By Penny Travlou, Panayotis Antoniadis, Nicholas Anastasopoulos
We live in a period of profound changes. Rapid urbanisation and population explosion are irrevocably transforming the earth into an urbanised planet. We are becoming homo urbanus. We are given access to systems, technologies and devices which amplify our existence, and in this process cities are no longer only an assemblage of material infrastructures. Their urban materiality is augmented by unprecedented technological advances such as big data and artificial intelligence, digital fabrication, the Internet of things, to name a few, and the material city is being coupled by its digital counterpart.
While historical and social processes of such top-down hierarchical distribution of power, resources, and responsibilities persist, we observe in parallel emergent bottom-up processes which challenge this condition. Factors affecting the shape of things to come perhaps more than politics, planning, architecture, real estate and finance, seem to be communications and digital networks. Just like reinforced concrete was pushing the construction at the turn of the 20th century, information and communication technologies are becoming the engines pioneering the production and development of the cities. Following Manuel Castells’ argument (2007, 2012) of the co-existence of power and counter-power within media communications and the network society, we can claim that technology can re-enforce power structures, but also empower bottom-up initiatives to claim ownership and agency over the currently formed hybrid urban space.
In this framework, the Right to the City that Henri Lefebvre (1968) wrote 50 years ago acquires new meanings and critical significance. For example, the Global Occupy movement (2011) demonstrated an awakening, characterised by horizontal experiments attempting to redefine collectivity, citizenship, solidarity, and participation. At a time of unprecedented multiple crises, through citizen initiatives cities are displaying emergent qualities, striving to become resilient, cooperative, emancipatory and commons-based. They express desires to contest existing modes of governance and to experiment with urban commoning as an alternative, and reveal tendencies of transforming the city gradually and from within (Anastasopoulos, 2013; Bollier and Helfrich, 2015; Foster and Iaone, 2016; Stavrides, 2016). Despite the fact that this and other similar movements’ legacy may not have been yet impressive in terms of direct tangible impact on the material aspects of the city, small scale urban experiments have been successful in defining a different universe which may influence the urban living of tomorrow (Harvey, 2000, 2012). When it comes, though, to addressing the city and its evolution as a complex system, the questions of economy, production and governance remain central: Is the very nature of the city’s complexity, inseparable to hierarchy? Or, given the structural changes in “the DNA of urban living”, may we begin discussing new strategies of collectivelly rewiring or reverse-engineering of the city’s function and metabolism? (Anastasopoulos, 2015: 357–60). David Harvey spoke of the “insurgent architect”, as well as of the recursive condition in which “we make the house and the house makes us” (Harvey, 2000). The house in our case is, generally speaking, the city and we, besides being citizens, may turn into active subjects, city makers, insurgent architects.
In this respect, the role of digital technology has been contradictory until today. On the one hand, the Internet has enabled some of the most remarkable peer production success stories at a global scale, such as Wikipedia and Free and Open Source Software, among many others. On the other hand, it has empowered huge corporations like Facebook and Google to fully observe and manipulate our individual and collective activities, and oppressive governments to censor and surveil their citizens. At an urban local scale, information and communication technology offers opportunities for self-organization, like community networks and numerous bottom-up techno-social initiatives. It also animates the top-down narrative of the “smart city” and the commodification of the “sharing economy as a service” provided by globally active platforms such as Airbnb and Uber. In this situation, peer production in urban space emerges as a vital bottom-up practice reclaiming citizen participation, and inventing new forms of community, facilitated through digital tools but manifesting also in the physical space. Then, the need to bring together those who are engaged in actions claiming the “right to the city” with those claiming the “right to the Internet” appears as more and more urgent (Antoniadis & Apostol, 2014; Antoniadis, 2018).
Technology has also increased the capacity for observation, opening new avenues for research approaches and methodologies through data mining, digital ethnography, and more. Nonetheless, this additional capacity comes with certain costs. First, the fact that technology itself is not neutral, but software design has the capability to influence significantly users’ behaviour, makes the interpretation of research results even more difficult. Additionally, it is very often that scientists become more “smart” like in the “smart city” in a top-down extractive way, bringing, thus, the question of collaborative research to the fore. We are now seeing more and more methodological approaches from co-creation of qualitative data with research participants to P2P ethnography where groups and communities as nodes within a network can reflect upon and react to the various positions of other individuals and groups within it (see Iaconesi and Persico, 2014; Travlou 2013, 2015, 2017). More importantly, within a collaborative methodology such as P2P ethnography participants are co-ethnographers who are able to observe the dynamic, emergent transformation of the network and of groups and individuals that constitute it (Iaconesi et al., 2013).
