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On-the-go access to energy and communications is changing our relationship to the world around us, says Anna Simpson.
In a touring exhibition that visited London in 2012 and will be at the Sydney Festival until March 2013, the Chinese artist Song Dong displayed all the contents of his mother's flat – over 10,000 everyday objects. Not exactly the contents of a backpack, though there were several backpacks among the halls of a single person's sprawl.
Song's mother, the artist explains, would cling onto everyday objects because they offered her a sense of security – something anyone who has lived through political upheaval or the fear of scarcity will understand. But a new generation of consumers is cultivating a very different relationship to personal belongings. Living light is their aspiration, their daily needs answered by a single object – a sleek smartphone or slender tablet.
In years to come, people may live lighter yet, suggests Gerd Leonhard, CEO of the Futures Agency. These personal devices, with all their cloud-based functionality, will have moved into our minds. If we require energy on the move, our clothes will harvest it through integrated photovoltaic or piezoelectric generators...
We're witnessing the rise of the modern nomad, "defined not by what they carry but by what they leave behind". That's the definition The Economist proposed nearly five years ago, in a feature written in anticipation of a wireless world, called 'Nomads at last'.
A tide of consumers favours access over ownership
What the author didn't foresee was today's triple whammy of nomad-friendly trends. Anytime-anywhere connectivity is one of them. Then there's the rise of decentralised energy, in which anyone who can afford the kit is able to generate, store and even sell their own power. And finally, there's the tide of consumers who favour access over ownership, met by the rapid growth of peer-to-peer lending and sharing schemes.
With the likes of AirBnb, the light-footed can feel at home anywhere in the world. Already, for many, the bedroom wall has been replaced by Pinterest as a place to hang your favourite things…
So, what does all of this mean for sustainability? Fewer belongings and more sharing may hold promise for resource-efficiency – but it all depends on tight management. One counter-trend could be unnecessary maintenance to ensure hygiene: more washing of clothes, sheets and towels, and so on. Fleura Bardhi, a research professor in consumer behaviour at Northeastern University, Massachusetts, is interested in the evolution of "alternative relationships to the material world". After all, new nomadism isn't simply about being on the move: it's about a world in which 'your own place' and 'your own stuff' no longer make such a difference – to your productivity, your wellbeing, and even your identity.
"Our relationships to place and people are becoming more 'liquid', they're changing constantly", says Bardhi. "It means we also have to adapt and change. The most successful are those who can adapt very quickly."
This could be good news for behaviour change: the less attached we are to our bad habits, the more easily we can switch to better ones. But it could also go the other way: a more sustainable action may never become a habit if the context is always changing. For the business community, the implications of a shifting world go far beyond working from home and video conferencing. Daniel Pink, author of 'Free Agent Nation', anticipates a shift towards self-employment.
"If you look the underlying economics of why firms exist – such as high transaction costs and coordination problems – then, as those forces dissipate, companies themselves might become less necessary", he says.
Indeed, if individuals can maintain their professional profile through their own networks, the attraction of an official job title could fade. As Pink puts it: "When talented individuals can have the communications and computing power companies once had, they need organisations far less than organisations need [them]."
What role might these highly adaptable 'free agents' play in building resilience around them? Already, greater connectivity is helping relative strangers identify common problems and engage in fruitful collaborations – from spontaneous one-offs to organised 'hackathons'.
If sharing more space and more stuff means we also develop a greater sense of our dependence on common resources – including each other – then there's much to look forward to.
Content to roam
Symon Hill visits a Bedouin community in the West Bank.
"We'll put it on Facebook", jokes Nisreen as she poses for a photojournalist. It's not an unusual comment for a 17-year-old girl. But it's surprising to hear it in the desert.
Nisreen lives in the Bedouin community of Al Rashayda, a collection of tiny tented settlements spread over several miles in the south-eastern corner of the West Bank. Once nomadic, its movements are now restricted by the Israeli army's training exercises.
Nisreen's cousin Ali [pictured] is leading goats over the hills. If he needs to contact his family, he will use his mobile phone. Meanwhile, young men are texting on phones that appear to be swinging from the top of a tent. Looking up, I see the tent's wooden frame has electricity sockets, with phone chargers plugged in.
The community's goats and camels are kept well away from the sparkling solar panels that make this communication possible. Funded by UK aid money, they were fitted by Christian Aid and the YMCA, along with a water pipe that the electricity helps to power.
"We thank God the water is here", says Nisreen's mother. It means a bath every three days rather than weekly. Nisreen and her sister Tahany use it to sustain a vegetable patch.
Christian Aid emphasises that the pipe and solar panels were requested by the villagers themselves. The villagers told me the initiative came from a young woman, who I can't meet as she's busy with the olive harvest. She's also studying through the Open University. The internet helps.
Symon Hill is author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion.
Anna Simpson is Managing Editor, Green Futures.
Photos: iStockphoto/ Thinkstock; Wavebreak Media / thinkstock; box: Christian Aid / Sarah Malian