800 years ago, the ancestors of today’s native Hawaiians began constructing a fishpond on the windward side of O‘ahu, in He‘eia. This fishpond sits at the shore of the base of the Ko‘olau mountains, and for hundreds of years fed brackish, nutrient filled water from a stream that connected it to taro cultivation upstream.
Nutrient conditions in the fishpond attracted young fish brought in by the tides that subsequently grew large within it’s structure — so large that after a few months they could no longer slip through the gaps in the makaha gates they entered through, and can be easily gathered.
The fish in the fishpond are small herbivorous fish, living much lower on the food chain than the carnivorous tuna we all associate today with poke and ahi sashimi. The end result of this is a far less resource intensive (i.e. more efficient and easily sustained) source of protein than say, today’s water, land, and feed intensive cattle industry
They did all of this hundreds of years before today’s forms of ocean aquaculture, without elite universities degrees, without venture capital, without government grants, and without a western tradition of science and knowledge. These fishpond cultivation practices were part of a system of living that supported, across the islands, nearly the same number of people that currently live in the state — but without the constant stream of shipping containers importing food, durable goods and other necessities of life — while working an average of 4 hours per day, and producing hula and other aesthetic elements still revered today for their singular beauty. Importantly, this abundance was widespread among the population.
Can Tech Create Abundance?
For those readers who find themselves reading this because of a connection to civic tech, you may not recognize that particular condition of widespread abundance in our current society. We struggle with more fundamental injustices, issues of dignity and survival, and ask if our skillset and tools can provide some relief. That’s, at least, how I find myself here. And being a part of the civic tech movement — specifically meeting all of the like-minded people working across our country at the last two Code for America Brigade Congresses — has been the most personal experience of my professional career.
I’m running for a position as a representative in the brigade network’s National Advisory Council. What I hope to represent if I am elected is a question. The question that brought me to civic tech was, “Can my skillset, tools and perspective as a tech professional allow me to be of service to my community?” The question I want to ask now is “can we leverage our ability to discern good tech to recognize the societies and cultures that produced them, and look to them as models?”
I believe we will find the answer to that question in a concept of “Indigenous Tech”. I suspect that Indigenous Tech can add something to our concept of civic tech, and one could argue that indigenous tech was the OG human-centered design (except it explicitly considers humans and their work as elements of a larger natural environment)
When Culture and Governance Are the Same Thing
In the NAC candidate forum, Melanie Mazanec of Code for Asheville articulated a hope that some day, we won’t have to call for civic tech as a separate thing, it will just be a part of what it means to execute good government. I would like to offer that we can take this one step further by looking through the lens of indigenous tech. That some day, we will not require a separate concept for government, and that governance will simply be a part of “culture” and what it means to run a just, humane, and abundant society.
How will we get there? I think you know better than I do, and my hope for a NAC position would be to work with you in lifting up the stories and examples of indigenous and local technology successes that reflect what is special about your homes and what it means to integrate technology, people, and the places you live. But to that, I would need your support, your votes, and most importantly, as we say here, your mana’o.
What “The Work” Looks Like in Hawaii
The He‘eia fishpond still operates today, thanks to the painstaking restoration of thousands of volunteers over more than a decade. Earlier this month, the Purple Prize, and Indigenous Innovation competition (programmed by Purple Mai‘a a local non-profit) kicked off with a kilo/hana (observation/work) day there. Previous purple prize teams have developed:
“Low-cost, real-time IoT sensors and data dashboard allowing researchers to determine threats from episodic and seasonal flooding events”;
“A machin learning platform looking to fish to inform loko iʻa management decisions”;
“An educational platform and apparel store sharing the importance of water from a Hawaiian perspective”.
Last year, Stephanie Chang and I were honored to be part of the inaugural cohort of the Code for America Community Fellowship, representing Honolulu along with 6 other passionate and talented civic technologists in Austin, Texas, San Jose, CA, and Asheville, NC. Our project, a sustainability program called the SuMoLab (Sustainable Mobility Lab) resolved to connect Hawaiian principles of sustainability with an effort to build an inclusive community of people experimenting with how to be more sustainable. This work connected the transit agency I work for, and our municipal government more generally to the work of organizations like Purple Mai‘a.
I brought a cohort of my colleagues (civil servants who work in civil rights, procurement, environmental permitting, document controls) to the Purple Prize workday at the He‘eia fishpond to connect with these innovators and this very special place. There are innovators and special places like this in your home, and I hope we can do what it takes to stay connected to them, and in doing so, see the path to a better America, and a better world.