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Peuplade, connecting neighbors l Social toolbox

Category: ⚐ EN+social toolbox

Website: www.peuplade.fr
Types: Platform
Issues: Encounters | Neighborhood initiatives and public events | Commons and services | Sharing culture and experiences | Exchange of knowledge and skills


Peuplade (“Tribe” in French) is an experience launched in Paris in 2003 in the Epinettes (XVII°) district.

Thanks to the enthusiastic involvement of its first partners, Peuplade gained popularity and success, and is nowadays used all over France, Belgium and Switzerland. It is a social project founded by “Les Ingénieurs Sociaux” (“social engineers”), an enterprise which deals with the development of tools intended to offer people, associations, enterprises and institutions the means to give a more human face to interpersonal relationships, to society and to economy.

Peuplade is a space for encounters, exchanges, innovation and initiatives, offered to inhabitants of a same street, neighbourhood or city. continue reading

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Mass culture: How to not die of

Category: ⚐ EN+city+sustainability+urbanism

Last summer, different cities from different parts of the world screamed through their squares and streets, and the messages from their voices revealed more than what we could see at first sight.

2013 Taksim Gezi Park by Flashstorm

2013 Taksim Gezi Park by Flashstorm

In Turkey, protests clashed initially in Gezi Park in Istanbul, where the government wanted to impose a new shopping center in the middle of the city, where a green park stood. The protests appeared trivial and useless, as the decision to build another shopping center, commonly and always justified as part of innovation and development of a country, could not compete with citizens’ willingness to keep a green area in the city center. Anyway it appeared incredible that due to this occupation, government military forces started a real fight against the ‘riots’, so that from a little episode, the phenomena started to expand to the whole country, augmenting the size of the protest and people’s involvement.

Photo by Diren Gezi Parki on Facebook

Photo by Diren Gezi Parki on Facebook

Likewise, Brazilian people began to occupy their streets in the name of stopping their Government for what they considered a waste of money and resources: the forthcoming World Football Championship. As it is known, the investment for this is a huge cost, involving the building and the re-organization of new spaces. Citizens occupied the streets asking to invest that money in more urgent sectors, as education, health and security. For sure, behind this people movements, behind their complaints and their need of being listened to, there are several dimensions of a same problem.

The ‘problem’ is that people would like to be part of a democracy, as the Governments define themselves, and have access to a democratic life, having the chance to be active part of the decisions taken. Mass culture takes part as a dimension of the phenomena. We can try to understand why and to what extent.

The context for much of the current interest in material culture is a fear. It is a fear of objects supplanting people. That this is currently happening is the explicit contention of much of the debate over postmodernism which is one of the most fashionable approaches within contemporary social science. (Miller, 1998:169)

This statement is extracted from an article where the author explains that the fear described is an overrated feeling in sociology. If we consider the Marxist position, it uses to refer to a distinction between an assumed pre-era, far from material objects, and the modern one, made or dominated by material; anyway there is actually no evidence of this historical distinction from ethnography or past studies, as even old societies were rather engaged with cultural media (Miller, 1998). However, Miller’s thought is contextualized in a different discourse, whilst the theme, that hereby is going to be explored, touches that argument in the most ‘materialist’ way possible: Indeed it will be the consideration of mass culture intended in its symbolic and representative meaning, and especially in which way the symbolic and the representative are intertwined with the material objects and massive quantitative consequences of its use as media tools.

In this case, I would argue that fear is not overrated, rather it is underestimated. Indeed, fear is real as much as deaths due to climate change and revolutions; fear is real to the extent that some people have too much and others have nothing. In this essay mass culture will be discussed from the aspect of its weight on people and planet lives, in particular inside our cities. I would try to discuss mass culture from an ethic point, not asking if we are dominated or whether there is the domination of a Western or capitalist culture, but rather inquiring if we are dominated by mass culture without recognizing its cost in terms of social justice, sustainability and depleting resources, and thus, if we could change something before crashing indirectly also due to mass culture’s effects.

Mass culture and the city

Image by AlexandraGalvis

Image by AlexandraGalvis

Mass culture is, first of all, an incredible phenomenon itself. With this term, I will refer to the huge flowering of cultural products and cultural media that surrounds our daily life, often strongly driven by markets, and that, due to the global streaming, reach masses and are consumed quite globally. Thus, it is clear that within the phenomena, arts, events, shopping and most of the rituals and media we experience daily are directly involved. Above all, mass culture has a relation with the consumerism system and technology development. Furthermore, when we talk about mass culture, we talk about a collective culture production, and thus of a result due to human interaction. (Grazian, 2010).

It is not so difficult to imagine the particular relationship that mass culture engages with cities. Not just because it is possible to observe it directly, but because cities are primarily the first concentration of masses where people live into the network of relationships, where their lives are indeed organized and intertwined within the social system. Literature supports various different traditions and points of view: For sure the city has always been seen as a great place for commercial, business, capitalist trades and often cities have been built according to these interests. For instance, Marx Weber in his classic ‘The city’ (1958) discusses it in these terms, trying to identify their main features, stressing what defines a city and what is not enough:

Both in terms of what it would include and what it would exclude size alone can hardly be sufficient to define the city. Economically defined, the city is a settlement the inhabitants of which live primarily off trade and commerce rather than agriculture.

