Designing an operating system for planet earth. Zebras Unite founding member.

For 2021, I teamed up with Zebras Unite, a global movement of entrepreneurs, investors, activists and entrepreneurship supporters of all types, sizes and – you guessed it! – stripes who believe in the power of business as a force to make the world a better place. In collaboration with the Dazzle, I will take you on a journey of discovery of Zebras around the world! We’ll meet founding members who literally invested in the building of this international co-op and we’ll visit chapter leads from Tokyo to Edinburgh, from Mexico City to Sydney who are rallying the troops on the ground of their cities and countries!

First up in our series “Bush Radio: Zebras in the Wild”, meet founding member Armillaria! I sat down with the three founders Astrid Scholz, Madelyn Martiniere and Cameron Burgess to talk about

  • Why the status quo is broken
  • What an alternative future could look like
  • How Armillaria is helping us bridge that chasm, and
  • How we can support Armillaria in making the vision a reality.  

In our conversation, we discussed 

  • The challenges that come with addressing planetary boundaries
  • The plumbing required to rethink the capital infrastructure of effective change making
  • The design-principles to guide our efforts, and 
  • The importance of collaboration, cooperation and coordination in facilitating co-creation. 

Find out what keeps Astrid, Cameron and Madelynn up at night and what they’re doing to design an operating system for planet Earth!

A Zebra is…

Astrid … a new symbol and mascot we had to invent to describe what we’re doing and how we want to impact the world with a technology company that is driven by purpose.

Cameron … a business that is making something better for the world.

Madelynn … is an entrepreneur who is not afraid to ask the hard questions of the status quo. 

The broken status quo

Astrid: Armillaria is a recent merger comprising two companies — Sphaera  and Uncompromise — both of which were motivated by the desire to accelerate the pace of change with which we are addressing the urgent problems and planetary boundaries that we’re facing. For myself, I came out of the social change industry as a non-profit executive and was frustrated with the fragmentation of the industry and the duplication of efforts. So what is broken is our inability to collaborate in the face of imminent calamity.

Our contribution rests on the assumption that with better thinking, better design principles, better systems design and the use of contemporary technology we can actually make a very positive difference. 

Armillaria: the largest living organism on earth. 

Armillaria’s vision for the future

Cameron: We look forward to a world in which organizations like Armillaria don’t need to exist. 

There are obviously significant gaps in terms of addressing the needs of people everywhere. When such gaps exist long enough, organizations like Armillaria and movements like Zebras Unite emerge to meet the needs of the underserved. Ideally, we shouldn’t have a need to exist; ideally we will be living in a world where the current levels of activism have radically diminished as a consequence of the changes we’re seeking to bring about having been enshrined in law. 

I appreciate that’s a long-term vision, but when we’re talking about addressing issues that represent an existential risk to the future of humanity – such as climate change – addressing these challenges is not going to happen by private enterprise alone. 

Our work, therefore, is focused on how we might build an operating system for Planet Earth that allows people and organizations anywhere to more effectively collaborate and coordinate at the scale necessary to address problems that are so complex that no individual organization can successfully resolve them on their own. 

When we look at the largest infrastructure project that was ever developed – the International Space Station – it was only a US$ 150 billion dollar project that took only twenty years to build. Yet the problems we’re trying to address as a species — problems like those identified in the Sustainable Development Goals — are multi-trillion dollar problems that have been hundreds of years in the making. But what we continue to see are efforts that are in the millions, tens of millions, or hundreds of millions – if that. And all of these ‘solutions’ have an extraordinarily short time-scale.

So the future that we envision isn’t merely collaborative, but profoundly cooperative; in it, individuals and organisations are working together in a coordinated way rather than imagining that their individual contributions are going to magically ladder up to some planetary-scale intervention. 

The capital infrastructure of the future

Astrid: The world is awash in money. It’s not for lack of capital that these issues exist. Hundreds of trillions of dollars are available to save ourselves, but it’s not going into the kinds of solutions that are actually extending our life expectancy on this planet. It goes into occasionally well-meaning and frequently frivolous innovation. 

