Social innovation: How about measuring water quality for ourselves?!

By Jim Segers, on August 22nd, 2017

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City Mine(d) is a Brussels- and London-based NGO that has been active for over 20 years in projects involving citizens and local residents in urban development. City Mine(d) deliberately blurs the boundaries between social and technological innovation and artistic creation. Using the methodology of “radical prototyping”, Jim Segers, one of City Mine(d)’s founders, tells URBACT blog about one of their projects called Pacco – test for an intelligent water-quality monitoring device.

It sometimes looks as though the human species is branching into two distinct groups: technophiles and technophobes. Those who look at technology to come up with solutions for every challenge our cities face, and on the other hand those who see technology as the source of all doom and gloom.

Yet solutions to the big challenges will have to be accepted and implemented by both groups: lovers and haters, technophiles and technophobes. The solutions consist of technological patches acceptable also to suspicious citizens. This is where social innovation (Moulaert, 2013) comes in, and that happens to be what City Mine(d) encourages. The transforming metropolis requires effort to sustain and transform social relations, and it cannot be left to government or technocrats alone to steer this change.

City Mine(d) refers to its method of social innovation as “radical prototyping”. The starting point of a radical prototyping process is an opportunity discovered within one of the dominant systems of society; take for instance water, energy, the economy or mobility. Within those systems, City Mine(d) tries to identify the cracks (Swyngedouw, 2000); the objects or practices that escape the seemingly all-encompassing logics of market or government (Meyer S., De Weerdt, Y. Segers, J. 2016: 7). In practice prototyping means setting a target of a concrete object or way of organising, and then bringing together coalition of urban actors to meet that goal. It borrowed the term “prototyping” from the technology industry, where a prototype is the unique test object, and added the term “radical” to emphasise the inclusive and bottom-up approach it pursues. Combining open source and open design traditions, the development process of the prototype becomes a learning curve for those involved, but at the same time reveals valuable lessons for cities as a whole.

paccotest02With this, City Mine(d) engaged in developing Pacco-test a water testing unit to measure the quality of pond water in urban areas.  The leading question for the project was “can a diverse group of people come together to create a device that warns citizens about imminent danger to the water of their local pond?

This project combines a number of challenges which have to do with governance – citizens who take care of public water and the commons; science – availability and accessibility of data; environment – find ways to act in advance of a water health threat; but also (digital) technology – about Sensors, big data and code.

Rather than applying off-the-shelf technology, this approach required all involved to understand which bit does what. This proved the ideal excuse to open up the black box of monitoring technology to see what happens inside. And once the box is open, the metaphorical cat is out of the bag. Questions are raised that remain hidden when just buying what the industry offers. In this case the questions related to the origins of the parts, use of energy, and questions of ownership. (Segers J.  The Internet of Things: Market place or public space?)

This project started in 2015 in Brussels and it is a learning process that involves technophobe and technophile citizens, hackers, university researchers, government institutions and industry actors. (More info in French)

The inclusive development approach of Pacco-test shares another characteristic of the Open Source movement. Technology developer Eric Raymond referred to the phenomenon as “many eyeballs make all bugs shallow” and what that comes down to is this: when a lot of people look at a scientific or software development process, there is infinitely more chance that one of them picks up an error before it becomes damaging.

Citymined_2More crucial in the road towards inclusive cities, is the consequence of this learning for citizens. De-mystifying the technology implies citizens understand what happens in the (cyber)space around them, and can interact with it. This is particularly important when it comes to relegating choices to machines and algorithms. It might be OK to let a self-driving car decide on the fastest, safest or most scenic road to travel; leaving choices about our health and allocation of resources solely to computers might be less so. Pretending that every challenge has a technological solution is a form of computer-says-no-attitude that deprives citizens of all forms of agency, and ignores the fact that computer programmes are also only written by fallible humans. Radical prototyping is a way to reveal the choices that are to be made, but also to acquire the knowledge needed to make the right choices. About technology, but also about climate change, income inequality, infrastructure and displacement; in short, about more inclusive cities.

This article was written by Jim Segers, and edited by Laura Colini

Pictures credit:
  • Jamar, D., 2012. Art-Activisme: enjeux de créativité urbaine à Bruxelles. L’Information géographique, 76(3), pp.24-35
  • Meyer S., De Weerdt, Y. Segers, J. (2016) Urban Pancakes for system change: a new instrument for disruptive innovation in Urban Europe. Paper for the JPI Urban Europe Symposium 27.10.2016 in Brussels
  • Moulaert, F. ed., 2013. The international handbook on social innovation: collective action, social learning and transdisciplinary research. Edward Elgar Publishing
  • Rodenbeck, J.F., 2011. Radical prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the invention of happenings. Massachusetts: Mit Press
  • Swyngedouw, E. (2000): “Authoritarian governance, power, and the politics of rescaling. Environment and Planning D-Society & Space 18(1): 63-76 IN

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