Certainly, due to chances of trades, relationships and exchanges, the city is the realm of business. Weber also considers citizens according to their consumer role:

Similar to the city of the prince, the inhabitants of which are economically dependent upon the purchasing power of noble households, are cities in which the purchasing power of the other larger consumers, such as reinters, determines the economic opportunities of resident tradesmen and merchants.

Moreover, he claimed that:

Thus, we wish to speak of a ‘city’ only in cases where local inhabitants satisfy an economically substantial part of their daily wants in the local market (…). In the meaning employed here the ‘city’ is a market place. The local market forms the economic center of the colony in which, due the specialization products, both the nonurban population and urbanites satisfy their wants for articles of trade and commerce. (1958)

So, as a central crossroads of activities made of relationships and exchange, soon the city became the symbol of economy, gathering around itself both producers and consumers, and creating for them a whole life, including mainly rituals and tools of innovation concerning demand/buying and offer/selling. This is well explained by Jayne in his essay ‘Cities and Consumption’ (2006). He conducts an analysis about the rising of the industrial revolution, mass production and the consequent mass consumption, and the rituals of shopping and entertainment that had developed around these, collocated in the spaces of the cities, according to class distinctions, social system and capitalist interests. And mainly it is from this process that mass culture developed for the most as we know it today. Jayne stresses also how the dominant class pictured the shape of cities basically operating on the re-organization of spaces in order to respond functionally to a social meaning of class division, but also to respond to new needs of rituals primed by economic growth and capitalist fuel (2006).

It is in the first years of the 20th Century that the consumption of objects as media tools of culture in a massive style starts to be established and spread, thanks to the incentive of mass commodification and the technology advances. As it has been described by Veblen (1899), and Bourdieu later (1984), consumption and possession became icons of status. Precisely, as affirmed with the concept of cultural capital, the consumption of a specific culture and lifestyle became the symbol of distinction within the capitalist societies, where agencies and institutions worked to perpetuate the status quo (Bourdieu, 1984).

A kind of economic frame-centrism seems to exist, indeed economy is often the most considered starting point for analyzing society, as an invasive factor that defines all that it touches. Anyway, according to me, it is necessary not to forget that economy is not the only working force, because, not considering the phenomenon exactly in its whole, we risk to fall into determinism, being partial, and not seeing alternative ways of operating.

Robert Park, the major exponent of Chicago School, in 1916 talks of the city from another point of view, in my opinion also changing the vision of mass culture related. I found his words extremely interesting:

The city, from the point of view of this paper, is something more than a congeries of individual men and of social conveniences-streets, buildings, electric lights, tramways, and telephones, etc.; something more also, than a mere constellation of institutions and administrative devices -courts, hospitals, schools, police, and civil functionaries of various sorts. The city is, rather, a state of mine, a body of customs and traditions, and of the organized attitudes and sentiments that inhere in these customs and are transmitted with this tradition. The city is not, in other words, merely a physical mechanism and an artificial construction. It is involved in the vital process of the people who compose it; it is a product of nature, and particularly of human nature. (1916)

Considering that, I would see mass culture more like something belonging to the city in a virtual and potential way, then created by people and by their relations built there, and as something that is not just derived by economic forces and consumerism traditions. Again, the city characteristics assume a more human look. Park doesn’t forget the economic side and recognizes its importance:

The city is not, however, merely a geographical and ecological unit; it is at the same time an economic unit. The economic organization of the city is based on the division of labor. (…) Much of what we ordinarily regard as the city-its charters, formal organization, buildings, street railways, and so forth-is, or seems to be, mere artifact. But these things in themselves are utilities, adventitious devices which become part of the living city only when, and in so far as, through use and wont they connect themselves, like a tool in the hand of man, with the vital forces resident in individuals and in the community.

Another last important aspect:

The fact is, however, that the city is rooted in the habits and customs of the people who inhabit it. The consequence is that the city possesses a moral as well as a physical organization, and these two mutually interact in characteristic ways to mold and modify each other… (1916)

Thus, the city is first of all the space of human action and the shape and personality of its citizens. It is the place where culture and ideas flourish, as a fruit of human interaction.

Image by Oleksandr Hnatenko

Image by Oleksandr Hnatenko, www.pohtography.com

Following this pattern, we can look at analysis that see the representative idea of a city today, as the core of creativity, the essence of innovation, and the development and growth of a contemporary era. The same Richard Florida best seller ‘The rise of creative class’ (2002) contributed to expand the idea of a different city representation. Together with the ‘The creative city’ by Landry (2000), the authors indicated culture in its whole manifestation as the best creativity booster factor to attract the main potential resource of innovation: creative people.

By the way:

Hall unfolds a very important aspect of urban creativity, i.e. the people involvement. In fact, in the view of many scholars concerned with popular culture, people are not only passively consuming goods, as ‘mass’, they are also creatively determining the production and circulation of culture (Chambers, 1986; Fiske, 1989a, b) and shaping accordingly their view of the city. (Botta, 2006)

Mass culture could be seen as created, influenced, inspired by and consumed in the cities. But, in a double way, the same city is protagonist of mass culture, of narrative and imaginary, recounted and repurposed as representative of an idea of the city itself.