I used to joke about sushi being delivered by drones except now somebody’s actually doing that, so I have to find a better joke to make fun of the stupid innovation that comes out of Silicon Valley. 

There is a real need to upgrade the plumbing to drive capital into the true places of innovation and that requires building new financial instruments. Venture capital especially is terrible at identifying the sort of innovation that we need for our planetary survival. We need new mechanisms for deploying capital to the entrepreneurs who are working on permanent solutions. We need to reimagine the forms of capital and the channels by which it gets deployed. Not only is this a key priority for Zebras Unite itself, but through our work at Armillaria, we work with stakeholders in a particular geography or core sector to figure out what that plumbing might look like. 

It’s all doable from a technical perspective but we have to imagine that infrastructure. 

The startup culture of the future

Cameron: Hopefully ‘startup culture’ is going to disappear. The general idea is toxic. One of the things that we’re a stand for is ensuring that future-oriented organizations like Zebras Unite are humanity-centric. You can’t have a humanity-centric organization that fails to recognise that we all have lives outside of the workplace. Working 80 hours a week, and sacrificing our health and our relationships with loved ones is just more of the same.

I also chafe a little against the idea of a startup — which is essentially an innovation in search of a business model. We need less startups, and more businesses — organisations that have something of value that they are able to sell. ‘Startup’ sounds sexy, and business sounds boring, but give me a business that makes money that I can retain control of, over a company that I steadily lose control of as I need to continually raise money in the hope that a sustainable business model might someday emerge.

In zebras unite we see a lot more business than startups, frankly.

In terms of the values that we’d like to see we’ve actually come up with a very hard-won set of design principles that we work with in our business: They encapsulate the types of values that we see as being necessary for thriving businesses of the future.

I’ve already pointed to one which is humanity-centred. I don’t mean human-centered. Organizations such as Facebook use human-centered design to build technology that has been proven to be disastrous for humanity. There’s a very deep distinction between human-centered (focused on the individual) and humanity-centered (focused on what’s best for all).

So we certainly believe that startup culture needs to be humanity-centered. We also think that the culture of the future needs to be thrivable. Thrivability is an idea from Jean Russell, who looked at the definition of sustainable at the time and questioned whether sustainable was good enough. Sustaining the status quo is not enough. We actually need to do something to reverse the damage that’s been done. One of the phrases we’re hearing a lot at the moment is ‘build back better’. 

Businesses of the future obviously need to be equitable and cooperative. We would say that they need to be adaptive and that they need to be able to respond to changes in the environment. 

If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that the need to adapt rapidly to changes in our situations is the difference between barely surviving, and thriving. Lastly, we would say that the businesses of the future need to be robust: A business that can’t withstand those changes lacks robustness. 

And one of the values that I know that Zebras Unite holds dearly just like we do is fierceness or ferocity. If we are going to successfully tackle the changes that need to be made in the world, we need to stop being so diplomatic and nice about it. 

It seems to be entirely appropriate in the current context to have a degree of ferocity around driving changes into the world that we want to see.

The role of community in the future: collaborate, cooperate, co-create

Madelynn: Well, if we play our role right, community will play a bigger and bigger role. At Armillaria, we talk a lot about the distinction between collaboration, cooperation and coordination as it relates to how communities can figure out how to interact in this way. Coming from my work as a community engineer, there is no shortage of folks that have the right solution and hold some pieces of the puzzle. What they are lacking are the appropriate mechanisms, as Astrid mentioned, to effectively connect with one another and to the resources that they need. 

A lot of attention gets paid to ecosystem building and what we have observed is that without the necessary plumbing the work that these communities do together isn’t effectively scalable in a meaningful way. 

Cameron spoke earlier about COVID-19 and one of the things we saw was that mass community and mutual aid effort that came together in response to the pandemic, not dissimilar to the response you see to natural and man-made disasters. And yet, it was ripe with the same inefficiencies around coordination; in particular in that most of the knowledge that was created in that moment is lost. Until the next crisis. 