This special issue of the Journal of Peer Production on CITY, showcases a wide variety of case studies in cities from different geographies of the Global North and Global South namely Barcelona, Berlin, Brisbane, Brussels, Ciudad Juárez, Dhaka, Genoa, London, Melbourne, Milan, New York, Paris, Rosario. Some of those case studies focus more on peer production technologies and others more on the social and political processes on the ground, all with different research methodologies and approaches. They invite us to reflect on various forms of peer production of knowledge and representation of “the city as a commons” (Foster and Iaone, 2016) where technology should be considered as both a tool (infrastructure) and a contested space. They look at challenges of governance focusing on citizen-driven models of peer production in the city where local governments are called to be in dialogue and build synergies with different stakeholder communities. They are transdisciplinary as much as interdisciplinary in both the methodological and theoretical approaches taken by contributors who merge together urban studies, architecture, informatics, political and social sciences, and ethnography to name a few. The authors collaborated directly —as activists or through their research with other activists, communities and/or stakeholders— giving voice to all those involved in the making and sharing of those projects. They used participatory and collaborative methods to collect their data following a rather co-creative research approach.
In numbers, there are eight case study research papers which have been peer-reviewed and revised through the particularly transparent review process of JoPP (i.e. for each of the peer-reviewed papers the originally submitted version, the reviews and the final feedback of reviewers on the revised version are made public) and four experimental contributions that have been reviewed by the special issue editors. The experimental pieces follow a less rigorous and more playful format, an interview with commentary, a dialogue, a call for participation, and an open-ended online article. They all invite us, the readers, to follow up their stories in dedicated online venues, or even in face-to-face meetings, and participate in the form of peer production that they advocate for.
Although each paper presents a distinct case study and/or project, there are certain recurring themes discussed in more than one paper i.e. the right to the city, commoning practices, peer production technology, collaborative mapping tools and ethnographic methods. The summaries below are structured according to two main themes of peer production: common knowledge and the right to the city.
In their paper “Commoning the City, from Digital Data to Physical Space: Evidence from Two Case Studies”, Adrien Labaeye and Harald Mieg look at urban data as knowledge commons using the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework. They analyse both tangible and intangible resources, treating the intangible (i.e. data/information resources) and tangible (i.e. physical urban space, land) as a whole. Using a case study methodology, they focus their research on two initiatives: a) Mundraub in Berlin with its main product, a collaborative map platform of fruit trees across the German speaking countries, and b) the 596 Acres initiative in New York that has developed a participatory map of vacant land. In their comparative study, the authors study the background environment, goals and objectives, resource characteristics, community attributes and governance of the two initiatives. Through their research, they explore the role of participation of infrastructure providers i.e. grassroots initiatives such as Mundraub and 596 Acres in the creation of a community of users that is both a pattern of interaction in and an outcome of the commoning process. Interestingly, one of their conclusions is that commoning data and information resources through those participatory maps are only a tool for the commoning of the physical urban space.
Liam Magee and Teresa Swist offer a critical approach of the potential of vernacular mapping and FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) in contrast to the smart cities model, and its applicability towards community empowerment in Asian megacities. Their paper “Listening in on Informal Smart Cities: Vernacular Mapping in Mirpur, Dhaka” examines Kolorob, an open source mapping tool and its impact within the poor and disadvantaged communities in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, in providing them access to needed services.They argue that open mapping tools allow peers to add and edit data on participatory GIS platforms, thus, enabling citizen access to services that they would have a hard time finding otherwise. In doing so, the paper also attempts to critically analyze ICT4D (Information Communication Technology for Development) by offering an unexpected comparative analysis with the pioneering Cybersyn project that took place in Santiago, Chile during the Allende years, contemplating a blend of utopian visualizing and radical urbanism as tools of collective emancipation and liberation.
The paper by Darren Sharp and Jose Ramos “Design Experiments and Co-governance for City Transitions: Vision Mapping” looks at Vision Mapping, a “hybrid methodology” as they call it, which enables citizens of Melbourne to produce “new urban imaginaries of their city by using a combination of collaborative mapping, strategic foresight and human-centered design within a problem-solving framework”. The paper focuses on how a collaborative mapping tool can a) be democratised through city co-governance between citizens and local governments and b) become a design for social innovation through platforms to enable experimentation in city-making. Since Vision Mapping was mostly a facilitated process for workshop participants to produce visions of the future of their city and design prototypes, the authors suggest that this collaborative mapping method would need to undergo further testing and development to determine how it could be integrated with co-governance processes. Likewise, the prototypes developed during the workshops would also need to get feedback from the wider Melbourne community to ensure ideas developed are appropriate, inclusive and fit the purpose. The authors also believe that a “slow prototyping” approach should be undertaken, i.e. a scaling-up process, to enable the appropriate conditions for testing and evaluating Vision Mapping.