Mass culture, consumption and sustainability

Once the interrelationship between city and mass culture has been observed and after having stressed how there is not an only way to intend this liaison, we could now focus on the weight of mass culture. This weight could seem invisible to most, in first place because they don’t want people to see it, and then because people don’t want to see it either. Indeed, I am talking of a complex plot process among mass culture, consumerism and mass consumption, something that concerns deeply our ‘normal’ representation of daily life, as the best life possible.

Every day we get up and go to work. We work to earn money and with that money we buy everything that can permit us to conduce a comfortable life, possibly happy, healthy and rich. The more we work, the more we earn, the more we want to have. Having objects, first of all, does not imply them to be stupid ones. We love design, we love to show off concern for our culture: So we fill our houses with books, compact discs, vinyls, vintage pieces, clothes, shoes, cars. We love of course an independent big house with all comforts, hot in winter and cool in summer. We love culture, we love style and good food, we love travelling around the world, we love a comfortable life, we love shopping. We love sports, we love concerts and dancing. And above all, we love doing everything in a single very amusing and cozy place: a big city that can offer this and more.

That above seems almost one of those pictures or statements that we can commonly find on the teenager’s timeline on Facebook. A real statement about ideal life underpinned by mass culture. Unfortunately it is a sad reality if observed under another point of view. I regret to communicate that our planet is not big nor rich enough (not anymore) to grant the same treatment to all the teenagers of the world. I am sorry to communicate to my friends that their passion to collect rock compact discs is increasing the garbage that someone else will probably find as plastic junk in the sea. I am sorry to communicate to citizens that our big cities are not going to be livable anymore if the presence of toxic gases will increase. I am sorry to communicate that while your favorite an-alcoholic drink brand, Coca Cola, launches its new advertise, assessing their will to help people and make the world a better place, with children singing in the background, in India their factories are exploiting the country’s water resources to produce their drink and the company is collaborating with Government to privatize the same water, taking it away from people.

Image seen in Global Environments & Societies wiki

Image seen in globalenvironmentssocieties.wikispaces.com

It is not easy put in discussion the best lifestyle possible people’s idea: but it is time to really face the cost of our lifestyle, and our lovely mass culture. Maybe mass culture has become a natural part of our life that it is really difficult try to reason on it in terms of sustainability for the planet in which we live, the only one. This is because mass culture currently concerns almost all the rituals of our everyday life, including education, cultural capital, identity, wealth, traditions, and all the ‘soft’ symbolic part turned on rituals.

Anyway, at this point, it could be useful to make a distinction. For me, when we talk about mass culture we are not talking just and necessarily of consumerism, but perhaps more of rituals and activities that are deep-rooted within the consumerist society; this has then for sure been emphasized to an excess, in quantity and in stimulation and expansion of people’s needs. Indeed, Chandra Mukerji (1983) has historically described examples of consumer culture in the 15th Century Europe, where the exchange of media culture, such as books, exotic pieces from far places, jewels, spices and textures, was usual among royalty and upper classes (Wilk, 2002). Moreover, Peter Corrigan argues that the concept of ‘fashion’ was already well known in the Elizabethan times, when London was the center of trends (1997).

Today the modern consumption and the consumerism culture has achieved an exaggerate level of production of goods, if not waste. We could think that the human nature aims to have as much as possible or that being greedy is a natural component of human behavior; instead it is fairly reasonable that not in all societies, in the past nor now, people have the same need of possession, nor the same notion of richness or comforts. Nowadays, we can also say that not even the whole population belonging to the same society has the same notion of values in life and of our cities. Coming back for a moment to Turkey and Brazil, it is clear that a great number of people doesn’t agree with their Governments about which are the priorities for a good life in their cities. Could another shopping center create better conditions for people or enrich people more than a green space? Could a world event solve the social basic issues of inequity and poverty of a country? People are recognizing more and more that what is really important for their cities are adequate spaces for themselves, where they have the chance to choose their rituals or maybe to create them.

We are in a cyclic system that resembles a treadmill, where the whole society is involved, into the process of producing needs, old and new, and then producing goods. The index to indicate the level of wealth and growth is the GDP that measures the quantity of goods – products in one year per country. Is the huge quantity of goods produced seriously making our societies better and prosper?

Whereas mass culture (or mass cultures) is made of tools, symbols, icons, practices, rituals and it is something concerning people and their consumption in a certain way, what distinguishes pure consumerism today is: The quantity of goods produced; the stimulation and the expansion of needs; the pushing, by few stakeholders, of society towards consumption and possession. For sure marketing and selling strategies have always done a good job to lead practices, rituals and symbols around their products.

Buy More Stuff, Black Friday 2009 - Photo by Michael Holden

Buy More Stuff, Black Friday 2009 – Photo by Michael Holden

Consumerism affects mass culture so much that is primarily a mean of identity and interaction with others, because historically our Western capitalist societies consider money and the quantity of goods as distinctive symbols of wealth and success in life. Sure is that, the existence and the use of mass culture both suffer this deal. But in a society where we are conscious of the issues concerning the exploitation of resources and the return of it under the shape of garbage and where the first value is keeping safe life conditions, mass culture could change look. Already now we are adhering to style trends for smart cities, car sharing, waste recycle and other practices, that if inserted as pieces of mass culture into our lives could help to change mass culture too.

