Using Technology to Mobilize Self-Governance

In May, I was at the Technology University of Delft to share about MikroAct, an action-sharing platform that I’ve been managing with a team based in New York City and Moscow. The conference, “Using ICT, Social Media and Mobile Technologies to Foster Self-Organisation in Urban and Neighbourhood Governance” (still tweetable!), was coordinated by Dr. Reinout Kleinhans, Prof. Dr. Maarten van Ham, and Christel Swarttouw-Hofmeijer from the TU Delft’s OTB Research Institute for the Built Environment. The following are some of my observations from the conference.

The conference was on the use of ICTs and social media in fostering civic-engagement in the processes of city planning and management at the neighborhood level. A lot of the presentations, if not even the entire conference had as a background the conditions of austerity economics and neoliberal politics that on the one hand has meant a scaling down of services and resources at the neighborhood level, but also has meant new opportunities for place-based communities to claim tangible ownership (as in real estate ownership and control) of their urban environment. For the few participants coming from Eastern Europe, the issues were more about organizing against gentrification and public land privatization schemes (the Gdansk shipyards in Poland made it into two presentations).

The conference was largely about the role of technology in supporting community self-organization. Most often the discussion was about interfacing publics with solutions to solve local community problems. Almost without exception, the solution was an app or a web based platform – but not without engaging many of the same issues we are discussing in the development of MikroAct.

On the one hand I felt encouraged in our approach or methodology. There wasn’t much of a question or even an expressed interest in the platform after I gave the demo. I think it is a crowd that sees a lot of apps, a lot of platforms. There was far more interest in the mailboxes as informing a hybrid approach to community engagement.

Community Mailboxes deployed in Moscow neighborhoods

The slide in my presentation that gained the most discussion was that of the mailboxes and letters on display in a gallery. Here the mailboxes themselves have become a medium of expression. To a room of social researchers and urban planners, this abuse of the mailbox platform struck as a symbolic of many civic engagement platforms. Here the platform itself becomes a medium of expression. This draws attention to the ways that platforms are received by communities, and can be transformed, iterated to their specific conditions. Of course, that’s reading a lot into a few beat up mailboxes, but when you’ve worked on an app, platform, or even facebook group and no-one ends up using it, you may wish someone would atleast abuse it or repurpose it.

Several interesting projects also focused on local, pilot project deployments. MapLocal by Phil Jones focused on measuring perceptions of gentrification in two neighborhoods in the UK (participants were paid), Espaces Lachine Crowdmap by Ana Brandusescu focused on a young, ethnically divided neighborhood of Montreal, Paolo Patelli piloted Refracted Cairo in an informally developed suburb, and Lee Fisher of CEO for Cities pilots the well funded through partnership with specific cities.

In almost all cases, platforms were developed with three distinct groups: the project managers/designers, a community group, and software developers. Where project managers/designers and community groups work closely together, often in physical proximity to each other, developers tend to be detached from the process and issues. Can we really talk about community co-creation or co-development of a technology support when it doesn’t involve actually developing the software?

Projects with pilot locations seemed to do a better job at questioning and designing for a specific relationship between problems and solutions. For Refracted Cairo, the specific problem was official recognition of informal planning (i.e. an highway on ramp built by the community was eventually recognized by authorities). For, problems and solutions are ideas to respectfully post to specific, local decision makers in government positions. For Espaces Lachine Crowdmap, a pedagogy for digital literacy (using comics) is crucial part of bringing the community into realization of how they can interface as a public to solve neighborhood problems.

disrupt like it is 1439 / gamify gutenberg

That said, I noticed that the terms used to support the ideology of technology’s potential would consistently throwback to the 15th/16th Century: to the disruptive power of the printing press, its disruption of the feudal order, the transformation of religious parish-based community to a secular conception of social cohesion – conceived in terms of Durkheimian social facts and bounded solidarity based on interpersonal rituals (Ling), and of “parochial domains”, networks of social relationships with their own spacial practices that layer over each other in contrast to the place-based community of church parishes (Martijn de Waal).