The paper “Collaborative Online Writing and Techno-Social Communities of Practice Around the Commons: The Case of Teixidora.net in Barcelona” introduces an alternative to mapping technology for the peer production of knowledge: collaborative online writing. Mònica Garriga, David Gómez, Enric Senabre, and Mayo Fuster perform action research to explore the use of a concrete peer production platform, Teixidora.net, in various events taking place in Barcelona, a city full of commons initiatives. The platform is based on free software tools, i.e., Semantic Mediawiki and Etherpad, to facilitate collaborative writing and knowledge production processes. Inspired by Foth & Hearn’s (2007) communicative ecology, this “technological layer” is complemented with a “social layer” that assigns different roles to different groups, both present and absent during the events, and a “discursive layer” that connects that dots and builds common narratives. Such collective processes that document the numerous physical meetings that take place and transform this information to collective knowledge, negotiated and expanded over time, have the potential of empowering citizens in novel ways toward building their shared understanding of their city and its treatment as a commons.
The experimental piece “Metropolitan Civic Mappers: How Can They Cooperate to Include the Participation of the General Public into the Citizen Platforms They Promote?” also addresses the question of peer production of knowledge, at a meta level. Nicolas Fonty and Barbara Brayshay explore the communities of civic mappers in London and Paris, by creating conceptual maps that visualise the special characteristics, similarities and differences of various mapping projects in these two cities. The authors stress the importance of face-to-face collaboration and participatory processes for the creation of maps that are representative of the communities they visualise. For this, they transform their article to a call for participation toward a community of practice of civic mappers in Paris and London, through a seminar inviting also different groups of citizens affected by the mapping projects transforming the collective mapping process to a hybrid, physical and digital, experience.
Then a series of papers shift the target of peer production from knowledge and representation to the access and collective management of urban spaces, the right to the city. Nadia Bertolino and Ioanni Delsante discuss “Spatial Practices, Commoning and the Peer Production of Culture: Struggles and Aspirations of Grassroots Groups in Eastern Milan,” and more specifically the Macao collective in its current location at the Slaughterhouse Exchange Building (SEB), close to the Molise Calvairate Ponti neighborhood in Milan. The Macao artists movement is active since April 2012, a period characterised by an uprising which called for a more accessible culture through a radical process of reclamation that led to several occupations of public and private buildings in Italy. The authors argue that Macao is a form of site-specific urban commons, where peer production governance is based on three interlaced tools: sharing means of production, organisation and management, and a solidarity fund for mutual aid. The nomadic story of Macao in recent years raises issues of autonomy for some of the social processes which express the emergence of the collective need for empowerment and recuperation of the right to the city in a contemporary context.
In the same vein, but in different contexts and with a different methodology, Sebastián Godoy and Diego Roldan take an ethnographic approach in treating in parallel two stories of gentrification and expropriation in Rosario, Argentina. Their paper “Seeking Other Urban Possibilities: Community Production of Space in a Global South City (Rosario, Argentina)” explores two case studies, of the transformation of an old railway warehouse into a cultural centre (known as Galpón Okupa), and the small scale fishermen’s community, present an opportunity to discuss the dichotomies between citizen-led, horizontal, non-monetised social structures, and alternative forms of production and economy, vis-à-vis the neoliberal practices of appropriation of the neutral Casa del Tango and the “deterritorialised museological devices” employed in the MACRO museum. Regardless of perceived Global North-South distinctions, the Rosario paradigm resonates in urban centres where development and gentrification more often than not, occur at the expense of citizens who no longer afford, or are pushed out of their places and ways of life when capital takes up the city as an investment territory.
Carlos Salamanca in his paper “The Theater as Commons: The Occupation of the INBA Theater in Ciudad Juárez” chronicles the story of a grassroots case of resistance in Ciudad Juarez which occured in the 90s, promoting culture as a common good worth defending. Ciudad Juarez is a Mexican-US border city known for its maquilladoras (an economy exploiting minimum wage local labor for the mass production of cheap goods sold in department stores of Global North cities), drug trafficking and feminicide cases. Here, it is examined from within, offering glimpses of its own cultural activist movement around the historic INBA theater occupation which is analysed as a successful act of grassroots resistance, defending an emblematic theater against privatisation and the threat of an American-style shopping mall. The author employs ethnographic methodologies and draws from his own personal archival material to make his case.