Thus, we cannot just criticize our consumerism society in terms of the damage that we are causing. We should start to reflect on our daily cultural practices, which are indeed made of mass cultural media tools, starting by city spaces, where our activities are concentrated and where more than other we could see the rituals and the proliferation of mass culture. And thus, we should begin thinking of a new approach based on them. I am persuaded that we could indeed change mass culture through mass culture itself.

According to the anthropologist Margaret Mead, there is no single approach working successfully in every society; rather, each one has a “culturally appropriate” approach, concerning the specific characteristics of its individuals (1953). In this perspective, Wilk argues:

They imply that no single set of solutions, technological, legislative, or cultural, is going to work in every society. On the contrary, we should expect great diversity in the ways different countries and cultures deal with sustainability problems. How can we expect things to change in the countries that presently consume so much more than their share of global resources? (2002)

When we talk about cities, we then talk about mass culture too, thus maybe cities could live by a different mass culture. As the city has been the protagonist of growth of mass society and mass culture of consumerism, it could also happen that the city may see the birth of a new and fairer society. Indeed, change should begin from here, from the set of organizations and citizens, in creating different rituals and use of the spaces.

Image by Starkart

Image by Starkart

Bibliography:

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice. Harvard University Press.
Corrigan, Peter. 1997. The Sociology of Consumption: An Introduction. London: Sage.
Florida, Richard. 2002. The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.
Grazian, David. 2010. Mix It Up: Popular Culture, Mass Media, and Society. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Jayne, Mark. 2006. Cities and Consumption. New York: Routledge.
Landry, Charles. 2000. The creative city. New York: Routledge.
Mead, Margaret; World Federation for Mental Health. 1953. Cultural patterns and technical change. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Miller, Daniel. 1998. “Coca Cola: A Sweet Black Drink from Trinidad.” Pp. 169-187 in Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, edited by D. Miller. London: UCL Press.
Mukerji, Chandra.1983. From Graven Images: Patterns of Modern Materialism New York: Columbia University Press.
Park, Robert. 1916. “The city: suggestions for the investigation of human behavior in the urban environment” Pp. 90 -130 in Classic Essay on the Culture of Cities. New York. 1969, edited by R. Sennett. New York Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Weber, Max. 1958. “The City.” Pp. 23-46 in Classic Essay on the Culture of Cities. New York. 1969, edited by R. Sennett. New York Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Wilk, Richard. 2002. “Culture and Energy Consumption” Pp. 109-130, in Energy: Science, Policy and the Pursuit of Sustainability, edited by Robert Bent, Lloyd Orr, and Randall Baker. Island Press: Washington.
Veblen, Thorstein. 1899 [1973]. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Introduction John Kenneth Galbraith. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

This is a guest article by Simona Ibba (@PenniLeyn). Thanks, Simona!

If you want to get your own article published, see this.

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Guidelines to build participatory and inclusive societies

Category: ⚐ EN+architecture+art+city+creativity+placemaking+research+sustainability

portada_654x254

In order to achieve the Post-Master called Urban Research Lab Sardinia – Environmental Design at the Università di Sassari (DAP), in partnership with the Dessau Institute of Architecture (DIA) of Anhalt University of Applied Sciences, an article will be published about the project made during the italian period, under the supervision of Ecosistema Urbano: Punto d’incontro.

This is an excerpt of the introduction, including some references and case studies.

The role of the architect

The role of the architect has always been, throughout ancient and modern history, a reference point for the city growth and development. Nowadays, this figure is undergoing a massive transformation, which cannot ignore social aspects. The modern architect helps to integrate production processes within the spaces users live and use in everyday life.

The article aims to present an experiment that was personally led in a very specific local community in Sardinia (Italy) which is affected by logistic, economical and management problems. Through theoretical studies and personal analysis of a variety of existing projects, a detailed process was drafted in order to suggest a strategic action plan.

Western society has scarce resources and the European architect often asks the following question, what can I do now without nothing? In this hard times, it is far more difficult for closed solution to be imposed by a power minority than for specific temporary actions to be applied based on grassroots talks, because sensitivity is high and social groups are highly resistant to accepting any changes which have not come from within their ranks. Ecosistema Urbano (2011). “Negotiating at all level”. A + T 38. 120

fountainhead_654

Strategy & Tactics

The first input to the change came with the drafting of Agenda 21, a voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development. It emphasises that broad public participation in decision making is a fundamental prerequisite for achieving sustainable development. The main goal is trying to involve the local communities in the construction process of the future of the cities. When public space is concerned, there are two ways to run over: strategy and tactics. Both are tools of equal value, but with different typology of method; they are usually known as top-down or bottom-up processes.

Tactics are actions which take place on enemy territory while strategy is always enacted on home ground. Which can lead to an immediate run-of-the-mill sharing out of roles: strategy is an instrument of power, tactics are used by citizens; strategy occupies space, tactics play out in time; strategy is used to control, tactics to protest. De Certeau, M.(1988). The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press

Recent developments of these concepts became well known under different name, but in essence they are all the same.

