from Leo that he had problems with CiviCRM after a Wordpress upgrade. Basically the entire site crashed. I spent about 3 hours debugging and then at the end decided that the plug-in needs to go. Plug-ins that break an entire site are simply not good enough and something unacceptable. One plug-in should never be able to break an entire software / site. Unfortunately, with all the nice functionality of CRM we also lost a nice member map.
Besides using a CRM Leo had the idea that the EuPN website could be the corner stone for all the working groups of the EuPN. All members had an account and were able to work in their virtual working groups together. The deeper thought about it was to liberate the Permaculture community from tech giants like Facebook or Google. Google with its Google Drive is one of the most commonly used tools across many European Permaculture Associations. It's seamless integration with their document and spreadsheet application makes it a first choice. So, after looking at all the plug ins and the usage statistic we decide to uninstall BuddyPress which creates all that not needed or actually not used functionality. Together with BuddyPress we uninstalled a lot of helper plug-ins.
This was basically a lot of time spent for nothing. Time spent because Wordpress just needs some click and anyone could create a website with it. As long as there are no problems. Wordpress is a bottomless sink where you have to continuously spend money for those plug-in upgrades.
For the following design I take a look into decisions in soft- and hardware with the Permaculture ethics and principles in mind while using the Vobredim process.
Let’s start with vision.
Envision a world where all communication and data is in the hand of the people instead of some cooperation, where we have open APIs and standards to exchange information and knowledge.
During the observation I step through all the different used software that I came across in the Permaculture community from 2015 to 2020.
In the Permaculture / Sociocratic sphere I often come across Zoom for group meetings. Zoom is proprietary software that comes as client that needs to be installed. While there is a free version, the subscription variant offers a lot of features like recording the screen, having multiple channels, etc. The usual need is that multiple persons can connect and that a chat box is available if the connection isn't that good.
Trello is a pretty commonly used Kanban tool in the Permaculture community. It is mainly used for task management as it is a sophisticated Kanban with a lot of features. It can be integrated into Slack (like other services as well).
Google Drive & Docs
Among all associations and networks I'm part in none is using anything else than Google for document hosting. Everything is stored there and everything is edited there. I even came across associations that have come up with interesting method of the Google Docs simultaneous editing feature for selecting members. Besides the Drive & Docs there is also a heavy usage of Google Groups. Everything is Google.
Many projects I'm in use the Google Mailing-list service. Setting it up is easy. Using it as well. But still data is in hands of Google. And as usual by design each important function is supported by one element: Google.
What binds Google Drive, Google Mail, Google Groups, Google Docs and all the other by Google offered services so easy to use together? They all come with a single login. If you are logged into Drive you are logged into Docs, as well as Mail, as well as Groups. One account to rule them all. And beyond that they offer their "Login with Google"-API that allows web -site and -app owners to let their users authenticate by login to Google.
Google Mail is one of the nicest web clients, without a doubt. It is heavily used and in all groups, networks, associations I'm in over 90% have a GMail address. It is not like 50%, it is over 90%. But Gmail is only one of many web mail clients.
Slack is a communication tool that allows teams to communicate. At the Finnish Permaculture Association we don't communicate among the board with e-mail. We use Slack. The problem with the unpaid version of Slack is that it only allows two settings of the channels: public or private. Public means that everyone that is logged in with an account can view and post while private means that the channel is hidden and only visible to those with an account and specifically invited to that channel. So, what I need is the following: A channel that is publicly view-able to anyone with an account but only invited members can post. That is the closest for transparency as it could get and makes sure that not everyone is talking about topics they don't understand. Slack is pretty useless when you want to create a sociocratic entity and mimic the circles and their ability to work and communicate.
Mailchimp is the standard newsletter service in the Permaculture world. They offer plenty of templates, subscriber management, etc. But it is difficult to combine the already published content on a website with Mailchimp. Basically everything has to be copied and pasted and recreated. Double work.
At Permaculture events you usually don't meet Linux specialists, but from time to time it happens. But what happens much more often is that you meet people that have Apple MacBooks. Not just any model, most of the times the latest model. The problem with Apple is partly the hardware and partly the software. The hardware is made in a way that it can and should not be repaired by 3rd parties. Apple is actively fighting laws in the US that could bring the right for repair to consumers. They are arguing that 3rd parties couldn't repair the hardware as well as they could. The operating system MacOS is proprietary and Apple controls what is possible. For example you can't really run Slack on a 5 years old Mac Book because certain libraries are unavailable in that old OS version. And you can't upgrade to a newer OS because your Mac is 5 years old and Apple has chosen which Macs can be upgraded and which can't. They basically have a cash cow that allows them to generate new money by discontinuing the software of the still usable hardware. The problem is that the hard- and software is glued together. You can install Linux but than you are on a Linux system and you have to learn how to use it. Knowledge intensive but yet most of those I have seen have simply switched to a newer Mac - and one even cried because she couldn't afford to buy the new one but wanted the new make so desperately. No kidding - this really happened.