From an infrastructure perspective, we’re really interested in how we can more effectively support communities in collaborating and helping them move from collaboration into cooperation. And from there, how do we more effectively coordinate towards achieving a particular outcome?  In our point of view, that is true co-creation. 

We believe that communities need to be able to do these three things effectively to be able to co-create change at such a systemic scale.

From broken status quo to a better future

Madelynn: Armillaria came together as a mutualistic entity for us to be able to invite other participants into figuring out how we can most effectively address complex environmental, social and economic challenges while we bring the necessary distributed digital infrastructure to do so.  

We structured ourselves as a systems lab because we recognize that no one individual organization has the answer to solving any of these problems on their own. We recognize that collectively, we need a place to work together with communities and with aligned partners to make sure that we’re asking the right questions and that we can go through a design process to understand how we can test our own assumptions and build towards this future together. 

How can we support you?

Astrid: I’d like to turn that question around and ask what can anybody do with whom what we’re saying resonates? As Cameron mentioned, we published our design principles for anyone to use, they’re basically open-source. So as you go about developing your products and services based on these design principles, you ensure that down the line we may be able to not just collaborate but cooperate at that deep level and put our efforts together in a gigantic, global mesh.

Cameron: How can we all better support each other? There are lots of people and organizations that are working towards creating a thriving future for humanity and we need to find better ways to support each other in the resolution of that mission. Three years ago, we wrote a concept paper called From Billions To Trillions which described our approach to standing up digital infrastructure incorporating the necessary innovations in technology, finance and the law to support mobilizing knowledge, people, and capital at the speed and scale necessary to address complex challenges such as climate change.

When it comes to addressing these ‘wicked problems’, anybody who says “I’m going to be the one to solve that!” is either a god or insane. Because no one individual is smart enough or has enough money or enough life to actually be able to solve that problem on their own. 

We’re really interested in finding people who want to actively contribute towards the resolution of these planetary problems. We want to find other partners to work with through a deeply cooperative approach. We’re currently in the process of producing an updated version of Billions to Trillions which we’ll publish in the second quarter of this year. So if what we’re speaking about here – the need to more effectively work together at global scale – resonates, please reach out to us, and let’s explore what it might look like to work together!

Madelynn: We’re always looking for partners who are grappling with that complexity. Some partners approach us with a particular technology and are looking to see how they can leverage that for maximum impact and connect that into a wider ecosystem; others have a particular use case that is bounded by culture and context, and they want to build an infrastructure to support their organization and community in a way that supports their ecosystem at large. 

Zebras Unite is a fantastic example of an organization and a community that is doing just that. 

One question for the community

How can what you are building be connected to what someone else is building?


Cameron: I would like to mention my friend  Belabbes Benkredda who started an organization called Munathara Initiative. Since its establishment in 2012, the Munathara Initiative has promoted the voices of youth, women and marginalized communities (YWM) in the Arabic speaking public sphere to meet their growing desire for participation in society, politics, and governance.

He wouldn’t necessarily think of himself as an entrepreneur, but he’s extraordinarily entrepreneurial and has done more than any other initiative I know of to elevate the voices of those people who are typically excluded from public discourse in Arab-speaking countries.

Madelynn: I would recommend Hylo. I’ve seen a lot of community platforms over the years, and I’ve not liked any of them as much as I like Hylo. An open source platform stewarded by the Terran Collective, Hylo is extraordinarily values-aligned, and is one of the most promising Zebra platforms out there working to bridge the transitions between collaboration, cooperation, and coordination in digital space.

Astrid: I like to direct people to Savvy Cooperative, a health data cooperative that is a zebra par excellence: it’s owned by patients who derive financial value from the information they provide; it’s a platform cooperative whose founders are combining the best of cooperative governance and contemporary technology; and it received outside financing for growth. It’s truly paving a path for other founders and investors to follow. 


Madelynn Martiniere, Astrid Scholz & Cameron Burgess

Building an operating system for planet earth. Zebras Unite founding member. Follow along via Medium.