Tactical urbanism. It is defined as small-scale improvements in an effort to effect large-scale, long-term change.
Placemaking. It is the act of enlivening public spaces and places for the betterment of the community and its neighbors.
Participatory design. It is an approach to the assessment, design, and development of technological and organizational systems that places a premium on the active involvement of workplace practitioners (usually potential or current users of the system).

The following scheme represents the stages of the experiment:
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The Iberian trip

There was the necessity to analyze the theory, exploring some case studies and finding some references. This processes are already very disseminated all over the world, especially in USA and north Europe, where the citizens have a great sense of community and cooperation.

Nevertheless this research focused on the Mediterranean area, in this particular case in the Iberian peninsula, where the lack of organization meets high quality and creativity, typical of the Latin culture. Some of the cases shown here are real established structures, others are spaces under construction and constantly changing. The connecting link is always one of active participation.
iberian trip_654

LXFACTORY – Lisbon

An urban fragment, kept hidden for years, is now returned to the city in the form of LXFactory. A creative island occupied by corporations and professionals of the industry serves also has stage for a diverse set of happenings related to fashion, publicity, communication, fine arts, architecture, music, etc.

lx_factory

El campo de cebada – Madrid

A group of neighbours called Distrito Centro promoted a temporary use of the vacant lof of a former public pool demolished in a district of Madrid, during the time in which the work planned for urban reuse was not to be carried out. The intention is that the space will accommodate all types of proposals/activities/projects (cultural, social, artistic, sport) for the use and enjoyment of the people of the district and all the city.

cebada

Matadero – Madrid

The old slaughterhouse and livestock market, where Matadero Madrid is now located, was built according with the project of the architect Luis Bellido. The site was architecturally transformed.
Matadero Madrid’s mission is to promote creation in all its forms and expressions. With special attention to cross-sectorial propositions, it focuses on three main action areas: training, production and dissemination.

matadero

Fabra i Coats Creation Factory – Barcelona

Fabra i Coats is a multidisciplinary space which will be promoting artistic hybridisation to become a point of reference in artistic research and in the generation of new quality contents, as well as a meeting point for groups, creators and proposals from different spheres and backgrounds.
The goal is to give support to artistic creation and it has workspaces for the performing arts, music, plastic and visual arts, multimedia creation and also for projects related to information and communication technology.

fabra i coats

Sometimes these kind of actions are not supported by a physical space, but by the people that build their spaces through some collective iniziatives, occasionally supported by a politician organization or made by self-funded artistic groups.

Urbact

It is a European exchange and learning programme promoting sustainable urban development. They enable cities to work together to develop solutions to major urban challenges, reaffirming the key role they play in facing increasingly complex societal changes. URBACT spans over 500 cities, 29 countries and 7,000 active participants.

urbact

Collectif ETC

Born in Strasbourg in 2009, this collective gathered energy around a common dynamic questioning of urban space. Through different means and different skills it wants to be a medium for experimentation. They believe that the different users of the city (residents and professionals) can all be involved in its development to a wide range of scales. The purpose and importance of these urban experiments is not only the result but also the process that generates it, as well as the new environment and new behavior it generates.

colletif etc

Boa Mistura

It is an urban art group formed at the end of 2001 in Madrid, Spain. Its members have diversity of perspectives, distinct visions which complement each other, and combine to create something unique and coherent.

boa mistura

Madrid Street Art Project

It is a noprofit association that through the organization of various activities and initiatives (urban Safaris, workshops, lectures, recovery rooms) aims to contribute to these reflections, to encourage citizens to enjoy urban art, contribute to its dissemination and support its creators.

madrid street art project

Conclusions

The final article will aim to give some semi-scientific guidelines to build participatory and inclusive societies. The new frontier of the architect should be to drive local communities in the management of public and private space, involving them in the construction process of the urban renewal. This is when the architect, as a highly knowledgeable technician, plays an essential role to mend the relation between politicians and common people.

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Open Source Urbanism | Open Source City

Category: ⚐ EN+open culture+urbanism

Image by Joshua Gajownik modified by Francesco Cingolani.

Today I want to share an article that was previously published in Studio Magazine. On this occasion, I would like to thank their coordination team for inviting me to join their first release.

Summary /Overview

 
Traditional media don’t broadcast what the citizens are debating or organizing on a daily basis. Nevertheless, thanks to Social Networks, people can receive information and interact in real time with others, taking part in debates and social movements; and the 15th of May in Spain is an example of this.

This new information ecosystem reduces the influence of the mass media and slowly forces local authorities to relate to citizens in a more direct and horizontal way.

This is a great opportunity to generate a new “social control” model, pushing local authorities to take public opinion into account.

The digital media offers a broad environment for communication so that the organisation of any given action is greatly improved; everything becomes decentralized while simultaneously connected and synchronized.

On the urban scale, we speak of the “Sentient City”, a model based on a technological/social ecosystem, where knowledge, collective actions, and interactions between individuals and groups are encouraged, taking advantage of the new possibilities offered by hybridizing physical and digital layers.