What I found intriguing about this language was the jump made to ideas seemingly discordant with that period of time. There was plenty of discussion about the potential of “gamification”, of reputation and reward systems, to incentivize and support the motivations of neighborhood actors to coordinate, self-organize, and self-govern neighborhood level management. The logic of gamification went so far as to support the curiously well received proposition that one day citizens would earn reward points for helping seniors cross the street that could be exchanged for social services such as child day care.

The problem with gamification that occurred to me through the course of the conference was that it seems to serve more to individuate participation than support collective action, let alone new forms of collective action. The image, in Debordian terms, of the software tracked social game is that of collective action; an image of a participatory system based on a mechanism that intensely individuates action. The celebrated models of gamification (which here I’m broadly and I think correctly including reputation and reward systems) were AirBnB, eBay, Stackoverflow, and Coursera’s MOOC platform. Yet, the points accrued in the games are assigned to individuals and inform the identity of an individual, and not collectives. There will be those who are willing to engage and compete in these games, but is the game as a competition between individuals really collective action? Is it experienced as collective action?

We may even want to return to the 1500s and look at the battle between scholastics and humanists to see some semblance of gamification and its critics. The scholastics could work on theological problems using a strict interpretive and dialectical system. The combative, hairsplitting debates over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin was probably as open to participation and exciting to play as any edit war on Wikipedia or as intimidating to participate in as Stackoverflow. The image is of broad participation, but as we know with Wikipedia, most articles are written by a few “heavy editors”. One critic of scholasticism, Erasmus of Rotterdam (near Delft!) criticized the argumentative and fragmenting method of the scholastics. Could a combination of rating algorithms with their opaque formula and community rules with their verbose formulation not also be presented with the same complaint?

There are two features to gamification that make it attractive for civic engagement. First, it presents a measurable way to motivate participation. Participation can be counted in visible up-votes, posts, comments. Second, it builds content-rich community networks upon a codified or measurable system of trust. This seems to me to take for granted existing networks of trust, or solidarity, and existing forms of participation. Consider that for every eBay and AirBnB, there’s still a Craigslist or a Bitcoin that thrives on exchanges with very informal systems of trust, where little is tracked or traced. And where Coursera’s reward system was demonstrated as fostering rich discussion about civic issues, the examples seemed weak to me – possibly calculated to accrue points (which could be traded in for bracelets and stress balls on the reward store).

One image of participation.  (from flickr user Semilla Luz)
Badge for participation? (from flickr user Semilla Luz)

On the other hand, a presentable picture of trust networks could also help to formalize or legitimize typically informal and often illegal activities. While Craigslist has long had a vacation rentals section, AirBnb is in a better situation to fight regulators. AirBnb users have their identity at stake, their transactions and participation in the platform traced and tracked. While on Craigslist, users have to individually discern and negotiate trust with each other – starting from scratch with every transaction.

Lee Fisher of CEO for Cities made the interesting point that citizens feel engaged and motivated to participate when they have some way to track the progress of their efforts, what he calls the progress principal. Gamification involves setting up a measurement system, but the rewards tend to be constrained to defined rules of what the solution is. For civic engagement, rules and measures would need to be part of the design process. The rewards will vary. It could be the attainment of a policy change, or the neighorhood ownership of state property, or the improvement of a public space. - "a place to share ideas, create projects, discover resources, and make our city better" – “a place to share ideas, create projects, discover resources, and make our city better”

To this end, the way projects are tracked on Fisher’s platform is similar to MikroAct. The image of collective action is what collectives are making rather than the metrics of individual actors. The projects on may end being more formal than a MikroAct, as they are conducted under the support of city officials.’ metaphor is the sticky note of the brainstorming process, ours is the mailbox of a lettered, thought-out complaint process.

So, by way of some kind of conclusion ot this summary of the conference, there’s a lot of space for critical design thinking about gamification, the relationship of problems and solutions, and how to foster place-based collective action.

Planning to post the presentation shortly. If you’re interested in seeing the other papers and presentations from the conference, they’re posted here (lots of great stuff!).