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.

Posted by Adrian at January 10, 2016 04:51 PM | TrackBack

This blog post is on the personal blog of Adrian McEwen. If you want to explore the site a bit further, it might be worth having a look at the most recent entries or look through the archives or categories over on the left.

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