In reversing the supremacy of centralisation over individual actions, citizens can become aware of their power and organize themselves on the web.
We have the necessary technology, knowledge and dynamics to put in place more open processes of urban administration and management. Citizens have already started to move; and although public administration could take advantage of such independent and autonomous processes to deal with complex situations, it appears that a clear political will is still lacking.

The fragmented city

 
Today, the dimensions of time and space, which were historically strongly linked in a space-time continuum, are increasingly growing apart and becoming independent, in a fragmented spatial perception. Nowadays a large number of people are moving from one point to another of the city to reach their workplace, and go back home. The distance between these two points (spatial dimension) and what happens between them does not affect or interest these people in any way. Indeed, the only thing people are concerned with is the duration of the trip (time dimension).
The city is no longer a continuous place, but a structure of nodes connected in a network (network city). These nodes become increasingly more defined, organised and efficient and, the journeys between them shorter and faster thanks to technical progress. The spaces of a city that have no particular characteristics and a unique function, that is to say everything that is not a node, loose significance, including public spaces.

In such city – the “fragmented city” – we use low cost technologies (internet, telephone and transport) to move, to manage our social relationships, and to communicate with people with whom we don’t necesarilly share a common physical space like a neighbourhood.

Very often the complexity of one point exclusively consists in giving access to other points, hence the importance that movement has acquired today. Instead of living in a continuous space, we continuously move between discontinuous spaces (points or nodes).

This networked structure, unlike a continuous structure, reduces diversity and complexity. The less diversity and complexity, the greater the need to move. Every point has its function and identity. Everything seems more organised and easier to find. However, to find what we are looking for, we are compelled to move constantly to other nodes.

The majority of these journeys are done by means of transport, at a speed that does not allow any relationship with the surroundings. There is a starting point and a finishing point, with little opportunity for a surprise or a change. All this implies an impoverishment of the intermediate spaces, spaces that link different points: places are consequently public spaces.

In order to transform these kinds of cities, it is essential to intervene in everyday aspects of life which might appear to have no relationship with the design of public spaces in urban areas.

Our lifestyles are two dimensional: in situ and virtual. Now we are able to intervene in the new dimension, what we commonly call “virtual” or “digital”, . As the sociologist Manuel Castells says “Everything we do, from when the day begins until it is over, we do it with internet […] the connexion between in-situ (not real because reality is virtual and in situ at the same time) and virtual is established by us. There are not two different societies, there are two kinds of social activities and relations within ourselves. We are the ones that have to search the best way to arrange and adapt them.

fragmented cityImage by Francesco Cingolani | francescocingolani.info

Public Space, Sentient Space

 
According to Daniel Innerarty, in the city the homogeneous and non changing area is nothing more than an extreme case within a global area of connected local multiplicities. Instead of neighbourhoods, local networks are developed, and public debate takes place in a virtual area. In this scenario, streets and squares have ceased to be the main meeting areas.

Internet seems to offer an alternative “space” for social relationships as compared to “traditional” spaces. This can be seen as a problem leading to empty public spaces; or on the contrary, it can be considered an extraordinary opportunity to strengthen social relationships by creating the necessary budgets to improve the vitality of public spaces. Today the Internet is the “place” where community models of management are being experimented.

I believe it is important to reconsider the city as something built by everyone, and to see public areas as the ground where this process can take place. Today we have tools available that are able to act as a catalyst for participatory dynamics that were previously impossible to coordinate. There are increasing examples of processes of creation by citizens, linked to the use of new technologies. It is undeniable that Internet is a key factor contributing to changing the society. That being said I believe it is obvious that we cannot think of public space without taking into consideration the potentialities of these technologies, how they are used and how they can be an added value.

We should begin to talk about a new type of public space, a hybrid space, where technology could become a catalyst for hybridising dynamics between activities that are not traditionally connected or that are located in other (private) spaces.

Juan Freire explains this clearly: “The differentiation between spaces and physical and virtual communities is outdated. We are witnessing a hybridising process which modifies our individual identities, communitarian and territorial. Internet has contributed to the development of global networks, but paradoxically it has had a less noticeable influence in local spheres. However, digital technologies modify radically the way in which we are organised and we relate to our environment so we are already living in territories where the digital realm is as important as the physical. The hyper-local networks and hybrid public spaces are the new realities which we confront with the advent of Internet and digital culture in our local environment”.

According to Juan Freire the crisis of public (physical) spaces in urban areas is also due to the lack of (open) design, giving the citizens, once more, the opportunity to take a real interest in its use. It has also brought into debate concepts such as “hybrid spaces”, to refer to the opportunities that the hybridising of the physical with the digital sphere offers in public spaces.
We can grant the assumption of the existence of a digital skin that characterizes public spaces and devote ourselves to defining its qualities and characteristics. Instead of “hybrid” I like to use the concept of “sensitive”. “Sensitive space” refers to the “living” character of these spaces; to their capacity to promote a two-way relationship with its users, to catalyse hyper-local social networks and to visualise information related to the environment in a transparent manner.

prosumerImage by Francesco Cingolani | francescocingolani.info

Social networks and Self-organization

 
If we analyze the increase in the use of social networks on the Internet we realize that we are witnessing a process of change that will lead to the disappearance of the current dissociation between digital and in-situ identity.
Most people can continue living in complete normality without having to take care of their digital (identity) presence in social networks. Nevertheless, it is highly probable that in a few years time the concept of identity will inevitably integrate both the digital and the physical dimension. Consequently, each person will be forced to take as much care of their digital identity as of their physical identity, something that many people have been doing for some time already.

