Cajun Navy Is Model For Future Communities

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Thousands of Houstonians stranded by Harvey’s flooding have been rescued by private citizens. It could be a glimpse of the future of communities.

Think crowd, not department.

The Cajun Navy was created by volunteer rescuers who stepped up to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There’s no obvious structure…no leaders, members, budget, or uniforms…just a loose affiliation of perhaps thousands of people who own boats and feel compelled to help others.

It relies on a Facebook page, an impromptu website for connecting rescuers with people who need rescue, and collecting donations. Real-time work is coordinated via a walkie talkie app called Zello. Media requests are forwarded to a web design firm.

When asked why they do it, members cite Biblical scripture, or simply say that they couldn’t imagine not helping.

It turns out that this informal aid network can mobilize and deploy far faster, and in greater numbers, than institutional services. When parts of Southern Louisiana flooded last year, the Navy beat FEMA to the punch by as much as a week.

The example the Cajun Navy sets for selfless, involved citizenship is just amazing. What it says about the future of communities is even bigger.

The applications for other crises are obvious, and I’d be surprised if people aren’t already copying the Navy’s model for responses to events like earthquakes. Citizens mobilizing to help each other in times of need is an old ideabig city fire departments were once manned by volunteersbut today’s technology means such networks can swing into action almost instantaneously.

Flash mobs with a purpose.

Now consider the organizing for ongoing, everyday things, like finding and distributing food, for instance: The call goes out that kids in so-and-so neighborhood will go without milk this weekend, and folks with an extra quart in the fridges can contribute.

How about a Repair Army that calls into action local neighbors to help fix each others’ plumbing or patch roofs? I’m pretty certain the knowledge to do lots of that work exists within a one mile radius of my home. What about activating a homework service that connects students who have questions about an evening’s homework with people who can help them find answers.

A sharing economy that actually shares.

The implications get even bigger when it comes to value, since nobody pays the Cajun Navy for their work. Well, that’s not true, volunteers do get paid, only not in legal tender. They receive the emotional payoff of having done the right thing, perhaps along with the thrill of having accomplished it under difficult circumstances.

It’s the exact opposite of the ways Facebook, Google, Uber, and the other online services giants that presume to use technology to monetize everything…and then extract that value from market participants. 

They want to control how we use technology, and in doing so limit the value we create for one another (or at least focus it on inconsequential activities that produce more data for them to harvest). It will be years before anybody knows what the true costs to economies and societies will be, though it’s a fair guess that they’ll be immense.

In the meantime, the Cajun Navy demonstrates an alternative way to create and use markets, and its success is proof that markets can work for everyone.

A rising tide raises all ships, so to speak.