When It comes to Facebook I have to admit that it is basically nearly everywhere (not here at Beyondbuckthorns – we don’t have a FB widget). A lot of people have accounts there and a lot of information exchange is happening there. It is like that without a Facebook account you can’t get along.
Wordpress is an open source blogging software. Wordpress can be extended and there is usually a plug-in for everything. Those plug-ins never play really nicely together and most of the time the needed functionality is only available in a pro version and that pro version usually costs money. And once you have the pro version you identify a lack in it and then you are stuck with something you paid for that doesn't do the job. For example I'd like to have a group and every group should have its own calendar events with reminders for everyone that is part of the group. Piece of cake, but not with Wordpress. This involves a calendar plug-in, a notification plug ins, a pro version of one of them, etc. The real problem with all those freely available plug ins is that they just get activated and after that no one really cares for them. And a month down the road no one knows why it got activated, etc. And with all those plug ins there comes another problem: Wordpress doesn't distinguish between security and feature release and therefore you either need to read the release notes that comes with the update before you install it or you basically go for every update that got released or you just don’t care and let the software be penetrable.
And because everyone knows that Wordpress has so many plug-ins, most of the standard users just go for Wordpress. And because of that we have a mono-culture of Wordpress installations. (In 2019 about 30% of all websites on the internet were powered with Wordpress).
There is only that much that can be done. But this design should bring together a setup that can be used by a national associations or private persons. The alternatives provided should be OpenSource and there should be enough freely available documentation around to provide an entry point. As there might be multiple solutions for one of the identified problems the boundaries is to select 1 to 2. We don't discuss ethical software here because checking the commits of a project, from whom and from where they cam is beyond the scope.
A good starting point is always alternativeto.net. That is a web site that shows alternative versions for a given software. It allows filtering for license and by that allows searching for Open Source software. There must be a server / webspace for testing purposes. For example Heroku could work.
This a lot of work if all of those different types of Software should checked for an alternative. I consider it a 21 on the planning poker scale after I evaluated it.
The guiding principles is "Use & Value Diversity" and we design "from pattern to details" I will describe the alternative solutions in detail but will also have a list of them. First of all let's re-frame what we are talking about. We are not talking about Zoom, or Google Mail, or Wordpress. We are talking about a tool for online teleconferencing, a mail client, and a website software.
An alternative for Zoom is Skype. Skype is also proprietary and now owned by Microsoft. My most favourable alternative is Jitsi. Jitsi can be integrated with Slack and Rocket Chat and allows video conferencing for up to 50 people. It can be used on a website or as App for Android or iOS. The Finnish Permaculture Association has been using it for some time. Biggest possibility with Jitsi -> it is an OpenSource software that can be installed on a server. If you don't need telepresence and video conferencing and voice is enough there are several other solutions for example Mumble. And nowadays apps like WhatsApp allow conference calls. It is just a matter of time until the more privacy sensitive apps like Signal add that feature (possibly already added in the time of writing). I also like to stress out that video conferencing uses up a lot of bandwidth, which means electricity. At the Finnish Permaculture Association we usually have voice chat only.
There are several Kanban software projects around. The one I like most is Kanboard. It is a simple Kanban OpenSource software that allows multiple Kanbans with a unique set of settings. At Nextcloud (see Cloud storage below) a Kanban called "Deck" can be installed. Same goes for Wordpress.
But A Kanban is not always the best choice for project management and it is good to first understand how a Kanban works for a single person and then also for teams. If you are with a team and you use a Kanban there are usually two important roles: The Scrum master and the Backlog manager. The Backlog manager checks the backlog and priorities tasks. The Scrum master makes sure that there are no problems in the team’s way. (this a very simple explanation.) If you are interested in project management using Scrum then read about it at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrum_(software_development)
For the data in the cloud it is a little more tricky. The problem is that cloud space costs money and the free Gigabytes from Google help an association to kick-start it. But in general an OpenSource version should be something that should be switched to if money allows it to do. If we take "each element performs many functions" we could use Nextcloud. With some plugins we could have a shared calendar. We could even incorporate a web mail client so that we can check mails from there. With hosting files ourselves we can switch to a hoster that uses 100% renewable resources and by that we use & value renewable resources & services. (That also applies for the website and other services).