We must take several specific factors of this new kind of identity into consideration such as its peculiar time dimension. The building process of the digital identity over time leaves a footprint on the web, a visible footprint that is accessible to any user. The end result is an identity that is perceived as a sum of the past (footprint) and present identity.

Generally we control our public image by showing at each time only what we wish. However, when our identity leaves a footprint on the internet, we no longer have exclusive control over it but it is shared amongst friends and acquaintances (namely the peer group).

Each person that knows me can publish information (photographs, texts, etc…) that are directly or indirectly related to my identity without the need of my approval. This is what happens in most of the social networks.

Certainly, my digital identity will be entirely integrated in the learning process and will be increasingly associated to a physical space; that is, the idea we had about a parallel digital identity that is detached from reality does not, I think, interest anyone: in fact we do not even have time to create parallel identities.

Our identity is not only formed by way of the information that my friends and I have published, but also through the information that my devices publish. An example could be the use of services like Foursquare that allows me to upload posts in my social networks about my location at any time, taking advantage of the internet connection of our mobile phones.

To explain this phenomenon Tim Berners-Lee mentions Giant Global Graph, this means, the future Semantic Web with which we shall go from gathering the relationship between people to focus on the relationship between people and their interests (documents). Thus, if the “Internet” has allowed us to connect computers and the “Web” has allowed us to connect documents, then the “Graph” will allow us to link the documents (places, objects, etc.) and the people. So we could define the Graph as the third level of abstraction, taking into account that in each layer (Internet, Web, or Graph) we have handed over some control only in order to reach bigger benefits. A direct consequence of these dynamics is the definite statement of a (unique) identity on the web that can be recognized by any agent, person or application.

This unmistakable digital identity facilitates the development of innovative social hardware projects based on participation of a non-collective nature, where the dynamics of collaboration are the result of individual action and interaction. We are progressively discovering the self-organisation of informed societies that are capable of revolutionizing their own structures taking advantage of the virtual mirror phenomenon that enables the association of information on a given situation with individual decisions.

open source urbanismImage by Francesco Cingolani | francescocingolani.info based on flickr images by garpa.net & See-ming Lee

Control and decentralization

 
Social networks reinforce a new type of control: a decentralized control operated by a diversity of independent individuals that collaborate, using shared and mobile capacities of calculation and communication. Information and Communication Technologies do not present a solution, but an opportunity to improve our ability to manage territories. ICT’s can be used for many different purposes. On the one hand their enormous capacity for processing data can be used to centralize all the information and try to “solve” urban complexity; but they can also be used to open and decentralize decision-making.

The aim is to research on how ICT’s allow us to define an urban administration structure where discontinued points of control exist in an environment of self-determination (appropriation) and liberty. This is an idea that is close to the definition of tensegrity that Buckminster Fuller mentions: “islands in compression inside a tense ocean“.

The introduction of digital technologies within the physical space enables the development of new communication dynamics and relations between neighbours that improves the cohesion of local communities and their quality of life, offering a feeling of greater security.

Thanks to new technologies and to some cultural “mutations”, systems and worlds that were previously closed and not very transparent, are now open to the participation of agents (and people) who are external to their organisational structures. Citizens become more available to participate and collaborate because they are better informed and they are finally considered as useful partners for the urban administration. Architects and urban planners can reasonably begin to work keeping in touch constantly with citizens, “sharing” their decision-making “powers”.

To explain this phenomenon we can refer to the concept of “long tail” coined by Cris Anderson. The Internet and the digital environment have changed the (power) distribution laws and the market rules. The present political and economic system is based on a pyramid structure where the power (or the economic or creative potential) of many is considered inferior to the power of those that stand on the highest part of the pyramid. There is a new system based on the addition or accumulation of all the small potentials (or powers) of the mass of citizens that, thanks to the systems of communication on the internet, can equal or exceed the power (or potential) of those who are in a privileged position today. These are the old markets of masses and the new niche of markets that are pictured at the top and the bottom of the well known graph of statistical distribution.

The presence of a centralized identity is not needed when the control and feedback devices allow the actors to visualize or to become aware of the consequence of their actions. The unconscious self-organisation phenomenon becomes conscious and intended control when the individuals are allowed to understand the effects of their actions. The concept of tensegrity comes in here when it refers to an administration model where decentralized and centralized decisions are joined, avoiding the appearance of any closed and omnipresent control dynamics.

Reversing the supremacy of centralization over individual decisions, citizens can become aware of their actions and intentionally coordinate them. This process may help to restore the necessary legitimacy and credibility to the interventions that take place in degraded urban areas.

control y descentralizacion Image by Francesco Cingolani | francescocingolani.info

Towards participation: Accountability and open data

 
“Participation demands an information system, an observatory and indicators that will regularly reflect the situation of what we consider as key variables to establish our evolution, that should be accessible and comprehensible for citizens” (Agustín Hernández Aja, 2002)

In 2002, Hernández Aja, Urban planning professor at the Universidad Politécnica in Madrid, describes the essential assumptions for citizen participation. A decade later, communication models and administration dynamics that bring us close to these assumptions start to become popular.