The paper “Urban Imaginaries of Co-creating the City: Local Activism Meets Citizen Peer-Production” by Carlos Estrada-Grajales, Marcus Foth, and Peta Mitchell take us to Brisbane, Queensland, and explores a local activist group, with the rather telling name “Right to the City – Brisbane”. The group follows a horizontal and creative way to build awareness on important issues and engage citizens by developing from the bottom-up an “urban imaginary” of a “co-created” city. Unlike the three previous papers on the right to the city theme, here technology plays a central role but more as a means than an end. Specifically, the main digital venue in which Right to the City – Brisbane operates is Facebook, a “necessary pain” as admitted by one of the activists. Facebook is also a space of observation for the researchers, who conduct a form of digital ethnography, complemented with other more traditional methodologies (participant observation, interviews, analysis of printed media). The detailed analysis of the group’s practices reveals a success story that is at the same time progressive and grounded in the past, offering knowledge and inspiration for similar social movements around the world.
Anke Schwarz introduces us to the Tapullo collective in Genoa, which aims to set up a DIY wireless community network, independent from the public Internet. This is the type of peer production activity that addresses the ownership and self-determination of the digital urban space, and aims to develop alternatives to platforms like Facebook, creating a link to Issue #9 of the Journal of Peer Production on Alternative Internets (Tréguer et al, 2016). The paper is titled “Urban DIY Mesh Networks and the Right to the City: An Interview with the Tapullo Collective” and is divided in three parts. First, Schward interviews the members of Tapullo collective regarding their vision, current practices and future steps. Returning a few months afterwards she finds out that the first and only node of the network was damaged because of a flawed power line installation. This unfortunate development serves as a reminder that urban infrastructures are interdependent and the right to the Internet is strongly related to the right to the city, a point made in the second part of this experimental piece, a post-interview commentary. The third part is a statement of interest on behalf of the collective to continue their efforts and an invitation to follow their progress on a recently created blog, collectively editable through Github.
The experimental piece by Natacha Roussel & hellekin on “Singular Technologies & the Third-TechnoScape” provides a more holistic perspective, criticising the generalisation of science and the “primacy of the map over the territory”. The authors propose the term “singular technologies” to describe tools and practices that can offer alternatives, “situated and fragile, sometimes ephemeral, engaging activists and dedicated people who work developing their specific aesthetics”. They provide a wide variety of examples of such practices in Brussels, like QW, a feminist free software project that aims to create a different aesthetics for self-quantification; the Dewey network, which launched a free software map called “Bruxelles, mode d’emploi”; the Muriqui project, which engages citizens with a mobile game to transform degraded spaces into permaculture forests; and Zinneke, a non-profit association that has organized a thematic street parade every two years for the last two decades. Their piece is conceived from the beginning as an open ended work, created as an entry of an online forum using the free software Discourse, becoming itself part of a “Third-Technoscape”, an adaptation of Gilles Clément’s concept of Third-Landscape to “designate places of technological production abandoned by the industry and institutions to civil society”.
Finally, Vincenzo Giorgino and Donald McCown invite us to develop our life skills and self-consciousness as a commons through a dialogue titled “Life Skills for Peer Production: Walking Together through a Space of ‘Not-Knowing‘,” bringing together field observations from an Athenian neighbourhood hit by the economic crisis and the sounds of John Coltrane, as well as a poem by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. The dialogue ends with a set of quick life skill practices for busy academics and activists alike, putting in practice a key technology, breath, which can empower us to become calm not only for our own benefit but also for the benefit of our group. The authors stress also the importance of acknowledgement “of thoughts, emotions, and even physical sensations and impulses” in the collective fight against fear and anger and invite us to keep walking with them and continue the dialogue in an online loomio group on the contemplative commons, a “free space for people engaged in the contemporary social transformation”.
Along similar endeavours opening up to possibility and hope in the midst of uncertainty, this special issue contributes twelve stories of peer production, most of them positive and encouraging, that document and analyse different forms of citizen engagement and participation in cities around the world. They are good examples of situated action that can provide inspiration and eventually help to build tools, toolkits, best practices, patterns, and methodologies. As editors, we learned a great deal while putting together these contributions, all different in style, context, and methodology. We hope that they will prove inspiring and empowering for all readers as well to engage as citizens-activists, co-creators, insurgent architects, who appropriate and contextualise urban technologies and materialities to serve local collective needs, rather than being only passive data providers of the “smart” city.