There is Dropbox, but Dropbox is also proprietary. Still it is an alternative to Google Drive. There is also oneDrive by Microsoft.
A more sophisticated OpenSource solution is Nextcloud or OwnCloud or Syncthing. They need to be installed on a server. It is even possible to run them on a Raspberry Pi. The big benefit is that there could a lot more server space available and the hosted data isn't in the hands of a 3rd party. You are in control. And if you don't have the money to run it on a static IP you can still use a dynamic IP in combination with a Raspberry Pi or whatever second hand hardware you can get your hands on. They come with sync clients that can be installed on the local computer. Nextcloud comes for Windows, Linux and MAC as well as a mobile version for Android, iOS and Windows.
In the Photography world there is often the usage of a NAS (network-attached storage) in conjunction with Dynamic DNS. The NAS is basically a cloud server at home and a service called Dynamic DNS connects a static Internet IP to the dynamic IP at home. It boils down to hardware costs and the setup and of course a constant internet connection.
Remember that we are into this because we are in a software mono-culture world and we as Permaculturists shouldn’t support mono-culture. It’s about diversity, important functions that are supported by multiple elements. It’s about applying Permaculture design, it’s ethics and principles on worlds beyond gardening or social design. Bear with me. We are half way through.
For the Google Docs & other online tools it gets tricky. There are not that many alternatives around. If it would be just for documents in terms of I already mentioned https://etherpad.org. There is also https://cryptpad.fr - a more privacy focused pad.
Recently there was a lot of development at https://www.collaboraoffice.com - which can be integrated into Nextcloud. I haven’t tested it yet.
SSO - single sign-on
Google isn't the only service that allows multiple service to be connected and signed into with one ID. There are several new platforms around that play nicely with different clients. The term is called SSO and is used widely. If you are versatile you might be able to setup your own authentication server. For example using LDAP or an Oauth Server. This may take a while to figure out and it is probably the most difficult one.
The most obvious alternative is Mailman. Mailman is the GNU mailing-list manager that runs on Linux. The latest version, 3, needs Python 3. The setup is complex and probably only worth it if someone wants to run several mailing-lists or wants the data not be with 3rd parties.
There are mailing-list services around: https://www.freelists.org or http://librelist.com . With both it is pretty straight forward to create and manage lists. Should be easy now to get off Google.
For Slack it is bloody difficult. Rocket Chat is difficult to set up. It needs a lot of knowledge from those running it. Personally I'm in favor of an old style Forum. Makes life much easier and not everything necessarily needs to be available on an App. The forum can function for internal and external communication and by that it performs many functions. Forums, if the content is publicly available, also harvest edge effects. I also consider a forum to be a small scale intensive system. It also integrates rather than segregates. In terms of software a forum is small and probably even slow solution.
Rocket Chat is the OpenSource pendant to Slack. It is self hosted and comes with a lot connectors. It even allows to import an existing Slack workspace. Mattermost. Basically the same as Rocket Chat. Self hosted, OpenSource, and with a lot of features. Both self hosted platforms but also come as SaaS. If self hosted they have to be maintained.
Flarum. A modern take on forum software. Easy to maintain and pretty straight forward. Unfortunately it doesn't come with an App.
Signal. Signal is an end-to-end encrypted messenger. It is basically a pendant to Telegram and WhatsApp but with security in mind. With Signal several groups can be created. Signal is available for iOS and Android as well as Windows desktop version.
If you look at the website or already have a website and want to maintain a newsletter it is worth checking out the possible combinations. Many CMS systems have plug-ins that allow newsletter sending. At the EuPN we have integrated the Newsletter into the Wordpress installation. This makes it easy to link from the newsletter to the website and create content at the website that ends up in the newsletter. It goes with "each element performs many functions" but also with "relative location". Relative location in the sense that the newsletter is housed with the website instead of somewhere else. As the items of the newsletter are now also available on the website we harvest "edge effects". It doesn't necessarily have to be an in-house solution.
There are a lot of alternatives around for Mailchimp, for example constant contacts, which offer the same kind of Newsletter-as-a-Service. A self hosted alternative is Mailtrain. Mailtrain needs to be installed on Linux or comes with as a Docker container. Probably a little bit much if just one newsletter list needs to be send. With Wordpress there are some plugins that allow the sending of posts as newsletter items. Those plugin handle the subscribers, sending, bouncing, etc. Those integrated system are available for different CMS. Drupal and Grave have one too. And so do many other CMS systems. You just have to look for them.