I would like to highlight (point out) accountability and the Open Data movement.

Approaching the term accountability we can create an ecosystem of communication and transparency that can enable citizens to demand responsibilities from governing bodies. This would help us to reach the objective of decentralizing control, which is necessary for a true democracy.

Open Parlamento (openparlamento.it) is a great example of how to work to achieve accountability. It is a web-based tool that enables distributed monitoring of the work of the members of parliament in the Italian parliament.

The web page offers lots of information on draft legislation, and in general, about all the activities in the Parliament. Most interesting of all is the distributed monitoring system that allows for control of every Member of Parliament’s political activities. Every citizen can “adopt” a member and publish all their declarations and confront them with their parliamentary activity.

We can imagine this same system applied on a local scale, where citizens have greater organization capacities and power to exert pressure. The control to which all the local administrators would be subject to, would be so intense that they would nearly be obliged to start up a transformation of the administrative structures towards a more open and participatory model.

The Open Data movement is an important drive towards achieving transparency over public administration. Open Data consists of making Public Administration data available for the public, such as data related to projects that are financed with public money or managed by public institutions.

The aim is to take advantage of the data that the public administrations do not want or do not have the capacity to analyze. Releasing this data enables any person or organization to build new consultation and visualization formulas, to simplify, diversify and even to enrich the initial information.

In Spain, within this new tendency, the Open Data Euskadi project should be highlighted. It is part of the Open Government initiative of the Bask Government: a website dedicated to the exhibition of public data in a re-usable format, under open licenses. On an urban scale, two projects stand out that have been activated by two Spanish cities; Zaragoza and Córdoba. They are beginning to take their first steps in the world of Open Data.

I am convinced that citizen pressure will force all the big cities to join this process of openness and transparency.

sentient cityImage by Francesco Cingolani | francescocingolani.info REAL-TIME CITY | a proposal for Smart Turin by HDA | Hugh Dutton Associés.

Open source and Network Awareness

 
As we mentioned previously, reversing the supremacy of centralization over individual actions, citizens can become aware of their “power” and begin to organize in networks.
We have the technology the knowledge and the dynamics available to introduce more open urban administration processes. Citizens have begun to move; the administrations could take advantage of these autonomous and independent processes, to manage very complex situations. However, a clear political will is still lacking.

Probably the administrators have managed to delay the transition towards a new participatory administration model, thanks to the indirect or even direct support of what is known as the “fourth power”: the media. The current information system still offers the administrators and the “powerful” a wide opportunity to manipulate and control certain processes.
The emergence of a more distributed information model is beginning to offer to any citizen the possibility to produce relevant local information. A communication ecosystem based on social media is born.
This new information ecosystem can reduce the influence of the mass media and therefore force the local administrators to enforce accountability regarding the decisions that are taken. The administrators will be compelled to relate to this new, more horizontal and distributed form of communication: an opportunity to generate “social control” that can improve transparency and force the local administrators to take the public opinion into account.

A clear example of what is being presented here, are the latest citizen mobilizations that are happening in Spain. After the 15M demonstration, an organized and authorized event, many occupations took place in numerous squares in the whole of Spain. These camps were organized in a matter of hours using Twitter and Facebook. It is impossible to exert control over these information flows and action catalysts like the occupations. Steps have been taken towards a model in which governors and administrators are going to have to understand that they cannot continue to ignore the citizens while they defend the interests of others.

We are witnessing an innovative construction process of a new communal and public sphere; the development of a new model of public space that we have called “sensitive space”. Traditional media don’t communicate what we the people are debating on a daily basis, nonetheless, thanks to Social Networks, people can receive information and interact in real time with others taking part in debates and social movements, the example of the occupation of public squares is an example of this.

It is interesting to note that the in-situ (on-site) realm is absolutely essential and how the digital media is simply offering a wider environment for communication so that the organisation of any given action is greatly improved; everything becomes decentralized while at the same time connected and synchronized.

These processes seem to be nearly inevitable. Once they are established as natural local administration processes then we will be speaking about a more favorable environment, for an Open Source City, that is, a city open to everyone’s participation.

Flickr image by Julio Albarrán

This article was originally published in urbanohumano.org and Studio Magazine.

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The Bureau of Doing Something About It

Category: ⚐ EN+critical city+design

Bruce Mau Design, a design and innovation studio centered on purpose and optimism, set up design exhibition “The Bureau of Doing Something About It”. The exhibition took place in the Propeller Centre in Toronto, Canada.

During the past year over 1000 grievances, gripes, and annoyances were collected from people across the city. The Toronto Complaints Choir transform this complains into “disappointed people’s song”.

BMD studio decided to do something about it.  Studio designers Amanda Happé, Kar Yan Cheung, Chris Braden, Michal Dudek, and Paul Kawai team set up a pop-up studio, working in real-time in the Propeller Centre. They tried to design solutions in response to the complaints. A book of these ideas was also simultaneously designed, and sent throughout the city of Toronto and their citizens.