Day 17 @EDE Class: Design Ecovillage Economy, A Game Theory Situation

Sep 12, 2018.

“You are a system of your own.”

When reviewing what we learned yesterday, Anna made this observation. She referred to the difficulty of looking for English video materials with Chinese subtitle, as well as Chinese materials with English translation. I guess it’s still uncommon that grassroot organizations and individuals here would create English websites, or post in English in Quora, Medium and Youtube. Language barrier has created an information gap between the English world and China. And the divide of our internet only widens the gap. I raised my hand for a comment. “That’s why we need more local writers and journalists to write in English.” 🙂

Anna and Zhenbao, volunteer translator. For all the 4 weeks of this class, GEN instructors have to work with translators, who are not professionals but volunteers from students with good command in English. Two third of the class(~24 ppl) understand only a little or no English. (photo by ZHU Yu)

From localization to ecovillage

The economy of an ecovillage is critical to localization and to building an alternative economy system that integrates the wellbeing of human and the ecosystem. Among the 3 types of ecovillages (rural, urban and intentional), we looked at several cases of the 3rd type, and particularly their economy.

Some key questions regarding the economy of an ecovillage are:

  • How do they deal with income?
  • How do they deal with assets?
  • How do they co-own other resources?

By the answer to these questions, we classified these ecovillage examples:


Findhorn organization chart
Findhorn Community Map, interactive on the site. It’s a great example to show that an ecovillages can have variety of business, for-profit, non-profit, commune-owned, or cooperatives. (screenshot from

I found the typical business of these ecovillages are organic farm, organic shop, seed growing and sales, handcraft making, training and education programs, bakeries, cafes, schools, etcs. Even for Dancing Rabbit, an ecovillage founded by 3 students from Stanford University, the businesses there are not much related to the tech field of Silicon Valley. Are there reasons why ecovillages tend to support businesses that meet basic human needs, at least during their early stage? Well, one reason is that they need to survive by becoming ecologically self-sufficient. I consider myself one who prefers hand work, like cooking and baking. Hence those businesses somewhat appeal to me.


However, for the first time in this class, I worried if an ecovillage can offer an intellectual life that would satisfy me. It’s a variety question. Variety in people you would like to interact with, in choices of intellectual work that you would like to work on. It’s also about your mobility to go out and explore. Hence, going from the existing economy system to ecovillage economy appears to be downsizing. Also, as a local economy system, how does ecovillage fit in the evolution of science, technology and art, the best embodiment of human intelligence and potential?

I could see a negative spiral in my thought process and decided to hold on before I have done enough research. As I am writing this blog (4 days after that specific class), I already have more ideas but will discuss in the blog for that day.

A game theory situation

Anna put a label with “Income sharing” on one side of the room, and a label with “Independent income” on the other side in a straight line. Then she asked us to choose a point along this scale that reflects how much sharing we can accept if we were to live in an ecovillage. A clever hook of a game! If only the question is concerned, wouldn’t it be rational that individuals take responsibility for making and managing their income? As it seems to align reward with effort. In a real village, I may be open to share more depends on circumstances. So I stood close to the label of “Independent income”.

Interestingly, the class spreaded along the scale but concentrated largely around the center. (Reminds you of standard distribution? 🙂 ) Then we grouped with people who stood close to us, i.e. same preference for income sharing. Our task was to design the economy of an ecovillage of a chosen location, i.e. rural, urban, etc. Here, “leaking bucket” model is a great tool to identify demands within a community that can be turned into business opportunities.

Now you get to see the effect of income sharing preference: are you going to finance the entire community by income from collectively owned businesses (in case of complete income sharing), or only finance basic services by regular membership fee, or somewhere in between? How many businesses should be created to provide employment? If a lot of goods and services are self-provisioned and exchanged within the community, how should you value them? Do you need to create your local currency or token? (Think a strategic board game 🙂 )

A group was presenting the economy system of their ecovillage. They did a great job in using 8 forms of capital to identify new business opportunities and decide the value of business output. (photo by ZHU Yu).

Our group had the most “selfish” people. (Sorry, team 🙂 )We decided to charge annual membership fee and allow individuals to run small businesses within a complex in a suburb. We focused so much on creating financial wealth but overlooked other forms of capital, such as physical, living, social and experiential capital.

As I reflected on this exercise, my decision about the income scale appeared more clearly as a game theory situation. I didn’t know what other people will choose and how will their choices affect me. So I chose the seemingly most secure option to personal interest. Later another student reflected that he was inspired by what Anna said: you would decide either to trust yourself only, or trust that the community can support your needs. Clearly I didn’t capture that. Also, this exercise tells the importance for an intentional community to communicate a sharing scheme thoroughly and upfront, what they will give to and take from the community, so that everyone receives the same and transparent information before decision making.

People of the day

Zhengjun is one of three elderly members in the class. He attends all class sessions. He sings, dances and plays games together with over two dozens much younger students.

Zhengjun, on the right, was talking to other students. (photo by ZHU Yu)

A former business founder in oil industry, he retired a few years ago. Even before retirement, he started to involve in various volunteer work in Shenzhen, a city with 1.25 million registered volunteers (1, population over 20 millions) and the most organized city-level volunteer network in the country. His managerial skill was soon recognized. When an NGO for protecting the coastal city’s mangrove forest was founded a few years ago, he was invited to be a leadership team member. Since then, he has dedicated himself to wetland environmental protection. His organization plants mangrove trees along the coast and organizes various events to raise awareness. I found it amazing that they offer event service suited to companies’ “green team outing”, by providing instructors, nursery trees, tools, company logo uniforms and hats, food, and even photography services to corporate clients. The latter pay the organization, show up with a team of employees and do the work.


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