New tools for citizen empowerment
This text is the result of my intervention in the ‘Hacking the City’ workshop organised by radarq that took place in Seville, Spain, on September 2012. My goal was to think about the concept of Tactical Urbanism and its ability to empower citizens, considering the possibilities offered to us by the digital sphere and new technologies.
Paco González, who invited me to this workshop, was also the one who suggested that my presentation should focus on answering the following questions:
What is the meaning of the street as a platform?
How can mapping and geolocation technologies affect the concept of citizenship?
What are the changes brought by ubiquity and mobile / smartphone usage?
Here are my thoughts.
I understand Tactical Urbanism as the set of actions or micro-actions spontaneously launched by citizens themselves, based on self-organization and focused on modifying or improving their habitat; as a result, the city is again understood as a space of social production as Henri Lefebvre has described, and its inhabitants are now producers of a bottom-up city as opposed to the top-down view which characterizes traditional urban planning.
Before continuing, I would like to highlight the need to bring the reflection of urbanism and urban models down to the dimension of the everyday. We need to think about our real lifestyles, about how we experience the city and our social relations. I want to suggest the need to get down to the ‘earthly’ in order to avoid falling into too many theoretical issues, or even worse, too rhetorical.
One of the biggest problems in cities is the lack of communication among neighbors. The distance and distrust we have generated toward strangers seems to have reached a point of no return. Any problem is solved by following rules and asking specialists: we don’t count on our own neighbors anymore, not even to ask for a pinch of salt or a corkscrew.
How can we start any Tactical Urbanism processes in such a bitter social context?
A good starting point could be working on processes that empower communication between neighbors. Thanks to blogs and social networks, we citizens have begun to share more and more information. A percentage of this information—even if it’s a small one—is related to the neighborhood or the city we live in. This is the context in which Citizen Journalism, a very powerful practice to empower and visualize local identity, is starting to break through.
The truth is that this process of continuous information exchange, in addition to its obvious value for local communities, represents the first step in the implementation of Collective Intelligence processes. We are talking about the possibility of generating new social ties based on mutual learning, and the ability to collaborate on projects and goals that are far removed from the rules of the market and the quest for direct personal benefits. However, before gaining Collective Intelligence, citizens first need to discover and understand a new model of collective organizationthat is to say the ‘network structure’which, depending on each particular case, adds to or replaces the classic model of ‘community’.
As explained in Wikipedia, a community is a set of individuals that share common elements such as a language, customs, values, tasks, an idea about the world, age, geographical location (a neighborhood, for example), social status, roles. Normally a community creates a common identity through its differentiation from other groups or communities, which is developed and shared among its members and finally socialized.
On the other hand, a social network is a social structure formed by groups of people connected by one or more types of relationship, common interests or shared expertise. It can also be understood as the network that surrounds a person in the different social contexts in which he or she interacts; in this case we are talking about a ‘personal network’. A community is generally understood as a hierarchical organization that requires explicit and continuous consensus and commitment from all its members. The community often produces very strong feelings of belonging based on visibility and presence, i.e. each member has to continuously confirm his or her ‘affiliation’ with acts of presence so that he or she is still considered a member of the community. This way, we see that the glue holding this type of organization together is the members themselves, their relationships and their presence.
A network operates horizontally. Instead of consensus, it requires common sense and balance. The members of a network don’t usually identify with it like they do with a community. This is a very interesting aspect: belonging to a network does not require any commitment at all. The result is a greater freedom based on the much more intense and transparent exchange of information that happens within a network.
I would like to highlight another very important difference: the most important thing for the survival of a community is the people, but for a network, it’s the information. A community-based project can fail due to relational problems between members, while a network-based project often fails due to a lack of transparency and information. Some urban micro-actions, although they may not have a community supporting them, can be considered promoters of the creation of new networks.
At this point we obviously must discuss digital social networks, understood as communication tools for self-organizing and collective intelligence processes. The most popular ones—such as Facebook or Twitter—unfortunately hide many other problems related to data usage and privacy; we could discuss these problems for an insane amount of time. However, it’s a fact that they have achieved an impressive mass of regular users which allows us to contact all kinds of people, a key factor for citizen empowerment.
How can we transfer into the space all this potential and this ability of self-organization and collaboration that we are now experiencing in the digital sphere?
The great opportunity comes with the mobile internet and geo-referencing, two things which together allow something that used to be unthinkable: the ability to associate a digital identity with a particular physical space in real time. This means that while our digital identity was, so far, practically ubiquitous, we can now give it spatial dimension.
We generate what I have defined as ‘Sentient Identity’, a sensitive identity that can adapt depending on where we are. This new Digital Identity, when contextualized in real time, generates a direct connection between the space, its corresponding digital information and the people who are using it.
This hybridization and the processing of the huge amount of available information increases the ability of the space to create opportunities, to build synergies between the existing people and to encourage serendipity.
Thanks to the digital sphere, we are now used to something that we lack in the real dimension: traceability. Most of the things that we do on the Internet leave a digital footprint associated to our Digital Identity; it gets increasingly hard to manage different identities at once.
Although this clearly has its downside—it can easily allow control over our personal information—it also has a very positive use when related to space through the use of mobile internet and Sentient Identity.
There are Social Eating services like gnammo.com that let its users organize meals at home where unknown people can participate. With Sentient Identity you can find a meal being organized by someone in your own neighborhood or even as a tourist in an unknown city. Users tend to trust these services more when they are accessed through already active accounts in existing social networks: users trust traceability. We believe that no one would do something wrong because all of his or her social network friends would find out.
This type of connection between digital information and physical space turns internet traceability into something physical. Thanks to mobile internet, it can be used in all kinds of activities.
