January 11, 2016

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 11th 2016

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January 10, 2016

The City as Change Vector

When I went to Laptops and Looms II one of the four "things I'd been pondering" was the role cities might play in building a better future. I was reminded of it at Oggcamp recently when I chaired a session about Code for Liverpool, and so thought I'd finally write up some thoughts here.

My mindmap on the opportunities afforded by cities

Above is a photo of the notes I jotted down on the train over to Laptops and Looms. Obviously there's a bit about how we get to the sort of "smart" city that we citizens want, rather than the one that's most profitable for big tech firms (or new tech startups). However, it's the "City as lab?" part that I think is most interesting.

There are many challenges and possibilities facing society today. However, I don't think I'm alone in a general feeling of malaise that we're failing to address any of them.

Actually, it's not that we can't address any of them, it's that there seems to be a limit to the size of project that we can tackle. Kickstarter, pop-ups, artist collectives, hackspaces, etc. mean it's easier than ever to complete certain types of project, yet once you get to a certain size or scale of project we seem to hit a barrier.

Graph of project scale versus difficulty

As you can see in this highly scientific graph, once we get above the red line we tend to be overwhelmed with the difficulty of tackling things. Dan Hill sums it up well with his comment that you can't crowd-source a light-rail system.

I have a theory (not exactly a new or unique one) that cities are the best environment to tackle the problem of scale.

Although some of these projects - for example, climate change - sound like they're best dealt with at a national or even international level, I think we've had far too much evidence to the contrary. I think - despite all our fawning over technology - we're fundamentally social and interpersonal beings and as our organisations grow in size, that's something that gets lost along the way.

That's why the city is an interesting and fertile ground for new ideas and experiments. It's big enough for newcomers to reinvent themselves, yet small enough that bad actors' deeds are noted and the community can be wary of their actions in future; and it's big enough that successful initiatives can gain the critical mass to transfer elsewhere, yet small enough that individuals and small bands of people can develop the connections and networks to make an impact.

Liverpool as a possibility space

Since moving back to Liverpool this is something I've been half-consciously working towards. Helping to nurture the existing fertile ground for experimentation, social change, and prosperity and open up the city as a possibility space for such initiatives.

I'm not sure that DoES Liverpool counts as one of Tom Steinberg's new digital public institutions, but I think there's a nod towards that with our efforts to define and promote the DoES ethos.

And in addition to expanding the DoES community itself we also look to the wider context.

Some times that involves working with the Local Enterprise Partnership or talking to the "sector support" organisations or engaging with local councillors.

And it also involves an element of JFDI. Hence projects like the "somebody should" list for the whole city, which has started to gain some movement thanks to the more recent Code for Liverpool idea and hackdays.

I don't know what we'll achieve through those and other initiatives, but that's not the point. It's not just down to me, it's also the responsibility of my fellow Liverpudlians, and those who choose to join us. Interesting times indeed.

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January 04, 2016

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 4th 2016

  • The Resistance. Voices dissenting the techno-utopians.
  • Tell me who you are. Excellent (but long) essay about identity. How do you change your password when your password is your fingerprint?
  • The Website Obesity Crisis. Another Maciej talk, another must read/watch.
  • “If creativity is the field, copyright is the fence.” Copyright extension is just rent extraction.
  • 5 things the media does to manufacture outrage. Must feed the news cycle... (n.b. I haven't checked the sources in this article, so it's possible it's just a massive troll...)
  • Hacking the City. A new model for urban renewal. A good overview of the work Renew Newcastle (that's the Australian one, not one of the UK Newcastles) is doing.
  • Machining of brass again. A write up from Julian, a friend of mine who's been working on a new CNC mill here at DoES Liverpool. Mostly included here for this paragraph: "Recall that, after 20 years writing the software that generates CNC toolpaths, I’d not ever operated a machine or worked with someone operating a machine in that time period. I’m not unusual among my programming peers. This is an outrageous state of affairs, and tells you everything you need to know about the effectiveness of all those layers of businessmen, managerial staff, supervisors, and resellers who have inserted themselves like slabs of toffee between those who write the software and those who use the software. Even if I wasn’t interested in operating a machine, someone should have forced me to spend some time making at least one thing to a standard of quality at some point in my career as it would have paid off enormously. "
  • Shields Down. On digging into the real reason people quit jobs.
  • Paul Graham is Still Asking to be Eaten. Maybe the reason startups get paid so well by VCs is that it's the only way to persuade them not to work on something more valuable to society...
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