In this context, speed and growth are among the powerful forces that come together with the smart city narrative. Then, one possible strategy is to transform their counter-forces of slowness —the slow city, slow technology, slow research—, and smallness, as in “small is beautiful” (Schumacher, 1973), as a way to go beyond the underground; to develop global designs for local implementations (Kostakis et al., 2015); to scale through replication toward meaningful mainstream alternatives, and realistic utopias (Medosch, 2015). The challenge here is how we can resist the grand narratives of technology, but without going to the other extreme of advocating for a luddite society. And how to enable instead widespread experimentation and social learning toward hybrid technologies that can defend the values of democracy, enable sustainable city living, plead in favor of politics of difference, and stimulate the conviviality of neighborhoods and communities.
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Anastasopoulos, N. (2013). ‘The Crisis and the Emergence of Communal Experiments in Greece.’ Communal Pathways to Sustainable Living Proceedings, ed Graham Stuart Meltzer, 350–59. Findhorn Foundation.
Antoniadis, P. (2018). ‘The Organic Internet: Building Communications Infrastructures from the Bottom-up,’ in V. Giorgino and Z. Walsh (eds) Co-Designing Economies in Transition. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. Available at: https://rd.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-66592-4_13
Antoniadis, P. and Apostol, I. (2014). ‘The right to the hybrid city and the role of DIY networking.’ Journal of Community Informatics, special issue on Community Informatics and Urban Planning, vol. 10. Available at: http://www.ci-journal.net/index.php/ciej/article/view/1092
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Foster, S. and Iaone, C. (2016). ‘The City as a Commons.’ Yale Law & Policy Review, vol 34(2): Article 2, pp. 281-349. Available at: http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1698&context=ylpr
Iaconesi, S. and Persico, O. (2014). Communication, Knowledge and Information in the Human Ecosystem: p2p Ethnography. Available at: http://www.artisopensource.net/2014/07/30/communication-knowledge-and-information-in-the-human-ecosystem-p2p-ethnography
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Travlou, P. (2017). ‘Commoning the Network: Cultural Producers as Co-Creators of Cultural Commons in Medellin, Colombia,’ in So What About Politics? Symposium. 3-4 November 2017, iMAL, Brussels Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZg9Nr0XUCI
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About the editors *
Nicholas Anastasopoulos is an architect, researcher, and lecturer at the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA). He holds a Ph.D. in alternative communities and sustainability with relevant research in Europe, the US, Israel, and NZ. As post-doctoral Prometeo Researcher (IAEN, Ecuador. 2014) his research focused on aspects of Buen Vivir and sustainability and he contributed to the FLOK Society project. Other areas of research and action include degrowth, systems, and complexity theories. Founding member of the Victoria Square Project, Athens (Rick Lowe, 2016-). Current inquiry involves resilience, sustainability, community empowerment, and the systemic interaction between urban, social and natural environments, applied at an ongoing post-graduate Urban Research Lab. https://studioa-arch.net/
Panayotis Antoniadis** is the co-founder of the nonprofit organization NetHood Zurich. He has an interdisciplinary profile with background on distributed systems (University of Crete), Ph.D. on the economics of peer-to-peer networks (Athens University of Economics and Business), post-doc on the federation of virtualized infrastructures (Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris), and interdisciplinary research on the role of ICTs for bridging the virtual with the physical space in cities (ETH Zurich). NetHood is a non-profit organization that develops tools for self-organization and conviviality, bringing together different forms of commoning in the city: community networks, complementary currencies, cooperative housing, social infrastructures, community supported agriculture. http://nethood.org/panayotis/
Penny Travlou is a lecturer in Cultural Geography & Theory, ESALA, University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on politics of public space, distributed/decentralised networks, the commons, collaborative practices and ethnography. Her current ethnographic fieldwork is between Medellin, Colombia, looking at cultural commons in grassroots art collectives, and in Athens, studying commoning practices within emerging solidarity networks. She also participates in the Management Committee of the EU COST Action ‘From Sharing to Caring: Socio-Technical Aspects of the Collaborative Economy”. Alongside her academic career, Penny is a spatial justice and urban commons activist. https://www.eca.ed.ac.uk/profile/dr-penny-travlou
* This special issue was initiated during the Hybrid City III (Athens) conference and developed further during the IASC Urban Commons (Bologna) and Habitat III (Quito) conferences.
** The work of Panayotis Antoniadis for this issue was partially supported by the EU projects MAZI, H2020-ICT-2015, no. 687983. http://mazizone.eu, and netCommons, H2020-ICT-2015, no. 688768. http://netcommons.eu