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What is a zoöp?

A combination of the words co-op (cooperation) and zoë (Greek for ‘life’), zoöp is the name for a new type of cooperative legal entity in which humans and multispecies ecological communities are partners. The zoöp doesn’t grant rights, but is more of a procedure that organises collaboration between humans and non-humans in shared communities. The project therefore strengthens the position of non-humans within human societies, engendering ecological regeneration and growth that is resistant to extractivist dynamics.

Why zoöp?

The zoöp concept is the result of a public research trajectory by Het Nieuwe Instituut. Beginning with the Terraforming Earth workshops in 2018, we researched ways to make the world habitable again for human and non-human life, while acknowledging that this new beginning would inevitably have to start within the capitalist system. We explored legal, technological, and narrative modes of world-building, looking at ways in which certain non-Western cultures work with a very different relationship between human and non-human. We studied how New Zealand granted legal personhood to a river, a mountain and a forest, and how that was organised, and whether some of that logic could be adapted and reformulated for the context of the Netherlands.

During Neuhaus, a temporary academy for more-than-human knowledge in 2019, we organised a second series of collaborative research sessions with ecologists, legal experts, artists and designers to hammer out the aims, organisational format, legal dimensions and categories of necessary knowledge that would support what was by then labelled a ‘zoöp’. The concept then found its current form in September 2019.

How does it work?

Zoöps largely function in economic frameworks in the same way as their constituting human organisations – their products, services or yields can be sold to customers, which can also be zoöps. Next to the concept of economy, the project introduces zoönomy, referring to the quality and density of ecological relations inside and among multispecies communities. Zoöps are therefore part of the economic framework, but have an important added aim – to keep on developing their zoönomy. In a way, they create a zone within their organisation – but outside the economy, so economic logic is lifted. Every year, zoöps set their zoönomic ambitions based on their starting conditions and keep track of their development with a range of instruments that give insight into the changes in the quality of living in the zoöp’s multispecies community. By doing this, zoöps also contribute to increased biodiversity, growth in biomass and cleaner air and water, among other things.

In the coming months we're researching a design for new zoönomic instruments in the online research project Exploratorium, organised in the context of the Dutch contribution to the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia.

How do you become a zoöp?

Very different organisations can become zoöps, as long as they have agency over a certain volume of biosphere or a piece of land – a forest or park, lake or pond, coastal waters, and so on. When a hotel, school, sports club, business resort, energy company, farm or other organisation wants to turn into a zoöp, it has to set up a foundation under the zoöp charter. This states that the foundation represents the interests of the ecological community on the organisation’s piece of Earth. We’ve also been organising zoönomic futures training to allow people to gain experience and get a feel for the attitudes required for representing non-human life. Of course, humans on the board of a zoönomic foundation need to have an ecological and philosophical affinity, as well as some strategic insight for managing it. The zoönomic mother board can also help with finding the right people.

A zoöp formally comes into being after an organisation establishes cooperation with the local zoönomic foundation, which has voting rights on strategic and policy decisions regarding the zoöp’s economic as well as zoönomic affairs. In 2020, the first set of very diverse proto-zoöps will be established in the Netherlands – a farm, two ‘food forests’, a hotel, a cultural organisation and a university college. These will have the first practical day-to-day experience of what it takes to run a zoöp, making their own economic decisions consistent with zoönomic considerations.

What difference can zoöps make?

Zoöps can make a difference in all manner of ways. A primary school or sports club in a European city may, over the course of a few years, successfully increase soil life, plant life, insect populations, possibly bird populations, and even grow some crops in the borders of their playing fields if they want to. A university in Arizona with a large dedicated human community may successfully generate an oasis in the desert. An energy company building wind farms in the North Sea may regenerate huge areas of marine ecosystems by supporting the growth of mussel and oyster banks, seaweed species, and so on.

In some places, the work of zoöps may come down to mostly conservating and protecting an existing multispecies community. In other places, they may generate entirely new multispecies communities in which species meet for the first time and engage in food webs that did not exist before.

How might zoöps develop in the longer term?

As the legal systems of different countries are not identical, the zoöp format has to be translated between jurisdictions, which is why the first set of zoöps will all be in the Netherlands. In the longer term, the aim is to have zoöps in different countries in Europe and the rest of the world. Next to the numbers of zoöps increasing, they can also grow in the size of their individual territories. However, the most interesting way for zoöps to grow is for other adjacent organisations to join them, forming ever-growing ecological communities through the same zoönomic foundations and developing a practice in the service of their shared quality of life.


Further reading

Zoöp project page

The zoöp project is a practice-based research into the design and application of a new kind of legal format for collaboration between humans and collective bodies of nonhumans, in order to support ecological regeneration.

Measuring ecological development

Zoöp research workshop

This is a summary of the main new thoughts and additions to the zoöp concept that were developed in the second zoöp research workshop.

Designing Prototypes Zoonomic Instruments

Zoöp research workshop

Outcomes of the third gathering in a series of workshops that leads to the establishment of a zoöp. The results of these events will be translated into the development of a prototype for an instrument that monitors this type of cooperation between humans and collective bodies of non-humans.

Guus Beumer, artistic director Het Nieuwe Instituut
Francien van Westrenen, head of Agency Het Nieuwe Instituut
Afaina de Jong, architect and researcher; Debra Solomon, artist and researcher
Richard Niessen
Laura Pappa, Robert Milne
Juan Arturo García
Caroline Nevejan, Chief Science Officer City of Amsterdam; Huda AbiFarès, graphic design and co-editor
Mike Emmerik, Simone Rots, Independent School for the City
Lada Hršak, Bureau LADA; Chiara Dorbolò and Daphne Bakker, Failed Architecture; Tymon Hogenelst and Jesse van der Ploeg, Studio Wild