The street as a platform
The street—when we understand it as public space—has always worked as a platform that can benefit social relations, boost commercial and production activities, and create a space for debate and political involvement.
Nowadays all these tasks have been transferred to other places as well as to other dimensions, a very important one being the digital dimension. As explained before, we can use the digital sphere as a tool to turn the street back into a platform, a space of opportunities. Dan Hill started talking about this concept in 2008 in his post called ‘The street as a platform’. The street definitely is one of the spaces where we can better intervene with Tactical Urbanism actions.
In many cases we can start using the street as a platform by simply changing our behaviour.
We will now see a few examples related to this behavioral change.
Involving equally: processes of collaborative social responsibility that involve institutions, enterprises, organizations and individuals
Oficina de Gestión de Muros (Wall Management Office) creates negotiation processes for the integration of graffiti art in urban walls by bringing together and encouraging discussion between local authorities, residents, district officials, urban artists and public or private funders.
The result can be seen not only on the urban wall itself, but on the development of new policies for urban art. You can also visit openwalls.org.
Joining willpower to pursue goals along with others and not against each other.
Besides heavy infrastructures which are usually scheduled by urban planning from the top, Tactical Urbanism actions usually generate light infrastructures, sometimes even invisible, and in any case far from big budgets and maintenance costs.
En bici por Madrid (Cycling Madrid) shows that the use of the bicycle in the capital of Spain does not depend exclusively on bike lanes being built. Through a collective effort, its members create city maps to mark calm and quiet streets that can safely accommodate bicycle traffic. This invisible and flexible infrastructure (PDF) is never formalized but is available on-line and it only obtains a physical dimension when an anonymous citizen rides around the city using the information on these maps.
Creating local identity through actions which are lightweight, low-budget and have little bureaucratic requirements.
These processes don’t focus solely on intervention in the physical space or urban infrastructures but encourage processes of collaborative creation, promote community-based economics and rescue values to awaken the local community.
PARK(ing) Day is a yearly global celebration in which artists, designers and other citizens collaborate to transform temporarily—for one day—metered parking spots into PARK(ing) spaces, that is temporary public parks.
Consuming what is produced!
Today’s society and economy are structured on a process of increasing specialization, and at the same time are strictly associated with the idea that progress is only possible when it comes with economic growth. Throughout our working life we are likely to engage in the production of a limited number of things, projects or services which, in most cases, have nothing to do with our daily routine. This model leads us to be totally dependent on things that other people produce. We don’t want to—or we can’t—produce all the things that we need for our everyday life on our own; we simply consume them without producing. Fortunately, today the citizen is becoming a prosumer, i.e. a producer and consumer at the same time. This concept is also related to collective intelligence and collective production, since what is produced and consumed is actually the result of the work of many people, all of them prosumers. A prosumer neighborhood is able to implement open processes to solve local problems and/or contribute knowledge.
La galería de magdalena (Magdalena’s gallery) tries to take the pedestrian away from his or her reality, generate new situations between them and use the public space as a platform for art galleries with low-cost urban interventions.
Collective thinking and action.
These are initiatives that count on few resources but a large number of agents, so that the result does not depend on one actor but rather on a process of collective intelligence and creation.
The collective Basurama (in Love we Trash), through its various practices related to municipal waste, proposes open design processes where the community discusses and reflects on trash, waste and reuse in all its formats and possible meanings. Open source, commons, off-shoring and especially collaboration are terms that are implicit in these types of processes.
Playing with the city.
This term refers to the use of game mechanics for non-game contexts, so that people engage in a certain behavior. In this case we’re talking about actions that use game dynamics to bring people closer to the place they live in and boost interaction between neighbors. An important element of these dynamics is their ability to generate learning processes which can also be the result of a collective action, thereby encouraging and improving social capital.
Geocaching is a game that consists of hiding and seeking ‘treasures’ any place in the world, using the help of a GPS. Each player can hide objects in rural or urban locations, note down the location coordinates using a GPS receiver, and publish them on specialized websites for other people to begin the treasure hunt. These websites are true digital communities where anyone can check the existence of hidden treasures near home or in any other area they are planning to visit. The rules specify that whoever finds one of these treasures can take any object but must leave something of equal or greater value for the next treasure hunter.
Sharing to improve how we relate to others and how we live.
The term Collaborative Consumption refers to the cultural and economic change in consumer habits characterized by the migration from a consumerism based on individual ownership to new exchange models including sharing, bartering and renting often powered by social media and peer-to-peer platforms. This practice can mean a significant change in the way we experience the city by generating new opportunities to collaborate with our neighbors, such as consumer groups.
Gnammo is an on-line platform where both amateurs and professionals can organize meals, dinner parties or other events in their own homes. Gnammo is the perfect social network to share your cooking skills or your passion for food with your friends.
Also known as crowd financing or crowd-sourced fundraising, this is the collective cooperation of people building a network of ‘backers’ to collect money or other resources that will sustain an initiative by a person or an organization.
Spacehive is the first crowdfunding platform focused exclusively on local urban projects.
This text was written using the texts, works and thoughts of Alba Balmaseda and Esaú Acosta from Vivero de Iniciativas Ciudadanas, the workshop Arquitectura en Betaby Paco Gonzalez(@pacogonzalez) and Ethel Baraona (@ethel_baraona), the workshop Entorno digital y aprendizaje urbano by Paco Gonzalez and Enric Senabre (@esenabre), the works of Zuloark, Basuramaand Ecosistema Urbano and the research of Carlos Camara (@carlescamara).
First image by Francesco Cingolani (immaginoteca.pro) based on flickr images by garpa.net & See-ming Lee
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