Linux / Android
When it comes to phones I prefer Android One phones. Android One phones have a plain Android on it that is supported for 2 further OS upgrades. If the phone is delivered with Android 9 that phone will receive Android 10 and Android 11. I also prefer Android phones that can be equipped with alternative Android versions like LineageOS or Resurrection Remix OS. Those alternative versions offer lists of phones that can run the software. It is often possible to run a very recent version of the OS on old hardware.
When it comes to the operating system OpenSource software is far closer to "each important function is supported by many elements" than Apple's iOS or macOS. The important function is the Operating System and in the OpenSource world it is provided by many different alternatives - flavors. Smartphones by itself fulfill the "each element performs many functions" by design. Mint is at the moment my favorite desktop Linux distribution. It is an Ubuntu / Debian derivative and comes with a nice desktop.
And as Linux could be pretty deep, Mint or Ubuntu are just entry points. There are several hundreds of Distributions around. You can check them out at https://distrowatch.com/. Get into it!
Social Media in its current state is usually always in the hands of a company. There is no really free Social Media channel. Whether it is Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, etc. The company dictates what can be done and if a post doesn't comply with their rules it gets censored. They make the rules - not the people. If I could I would just use none of them. But times changed and somehow to be part of a social media channel is now mandatory. From my perspective Matrix / Riot is a crossover and it could be the future. It just needs more people using it. But if we want to get more people into Permaculture we must use as many channels as possible. It simply follows the "each important function is supported by many elements" principles, where the Social Media channel is the element.
A simple alternative is Twitter. But Twitter is also proprietary. As for photos there is Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
Matrix is a network for open decentralized communication. Riot is the client that connects to the Matrix Server. With Riot one can create channels and within that channels communication can happen. The Riot client is available for a variety of different OS. One of the benefits of Riot is that channels can be encrypted.
When it comes to Social Media I simply don’t have any answer… yet.
Usually we need a website and if we don't want to fall for Wordpress we need to envisage what we'd like to do. Most projects or website don't have a lot of dynamic content. It is usually more static than dynamic and only parts are dynamic. And usually in the beginning there isn't content after content that needs to be added to the site but several documents that stay in place but need alteration over time. If we design for a "important functions are served by many elements" we need to make sure that multiple people have access to the website. That is tricky with a static side generator as this usually runs on a local machine or server and pushes the content to somewhere else. Like for example using a static site generator to create pages that are then live at Github pages. The difficulty is that a non tech person needs to be able to create and edit content and add photos. For a simple start Wordpress might do but there are also services like Weebly around. Weebly allows the creation of simple websites or even blogs. For the start there is also Blogger.com that can be used with a Full Qualified Domain (FQD) – like Beyondbuckthorns.com (which is FQD). The thing is there is a lot of diversity out there. It must not be always Wordpress. "Use and value diversity".
I personally prefer Drupal as it comes with a sophisticated API, fine grain permission control, easy list creation and it uses Twig for templates. What I further prefer is that it distinguishes between feature and security release and by that it is easier.
If you want to do a little more but get something tailored to more specific needs you just have to search for it. There are thousands of solutions around.
For example Grave, which is a flat file CMS. It doesn't use any database and by that the setup is easier. All content is stored as file and that files can be easily transferred between servers / computers. Grave comes with an active community and has a lot of plugins. It basically just needs a server running PHP.
The last alternative I took in consideration is Next.js, which is a static side generator run on node.js. Static side generators don't need a database. At the end the output is rendered to static HTML with most of the comfort that a CMS would bring and by that it even doesn't need PHP on the server.
Implementation is up to any association or team or network, or whoever uses a combination of the software outlined in “Design”. Permaculture design is not always about the outcome but using one’s imagination and knowledge to produce designs that help others to achieve a more resilient way of working together - and one that also brings in other communities, like the OpenSource community, to extend the edge effects, the living edge between two communities.
Permaculture can be applied to anything you can imagine to come up with a more resilient solution. One that cares more for people and less for cooperation. A solution that cares for the earth by for example reducing the carbon footprint of being and working online. It is about the fair share – the sharing of information. It’s about the living edge in a social construct.
The design is implemented once this article is live. It is neither a land- nor a social design per se. It is something different. It is Permaculture applied to virtual worlds. Worlds that can’t be touched and are not necessarily social.
I have put a reminder in my calendar for November. Basically I'll recheck this design every year and if there is new software around I will iterate the design.